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Christ to Catholicism


VII. The Church as the Body of Christ

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

As described in St. Paul and the tradition of the Fathers, the Church is not only a Body, with visible head and members and a juridical structure, it is also the Body of Christ. He bears a relation to the Body which is so intimate that Augustine often equates the two and, as in the phrase "Christ preaches Christ," practically identifies the Lord with the Society that shares His name.

Our penetration into the mystery will follow the same analogy, comparing the Church to a human Body and Jesus Christ in the role of its Founder who brought it into existence, its invisible Head who gives it life and sanctification, its constant Support by His divine Spirit and its loving Savior by His cross and eternal redemption. Reflection on these affinities underlay the Gospel of St. John and the Pauline Epistles, and occasioned the most sublime insights of the great mystics. Under different similitudes, the alliance of Christ with the Church, as Bridegroom with His Spouse and the Vine with the Branches, is the inspiration of the Christian liturgy and the material for constant prayer.

Christ the Originator of His Body

The popular concept of Pentecost Sunday as the birthday of the Church needs to be somewhat revised. Actually there were three states in the Church's foundation: the first preliminary, in which "the Redeemer began the building of the mystical temple of the Church when by His preaching He made known His precepts," the second definitive when "He completed the Church while hanging glorified on the Cross," and the final declarative "when He proclaimed it by sending the Holy Spirit as Paraclete in visible form on the disciples." [1]

Preparation of the Mystical Body. During His mortal life on earth, Christ determined the character of the Society He was going to found by selecting the body of men who were to carry on His mission of salvation. "He appointed their Chief and His Vicar on earth and made known to them all things whatsoever He had heard from His Father." He also instituted the two sacraments of incorporation into His Body by baptism and of conservation in that Body through the Holy Eucharist.

A vital element in this preliminary work of Christ is liable to be overlooked. He did much more than just prepare the external form of the Mystical Body. First by implication when He called the Apostles with the promise to make them fishers of men, in rising crescendo through His public life, and then most solemnly on the night before He died, He proclaimed the essential continuity between Himself and the Church He was creating, between His commission from the Father and the Apostles' commission from Christ. "They are not of the world," He prayed at the Last Supper, "even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth. Even as Thou hast sent Me into the world, so also I have sent them into the world... And the glory Thou hast given to Me, I have given to them, that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them and Thou in Me.” [2] At every significant point in His preaching, Christ emphasized this identification of Himself with the Church: in her leaders, "He that hears you hears Me, and He that despises you despises Me"; in her members, "As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me"; in her doctrine, "I pray for those who through their word are to believe in Me, that all may be one, even as Thou, Father, in Me and I in Thee"; in her sacraments, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood, abides in Me and I in him. As the living Father has sent Me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me.” [3] Always the same correlation, from the Father to the Son, from the Son to His Church--with a degree of intimacy that would be startling except for the assurance that this is not poetry but the infallible revelation of God.

Birth of the Church on the Cross. It is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers that "like a new Eve, mother of all the living, the Church was born from the side of our Savior on the Cross.” [4] Various terms are used to describe the event: as a parturition, creation, formation, foundation and consecration. But the basic concept is the same, that "Christ by the pains of His flesh gave birth to the Church, which He clothed in the swaddling bands of His precious blood.” [5] It was on Calvary that the Old Testament gave way to the New and, according to Augustine, the Jews put an end to their kingdom when they fixed Christ to the Cross.

More specifically, the Fathers speak of the Church as coming into life from the open side of the Lord and therefore regard the creation of Eve from the side of Adam as a mystical symbol of the Church's origin from Christ. "As of the side of Adam, the first man, was produced Eve, mother of all the living, so of this sacred Side arose the Church, which is the saving parent of all the faithful." [6]

Since the Church gives birth to her children in the sacrament of baptism and nourishes them on the Holy Eucharist, therefore, say the Fathers, the Mystical Body was created from the side of Christ on the Cross. Bellarmine's explanation gives these patristic figures the dogmatic clarity which they deserve. "All the sacraments," he says, "derive their efficacy from the Passion of Christ, although our Lord's side was opened after His death, and blood and water, which typify the two chief sacraments of the Church flowed forth. The flowing of blood and water from the side of Christ after death was the sign of the sacraments, not their institution. We may conclude, therefore, that the building of the Church was completed when Christ said, 'It is finished,' because nothing then remained but death, which immediately followed, and consummated the price of our redemption." [7] Baptism, according to Bellarmine, was instituted when Christ was baptized by St. John in the Jordan; and the Eucharist at the Last Supper. But when the Lord's side was opened on Calvary, the outpouring of the blood and water was at once the evidence of His physical death and the sign (because of His death) that the world was objectively redeemed, so that the subjective application of Christ's merits to us, notably in baptism and the Eucharist, was consequently guaranteed.

