Mary, Destroyer of All Heresies

In Pascendi dominici gregis, Pope Pius X invokes the Blessed Virgin Mary by the title Destroyer of all heresies. He took this curious appellation for the gentle, sweet maiden of Nazareth from the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The title had particular meaning in Pascendi, which was written in 1911 against modernism, the “synthesis of all heresies.” Faced with that crisis, it was proper to appeal to the Destroyer of all heresies. The title still applies, however. Indeed, it describes something that has always been true of our Lady – and is perhaps even more urgent now.

But how? How does she destroy heresies? Mary never preached a sermon against error. She never conducted an inquisition or excommunicated anyone. She never (God forbid) presented a paper at a theological conference.

How? Well, look first at the zeal she inspires. It’s a mark of the defenders of the faith that they have a devotion – often disarmingly childlike – to our Lady. From Saint Irenaeus writing against the heresies in the 2nd century, to Saint Dominic preaching against the Albigensians in the 12th, to Saint John Paul II teaching against modern errors in our own time, devotion to Mary has always been something of a calling card for the Faith’s defenders. In one of those beautiful Catholic paradoxes, these men became fierce defenders of the faith by first becoming childlike towards her. Devotion to her brings purity to the soul and therefore clarity to the mind.

We can look also to her intercession. Only in eternity will we know how it all works. Meanwhile, we know for a certainty that the Church has, time and again been, delivered from darkness and error because the faithful cried out to her in need.

But most of all she is the Destroyer of all heresies by virtue of who she is. It is the truth of who she is – or, rather, the truth of what God has done for her – that vanquishes heresies. Her very being guards the truth about God and man.

The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1400 [The Cloisters, New York]
The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1400 [The Cloisters, New York]

We see this early in the Church’s history. When the Council of Ephesus solemnly defined Mary as the God-bearer – Theotokos – it was as a way of defending the divinity of Christ. The heresiarch Nestorius’s refusal to acknowledge Mary as Mother of God alerted the fathers to his error about her Son. To proclaim the truth about Mary was to defend the truth about Jesus Christ. In the 19th century, Pius IX’s solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception defended God’s initiative and grace against modernity’s infatuation with human ingenuity and the growing desire for complete human autonomy.

Today we see another dimension of Mary as the Destroyer of all heresies: she defends the truth about the human person. Specifically, by her Assumption, she reveals and destroys the error that plagues us now: the error about the human body. Today’s heresy (seen most of all in the new Gnosticism of gender ideology) is a recapitulation of an ancient, recurring error. Rather than knowing man to be an embodied soul, we see him as a soul that happens to have (or be trapped in) a body.

To be human thus means to be a soul – and do with the body as you will. The body becomes a plaything, a tool, a possession, a curse, etc. Indulge it while you are healthy, and discard it when you are not. The body means nothing and tells you nothing about yourself. You can be one thing physically and another spiritually.

Again, this is a perennial error precisely because all of us experience the dis-integration of body and soul to some degree. By the sin of Adam and Eve, we lost original integrity, including that perfect union of body and soul God intended from the beginning. Our souls do not always get along so well with “brother ass.” The difference now is that this discomfort has been raised to the level of an ideology, and that ideology is being imposed by cultural and governmental strongmen.

Mary, assumed into heaven, reveals the truth and upends the errors. All saints are in heaven spiritually. They await the last day when their bodies will be raised and reunited with their souls. Our Lady, however, assumed body and soul into heaven, already enjoys perfect blessedness in the fullness of her human nature. In her very being she teaches the essential union of body and soul.

Her Assumption has to be understood as one with her entire life. By her Immaculate Conception, Mary is kept free from original sin and its effects. She does not suffer the opposition of body and soul that the rest of us do. Her perpetual virginity further confirms and reveals this perfect union. Her body and soul are so perfectly one that her body participates in and manifests that pure spiritual gift of herself to God.

In that singular grace granted to the New Eve – in her Assumption – we have a reminder of what we were created to be and a proclamation of what God’s grace can accomplish. We see that God created us as a body/soul unity. Man’s body and soul are one, and a society designed around their opposition is contrary to his good. Further, the grace of Christ reconciles us with God and therefore also with ourselves. We find in our prayers and in the Church’s Sacraments the medicine for healing the division within us.

Old Latin prayers beg for grace by the power of Maria assumpta. Not just by the Assumption of Mary or by Mary’s assumption but by Mary assumed – Mary, the Assumed One. The phrase calls attention not just to an event but to who she is. She herself, by virtue of what God has done for her, assists us.

Unfortunately, the obligation to attend Mass on tomorrow’s feast (since it falls on a Monday) does not apply this year. That means that fewer people will have the benefit of celebrating God’s works and meditating on what has been accomplished in Mary – on what it means for us and how we are to follow. Let us then appeal to her even more as we strive to live that integrity of body and soul in our own lives – and as we also likewise struggle against the confusions of our culture and the assaults of our government.

Maria Assumpta, ora pro nobis.

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.