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from issue no. 06 - 2003

Sixty years after Mystici Corporis. The distinction between Creator and creature


The relevance of the encyclical by Pius XII that condemns “the false mysticism, that falsifies Holy Writ by striving to remove the unchanging boundaries between created things and the Creator”


by Lorenzo Capelletti


On this page, some details from the Last Supper, Andrea del Sarto, Museo 
del Cenacolo di San Salvi, Florence

On this page, some details from the Last Supper, Andrea del Sarto, Museo del Cenacolo di San Salvi, Florence

If one leafs through the magazines, specialized and not, of ten years ago, when the fiftieth anniversary of Mystici Corporis fell, one finds no mention, let alone any critical study on the encyclical. Perhaps because it had already for some time been merely an embarrassing taboo. So there was no uproar caused, then, by the tranquil and reasonable invitation of Cardinal Hamer, whom 30Days asked to offer an introduction to a reprinting of some passages from the encyclical (cf. no. 6, June 1993, pp.34-48): «we must strive to make relevant again the teaching of Mystici Corporis for the spiritual good of the Christian people… I would like this year of the fiftieth anniversary of Mystici Corporis to be a year in which we regain contact with this document».
Another ten years having passed and the sixtieth anniversary of Mystici Corporis coming upon us, Cardinal Hamer’s invitation can now be taken up also in his memory. Not by celebrating that document as a totem (the obverse of taboo), but by reviewing its complex historic genesis and recalling attention to some aspects of it that appear relevant to the present time. As journalists.

Does being Christians mean
becoming Christ?
In the crucial years of the Second World War, and with the German situation particularly in mind, Mystici Corporis arose out of a dual purpose: on the one hand, that of correcting theoretical and practical deviations in the ecclesiology of the Mystical Body that tended towards a spiritual biologism and a false mysticism, and on the other to make sure that the urgent need for correction did not lead to the abandonment of the category of the Mystical Body of Christ which had been worked out intensely between the two wars.
The high point of the drift had been reached in the work of Karl Pelz, a Berlin parish priest who, in 1939 published a pro manuscripto text with the ambiguous title: Der Christ als Christus (The Christian as Christ). It was an ambiguity already resolved in the foreword in which Pelz wrote that «the study of our incorporation in Christ ends with the realization that we Christians have effectively become Christ» (p. 7). He felt himself compelled to reveal this truth because «our duty as priests is to offer whole the content of truth of our faith, especially at a time in which each should be capable, faced with the violent attack against Christ and the Church, of employing the whole arsenal of weapons of our faith» (p. 8). Quoting the Fathers abundantly as guarantors, he does nothing but repeat from diverse standpoints that «according to the Fathers, we are in the flesh and body of Christ, that is in his holy humanity» (p. 65). And this in a way absolutely independent of the sacrament of baptism: «We must truly convince ourselves of the fact that, according to the Fathers, by the mere fact of his incarnation Christ has united himself to every man» (p. 66). In the years immediately following, because of Pelz’s interpretation, different theologians judged the doctrine of the Mystical Body dangerous, asking for a pure and simple reiteration of the definition of the Church as societas perfecta, a fairly recent notion that came in between the 18th and 19th centuries, that significantly Saint Thomas doesn’t use – he speaks of communitas perfecta or in Augustinian fashion of civitas (cf. Summa theologiae I-II, q.90 a.3), conceiving the civitas as including co-operation with the political power (regnum). Equally significantly, the category of societas perfecta was instead taken up by Karol Wojtyla in a discourse to the Council (cf. Acta synodalia II/ 3, 155-156).
But let us go back to the years of the war. At a certain point also the Archbishop of Freiburg in Brisgau, Conrad Gröber, an occasional representative of the German episcopate, decided to include some concerned words on the issue in his 18 January 1943 letter to his confreres (in Die Krise der Liturgischen Bewegung in Deutschland und Österreich by Theodor Maas-Ewerd, Regensburg 1977, pp. 540-569): «I am concerned by the sublime supernaturalism and the new mystical attitude that is spreading in our theology and even in our young Church» (p. 548). Indeed, he wrote, «it can degenerate into a mysticism in which the borders of creation vanish» (ibid.). «Current mysticism», he had said more tersely earlier, is nothing but «the obverse of the medal of modern Gnosticism» (p. 544). Indeed «one must already deplore the fact that, among our young people, types at first very much drawn to the supernatural, are turning into perfect unbelievers (p. 549). It is a matter rather, faced with spreading ignorance, «of calling back the simple truths of the catechism and making them known ... Very little is truly necessary, according to the teaching of the Church on the matter of formal religious knowledge, to achieve the salvation of the soul!» (pp. 549-550). In particular Pelz’s book seemed to him a disaster, not so much it itself, but because the unio mystica advocated in it puts the doctrine on grace and on the sacraments in question. On grace, first of all, because «sanctifying grace appears something superfluous» (p. 550) and there is a danger of quietism. On the sacraments, then, because «if there is such an intimacy with God and with Christ… what is the point of receiving holy communion? If we already have what is needful, there’ll certainly be no need to go and take it. What’s the point then of the altar of the holy sacrament, what’s the point of its conservation in the tabernacle, visiting, exposition, processions, meditation, perpetual adoration, if each baptized person, faithful “Christopher”, is unbreakably united to Christ and therefore he himself is the person who is adorable? Everything is reduced to pure symbolic content. When then the aim is to differentiate the Eucharistic presence from the mystical presence of Christ in us, in any case, to safeguard the mystical presence, the concrete happening of what is at bottom already believed to be fixedly present won’t be thought possible» (p. 551).
Gröber foresaw an unhappy outcome: «The future will tell where we will be led – in preaching, in catechesis and in the Christian life – by the devaluation of the historical Christ, with his stupendous closeness to mankind, his exemplary glory and his liberating reality, in favor of a more sublime Christ located entirely beyond space and time» (p. 552).
Apart from passing arduous judgment on this point onto the future, Gröber’s long letter also appealed for intervention from the German bishops and from Rome: «Can we German bishops remain silent, can Rome remain silent?» (p. 569).
And then, five months after, for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in 1943, along came Mystici Corporis.