But where Christian tradition would not hold that the sacraments were instituted on the Cross, it does teach that the Church herself was there formally brought into the world. In the words of Leo the Great, "To such an extent was there effected a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim, that, as our Lord expired, that mystical veil which shutoff the innermost part of the temple and its sacred secret was rent violently from top to bottom," as a divine confirmation that the Church of the New Testament was born. [8]

If we analyze the matter theologically, there are three reasons why the death of Christ marked the creation of the Catholic Church. By His crucifixion as the Messias, at the hands of His chosen people, the Lord showed the fulfillment of those prophecies which foretold His passing as the turning point in human history, when the selective providence in favor of the Jews would be extended to all nations and universalized to the ends of the earth. Then in terms of Christ Himself as a person, "It was on the tree of the Cross that He entered into possession of His Church, that is, of all the members of His Mystical Body; for they would not have been united to this Mystical Body through the waters of baptism, except by the salvific power of the Cross." [9] What the rite of circumcision could not accomplish under the old dispensation became effective in the New, through baptism, precisely because of the merits won for us on the Cross. It was at the moment when His Son died that, in the decree of the Father, we were entitled to incorporation in His Mystical Body and He, in turn, became our invisible Head. And lastly, the shedding of His blood unto death enriched the Church with the supernatural communication that was merited on the Cross and passed, along with a great increase, from the Jewish nation to another People that is not determined by carnal generation but chosen by the will of God. Concretely this means that "both the juridical mission of the Church, and the power to teach, govern and administer the sacrament" ultimately derive their efficacy "from the fact that Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine and enable her to rule them for the salvation of their souls." [10] The actual distribution of these graces would go on until the end of time, but on the Cross their infinite source was insured by the creation of a permanent alliance between God and the New Israel.

The Church's Manifestation at Pentecost. While the Church was fully instituted on the Cross, her existence as a new reality in the world remained comparatively hidden until the day of Pentecost. In the meantime, Peter had been installed as the Vicar of Christ and the Lord Himself ascended into heaven. Then, sitting at the right hand of His heavenly Father, "He wished to make known and proclaim His Spouse through the visible coming of the Holy Spirit with the sound of a mighty wind and tongues of fire." By which He intended to parallel the beginning of the Church's apostolate with the start of His own public life. At the baptism in the Jordan, "He was made known by His eternal Father through the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on him in the form of a dove." Now he sent the same divine Spirit upon the Apostles, "To teach them with tongues of fire and point out, as by the finger of God, the supernatural offices of the Church," as a continuation of His own mission from the Father. [11]

Christ the Head of the Mystical Body

It is conceivable that Christ could have founded the Catholic Church and in that sense call it His Body, without also being what St. Paul repeatedly says, that "He is the Head of the Body, the Church.” [12] Christ's Headship of the Mystical Body implies that His relation to the Church is not only inceptive and historical, as with other founders of societies, but permanent and enduring; it further implies that this relation is not merely external, as when a man produces an object outside of himself, but deeply intrinsic, where the creator of his creature is intimately bound to that which he had made; and finally it implies that Christ's affinity with the Church is not passive or impersonal, as in natural institutions between the ruler to the governed, but most vital and dynamic, and comparable only to the power that flows from the human head to all the organs and members of the body.

Pre-eminence of Jesus Christ. The most obvious reason why Christ is the Head of the Mystical Body is because of His pre-eminence in the Church, by the two-fold title of His divinity and humanity. "Who is in a higher place than Christ God, who as the Word of the eternal Father must be acknowledged to be the first-born of every creature. Who has reached more lofty heights than Christ Man, who though born of the Immaculate Virgin, is the true and natural Son of God, and in virtue of His miraculous and glorious resurrection, has become the firstborn of the dead.” [13] He is therefore Head of the Church by His superiority as both God and man. As God, His transcendence is absolute and as far superior to His members as the infinite is above the finite. He not only existed from all eternity, but His essence is to exist; whereas the members were brought out of nothingness into being by their Head. His dignity as man is relative, yet preeminent in every way. Only His created nature in the Mystical Body is substantially united to the Word of God, only His sanctity as man is the plenitude of all virtues and His wisdom the ultimate in human knowledge.

Invisible Ruler of the Church. The relation of head to the members is not only a matter of superiority. It is also and especially functional. The head actually directs and governs the rest of the body, whether in the physical composite of a human being or in the moral unit of an organized society. Consequently, "as the head is the royal citadel of the body, and all the members over whom it is placed for their good are naturally guided by it as being endowed with superior powers, so the Divine Redeemer holds the helm of the universal Christian community and governs its operations.” [14] He guides and directs the Mystical Body in every sense of the term.

