Were Mary and Jesus subject to death?

The Roman Catholic Magisterium infallibly teaches that Mary was assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. The Magisterium also teaches, non-infallibly, that Mary died and was raised from the dead prior to her Assumption. Then there is an open theological question as to whether Mary was subject to death, despite being free from original sin.

(1) Did Mary die because her body was subject to death, and God permitted her death?
(2) Or was her body not subject to death at all, so that she could only die and did only die because God willed, and she consented to, the separation of her body and soul by an act of God?

The latter is my opinion. The former is the opinion expressed by Ludwig Ott in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

“However, it seems that Mary’s body, which was by nature mortal, should be, in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death.” (Ott, Fundamentals, p. 208)

Ott labels this idea “Sent. communior.”, which means “the more common opinion” of theologians (not “the common opinion”).

Jimmy Akin, prolific teacher of heresy, agrees with Ott, but he also adds this problematic assertion:

“Being free of Original Sin and its stain is not the same thing as being in a glorified, deathless condition. Jesus was also free of Original Sin and its stain, but he could — and did — die.”

Adam and Eve were not in a glorified state; they were in a state of original innocence. But Catholic teaching is that they could not die; they were each NOT subject to death, and they only became subject to death when they sinned. So being free from original sin, does not imply a glorified state, but it does imply freedom from death.

But the question of whether Mary was subject to death is fundamentally different from the same question applied to Jesus. For Jesus is God.

Now both Jesus and Mary died, but what is at issue is whether they were subject to death, or whether they died solely in conformity to the will of God. Ott’s assertion that Jesus was “subject to the general law of death” is a serious doctrinal error. Unlike Mary, Jesus is God. He has a human nature, which is like us in all things but sin. Even so, as the Second Person of the Trinity, He also possesses the Divine Nature. Since Jesus is one Person with two natures, we must hold that the Person of Jesus is God. And that is why we say that Mary is the Mother of God, not merely the Mother of Jesus’ human nature or the Mother of Jesus’ body. So to say that Jesus, or even merely the human nature of Jesus, is “subject to the general law of death” is contrary to the assertion that Jesus, the one Person, is the Son of God. For God is not subject to death.

Furthermore, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium infallibly teach that death entered humanity only due to sin. But Jesus and Mary are both sinless — always free from original sin and personal sin. The assertion that Jesus or Mary were “subject to the general law of death” is contradictory to the teaching that death entered only because of sin.

{5:12} Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into this world, and through sin, death; so also death was transferred to all men, to all who have sinned.

So we must believe that Jesus and Mary were in a state of original innocence, like Adam and Eve:

Pope Paul VI “privileged as she was to give human flesh in its original innocence and beauty to the eternal Word of God.”

Pope John Paul II “According to chapter 19 of Matthew, when Christ referred to the ‘beginning’, by this expression he did not indicate merely the state of original innocence as the lost horizon of human existence in history.”

So according to Pope Paul VI, Mary had the privilege of giving human flesh its original innocence in Jesus. But she of course could only do so because she, too, had original innocence. Then Pope John Paul II implies that Jesus had the state of original innocence when he says that the Gospel does not merely indicate original innocence in Jesus by calling Christ the “beginning”.

Then how could Jesus die, if He as God is not subject to the law of death? He suffered and died only because He consented to the will of the Father, just as He said in the Garden.

As God, He could have avoided death. When Peter took up a sword to fight to save Jesus from death, Jesus rebuked him:

{26:52} Then Jesus said to him: “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.
{26:53} Or do you think that I cannot ask my Father, so that he would give me, even now, more than twelve legions of Angels?
{26:54} How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must be so?”

Jesus died only because he accepted the will of the Father. He was not subject to the law of death, because He is God. His soul separated from His body, while each (body and soul) remained united to His Divine Nature. And this separation was by an act of God. He suffered greatly before His death, only because he accepted the will of the Father that He suffer. For suffering and death only entered into humanity due to original sin, and Jesus was free from all sin. Human nature in a state of original innocence is not subject to suffering or death.

Ludwig Ott’s argument that Mary was subject to death because Jesus was subject to death is flawed because Jesus was not subject to death.

Now Mary is not God, but she was free from all the effects of original sin. And one of those effects is that the body is in the fallen state, and therefore subject to illness, injury, and death. Death is a consequence of original sin. Catholic doctrine is that suffering and death entered humanity because of the sin of Adam and Eve, and the inheritance of the effects of that sin.