Mystici Corporis helps
to distinguish
If one neglects what I have set out above, even if in summary fashion, one will fail to grasp the concrete situation the encyclical is aware of from beginning to end.
The encyclical opens, in fact, by referring to the survival of ancient errors, but is targeted primarily at the new «false mysticism that falsifies Holy Writ by striving to remove the unchanging boundaries between created things and the Creator» (n. 9). That false mysticism burdens the doctrine of the Mystical Body with suspicions, but since it is a revealed doctrine – the encyclical affirms – there is no reason for it. Proceeding with devotion and sobriety, and if God enables, as Vatican I teaches, reason can in some way grasp it: «When reason illuminated by faith enquires with pious and sober diligence it can, if God grant it, reach sufficient and most useful knowledge of the mysteries, both by analogy with what it knows naturally and by the link among the mysteries themselves and with the final end of man» (no. 10).
So in its central sections the encyclical explains that the Church is analogous to a body, more, it is the Body of Christ and, lest there be misunderstanding (in fact «the name must not be taken as if the ineffable bond with which the Son of God assumed an individual human nature belonged to the whole Church», no. 52), it adopts the notion of Mystical Body: «That adjective must be used for various reasons, since through it one can distinguish the social body of the Church of which Christ is head and guide, from the physical body of the same Christ, who, born of the Virgin Mother of God, is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven and hidden on earth under the Eucharistic veils; and, what matters more for modern errors, by means of this appellation it can be distinguished from any other body, whether physical or moral» (no. 58). This enables one to speak of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in souls, that is of the way in which within his Mystical Body the individual faithful are united to Christ, rejecting «in this mystical union any way whereby the faithful for whatever reason may go so beyond the order of creatures and mistakenly invade the divine sphere, that even a sole attribute of eternal God might be predicated of them as their own» (no. 79). On the other hand Mystici Corporis, quoting Divinum illud by Leo XIII, explains that, in the order of creatures, the union of souls with Christ in heaven is not differentiated from that on the earth except for our condition here as wayfarers (cf. no. 80). In other words there is no essential difference between the souls that are united to the Lord in grace and in glory.
The encyclical invites us in conclusion to avail ourselves of the doctrine of the Mystical Body set out earlier in order «to safeguard against errors that, to the great danger of the Catholic faith and the bewilderment of minds, arise from the investigation, willfully undertaken by some, of this difficult matter» (no. 84). As well as errors concerning confession and prayer, it reiterates that the error belongs first of all that to those who claim «to unite and blend in the one same physical person the divine Redeemer and the members of the Church» (no. 85). And, in consequence of this, «the error of those who from the mysterious union of all of us with Christ study to deduce a certain unwholesome quietism.... Nobody can certainly deny that the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is the only source from whence every supernal force flows into the Church and into its members [so true is it that all of twice the encyclical quotes John 15,5: «without me you can do nothing»]. But that men may constantly persevere in works of sanctity, that they may progress rapidly in grace and the virtue, that finally they may not only energetically strain to the peak of Christian perfection, but they may according to their strength also encourage others to achieve the same perfection, all this the heavenly Spirit does not wish to accomplish if men themselves do not co-operate each day with hard-working diligence» (no. 86).
The attraction of grace
and ecumenical openness