At the dawn of Christianity, when setting up the juridical structure of the Church, the Redeemer specified what truths of revelation His followers were required to believe, laid down the precepts they had to obey and above all, conferred on His apostles and their successors definite powers and authority by which they were to lead men to God. Even in this genetic sense, therefore, as the originator of the "constitution" by which the Church would operate, Christ has a right to be called its invisible Head.

But Christ's dominion over the Mystical Body only began with His mortal life. Since His death and resurrection, He governs the Church directly and personally in a way that no leader of a natural society can. "He reigns within the minds and hearts of men, and bends and subjects their will to His good pleasure, even when rebellious," thus effecting by grace the cheerful submission to ecclesiastical authority that lies beyond the capacity of nature. Catholics may not realize the power of the internal control that keeps in check the flood-gates of pride and desire for self-expression that would break through the mental and moral discipline demanded by the Church's authority. "The Roman Church," writes a Protestant apologist, "claims it has absolute authority in matters of faith and morals, by virtue of the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. Against every such claim to absoluteness Protestantism must protest. Every religious institution, every creed, every pattern of worship, shares in the limitations and distortions of human existence. No religious pattern or form can be exempt from criticism in the light of fresh apprehension of the truth.” [15] Thus speaks the natural man who instinctively reacts against the Church's claim to absolute sovereignty and, except for the invisible help of Christ, would never submit to it.

Besides this constant internal assistance furnished by the Head to all the members, special grace is given "to the Church's rulers for the loyal and effective performance of their respective duties and, especially when times are grave, men and women of conspicuous holiness are singled out from the ranks of Mother Church, to point the way for the rest of Christiandom to the perfecting of His Mystical Body.” [16] This is so true that the history of Catholicism is practically a sequence of conflict with error and its conquest through the mediation of great saints. The Gnostic crisis in the second century produced Ireneus; the champion against Arianism was Athanasius, whom the whole world conspired to persecute; out of the struggle with Pelagianism arose St. Augustine; with Iconoclasm, John Damascene; with Caesaro-papalism, Gregory VII. At the height of the Reformation, when Luther charged that "those who live the worst lives are the most loyal supporters of the papacy," the Church was blessed with missionaries like Francis Xavier, mystics like Teresa of Avila and true Reformers like Charles Borromeo. It is scarcely a coincidence that Ignatius of Loyola was born a year before the discovery of America, and within a year of Luther's condemnation (1520) was converted to a life of perfection and set about organising the future Society of Jesus. "Thus," in the judgment of the Holy See, "did God providentially prepare new laborers for His new vineyard and organized a new militia to combat the latest enemies of the Catholic faith and the Roman primacy.” [17] In more recent times, the threat of Jansenism was met by obscure contemplatives like Margaret Mary, the needs of social revolution by a Vincent de Paul or Don Bosco, and the dangers of modernism by St. Pius X. Not infrequently this guidance of the Mystical Body by its invisible Head takes on cosmic proportions, as in the apparitions at Lourdes, where for the past century anti-supernaturalism has been answered by the presence of power on earth that is clearly divine.

Governance through a Visible Head. We touch on the substance of Catholic Christianity when we go a step further to say that Christ directs the Mystical Body not only spiritually and internally, but also visibly, and not only directly by the inspiration of His grace, but vicariously through the Roman Pontiff. "Since He was all wise, He could not leave the Body of the Church He had founded as a human society without a visible head.” [18a] It would have been consummate folly to create an institution of men with all their instincts to independent judgment, and without the necessary means to have that judgment subordinated to the society's common good. The alternative to visible ultimate authority would have been to change human nature completely by a miraculous effusion of supernatural grace. However, since there is no evidence that man has been so changed, the need for external guidance and supremacy becomes the simple lesson of all religious history.

Non-Catholics recognize our position with perfect clarity. "Those who 'submit' to the pope and all his claims are Roman Catholics; those who do not are not. All other differences sink into insignificance in comparison with this. Rome recognizes no rapprochement until its basic dogma of papal authority is accepted, and when that is accepted, no further rapprochement is necessary because everything else naturally and necessarily follows. One cannot be almost a Roman - Catholic. One either is or is not. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the real test question is the place and authority of the pope. This is the watershed between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism--disregarding in this connection but not forgetting or undervaluing the great body of the Eastern Orthodox, who have had only slight contact with Western Christianity until recent years but who might be considered on this issue to be the original Protestants. [18b] Behind this statement stands an implicit concept of Christianity that Catholicism absolutely rejects; that Christ did not found a visible society but only inspired a religious movement with no creed or definite form of government.

