The Marian Dogmas

In popular culture, the word “dogmatic” is loaded with negative connotations, but in the Catholic Church, a “dogma” has a very precise definition that is at once both profound and beautiful.

In Catholic teaching, there is an order or hierarchy of truths. In this order, “dogma” is the highest. Years ago, one of my pastors told me the lowest one is something like, “Some theologians think that such and such might maybe be true.”

When the Catholic Church defines a truth as “dogma”, it proclaims that the stated Truth is a matter of Divine Revelation. Catholic dogmas are the most serious and solemn of all teachings, ones which Catholics are obliged to believe. They may not be specifically stated within Sacred Scripture – e.g., the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible – but they can never contradict Sacred Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church has four dogmas about Jesus’ Ema (i.e., Mama). One, she is the true Mother of God. Two, she was a virgin throughout her life. Three, she was spared the stain of Original Sin. Four, she was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven.

Mother of God: The first Marian dogma is often referred to by its Greek name, Theotokos (i.e., God-bearer). The point of this dogma is to clarify that Mary wasn’t a surrogate birth mother who raised Jesus as His foster or adoptive mom. She was his true mother in the flesh. To me, it means that when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, He used one of Mary’s eggs.

This dogma was defined in 431 at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus to clarify for the faithful that Jesus was both fully human and fully Divine. The council was called, because Nestorius, Patriarch (i.e, Archbishop) of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was teaching that Mary was merely the Christotokos (i.e., Christ-bearer), that Jesus had had divine powers and a unique relationship with God the Father, but that He had not Himself been divine.

However, if that were true, then His death on the cross could not have paid the infinite and eternal debt of sin for all mankind.

Ever-Virgin: The second Marian dogma is that Mary was a virgin throughout her entire life. That she was a virgin when she conceived by the Holy Spirit is an essential sign that Mary’s son Jesus was indeed the Messiah. It is also confirmed in the Gospel of Luke. That she remained a virgin is suggested by Ezekiel.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14

The angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin…and the virgin’s name was Mary.” – Luke 1:26-27

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary facing east, but it was closed. The Lord said to me: This gate must remain closed; it must not be opened, and no one should come through it. Because the Lord, the God of Israel, came through it, it must remain closed. Only the prince may sit in it to eat a meal in the presence of the Lord; he must enter through the vestibule of the gate and leave the same way.” – Ezekiel 44:1-3 [NABRE]

The quibbles many Protestants raise are based on faulty understandings of Scripture. For further reading, see

Immaculate Conception: The third Marian dogma is that she was spared the stain of Original Sin through the miraculous intervention of God in granting to her, preemptively, the graces of Baptism that Jesus won for us on the cross.

God is holiness itself, and cannot coexist with sinfulness; it is thus a logical imperative that Mary had to be completely free from sin. Jesus was conceived using one of her eggs, eggs that formed while she herself was in her own mother’s womb. He was physically nurtured by her blood as He grew inside her womb and then by her milk after He was born. Then, He was emotionally, mentally, and spiritually nurtured by her as He grew.

Just as the Theotokos affirmed that Jesus was fully human, so the Immaculate Conception affirms that Jesus was fully Divine. The Catholic Church is not deifying Mary with these dogmas, but rather clarifying the true nature of Her Son.

Assumption of Mary: The fourth Marian dogma is that she received her glorified body and was taken, body and soul, into Heaven. This tradition dates back to the earliest Christians, though it was not declared an infallible dogma until 1950 by Pope Venerable Pius XII.

There is no teaching about whether or not she died, only that God did not permit her body to suffer decay. In the East, the Feast of the Assumption is called the Feast of the “Dormition”, which can mean either sleep or death. At Medjugorje, one of the seers asked Mary if she died and she said she had not.

In the Middle East, the roofs of houses are walled and used as outdoor living spaces. When it’s hot, the family sleeps up there where it’s cooler. I often think that sometime after Mary went to live with John, they and their household were asleep on their roof when Mary was “changed in a twinkling” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). Maybe there was even a trumpet that woke the others up, so they saw her glorified and taken up. But they would not have known if she died in her sleep or not.

Personally, I think that just as the Resurrection is our model for what will happen to believers in the end who have died, the Assumption is our model for what will happen in the end to believers who have not died.

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