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Mystical Body

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The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The historical origins of the adjective “Mystical” to describe the Church as the Body of Christ may be traced to the first Apostles Peter and Paul. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle of the Gentiles urges them to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit,” and to the Philippians he describes the Christian community as “a fellowship in the Spirit.” St. Peter is somewhat more explicit when he calls the Church “a spiritual home.”

Gradually the concept of the Church as a spiritual society became so common that practically all the Fathers favored the name and went a step beyond the Pauline phrase by combining two ideas that were found separated in the Scriptures, namely, Body and Spirit. Clement of Alexandria in the early third century spoke of “the spiritual Body which is the holy Church,” and Tertullian clearly distinguished between “the spiritual Body of Christ” and the Church, and the “carnal body of Christ” as a man.

A new note was added to the idea of spirit when the Church came to be looked upon as a mystery, in the sacramental sense of mysterion or a visible entity that symbolizes the invisible grace it confers. Warrant for this appellation was found in St. Paul, where he compares the union of man and wife in marriage with the union of Christ and the Church, and describes both alliances as a mystery. Thus St. Augustine could write that even the wicked members of the Church are subject to “the Sacrament of the Body of Christ,” i.e., to ecclesiastical authority. And Pope Leo I crystallized the “mystery-concept” of the Church when he declared that “those who are outside the unity of the Christian name” are “outside the Sacrament of the Body of Christ.” In England, Bede the Venerable described the faithful as “belonging to the mystery of the Catholic Church.”

There is no evidence however, that the three elements of spirit, Mystery and the Body of Christ were combined into a single term before the Middle Ages. It appears that William of Auxerre (died 1231) was the first to distinguish “the natural Body of Christ” and “the Mystical and gratuitous Body of Christ,” where the word “gratuitous” refers to the grace of God. Within less than a century, the title found its way into a solemn definition, the famous Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII, who declared: “There is only one Catholic Church, and that one apostolic ... Thus the spouse proclaims in the Canticle, ‘One is my dove: my perfect one is but one. She is the only one of her mother, the chosen one of her that bore her.’ Now this chosen one represents the one Mystical Body whose Head is Christ, and Christ’s head is God.” Meanwhile St. Thomas followed the usage of William of Auxerre and clarified the difference between the natural body of Christ and His Mystical Body of which we are the members. As a result the terminology entered the stream of theological thought, to reach its highest point of development in the Mystici Corporis Christi of Pope Pius XII.

Mystical Higher than a Moral Unity

The immediate function of the term “mystical” is to describe the character of the union that exists in the Catholic Church as the Body of Christ. Since the Church is a human institution with all the external apparatus that goes to make up any society of men, to the undiscerning eye it may look no different from any other civil or political organization. Yet the difference is transcendent, and it is precisely this transcendence which the name “mystical” synthesizes.

As normally defined, a society is an association of persons united under authority for a common purpose. If on the basis of this definition we compare the Church with other institutions, the full import of its mystical nature will become easily apparent.

In other societies, no matter how extensive or elaborate, their purpose does not go beyond the temporal welfare of the members; as in the state which exists to serve the peace and prosperity of its citizens, or in lesser organizations founded to promote a variety of transient and worldly needs. The purpose of the Church, on the other hand, is super-mundane. Her end is to lead her members to the heavenly Jerusalem in which the Church Militant becomes the Church Triumphant, where faith becomes vision and the soul is filled eternally with the torrent of God’s pleasure. This is the first sense in which the Body of Christ is mystical and not merely earthly or temporal.

The bond of unity, in other societies, is the composite will of the members, freely joined together to form a moral entity that may be changed or corrected, entered or left according to preference and depending on the juridical structure of the organization, whereas the Church was founded by Divine volition in the person of the Son of God. Her constitution is therefore immutable and independent of human deliberation. Membership is not a matter of caprice but determined as a condition of salvation. Consequently the Church is a mystical association and not only moral because her origin and stability are derived immediately from the will of God.

If we inquire further what is the essence of unity in other institutions, we find something that is extrinsic to the individual members. It is so to speak, a psychological construct which does not substantially affect their character as men. As social beings, they must perforce belong to some society, but without the necessity of specifying which organization or what form the society must take and least of all with no essential change in their personality effected by membership. By contrast, adherence to the Mystical Body means inherence in Christ Himself, with consequent changes in the souls of each member that are truly ontological. Those who belong to the Church, animated by the Spirit of God, are inherently different from those who do not belong. They become, in the words of Christ, branches of the Vine which is Himself; or, according to St. Paul, the eyes, hands and feet of that mysterious Body of which Christ is the Head.