Yet a grave problem is posed by the necessity of having a visible shepherd of the Mystical Body. It looks as though the Church had two heads, one contradicting the other or at least making the other dispensable. If the problem seems academic to Catholics, it is, the fountainhead of all the virulence against the papacy that still characterizes a sizeable portion of the non-Catholic Christian world. Students for the ministry are told that "in the papacy we find the exact counterpart, trait by trait, of the Bible's portrayal of Antichrist. Here is the man who enthrones himself in the temple of God instead of God; here human authority takes the place of Holy Scripture, human righteousness the place of the righteousness of Jesus Christ; here a man claims to be jure divino the legitimate and sole possessor of all spiritual and secular power on earth.” [19] Here if anywhere is a mystery that cannot be fully explained, and in the degree of its being misunderstood will evoke the most violent sentiments of opposition.

Among the theologians who handled this problem of a bicephalous Church of Christ, Bellarmine has left us the clearest and most detailed solution. Thus following St. Thomas, he accepted the traditional interpretations that the "Head of the Church” in the Pauline Epistles is Christ Himself, whose vicar on earth is the Sovereign Pontiff. Both Christ and the Pope, therefore, are head of the Church, but in different ways. "Christ is Supreme Head as regards internal influence, by which He invisibly supplies individual members with spiritual sense and motion, that is, at least with faith, or with faith and charity. The Pope, however, is Supreme Head by external influence only, in so far as the doctrine of faith and the administration of the sacraments are transmitted by him, through other ministers to the entire Church. Moreover Christ is Head without depending on anyone, but the Pope is only in the place of Christ and subject to Him absolutely. Nevertheless he is supreme and the whole Church Militant depends upon him.” [20] Consequently the relation of the papacy to Christ is in the nature of external instrument to its primary cause. According to supernatural providence, visible means are normally required as the channels for transmitting grace from their divine source to the minds and wills of men. In this sense, the Mystical Body is the great sacrament of the New Law. As an essential part of that Body, the papacy shares in its sacramental character. So the basic problem is not having a visible head of the Church in addition to the invisible Head who is Christ, but in having any material instrumentality by which the spiritual forces of grace are conferred. While the ultimate reason for this providence is a mystery, all that we know from revelation shows its perfect consistency with human nature. Since the time that Abraham was called out of Chaldea to form the chosen people, this contingent correlation of the supernatural and visible runs as a theme through the annals of the Jewish nation. To instruct His people, the Lord sent them prophets like Moses and Isaias; to guide and direct them as a social body, He gave them judges like Samuel and kings like David and Solomon. Though with only a fraction of the later efficacy in the Christian sacraments, the Jewish ritual and worship, e.g., circumcision and sacrifice, were divinely appointed material means for the sanctification of the people of God.

As Christ did not come to destroy but fulfill the law of the prophets, He retained the principle that was as old as the Mosaic revelation while extending its application to a degree unknown in previous religious history. Since man is still a rational animal whose whole life is bound up with sensible phenomena, material agencies remain the ordinary means for communicating the fruits of Redemption to the Messianic kingdom. Therefore, the papacy along with the whole external structure of the Church are the visible signs that symbolize the invisible grace they confer, according to the institution of Christ.

From Christ through the Bishops. By the will of its Founder, the Mystical Body is composed of individual communities which make up the one Catholic Church. "They, too, are ruled by Jesus Christ through the voice of their respective Bishops, who are united by a very special bond to the divine Head of the whole Body and so are rightly called 'principal parts of the members of Our Lord.’ " [21]

In considering the relation of the bishops to Jesus Christ we must distinguish between the episcopate as an institution and its powers, and within the powers between order and jurisdiction.

The Council of Trent defined against the Reformers that all Christians are not priests of the New Testament and endowed with equal spiritual power and emphasized that "besides the other ecclesiastical grades, the bishops, who have succeeded the Apostles, were placed by the Holy Spirit to rule the Church of God and are superior to priests.” [22] Consequently the episcopacy as such is a divine institution which carries on the work of the Apostles; it cannot be suppressed, or substantially changed or its exercise hindered by papal authority.

When a bishop is consecrated he receives the plenitude of priestly power as far as order is concerned, i.e., for administering all the sacraments, including the ordination of priests and consecration of other bishops. Here, too, the matter is beyond the pope's authority. He cannot "unmake" a bishop by depriving him of the power validly to ordain or consecrate successors. As an historical item, during the upheaval of the sixteenth century the question was raised whether by papal intervention an unworthy prelate could be deprived of the ability of ordaining priests and consecrating bishops. It was unanimously decided that such intervention would be ineffective because episcopal orders (like the priesthood) are ineradicable by divine law.

