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Dogmas of Our Lady: The Church's Response to the Modern World
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in the East, called the Dormition) is perhaps the oldest of all Marian feasts, dating back to at latest the fourth century. Yet it is the newest of the Church’s dogmas, proclaimed less than a century ago. The dogma of her Immaculate Conception, too, was declared relatively close to our time. History tells us that the fact of Our Lady’s entrance into heaven, body and soul, had been on the level of universal belief and solid tradition for well over a millennia. Why were such old traditions only so newly declared as required beliefs?
Venerable Fulton Sheen gives us the answer. In The World’s First Love (1952), he wrote that:
“The definition of the Immaculate Conception was made when the Modern World was born. Within five years of that date, and within six months of the apparition of Lourdes where Mary said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,’ Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, Karl Marx completed his Introduction to the Critique of the Philosophy of Hegel (‘Religion is the Opium of the people’), and John Stuart Mill published his Essay on Liberty."
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was declared in 1854. The modern world, I believe, was born earlier, perhaps in the atheistic humanism of the early Enlightenment. But the mid-19th century marked, as the venerable archbishop notes, a very visible result of the last few centuries of growing antagonism toward God and religion: a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-logical, materialistic, fragmented, self-centered humanism.
Each of the named figures, in their own way, suggested a human, earthly path to perfection: a way to achieve paradise without the need for Heaven. Yet as the three philosophers expressed, codified, and propagated the growing anti-religious beliefs of human society, human misery rose as well. Wars came closer and closer together as these modern ideas took root. For each of these modern paths to perfection is the devil’s path; each uses a flawed human map to pursue perfection, with a false compass and a non-existent destination.
Darwinism seemed to make perfection biologically inevitable. Social Darwinism in turn fostered the misplaced belief in humanity’s ability to self-perfect and contempt of the physically weak or generally undesirable as unfit to live and propagate. For Marx, communism was the ideal resolution to the strife of man’s existence. Yet attempts to implement communism caused wars and countless deaths as communism turned men against each other. And for Mill, the utilitarian pursuit of the hedonistic pursuit of earthly happiness (or pleasure) was the most important goal of society as a whole. Utilitarianism’s pursuit of mere utility devolved humans into mere animals, and governments responded with force to re-exert control.
The correlation of materialism to modernism is clear here. Materialism conceives of humans and human destiny as earthly things to be attained by earthly hands. Modernism breaks apart and fragments beliefs and traditions, constantly “evolving” and never settling. These viewpoints are already destructive separately; when combined, they inevitably lead to despair.
Materialistic economics, politics, and morality inevitably lead to despair because such models are based in a faulty understanding of humanity and humanity’s destiny. In other words, such models are doomed to failure because they aim for the wrong things, with the wrong tools. These three philosophers rely upon believing that man tends toward the good (denying original sin); that material peace, pleasure, and prosperity are possible; and that such things are the greatest goods. And modernist attitudes only assisted material philosophers in wanting to break apart old ideas of God, religion, the primacy of the soul, and the existence of heaven.
The faulty ideas of humanity are too easily deconstructed. The first idea, regarding human tendencies, is disproved too often for a rational person to believe. We know from experience that people tend to be selfish and that the world is a mess; even if humans are supposed to tend toward the good, clearly they tend toward sin now. For if people tended toward or were mostly good, things would be much better. Far from progressing (with the aid of science, reason, and humanism, into an inevitable earthly golden age, modern history seems more like an increasingly series of disasters: World wars, genocide, depression and suicide, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.
The second idea regarding the possibility of true material happiness is disproved over the length of human history as well. If material peace and prosperity were possible, then surely we would have improved by now, or found some method of success, even if total perfection is far off. But no, war and murder and all form of immorality continually return as history repeats itself.
However, an optimist might not give up when these ideas are discounted. Just because the past was bad doesn’t mean the future has to be, right?
The third idea in itself, however, destroys such optimism. To say that material structures, actions, or goods are the greatest good of all leads to despair because we are never totally or permanently satisfied by such things… and because we have no guarantee or promise that we personally will even have a chance at such “good.” Besides, our happiness is never complete on earth. Our inmost desires for lasting peace don’t match the world’s temporary lulls in conflict. Our desire for pleasure is disappointed when the pleasure ends. And so, if the greatest goods are only temporary, and the happiness we receive from them is qualified or limited, then we can never really be happy at all, because we will anticipate suffering to come once again.
Finally, if the material world is the sum and summit of our existence… then, after such incomplete happiness, non-existence–complete obliteration–awaits us. For those who pursue material goals as the highest good, life becomes a Sisyphean task; climb up the hill toward happiness, only to fall, and know that you shall never, ever reach the peak. And after having failed, you will disappear.
No wonder the Assumption was declared when it was, on the heels of World Wars I and II. The scale and brutality of these wars had thrown the world into a tacit, confused, resigned, darkness. At a time when the world was already fragmented and broken, modernism continued to rise. It still encouraged that purely human idea of progress–an undefined social self-improvement project that is defined partly by its rejection of everything traditional, and partly by the idea of human power to self-identify, self-define, and even to rebuild the world around us. Though modernists rejected the Enlightenment from which their forefathers came, they embraced its idea that religion was against progress. But modernism by its nature is against hope. It is a way of approaching the world that demands us to break the world, tells us the world won’t cohere, won’t ever remain one thing or the other, will never be stable. Modernism knows only how to break things apart, to separate, to reject. It does not build, because it does not know what to build; it tries to build without a plan, then destroys what it has built after long enough. There is no real hope in modernism.
This is why, Venerable Sheen suggests, the declarations of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were necessary and came at the specific historical moments they occurred: “As in the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the Church had to remind the world that perfection is not biologically inevitable, so now in the definition of the Assumption, it has to give hope to the creature of despair.” Why was the Assumption declared only in 1950? Because, after a century of horrific wars that came closer and closer together, the world needed hope. True hope, not the false idealism of materialism and modernism. The world needed to remember the fundamental teachings of the Church that the Assumption puts in our minds: that we are a body and a soul, not simply a body; that a world exists beyond this one; that we are called to heaven; that it is God who perfects us; and, of course, that in our greatest trials, we may turn to our Blessed Mother.
Declaring the Dogma of the Assumption in 1950 was, and still is, the Church’s response to the world’s false philosophies. It is the lighthouse of hope in the stormy sea of despair caused by the modernist, materialist views of what constitutes human progress, identity, potential, goodness, and perfection. The Assumption not only gives us a vision of our future destiny and our future goal: it shows us that, by God’s grace, such a destiny is possible. She has gone to Heaven, body and soul, before us. She shows us the way; she intercedes for us; and she brings us the graces we need to join her.
We are made for the true and eternal perfection of Heaven, not for less. May the Assumption be for us a constant reminder of such.
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