The Church is a mystical society because the ultimate explanation of her nature is a strict mystery which transcends the capacity of our minds to comprehend. Otherwise than purely her institutions whose raison d’etre can be understood in the light of reason, we should not even conceive the possibility of an organism whose members are so closely united to each other through the Spirit of Christ which they commonly share that it could be legitimately, albeit analogously, compared to the union of the Second Person of the Trinity with His heavenly Father: “That all may be one, as Thou, Father, in me and I in Thee; that they also may be one in us.” Yet, though mysterious, the Church is not incomprehensible. Even this side of the beatific vision, we may fathom something of her inner constitution on the revealed assurance that what reason tells us about the soul as the principle of human operations, faith informs us of the Holy Spirit as the fountainhead of the Church’s activity; so that every Catholic can say without exaggeration, “I live now, not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

Above all the Church is a mystical reality because it is supernatural. Not only is the concept itself a strict mystery and its comprehension in any degree requires the infusion of divine grace, but incorporation into the Body of Christ is the fruit of selective liberality by the Son of God. “No one comes to the Father, except by me....Without me you can do nothing.... You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.... He gave the power of becoming Sons of God to those who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Membership in the Church, therefore, is a gift of infinite love which carries with it benefits in this life that are accepted only on faith, but destined to be recognized in their full import when we reach “to perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fulness of Christ.”

Mystical Versus Physical Body of Christ

While extolling the intimacy of union between Christ and His members in the Mystical Body, or through Him between human beings and the Godhead, it is imperative to see the radical difference between this intimacy and the substantial union which exists between the Second Person of the Trinity and the human nature of Christ. The question is anything but speculative, as seen from a number of papal documents where certain aberrations in this direction were explicitly condemned.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the Archbishop of Fribourg in Switzerland sent a memorandum to the bishops of Austria, in which he criticized the terminology of several writers who were “disturbing the masses of people” by their strange and, as he felt, unorthodox teachings. He singled out those “who claim that there is a mysterious kind of existential and somatic union between Christ and the Christian, with disastrous consequences for the doctrine of grace and the sacraments.” Pius XII was more specific. In two Encyclicals, on the Mystical Body in 1943 and on the Liturgy in 1947, he warned the bishops of the Catholic world against “the dangerous errors of false mysticism and quietism” that may develop from a misinterpretation of our union with Christ in His social Body. “There are some,” he warned in the earlier document, “who neglect the fact that the Apostle Paul was using metaphorical language in speaking of this doctrine. Because they fail to distinguish as they should the exact and proper meaning of the terms ‘physical body’ and ‘mystical body,’ they conclude to a distorted idea of unity. They make the Divine Redeemer and the members of the Church coalesce in one physical person.” Four years later he returned to the same theme. “Watch with diligence” he told the hierarchy, “lest the false teaching of those be propagated who wrongly think and teach that the glorified human nature of Christ really and continually dwells in the just by His presence, and that one and numerically the same grace, as they say, unites Christ with the members of His Mystical Body.”

Although the pope did not further identify the theories, they are not hard to find. According to one author, writing before the Encyclical Mystici Corporis and speaking of the Mystical Body, “the Body of Christ is none other than the real, personal Body that once lived and died and was, glorified, and with which in the Eucharist (sacramental) Bread is identified.” Another writer asked the question: “Why did Christ establish that union with Himself and us, wherein He is the Vine and we the branches?” He answered: “So that He might join us to the divinity. But in what kind of union? In a union so close that we become filled with the divinity in the same way as the humanity was joined to the God-head.” Consequently, “Christ as man dwells physically in the souls of the just and they dwell physically in His humanity.... This union between Christ and ourselves constitutes the Mystical Body, making it one personality, which is not metaphorical but real, whose new vital principle is the same as that of the risen, glorified Christ.”

The problem which such theories raised and about which the pope had to warn was how to explain the function of the Eucharist in the economy of salvation. Without the Eucharist, all agree, the pneumatic life of Christ in the members of the Mystical Body cannot be sustained. But given the continual existence of Christ’s humanity in the souls of the just (and in this theory everyone in sanctifying grace belongs to the Mystical Body), what place is there for the Eucharist? If the God-man really dwells in the souls of those who belong to the Mystical Body, what reality is left to attribute to His presence in the Eucharist? Why single out the Eucharistic species, if the Lord is also and equally present, in His human nature, in the soul of every person in the state of grace? To still speak of the humanity of Christ as contained under the appearance of bread and wine would be only symbolism, because the Eucharist, for all its reputed value as “the food of the Mystical Body,” would not give us any more than we have, as soon and as long as we are in the grace of God.