But in addition to the power of orders (directed to sanctification through the sacraments and the Mass), bishops may also possess the power of jurisdiction, which comprehends the authority to teach and govern the Christian faithful. At the Council of Trent, an effort was made to settle a centuries-old controversy whether the power of jurisdiction comes to bishops only indirectly or immediately from the pope. There was never any doubt that bishops were to exercise their jurisdiction subject to papal approval and authority, but how precisely is the jurisdiction acquired? Does the pope actually, i.e., immediately and directly, confer jurisdiction or does he merely designate the person on whom Christ Himself confers it? A logical corollary to immediate conferral by the pope is the power he has to validly withdraw what he gave, by deposing a bishop, with or without objectively good cause. If he only designates the person to receive jurisdiction from Christ, he would seem unable validly to withdraw it without sufficient reason. Until recently there was some hesitation on the point among theologians. But since the Encyclical on the Mystical Body, the issue may, be considered as settled. "In exercising their office," says Pius XII, "the bishops are not altogether independent, but are subordinate to the lawful authority of the Roman Pontiff, while enjoying the power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the Sovereign Pontiff.” [23] In this way, the unity of the Church is unequivocally guaranteed, where the power to govern the faithful comes directly from Christ to His one Vicar on earth and through him to all the bishops of the Catholic world.

Mutual need of Head and Members. Following the analogy of a human organism, Christ is Head of the Mystical Body both because the members of the Church need Him and because, in a true sense, He has need of them. "As our Savior does not rule the Church directly in a visible manner, He wills to be helped by the members of His Body in carrying out the work of Redemption. This is not because He is indigent and weak, but rather because He has so willed it for the greater glory of His Immaculate Spouse. Dying on the Cross, He left to His Church the immense treasury of the Redemption, towards which she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this work of sanctification with His Church, but He wants it in some way to be due to her action.” [24] The mystery here involved is the power of free will in cooperation with the grace of God. Both elements are necessary for salvation: divine grace because without it we can do nothing on the road to heaven, which stands on a plane of reality beyond the capacity of nature; and free will because in the disposition of providence we must contribute our share to participate in the fruits of Redemption.

This free collaboration with Christ is a primary datum of the spiritual life, whether on the level of individual sanctity or of perfection of the Mystical Body as a whole. Without it a person will either not be incorporated in the Body of Christ, or if admitted without a free choice on his part, as with children baptized in infancy, he will soon become a dead member and may even lose the incorporation completely.

Principle of Similarity. There can be no relation of head and members unless both share in the same nature. In the Mystical Body this conformity is an accomplished fact on the side of Christ, He assumed our nature in all its perfection, and along with its limitations except sin. Having once become man, He remains the Man-God for eternity, in a substantial union of our humanity with His divinity. But on our side, the divinization depends on the grace of God and our effort to become assimilated to the Word Incarnate.

"It is the will of Jesus Christ," therefore, "that the whole body of the Church, no less than the individual members, should resemble Him.” [25] Another name for this call to resemblance is the imitation of Christ, as found in the Gospels and Christian tradition. "Learn of Me," is the Master's invitation to His followers. St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” [26] and St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Be imitators of Jesus Christ, as He is of the Father.” [27] According to St. Augustine, a man is perfect if he follows Christ perfectly, while to follow perfectly is to imitate.

We may legitimately ask why the imitation of Christ should be so essential for Christian perfection. The answer is that this was one of the reasons why God became man. Since mankind needed to be taught the way to God, "it had to be formed after some mode. The first thing necessary was that some norm or pattern of discipline be demonstrated. This was done by the divinely appointed method of the Incarnation…in order that from it should follow our knowledge, through the Son, of the Father." [28] In terms of the Mystical Body, this means that we become more like our divine Head as we more closely imitate His practice of virtue during His visible stay on earth and more faithfully conform to the pattern He daily shows us through His infallible Church. Viewed in this double aspect, the imitation of Christ becomes more than prayerful reflection on the biography of the Gospels; it includes also a responsiveness to the norms of holiness presented by the Mystical Christ through His appointed teachers and through the members of His Body who approached nearest to the sanctity of their Head.

Plenitude and Communication. The final and highly practical reason why Christ must be acknowledged Head of the Church is the fact that, "as supernatural gifts have their fulness and perfection in Him, it is of this fulness that His Mystical Body receives." [29] As explained by the Latin Fathers, a person is called the head of an institution or society because he confers power and movement on the other members, and gives direction to all their activity; which presumes the antecedent possession of what is transmitted to others. Moreover the amount of vitality which is given depends on the amount possessed by the head and the degree to which the members depend upon him. In the Mystical Body, there is infinite grace in the invisible Head and the dependence on Him is absolute.

