Saint Thomas and Our Lady's Assumption

Source: District of Asia

St. Thomas Aquinas, as we can learn from the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, never dealt directly with the question of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption, though he did in fact hold, together with the Catholic Church, that Mary’s body had been assumed into heaven along with her soul.

St. Thomas does, however, deal with the question of the state in heaven of a soul not yet rejoined to that body for union with which it was created in the first place. His significant statement is that before the resurrection of the body the soul does not lack perfect happiness intensively but does lack it extensively.

From that proposition there follows perfectly the same argument, cited in the Munificentissimus Deus, that St. Bonaventure uses: “The soul is not a person, but the soul joined to the body is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude.”

St. Thomas’ argument is as follows. Beatitude in this life consists in the operation of the speculative or of the practical intellect. There is no question, then, whether the soul needs the body for beatitude in this life; for without the light of glory there is no “imageless thought,” and the intellect here below needs for its operation those images which only the body can supply.

Perfect beatitude in heaven, of course, says St. Thomas, is a different matter. For there happiness consists in the vision of the First Cause as He is in His essence; and it is manifest that the divine essence cannot be seen through images. It must be admitted, therefore, that the body plays no constitutive part in the essence of our happiness in heaven.

On the other hand, however, St. Thomas says, that which does not pertain to the esse of something may still pertain to its bene esse. It is thus, for example, that handsomeness contributes to the perfection of the body. And it is thus that the presence of the body contributes to the perfection of the soul’s happiness in heaven.

This contribution the Angelic Doctor explains further. Lack of the body will not directly hinder the perfection of the soul’s happiness as cold draughts directly reduce the efficiency of a heating system. But the lack of the body will keep the soul from having something which is required for a certain variety of perfection in its happiness. And so, he says, the separation of the soul from its body will constitute a situation that is said to tug at the soul, so that the soul’s whole attention is not centered upon the sight of the divine essence. For we shall long to enjoy God in such a fashion that our enjoyment overflows our souls and is passed along to our bodies. And, therefore, so long as we are enjoying God without our bodies, our longing does find rest in Him, but in this way: that our souls still would like our bodies to have the bodies’ share.

The soul, as St. Thomas explains in other words, will possess the good which is perfectly capable of satisfying its longing, yet the soul will not be perfectly at rest, for it will not possess that good in every way that it is possible for it to possess it. It will not yet have all the perfection of happiness which it is going to have.

Seen now in the light of the solemn definition of Our Lady’s Assumption, what St. Thomas has to say about the relationship of soul and body in heaven puts us in a position to understand in greater particularity the benefit which Almighty God has conferred upon His Mother by taking her, not soul alone but body also, to heaven. It is not only true that the Assumption has prevented the body that bore Christ from undergoing the corruption of the grave; it is also arguable, from the principles of St. Thomas, that the Assumption has saved the Blessed Virgin from an unbecoming diminution of her happiness and from an equally unbecoming defect in her attention to her Son in heaven.

Though the Munificentissimus Deus directly intends to define the dogma of the Assumption, it also tends to bring into new relief another article of our faith, namely, the common resurrection of the body.

We sometimes hear such misleading and incomplete statements as this: “All things upon the face of the earth will eventually crumble to dust and be forgotten. But man’s immortal soul will never die.” It is true that human bodies will die and crumble to dust. Measured by eternity, however, that death is but momentary; human bodies will rise and will share the immortality of their souls. Meanwhile, far from being forgotten, those bodies will be intensely remembered and wished for by the blessed souls to which, at last, they will be rejoined, not only to share in the souls’ happiness but even extensively to increase it.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, then, finally, to which we have been incidentally but quite deliberately redirected by the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, can be further understood and appreciated in the light of St. Thomas’ teaching on the happiness souls possess before being rejoined to their bodies. In that light we can see on the one hand the “necessity,” so to speak, of our own resurrection as well as of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption, and, on the other hand, the greatest dignity of our bodies-those bodies which, having partaken here below of the most Holy Eucharist, will contribute by their wanted presence in that joy wherein we like the Virgin will contemplate the glory of the most Holy Trinity for all eternity.