Theology of the Mystical Body

The Whole Christ

Dr. John C. Rao


We propose to study in these pages what St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, calls “the mystery of Christ in us”. It is our desire to make this mystery better known by assembling, in the best order we may, the marvelous things that Scripture and Tradition have said of it.

However, these marvelous sayings are so numerous and of so many different kinds that in order to give the necessary unity to the inventory that is to follow a preliminary general outline is almost indispensable. Naturally, this can be no more than a résumé, which the entire work must serve to explain and to justify.

The “mystery” is before all else a prodigy of unity. God has raised to a supernatural perfection the natural unity that exists between men. Henceforth, they are one, but one in Christ, one with a unity so sublime that they are as little able to attain it by their unaided efforts as they are to comprehend it by their unaided reason.

This unity affects our being from every point of view. It unites us with ourselves; it unites us with one another; it unites us each and all together with God; it unites us each and all together with Christ. Thus, by a kind of multiplication of itself, so to speak, it adapts itself to our multiplicity and enfolds us, just as we are, into its own oneness.

In the first place, it unites us with Christ. This is the principle of all the rest; it is from the Saviour that all supernatural unity comes to men, just as it is from Him that they have their whole supernatural life. And what is life but a particular mode of unity? For us, from the supernatural standpoint, to exist means to be in Christ. To have life in the eyes of God, to have a dignity, a hope, an eternity, is also to be in Christ. To perform salutary works, to know, to hope, to love, is again and always to be in Christ.

He is the Head, we are the members; He is the Vine, we the branches. He is unity, and we many are one in Him who is One. Between Him and ourselves all is common. The excellences that He possesses are extended even to us; in Him they exist in their plenitude, whereas they come to us by participation. But even within us they are vibrant with the beating of His own Heart. All that He is, all that He has done, even His least action, is a cause our most interior life. His purity, His justice, His holiness “flow into” us, as theologians say; they become our own, because He has become our own; and thus we are made holy, just and pure before God, but solely because of Him and in Him. His birth and His life, His death and His resurrection—especially His death and resurrection—are also our own, by the sacraments and by grace, in our regeneration, in our death to sin, in our elevation to glory.

As His excellences pass into men and transfigure them, so do their miseries pass into Him and are there consumed. In Him, by His Blood and by His Cross, sin has been destroyed; and the consequences of sin—sufferings, humiliations, and death—become a means of expiation, a source of life and of joy. Briefly, in Him and in Him alone is the restoration and the ennobling of man. Freed from his hideousness, transformed into the likeness of Christ, man can draw near to God.

Secondly, the “mystery” unites us with God. This union we have in Christ, and only in Christ; since He is God and since we are in Him, in Him we are made divine; since He is the Son and we are in Him, we are sons of adoption in Him; since He possesses the Spirit and we are in Him, in Him we have the Spirit. The grace whereby His humanity becomes the humanity of the Word of Life is the same grace that enables our human nature, in Him and in Him alone, to possess life within itself. The justification that makes us intrinsically holy is the prolongation in the members of the action of the Triune God, whereby the body and blood of our Head was made the body and blood of the Holy of holies at the moment of the Incarnation.

This grace that comes to us from Him is as universal as it is sublime. It confers the new life upon all His members, but all receive it in Him alone. Therefore, since it produces in Him the supernatural life of all, it likewise produces in Him the unity of all.

Thirdly, the “mystery” unites all men together in Christ. Since in God’s eyes all men have life only by reason of their attachment to the one Saviour, it follows that all men have a common life, flowing from the same principle that gives each one his individual life. Hence, men are catholic and universal; they are men of the Church and of the universe, and intrinsically so. Each is perfected by all the others in what is most interior to himself, that is, in this Christ from whom he has life; each has his personal life and holiness, his good works and his merits, but he possesses them in common with all other men; they are truly his own, but at the same time truly theirs.

One and the same holiness flows in all of humanity; each has this holiness as his own and each is intrinsically holy, because each of Christ’s members is truly alive; and each possesses this holiness through union with all the others, by communion with all the saints, living and dead, because all live in one and the same Christ. Thus is mankind united with itself in Christ.

Finally, the “mystery” unites each man with himself. It is a deepening of the interior life, a deification that affects the very substance of each one’s inmost self. At the same time it imposes an obligation to rise above self; it establishes a new, purer, supernatural code of morality; it calls for a Christian holiness, for a Christian chastity, and above all for a Christian charity. In Christ we must live for God and for our brethren, since we are to live with them in Christ.