In order to have a clearer picture of this important relationship of Christ with the Church, it will help to examine briefly the different kinds of grace that are found in Him and which of these precisely flows into His Body. Following St. Thomas, theologians commonly distinguish three types of benefit conferred gratis on the human nature of Christ. "The first is the grace of union, whereby the human nature, with no merits preceding, received the gift of being united in person to the Son of God. The second is the singular grace whereby the soul of Christ was filled with grace and truth beyond all other souls. The third is the grace of being Head, in virtue of which grace flows from Him to others.” [30] We find the three forms described in sequence by St. John the Evangelist. Regarding the grace of union, he says, "The Word was made flesh;" of His singular grace of sanctity, he adds, "We saw his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth;" and of the grace of headship, "of his fulness we have all received." [31]

All three types are, in their way, infinite. The grace of union is evidently more than finite because in His human nature Christ received the gift of becoming the Son of God not by participation but by nature. And since natural divinity is infinite, also the union by which the divinity was received is infinite by its very essence.

We might suspect that sanctifying grace with its concomitants is not infinite in Christ, "Since such grace is a created gift, we have to acknowledge that it has a finite essence." [32] Yet it may be considered infinite because the whole of Christ's human nature was filled to ultimate capacity, because He received all that pertains to the nature of grace and, especially, because by the hypostatic union His soul was united to the divinity which is perfectly inexhaustible. As a corollary, therefore, the grace of headship in the Mystical Body is likewise infinite. What Christ possesses He communicates. "And since He has received the gifts of the Spirit without measure, He has the power of pouring forth without measure all that belongs to the grace of the Head. Consequently His grace is sufficient for the salvation not only of some men but of the whole world, as expressed by St. John that "He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world; and we may add, of many worlds, if such existed." [33]

Now arises the subtle question: in what sense do we receive from the fulness of grace that is in Christ? It would not be accurate to say that the created gifts in Christ are so abundant that they "flow over" from Head to members in such a way that our portion is numerically the same as His. Also not a few graces that we possess, like faith and sorrow for sin, are not formally present in Christ. Theologians for these reasons prefer to speak of the grace of headship in its relation to the whole organism of the Mystical Body as the uncreated gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in Christ to an infinite degree. And it is this numerically identical gift that flows into the Body and its members with finite limitations according to the measure of Christ's donation and suited to the dispositions or office that each one in the Body occupies. Thus "although the habitual gifts are not the same in the soul of Christ and in ourselves, yet the same Holy Spirit who abides in Him is the one that fills those who are to be sanctified.” [34] (For it is the unity of the Holy Spirit that produces the unity of the Church.)

The Soul of the Mystical Body

There is a third and higher relation between Christ and the Mystical Body which goes beyond the fact that He founded the Church and directs her as the invisible Head. He sustains and animates the Body in a manner that transcends the capacity of the mind to comprehend and yet, as a mystery of faith, is quite intelligible in the light of the principle of analogy which we are examining.

Just as a human body has an invisible soul which gives it life and personality, so the Mystical Body has an animating principle that gives it vital existence and finally accounts for all its activity. This principle of life in the Mystical Body is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit as the Soul of the Church. Christian tradition since apostolic times has identified the Holy Spirit with the soul of the Mystical Body. Among the Latin Fathers alone, more than thirty of them before the seventh century have testified to this identification; and among these St. Augustine is the outstanding and most detailed witness. "Consider the members of our body," he suggests, "although many, they are all nourished by one spirit. Thus by the human spirit which makes me a man, I unite all the members of my body; I order the limbs to move and tell the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the tongue to speak, the hands to touch and the feet to walk. No matter how varied the function of the different organs, one spirit determines them all. Many are commanded and many are moved, but only one commands and one is served. Consequently, what our spirit, that is our soul is to our members; the Holy Spirit is to the members of Christ, to the Body of Christ which is the Church.” [35] Centuries later, when summarizing the patristic doctrine, Leo XIII formulated the classic phrase, "as Christ is the Head of the Church, so is the Holy Spirit her soul." [36]

As we analyze the matter more closely, we are first confronted with a question of terms: if the soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit, what is the body, i.e., the body of the Mystical Body of Christ? The answer is that the human members, visibly and hierarchically united in the prosecution of a common supernatural end, constitute the Church's body. If we ask further: what specifically causes the members to be thus visibly and organically united or, in other words, what is the essence which formally constitutes the body of the Church--we say, with Bellarmine, that "The form of the Church is not (mere) internal faith but external faith, that is, the confession of faith," which includes profession of a common belief, communication in the same sacraments, and submission to the Roman Pontiff. [37] Therefore, the two concepts, body and soul, are correlative. The body needs to be moved and activated, while the soul furnishes the animation.