It is instructive to see what effect these notions have had on contemporary Protestant theologians who are sympathetic with the doctrine of the Mystical Body, but lack the guiding hand of a papal directive. A prominent Anglican churchman begins by supposing that the humanity of the Word Incarnate abides physically in the souls of the just. Then he makes the illation that the glorified body of Christ and the Mystical Body must be one and the same thing. But then how explain the Eucharist, and what purpose does it serve? “If the one perfect act of worship is being offered by Christ in His glorified natural body in heaven, and if the Mystical Body and the natural body are identical, might it not seem that we make our perfect act of worship simply by being devout members of the Mystical Body, without there being any need for the sacramental Body in the Eucharist?” A perfect difficulty, and one that every Catholic would have to face if he adopted the theory that Christ and all Christians coalesce in one physical person. Why confine human nature, on earth, to the Blessed Sacrament, when you have it dwelling in every member of the Mystical Body antecedent to Holy Communion? Either the Real Presence does not really contain Christ’s humanity, or Christ’s humanity does not really dwell in the souls of the just. There seems to be no escaping the dilemma unless, as the Anglican proceeds to do, we postulate a “sacramental Body (which) is in a quite definite sense perfect, while the Mystical Body is not,” and then have the sinless sacramental Body purify the sinful Mystical Body—which is either a denial of the original theory or rank blasphemy if the Mystical Body is the human nature of Christ. Another Protestant is more concise and definite. “The glorified Body is the Mystical Body, that is, the second has no reality that is not the reality of the first.” This is clarity without a scruple. And the Eucharist? “What the Eucharist means is the creation of the Mystical Body by partaking of the glorified Body I not yet in the fullness of Resurrection being, but in spiritual anticipation,” which is compounding heresy by substituting a spiritual entity for the corporeal presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

Unquestionably, the relation between Christ and His members is most intimate, but not so intimate that the real distinction is erased between the physical body of Christ, notably in the Eucharist, and the Mystical Body as described in St. Paul. Once the two are identified by postulating the indwelling of the God-man, as man, as the equivalent of sanctifying grace, we have reduced His Presence in the Eucharist to the strange fancy elaborated by Luther in his controversy with the left-wing radicals of the Reformation. Luther had denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and in its place invented what he called consubstantiation, according to which the substance of bread and wine remain, though the body and blood of Christ become really present along with them. Thorough-going reformers like Zwingli objected that even consubstantiation implies a miraculous interference with nature and should be rejected as much as the Catholic doctrine. Luther countered by inventing the theory of the “ubiquity of Our Lord’s humanity,” precisely to assert the non-miraculous nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. If He is everywhere as man, He is already in and with the bread and wine, and no miracle is involved in their “consecration.” Moreover, He is already in the soul of the believer before Communion is received. So that the whole function of the Eucharist is not to bring about or add to the presence of Christ in the souls of the faithful, but by stimulating their faith to increase their consciousness of that presence.

Luther’s own followers drew the simple inference that, if this is true, a real, objective Presence in the Supper is unnecessary. By the same token, the modern theorists reprobated by the Holy See nullify the Blessed Sacrament when they conceive the Church as a colossal hypostatic union, and make the Mystical Body a single cosmic Eucharist, in which human beings are the visible species and the human nature of Christ is the invisible contents.

Visible Source of Invisible Grace

A final interpretation of the mystical element in the Body of Christ is derived from its character as a visible entity that confers supernatural grace on its members. According to St. Thomas, in a broad sense anything spiritual transmitted through bodily signs partakes of the nature of a sacrament. Properly so-called, there are seven sacraments in the New Law which “contain the grace they signify and confer that grace from the rite itself (ex opere operato) on those who do not place obstacles in the way.” However, by analogy the Church herself may be considered sacramental and under this aspect affords one of the deepest insights into her essence as a mystical reality. That is why the Second Vatican Council called the Church “the Universal Sacrament of Salvation.”

Supernatural Providence through External Media

A few months before he declared the nullity of Anglican orders, Leo XIII published the Encyclical on Church Unity that goes to the heart of this delicate matter on how the Divine will has made supernatural grace contingent on material and external things. As a general principle, “although God can perform by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless in the counsels of His loving providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of men. And, as in the natural order He does not usually give full perfection except by means of man’s work, so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature; that is to say, for the salvation and sanctification of souls. But it is obvious that nothing can be communicated among men save by means of external things which the senses can perceive. For this reason the Son of God took on human nature, and thus living on earth He taught His doctrine and gave His laws, conversing with men.”