The “mystery”, then, is a miracle of goodness on God’s part, while on our part it is a miracle of transformation, of life, of holiness, and especially of unity. No formula suffices to tell us what it is; the résumé that we have given is sadly deficient, and the pages that follow will not succeed in expressing the full reality. In order to represent it with any degree of completeness, we should have to review the entire field of Christian doctrine and point out how that doctrine is speaking, always and everywhere, of the union with God that binds all men together in Christ.

For it is precisely in explaining what Christianity is that the Fathers explain this union of men with Christ. Thus, for instance, it is in their teaching on the unity and necessity of the Church that they speak of our incorporation with Christ in the Church, and it is when they treat of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father that they formulate a doctrine of the divinization which men receive as members of the Incarnate Word. As a matter of fact, this doctrine of divinization is often presupposed instead of being treated ex professo. Naturally enough, such occasional fragments of doctrine are not always easy to recognize. The general outline that we have given will render the task less difficult.

Essentially, therefore, the “mystery” is a miracle of unity. As to the precise nature of this unity, however, there is a variety of opinions. We shall first mention certain false views, in order not to be obliged to return to them later on.

To begin with, one would ill understand this unity, or to be more exact, he would not understand it at all, were he to imagine that the faithful are really and absolutely Christ Himself, or, if we may be pardoned the expression, that they are fragments or emanations of Christ. This would be a kind of pantheism, or rather, “panchristian”, quite as contradictory as it is naïve, and fraught with the most absurd consequences. Severe though the judgment be, it is very true: corruptio optimi pessima, it is the perversion of the noblest truths that is most regrettable. We know to what egotistical pride, to what obstinacy in the queerest notions, and even to what perversion illuminism can lead: disdain for human actions, which, since they are not the actions of the Saviour, are considered to be worthless; or a proud esteem of those same human actions, because they are judged to be the very actions of Christ; lowering Christ to a purely human level, or exalting man to Christ’s own level; in short, a total disregard of what is most essential to Christianity—all these can result from the exaggerated ideas to which we refer. The destination shows how false was the direction taken at the point of departure.

It is another, though less serious mistake, to rely more on imagination and sentiment than on reason and faith in a matter of such importance. Some, for example, absolutely insist on picturing the Mystical Body to themselves, by means of an image that they consider to be a perfect representation of the reality. Certainly we need images; we cannot think without phantasms, and Scripture provides many of them in connection with the doctrine of the Mystical Body. The error lies in mistaking the image for a definition and in thinking that just because they are able to conceive some huge ethereal and invisible organism or a kind of living atmosphere in which men’s souls are somehow fused one into the other, they therefore possess a perfect knowledge of the mystery of the Head and members. It goes without saying that whoever allows himself to be so misled by his imagination is exposing himself to all kinds of absurdities.

It has been necessary in every age to put the faithful on their guard against false mysticism, and in our day the warning is, to say the least, as indispensable as ever. It is quite useless to describe all the forms which the illusion takes, but the reader can see how the doctrine of the Mystical Body might well serve it as a mask. The angel of darkness has ever been wont to disguise himself as an angel of light.

Moreover, the very name adds strength to the temptation. In certain minds the term Mystical Body gives rise to ideas of complicated piety, of sentimentalism, of spiritual ambition, and excites aspirations to extraordinary, ecstatic, sometimes morbid states. Perhaps this is the very reason why many view the doctrine with suspicious eyes.

Unfortunately, such prudent suspicions are not the only difficulty to be overcome. Among those of the faithful who are less enlightened, les well instructed, or whose good sense is less alert, the doctrine of the Mystical Body, like all other truths, is apt to be ill understood.

Some might think, for instance, that it dispenses men from all effort, and that from the moment one is made a member of Christ by baptism, there is no further need for asceticism and mortification. Why should one have to keep watch over his thoughts and actions? Why should he try to correct his faults? Why make any effort in prayer, why urge the soul to meditation and to acts of love? One’s aim should be to forget self, whereas these traditional acts of spirituality succeed only in burdening the soul with itself. We have but to be absorbed in Christ and to experience a certain tenderness at the thought—pardon the expression—that we are being dissolved in Him. This emotional persuasion would be a profitable substitute for particular examinations of conscience and for penitential practices.

Holy Scripture and Tradition show only too clearly how false and how narrow such views are, as we shall have occasion to prove in the pages that follow. Just as the life of Christ in the faithful and the life of the faithful in Christ are the sum and substance of our religion, so, too, do they sum up all the precepts of Christian asceticism. The mystery omits none of these precepts, but as we shall see, it repeats them all, giving each a fuller and deeper meaning; its demands are even more exacting, but at the same time they are more acceptable.