Applying this principle to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the function will differ according to the way in which the body of the Church is conceived. If the latter is taken to mean the collectivity of human beings, who are supernaturally lifeless matter until affected by the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost is personally the soul of the Church, and the correlative terms are:

The society of human beings in the Church.
The Spirit of God which animates them.

But if we take the body of the Church to mean not only the human members but their individual and collective share in the process of sanctification, namely their profession of faith and approaching the sacraments, then the internal gifts of the Holy Spirit (which He confers by His presence) are the soul of the Church, and the complementary terms are:

Personal human effort by the members of the Church.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit, animating this effort by His Grace.

There is more than subtlety in the two sets of comparisons, because they involve the whole question of whether a person could belong to the soul of the Church without belonging to the body--a distinction that was often made before the Mystici Corporis of Pius XII, and on which more time will be spent in a later chapter. For the present we need only say that unless a person belongs to the body of the Church by external profession of the true faith, he does not belong to the soul of the Church either. The two are inseparable, since the Church is one indivisible composite of human beings contributing their voluntary effort and the Holy Spirit sanctifying this effort by His grace.

Soul of the Church is the Spirit of Christ. To forestall any confusion between the Head of the Church who is Christ and the soul of the Church which is the Holy Spirit, we should bear in mind that the latter is properly described in revelation as the Spirit of Christ. It was by this Breath of grace that the Son of God anointed His soul in the womb of the Blessed Virgin and came to be called the Messias, or Christ the Anointed One, foretold by the prophets. It was this Spirit which Christ promised to send to those who believe in Him, symbolized in "the rivers of living water" described in St. John. In much the same sense, Paul speaks of Christ as "the spiritual rock" from which all are to drink the Holy Spirit. Moreover the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the Church is to assimilate the members unto the Head, for it is the Spirit which makes us adopted sons after the image of the only-begotten natural Son of God. "This Spirit Christ merited for us on the Cross by the shedding of His own blood; this Spirit He bestowed on the Church for the remission of sins, when He breathed upon the Apostles; and while Christ alone received this Spirit without measure, to the members of the Mystical Body He is imparted only according to the measure of the giving of Christ from Christ's own fulness." [38] By all these titles, therefore, the soul of the Mystical Body is denominated the Spirit of Christ, to the degree that more than once St. Paul used the terms indiscriminately. "You are not carnal but spiritual," he tells the Romans, "if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” [39] Or even more boldly, Ignatius of Antioch closed his letter to the Magnesians with the expression, "Trusting that you may remain in the harmony of God, possessed of the Spirit of union which is Jesus Christ." [40]

Mystical Body as the Whole Christ. The consequences which follow on the Church's animation by the Spirit of Christ are manifold. Since the Spirit is indivisible, there is numerically one and the same Spirit dwelling in the Head and members, who is present entire in the whole Body, and entire in each individual. The Spirit is the supernatural principle of life in the Head and the organism; and yet active with more or less intensity in the Body according to the health of the different members. He is also the source whence weakened members are healed and the agent by which new members are incorporated. Comparable to the faculties of the soul, the Spirit operates through invisible powers to impart faith to the members, and infuse hope and charity. Once cut off from the Body, the Spirit (no less than the soul in man) does not follow the severed member, and although He is whole in the members and whole in the major organs, the Spirit normally acts on the lower by means of the higher to produce an organism that is unified twice over; once by its common possession of a divine principle of unity and once again by the marvelous contingency of every part on every other, not excluding the dependence of the Head on the least of its members.

As a result of this complex-relation of Christ and the Mystical Body, the Church is often described in Christian tradition as simply Christ in the totality of His mystical being, following the example of the Savior who called out to Saul on his way to Damascus, "Why do you persecute me?" It is in this sense that St. Paul speaks of the Church as "the fulness of Christ," either actively as the complement or fulfillment of His work of redemption, or passively as the receptacle of His graces. This is also the key to that mysterious passage in his letter to the Ephesians, where he speaks of "building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to perfect manhood, to the nature measure of the fulness of Christ,” [41] In context, the perfect man is the mystical Christ, composed of Head and members, and destined for an ever growing perfection whose limit will not be attained. If the Body, in its members, corresponded fully to the Head, the Church would be a perfect man, in the same sense that nothing of the perfection which she can possess would be lacking to her. What imperfections exist, do not come from the Head, which has the plenitude of sanctity; they proceed from the body of the Mystical Body, that aspires and tends to perfection without ever reaching the highest summit. As a model and standard for the members, St. Paul proposes "the mature measure of the fulness of Christ," that is to say, the person of the glorified Savior, in that fulness of perfection which the Apostle compares to the age of maturity and which, by definition, excludes any further development. [42]