If then on the basic question posed by Gröber, Roma locuta est in the sense he wanted, condemning the lack of distinction between Creator and creature, between Christ and Christian, and the consequences of a moral kind of this lack of distinction, as contrary to the Catholic faith, Mystici Corporis nevertheless stands aside from the analysis and proposals made by him and others, in that on the one hand it avoids accusing Protestantism of being the wellspring of the evil lamented, and on the other does not propose a pure and simple return to the doctrine of the societas perfecta. With more farsightedness, the encyclical already perhaps intuited that the Protestant drift is no more than a stage, and not even an obligatory one, toward the fusion at once very ancient and extremely modern of the “self” and “God”. And it understood by then that it is not by merely asserting (in the final analysis in an anti-Protestant operation) the societas perfecta nature of the Church, that is its self-sufficiency in relation to the attainment of its own ends, that the decisive contribution to the real attainment of such ends is offered.
It is no accident, from this point of view, that the encyclical opens and closes by appealing to beauty and force of attraction as what marks belonging to Christ and to the Church. The reason for setting out the doctrine of the Mystical Body (the Pope writes at no. 11), is so that « the beauty of the Church may shine out with new glory, so that knowledge may spread of the singular and supernatural nobility of the faithful conjoined in the Body of Christ with their Head».
Abetted by the storm of the war, one feels in Mystici Corporis even a certain ecumenical inspiration. At the beginning (no.5): «We trust that not even to those who are outside the bosom of the Catholic Church, the truths that we are about to set out about the Mystical Body of Christ will be unwanted or useless. And that not alone because their benevolence toward the Church seems to grow from day to day, but also because they themselves, while they see nation rise up against nation and kingdom rise up against kingdom, and discords, envies and causes of hate grow beyond measure, if they then turn the eyes to the Church and consider its unity of divine origin (in virtue of which all men of all races are made kindred by the fraternal bond with Christ), then certainly they are constrained to admire this great family stirred by love, and with the inspiration and the help of divine grace they are drawn to participate in the same unity and charity».
The ecumenical openness returns at the end of the encyclical (n.95): «Sole is the Bride of Christ, and this is the Church: yet the love of the divine Bridegroom is of such amplitude that, without any exclusion, he embraces all human kind in his Bride. The reason in fact why our Savior shed his blood was precisely to reconcile all men with God in the cross». With the result that «in other men also, even if not yet made kin in the Body of the Church, we recognize brothers of Christ according to the flesh, called with us to the same eternal salvation».