It is not our purpose in these pages to refute false ideas of the Mystical Body or wrong ways of representing our unity in Christ. We wish only to seek out the truth. Yet truth itself is the best antidote for error, verum index sui et falsi.

Now that we have indicated certain false notions of the Mystical Body, what is the correct view? The answer is that there are two; both good, and both orthodox.

The first is characterized by its realism and its mysticism. We present it here in brief outline. Its great and guiding principle is to take the full and complete meaning of the Scriptural and patristic statements. According to this view, men have a true union with Christ, a real and ontological union; He is really and truly in them and we are in Him; we are really and truly one in Him as He is one with the Father. That this union be hard to explain is of small moment; is it to be regretted that God should have given us a union with His Son that transcends our own limited views? That it can be misunderstood is also certain; such is the case with all truths. But that does not make it less real. The important thing is to explain oneself clearly and prudently when speaking of it. That some should hesitate to call it a “physical” union is easy to understand; the very term appears to reduce it to the categories of the merely natural order. That one should refuse to accept the words “Mystical Body” and “members and Head” as the statement of a thesis whence all possible consequences can be drawn—nothing could be wiser; these metaphors, for such they are, merely indicate a unity that transcends the biological realities from which they are taken. It is best to retain the traditional name and call it a “mystical” union. However, it must be clearly understood that this term is by no means synonymous with “nebulous” or “semi-real”. On the contrary, it signifies something which in plenitude and reality surpasses the things of nature and the positive concepts that our reason can elaborate.

The second view does not go so far. The union which it describes, though real, is more tenuous; it is a reality of the moral order. The reason for this restraint is certainly not to be found in the texts of Scripture and the Fathers, for these are as forceful as possible. It is due rather to the desire, very laudable in itself, not to multiply the mysteries of faith beyond what is absolutely necessary. According to this view, all can be explained by the fact of our resemblance to Christ and our absolute and manifold dependence upon Him. The Lord is the model of all our virtues, the principle of all our hopes, the expiation of all our sins, the source of all our supernatural life. He is the exemplary and meritorious cause of our justification, and in a certain sense even its final and efficient cause. He is our Emmanuel, our Master, our guide, our friend, our brother; in fine, He is our all, and before God we are nothing except with Him and through Him. In a word, we are joined to Him by all the bonds that can attach one man to another; and here these bonds are far more numerous and far more powerful. All this is quite sufficient to justify Scripture and Tradition in teaching that with Him we make up one body, a Mystical Body.

The Church has never decided between these two views. Each has its good points, if only that it acts as a check upon the other. The second has the advantage of greater clearness; it is easier to explain and to understand. The first, at least to our way of thinking, is richer in doctrine, better founded in Scripture and the Fathers, more in conformity with the analogy of the faith. If its message is more mysterious, this element of mystery is not so much an added difficulty as a transcendent truth that helps us to understand the other truths a little better.

In other words, our own choice has already been made. In the pages that follow we shall speak in terms of the first explanation; we leave it to the reader to judge, from the evidence, whether we are right or wrong. However, we have no intention or combating, or even of discussing the other view. The mystery of Christ is a mystery of union, and one should not employ, as arguments against his brother, texts that treat only of charity and mutual understanding. Theology can be militant at times; it should be so when opposing those, who, openly or not, consciously or not, are enemies of revelation. But here there are no adversaries. All are jealous of the same orthodoxy, all are equally intent upon the search for the same truth, and all wish to make the search together if possible.

As a matter of fact, this search is difficult enough in the present instance, without encumbering ourselves with controversy. Not without reason has this unity been commonly styled “mystical”, mysterious; not without cause is it bound up with all the dogmas of our faith, even with those that are most obscure. To understand this unity, we must understand the nature of the Incarnation which has brought it to our earth, the nature of the divine life whence this unity flows, the nature of justification of which it is one aspect, the nature of original sin of which it is the reparation, the nature of the Eucharist of which it is the supernatural effect (res et effectus proprius); in a word, we must understand the whole of Christian doctrine. It would be absurd to lay claim to perfect knowledge of the mystery here on earth. Only in the rays of the Eternal Light, “on that day” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of St. John (14:20), shall we know how Christ is in the Father, and we in Him, and He in us. Meanwhile we must rest content with the half light of this world, a light that may be increased by study and reflection, a light that is most fruitful and most desirable, but always imperfect.

When, through Scripture and the Fathers, God speaks to us of this unity of grace, He does so by means of comparisons and suggestive, but rather imprecise expressions, much more frequently than by means of rigorous definitions and systematic expositions. The formulas ever retain a certain vagueness; in them reason seeks vainly for the clear and well-defined concepts that are its delight. If this is so, certainly it is all for the best. Since God has a more perfect knowledge than we have, both of the mystery which He reveals and of the poor intelligences to which He reveals it, He must also know better than we do what means are best suited to give us some insight into these transcendent realities. He speaks to us of the mystery as He spoke of it to the Jews of old: prout poterant audire; He adapts His teaching to our powers of comprehension.