Christ the Savior of the Mystical Body

The last title by which the Mystical Body belongs to Christ is the fact that, He saved it from sin and damnation by His death on the Cross Actually the redemption enters into every phase of the Church's existence already considered, from the first origins on Calvary to the pleroma or fulness of Christ to which she aspires under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

There is, however, one aspect of Christ's redemptive work that needs to be clarified, namely, that although the redemption was objectively completed on the Cross the salvific process in its application to us is still going on, notably through the renewal of the oblation of Calvary in the sacrifice of the Mass. It is the teaching of the Church that the sacrifice of the altar is not an empty commemoration but the actual renewal of Calvary. "There is one and the same Victim; the same Person now offers it by the ministry of His priests, who then offered Himself on the Cross, the manner of offering being different." [43] In terms of the Mystical Body, several consequences follow. Since the members of His Church are so intimately united with Him that, in His own words, Christ identifies them with Himself, when He offers the sacrifice of the Mass through the hands of His priests, there is a true sense in which "the whole Church can rightly be said to offer up the Victim with Christ.” [44] Furthermore, since the whole purpose of repeating the sacrifice of the Cross on the altar is to distribute the blessings of Calvary, the more closely united are the members of the Mystical Body with their head, the more of His redemptive graces will they receive. And finally, with every Mass offered there is, as it were, a spontaneous increase in the Church's sanctity and a closer approximation of that perfection to which the Mystical Body in its members is constantly tending.

Chapter VII - References

  1. Pius XII, "Mystici Corporis Christi," Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 35, p. 204.

  2. John 17:16-18, 22-23.

  3. Luke 10:16; Matthew 25:40; John 17:20-21, 6:57-58.

  4. Mystici Corporis, p. 205.

  5. Clement of Alexandria, "Paedagogus," MPG 8, 299.

  6. St. Augustine, "Enarrationes in Psalmos," (passim) e.g., MPL 36, 461 and 668.

  7. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Septem Verbis, Lib. II, cap. 12.

  8. St. Leo I, "Sermo 68," MPL 54, 374.

  9. Mystici Corporis, p. 206.

  10. Ibid., p. 207.

  11. Ibid., pp. 207-208.

  12. Colossians 1:18.

  13. Mystici Corporis, p. 208.

  14. Ibid., p. 209.

  15. John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity, New York, 1954, p. 315.

  16. Mystici Corporis, p. 210.

  17. Judgment of the Roman Rota, for the canonization of St. Ignatius, approved by Pope Gregory XV, Monumenta Ignatiana, vol. II, Madrid, 1918, p. 984.

  18. a. Mystici Corporis, p. 210.
    b. Winfred E. Garrison, A Protestant Manifesto, New York, 1952, pp. 176-177.

  19. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, "The Antichrist," St. Louis, 1953, vol. III, p. 466.

  20. St. Robert Bellarmine, Commentarium Lovaniense ad Summam Theologicam, unpublished manuscript, quoted by Sebastian Tromp, "De Mystico Jesu Christi Corpore," Rome, 1948, p. 106.

  21. Mystici Corporis, p. 211.

  22. Denzinger, 960.

  23. Mystici Corporis, pp. 211-212.

  24. Ibid., p. 213.

  25. Ibid., p. 214.

  26. I Corinthians 11:1.

  27. St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Philadelphians," The Apostolic Fathers, New York, 1947, p. 116.

  28. St. Augustine, "Sermo 142," MPL 38, 783-784.

  29. Mystici Corporis, p. 215.

  30. St. Thomas, Compendium Theologiae, cap. 214.

  31. John 1:14, 16.

  32. St. Thomas, op. cit., cap. 215.

  33. Ibid.

  34. St. Thomas, In Joannem, cap. 1, lectio 10.

  35. St. Augustine, "Sermo 268," MPL 38, 1232-1233.

  36. Leo XIII, Encyclical "Divinum Illud," Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. XXIX, p. 650.

  37. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Ecclesia Militante, cap. 10.

  38. Mystici Corporis, p. 219.

  39. Romans 8:1-10.

  40. St. Ignatius of Antioch, "To the Magnesians," The Apostolic Fathers, New York, 1947, p. 101.

  41. Ephesians 4:13.

  42. Fernand Prat, The Theology of St. Paul, London, 1933, vol. I, pp. 295-299.

  43. Denzinger, 940.

  44. Pius XII, Encyclical "Mediator Dei," Nov. 20, 1947, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XXXIX, p. 556.

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