The Council of Trent, in the Decree Concerning Original Sin, infallibly teaches that death is a consequence of original sin, and that the fall of Adam harmed both body and soul. Therefore, when we inherit original sin, we are not conceived with sanctifying grace (that is the harm to soul that we inherit). But we also inherit a fallen body, subject to suffering and death and concupiscence. Mary had no concupiscence, so it should be obvious that she was preserved from the effects of original sin in body as well as in soul.

Moreover, the Magisterium infallibly teaches that, in her Immaculate Conception, Mary “in the first instance of her conception” was “preserved free from all stain of original sin.” And so we must hold, as a matter of dogma, that Mary was preserved from all effects of original sin, in soul and body. And this implies that her body and her soul were created and united all in the same moment, for the dogma asserts that her preservation from all the effects of original sin, body and soul, occurred in one and the same instant, at conception.

Therefore, Mary was not subject to the law of death, that entered humanity through the sin of Adam and by our inheritance of original sin. She died because the God willed her death, and she accepted the will of God.

And the description that we have of Mary’s death in the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich supports this conclusion. For Mary did not die due to injury, or illness, or old age. She died in an ecstasy of prayer after receiving Holy Communion.

Unfortunately, Ludwig Ott asserts a couple of serious doctrinal errors on the Immaculate Conception:

The first moment of the conception is that moment of time in which the soul was created by God and infused into the bodily matter prepared by her parents. The essence of original sin consists (formaliter) in the lack of sanctifying grace, in consequence of the fall of Adam. Mary was preserved from this defect, so that she entered existence in the state of sanctifying grace. (Ott, Fundamentals, p. 199)

He holds to an older view, now hopelessly outdated and untenable, that the body of each human person is created first, and the soul is infused by God only at a later time, some number of days or weeks after the body has its beginning.

But more recent teachings of the Magisterium have made it clear that even in us poor sinners, as well as in the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus, the creation of body, the creation of soul, and the union of body and soul all take place in the same instant. See this article for the magisterial sources and the full argument.

In his teaching on original sin, Ott correctly considers original sin to consist in the lack of sanctifying grace from conception, and the fallen state of the body, making it subject to suffering and death and concupiscence (a tendency toward sin). And yet, when he considers the Immaculate Conception, he does not take sufficient account of Mary’s freedom from those effects of original sin that pertain to the body. He mistakenly thinks Mary was subject to death. This conclusion is untenable, given the infallible teachings that original sin consists in harm to both body and soul, and that Mary was freed from ALL effects of original sin.

As a result of their freedom from original sin, we must hold that Jesus and Mary were each NOT subject to the law of death, on a natural level, and that they each died solely because God permitted their deaths: Jesus, so that He could merit our salvation, and Mary, so that she could imitate Christ and assist Him in all that He does for our salvation. Their bodies were not naturally subject to death, since death is only present as a consequence of original sin.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Were Mary and Jesus subject to death?

  1. Matt says:

    When asked in Medjugorje if she went to Heaven before or after death, the Virgin Mary replied that she went to Heaven before death. I interpret that to mean that she never died and was taken up to Heaven.

    In Catherine Anne Emmerich visions she stated that the soul of the Virgin Mary left her body but then later she came back and with her body was assumed to Heaven. She never mentions that her body suffered a death although it states it was buried in tomb.

    I personally don’t believe the Virgin Mary’s body ever suffered physical death or decay.

    As you state the Church’s teaching on this matter is non-infallible.

    • Ron Conte says:

      We are required to believe the non-infallible teachings, unless there is a stronger case to be made, from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, for a different theological opinion on a particular point.

      Mary’s words at Medjugorje are open to interpretation. My interpretation is that she experienced a taste of Heaven in this life, just as Saint Paul did (2 Corinthians 12:2). And Bl. Emmerich is quite clear that Mary’s soul separated from her body; that is the definition of death in the CCC. She was later resurrected (body and soul reunited) and then assumed into Heaven. Saint Bridget gives much the same description.

      It is a dogma that her body did not suffer decay. But it is a non-infallible teaching, supported by Saint Bridget and Bl. Emmerich, that she died, rose, and then was assumed.

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