In our task of gathering and repeating His message we wish to be guided by one sole purpose, a purpose that we hope to maintain religiously; we wish to repeat the message exactly as it is. The prime duty of one who would record another’s thought, or even his own thought, is not to be clear, but to be faithful and true to the model. The ideas of Pelagius on the subject of grace are easier to understand than those of Augustine, but are they for that reason more true? When there is question of sublime realities, and particularly of supernatural realities, may not the very clearness of an explanation be a sign that the real difficulty, the real marvel, has been suppressed?

All data are good so long as they come from God. So we shall take them all: vague when they are vague, clear when they are clear, incomplete when they are incomplete. We shall try to add nothing, not even incidental clearness, and to suppress nothing, but even what to our clouded vision appears to be an excrudesence or obscurity. Out of veneration for the truth and out of respect for the reader, we shall, of course, do all in our power to be precise and easy to follow; but we pray God that we may betray neither the truth nor all of us who have no other need but truth.

The difficulty of a subject is no excuse for neglecting its study. On the contrary, it is at the obscure points that greater light is needed. Some may tell us: “Do not speak of such things; you are apt to be misunderstood.” Detestable advice! Do men come to an understanding by keeping their thoughts to themselves? Or are there truths in our religion that are dangerous, truths that must be avoided, truths that by their very nature are capable of engendering only false notions and vain discussions?

God who has revealed all, has made His revelation full of grace and truth. If certain points are richer in application and in interest, they must be in some sense more essential to the truth revealed, since they tell us more expressly of Him who is Truth and of the manner in which He wills to dwell in men. One of these points, or we may even say the first of these points is the doctrine of the Mystical Body. Hence we should expect to find in it a greater abundance of the light of Life and of true consolation.

For how can we believe that God, who is the Light and who wills to shine in our souls, should not have placed in this truth all the light that we need to understand it, since it is precisely the explanation of that gift which He has made to men of His most pure and most glorious Word?

The important thing, to our mind, is to seek and desire no other light but that which He offers, to resign ourselves cheerfully to the shadows that He wills to leave, to take all the indications that He furnishes, confident that they will explain each other and that as the phrases of the message are gradually assembled, each will prove to be the best commentary for the others when all shall have been brought together to form one complete whole.

Guided by God’s providence, Christian teaching has been in a state of uninterrupted growth since the beginning. During the whole of the old dispensation and even during the early years of the new, it was constantly being enriched by the addition of new truths, of new revelations that served to complete and explain the others. The death of the last Apostle terminated this development by external addition; but now we see the beginning, or rather the continuation of another development, which consists in a fuller understanding and in a more perfect expression of what has been revealed. It is no longer revelation that grows, but man who grows in the comprehension of revelation.

We shall have occasion to study this twofold progress in every page of our work. For the present, we wish to say just one thing about this growth, in order to avoid any misconceptions. It is, before all else, the work of God. Not of God alone, for in it God makes use of secondary causes and the reason of men. But God and God alone remains the source of truth; He and He alone reveals; He and He alone watches over the deposit of faith, to assure and guarantee its perpetual identity.

The study of a subject so complex and so sublime is a tremendous task. Needless to say, we do not expect to be able to accomplish it fully, even with respect to the point of doctrine that will occupy our attention. Our aim is simply to consider some of its aspects, to assemble a series of studies, each of which is distinct from the others. Each will be devoted to a particular stage of the doctrinal development. In our opinion, which may be wrong, these are the principal stages, or at least include most of the principal stages; hence the entire work will contain a general outline of the history of the development.

Naturally, we have arranged our studies according to the chronological order: first come those that refer to the Scriptures, then those that deal with Tradition. In the study of Tradition, we have treated first the Greek Fathers, then the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the Western Church. This division of East and West, which was necessary for a clear and logical development, forced us to depart from the chronological order. However, this departure is very slight; as far as our subject is concerned, Western tradition as a whole may be considered as the exact continuation of the teaching of the East.

While we have not found all the interesting texts for the early centuries and up to the time of St. Augustine, we think we have discovered at least most of the important ones. For more recent periods, we cannot claim a like thoroughness; the number of authors and works which would have had to be consulted grew constantly greater as we advanced. All that we have been able to do is to uncover a few portions of one of the paths which Tradition followed on its way to us. To trace all of its itineraries would have been impossible.