However, the Divine mission of His Father was not to be terminated with the Savior’s death on the Cross, but continue until the end of time. He therefore selected a group of disciples whom He personally trained and made partakers of His authority. After the Resurrection He gave them His own Spirit and directed them to go to the whole world, preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that by profession of His doctrine and obedience to His laws the human race might be sanctified on earth and enjoy everlasting happiness in heaven.

Consequently, if we consider the chief purpose of the Church, which is the sanctification of men, and the proximate, efficient causes of salvation, which are supernatural grace in its various forms, the Church is undoubtedly spiritual. But as regards the persons who constitute the Body of Christ and the means which lead to these spiritual gifts, she is external and necessarily visible. The New Testament is nothing if not a witness to this connection between the material and supernatural in every form of delegated power which Christ committed to His Church: in teaching, sanctifying, and ruling the plebs Christiana.

For the exercise of the Church’s Magisterium, “the Apostles received a mission to teach by visible and audible signs, and they discharged their mission only by words and acts which certainly appealed to the senses, so that their voices falling upon the ears of those who heard them begot faith in their souls. ‘Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ’.” Therefore at the basic level of revelation, supernatural truths were communicated by external media, the spoken words of oral Tradition and the written words of Scripture. Yet this was only the beginning of the Church ‘s externality. Man’s subjective acceptance of revelation by faith, “though residing essentially in the intellect, must be manifested by outward profession. ‘For with the heart we believe unto justice, but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’.” The necessity of having an external revelation and of faith being externally professed is absolute. Without the first, except by a miracle, the minimal faith required for salvation cannot be attained; without the second there is no question of actual membership in the Mystical Body.

On the level of sanctification, “though nothing is more internal than heavenly grace which begets holiness, yet the ordinary and chief means of obtaining grace are external: that is to say, the sacraments which are administered by men specially chosen for that purpose, by means of certain ordinances.” In baptism there is pouring of water, in confirmation and anointing of the sick anointing with oil, in orders the imposition of hands, in matrimony the vocal acceptance by the two spouses, in the Eucharist receiving the visible species into the mouth, and in penance the vocal and visible absolution by a priest. Externally the actions are all material; but conditioned on their performance in the spirit of faith, such transcendent changes occur in the spiritual world as the removal of a lifetime of sin by a sign of the cross and the conversion of a piece of bread into the living Body of Christ.

The same principle obtains in the Church’s authority to rule. “Jesus Christ commanded His apostles and their successors to the end of time to instruct and govern the nations. He ordered the nations to obey their authority ... But this correlation of rights and duties in the Christian commonwealth not only could not have become permanent, but would not even have been started except through the senses, which are of all things the messengers and interpreters.” Unless the pope and bishops were visibly designated as possessing authority, and their injunctions specified, the faithful might be ready to obey but could not exercise their obedience as members of any society.

Mystical as a Causal Conjunction of the Material and Spiritual

Accordingly, the Church is seen to be a combination, or better, an amalgamation of two principles, the one spiritual and supernatural, and the other material and sensibly perceptible. This amalgam of the two elements makes her the Mystical Body of Christ. She is not merely an invisible society known to God alone, nor a purely human institution which claims a certain obedience in discipline and external duties. She can no more be one without the other than a man could be a body alone or a spirit alone. Both elements are as necessary for the Church as they are for the nature of man. “The Church is not something dead. She is the Body of Christ endowed with supernatural life. As Christ, the head and exemplar, is not wholly in His visible human nature, which Photinians and Nestorians assert, nor wholly in the invisible divine nature, as the Monophysites hold, but is one, from and in both natures, visible and invisible; so the Mystical Body of Christ is the true Church only because her visible parts draw life and power from the supernatural gifts and other things whence spring their very nature and essence.” This fusion of visible and invisible elements is not coincidental; it is causally interdependent. Comparable to what occurs in one area of the Church’s operation, her sacramental system, is perennially taking place in the Church as a whole. Her external unity among the members, and stability in doctrine and disciple, are the sign of a deeper integrity which comes from the animating principle of the Spirit of God. Conversely, her doctrine and discipline, and the juridical forms by which she governs the faithful carry the assurance of an invisible efficacy which as far transcends the material instruments used as the raising of Lazarus exceeded the sound of Christ’s voice or the conversion of the Mediterranean world was beyond the capacity of a dozen Jews.

The Body of Christ is mystical, then, because it is sacramental, not only in the functional sense of an external action signifying the conferral of interior grace, but on the ontological level of a visible entity whose Body, in all its amplitude, is a manifestation of God’s presence on earth, begun at the Incarnation and extended to the end of time.

Catholic Faith
Vol. 3 - #4, July/Aug. 1997, pp. 5-10

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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