If I feel a certain longing, it is not for the substantial body of doctrine in Mystici Corporis, I might say in paradox, as for these references respectful of human freedom and of the gratuitousness of divine grace at one and the same time: «So that all those who stray may enter the sole fold of Jesus Christ as soon as possible, we declare that it is absolutely necessary that it be done out of free and spontaneous will, since those who do not will it cannot believe», writes Pius XII quoting Augustine. «Wherefore, if unbelievers are in fact forced to enter the edifice of the Church, to approach the altar, to receive the sacraments, they undoubtedly will never become true Christians, since the faith without which it is impossible to please God must be the free homage of the intellect and of the will. ... And since men enjoy free will and also can, under the impulse of disturbance of mind and perverse passions, abuse their proper freedom, it is thereby necessary that they be drawn with efficacy to the truth of the Father of enlightenment by the working of the Spirit of his beloved Son» (no. 103).
To «second», as the Pope again writes, «the inner impulses of divine grace» (no.102), all one needs to do is pray. And in this far and near are made kin. Indeed, if many still, unfortunately, stray far from Catholic truth, it happens because neither they nor Christian believers raise more fervent prayers to God for such purposes (no. 104).

From “the Christian
as Christ” to “I am You”

Cardinal Ratzinger, in a book just published by Herder under the title Glaube, Wahrheit, Toleranz. Das Christentum und die Weltreligionen (it is about to be published in Italian by Cantagalli), which brings together his writings on the subjects of faith, religions, cultures and truth, chooses as the leading thread of the whole volume the comparison between monotheistic faith, or rather the understanding of God as person, and a mysticism that in the last analysis identifies the “self” with “God”.
I shall quote a few lines from the first chapter and from an “interlude” that follows it. «In the last analysis it is a matter of seeing whether the divine is God, somebody that is there in front of us – so that the last term of religion is relation, love that becomes unity (“God all in all”: 1Cor 15,28), but that doesn’t eliminate the being-in-front of me and you – or whether the divine is beyond the person and the last end is uniting and dissolving into the One-all».
Naturally, explains Ratzinger, one mustn’t understand by mysticism «that form of religious piety that can also be found within the Christian faith», but that experience of lack of distinction «in the last stage of which the mystic no longer says to his God: “I am thine”, but “I am You”. The distinction is demoted to the sphere of the provisional, the definitive stage is fusion, union».
Here reappears, in a different formula, “the Christian as Christ” targeted by Mystici Corporis. We are in the sphere of the same problem: the misleading mystical interpretation of Christianity.
The two paths instead radically differ: «In mysticism the primacy of inwardness rules, the absolutizing of spiritual experience… There is no working of God, all that exists is the mysticism of man, the path of the various degrees of union».
For the monotheistic path - which in Christianity unfolds fully its effects (but the weave sketched by Ratzinger is wider: «it arose in Israel out of a revolution» and «from the root of Irael in Christianity and Islam») –, «what is decisive is not personal spiritual esperience, but the divine call. Thus all who acknowledge this calling are in the end in the same condition»
This might turn out to be difficult to accept by the modern conception of religion, as it was for the Fathers, Augustine first. He, «who had discovered the beauty of the truth in Cicero’s Hortensius and had learned to love it, found the Bible, after picking it up, unworthy of the tulliana dignitas». In effect, «compared to the sublimity of mystical thought the protagonists of the history of the faith look rough and ready... Seen from the standpoint of the history of the religions, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob are not in fact great religious personalities». But this scandal should not be redressed because it is precisely through it that one is led «to what of particular and unique in its kind belongs to biblical revelation. [...] It is not primarily the finding of a truth, but the working of God himself in history. … Indeed here at the opposite of mysticism it is God who operates, and He is who gives man salvation». And Ratzinger goes on to quote Daniélou: «For syncretism, the saved souls are those capable of inwardness, whatever religion they belong to. For Christianity the saved are those who believe, whatever their degree of inwardness. A small boy, a worker oppressed by work, if they believe, are superior to the greatest ascetics».
Interesting also is the path lit up by Ratzinger as possible way through the swamp of syncretism. As well as honesty, respect and the patience necessary for any dialogue, what could help us emerge from the mystical denaturing of Christianity is a play of alliances. The Christian, that is, must be capable of establishing an alliance with modern rationality, just as «at the period of the early Church, Christianity succeeded in binding itself quite closely to the forces of enlightenment».
Clear and distinct ideas.



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