Something similar must be said for our studies as a whole. Even where we think that we have located the most important landmarks, we should not venture to trace the path that connects them. The documents are too rare and their indications too incidental. From the little information that history offers, it is frequently difficult, not to say impossible, to determine all the explicit teaching of a particular Father on this point, to discover from whom and in what manner God willed that he should receive this teaching, to discern the influences whereby God led him to present it from such an angle and with emphasis on this or that particular aspect. Hence it would be rash to attempt to follow the development of the doctrine in all its continuity from a purely historical viewpoint; too often the path is lost in the darkness.

This, evidently, is a further motive for giving our full attention to the points that appear more clearly, to take note, at these more advantageous moments, of the differences and the nuances that the doctrine presents, and to pick out whatever may serve to throw light upon possible influences or relations that may have existed between the various authors.

Above all, it is an additional motive for considering the fact that there is a logical order corresponding to this historical order, and that the ideas, which are differently expressed in different ages, are intrinsically connected with each other. Is there any reason why Providence should not have made use of this order as well as of the first? In order that one writer may be said to continue the teaching of another, need he have had the intention of so doing, or need he even have known about the other? Must we say that the history of Christian doctrine has no unity either in itself or in the Spirit of God, but only in the minds of the men who expound it?

Hence the reader must keep in view the special object of our work. We have called it Studies in historical theology. It is not a question of studying the history of an ordinary doctrine, such as men might have elaborated and enriched in their own way, building it up piece by piece at various intervals, groping, correcting, changing. There is question here of a truth that is ever the same, which an infinite Wisdom, ever the same, allows to penetrate gradually into the souls of men by means of a manifestation that continues through the ages, ever more complete, yet ever the same; the while His goodness, ever the same, gives clearer vision to their intelligences.

Certainly there is no reason to prescind from this unfailing identity and this perpetual continuity. On the contrary, we rely upon it to justify our method of comparing the various texts which we deem important, of making them explain each other, and of supplementing what may be left only partially developed in one or other passage by means of the light that is afforded by all the texts taken together; lastly, we rely upon it to show that despite the time and the distance that separate their authors, these texts are all expressions of one and the same truth and that all have a part in one and the same infusion of this truth into the souls of men.

We have made it a point to give many quotations, not only because contact with the sources is all-important from the standpoint of history, but especially because the texts adduced are the words of Scripture and the Fathers, and for that reason possess a very particular theological value. They are the very expressions that God has willed. May we not believe that as such they will serve to bring light and understanding, and that in them God Himself speaks more directly to us?

Some of our citations may appear quite colorless, almost alien to our subject. We do not deny this possibility. Nevertheless, we beg the reader not to pass them by without asking himself whether they do not throw light upon some other text, and without reflecting that the “mystery” has many different aspects and that between these different aspects there exist many points of contact.

It is possible, indeed certain, that the multiplication of quotations has involved many repetitions. The Scriptures return often to the same thoughts, and the Fathers frequently emphasize the same aspects of the doctrine of the Mystical Body. If we were to avoid repeating the same ideas, we should have to present the Bible and Tradition otherwise than as they actually are. The reader will understand our anxiety not to overlook any element of so precious a gift of God.

Furthermore, let us remember that for the study of an object so sublime, the resources of human reason are not enough; in things divine, the mind of man is not in its own element, and it is not the part of man to judge the message. Rather is it the part of the message to judge him. Here, much more truly than in other matters, there is need for respect, for reserve, and for humility. Suffice it to say that we submit all that follows, not only to the authority of those who speak in God’s name, as is quite evident, but also to the judgment of all those who, living of the life of Christ, have competence in the knowledge of these interior realities: et in servis suis iudicet Christus.

Yet precisely because the resources of human intelligence are so inadequate, there is all the greater need to employ them to the full. The most scrupulous objectivity must be maintained more strictly in the treatment of religious truths than anywhere else; the more divine the truth, the more reverently must it be handled. Hence we shall endeavor to be as accurate and as faithful as possible. It would be folly and a profanation to make texts so sublime express anything different than what they actually say, or to make them emphasize something that is not stressed either in the texts themselves or in other texts that come to us from the same transcendent source. Undoubtedly historical theology can be history only insofar as it is theology, that is, insofar as it treats its subject in the one way which befits that subject and is capable of making it intelligible: humbly, reverently, remembering that He who speaks is the same who teaches in all the other documents of the faith. But conversely, it will be theology only insofar as it is history, that is, only insofar as it aims at all the rigor and precision possible, with the conviction that the message, just as God has given it, is worth infinitely more than anything which mere human reason might substitute, even for prudence’ sake, in its place.

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