Corpus Mysticum as Body Politic?

Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum is a refreshing text. For one, it offers a genealogy of the Reformation that delves bravely into the Middle Ages. Those who identify as Protestants will be relieved that the Jesuit scholar does not let Catholics off the hook. De Lubac finds fault with the papal theologians of the thirteenth and fourteenth century who encapsulate the mystical body of Christ (Eucharistic and ecclesial) in juridical and political terms (129-132, trans. 114-116). Of the Reformation, de Lubac writes,

“What started off as the simple articulation of a power struggle, once it had begun to dissolve the social edificie of Christendom, finally played a role in the breaking up of the Church itself. An exaggerated attempt had been made to assimilate the ‘mystical body’ with the ‘visible body’, chiefly to the benefit of the most exterior element of the Church in its most contingent forms — that is the power claimed by the papacy over temporal matters. This lack of prudence would exact a heavy price. Beyond any of these abuses, the objections of the likes of Wycliffe, Jan Huss, Luther or Calvin would assail Catholicism itself, and the inverted excesses of their ‘spiritualist’ reaction would lead to the total dissociation of the mystical body of Christ from the visible body of the Church. In its own turn, and in spite of more than one notable exception, Catholic theology itself would not avoid experiencing the repercussions of such a dissociation. At times it would even seem to accept it” (131-132, trans. 116-117).

Jennifer Rust offers an intriguing exposition of the ways de Lubac’s work is appropriated by Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 classic The King’s Two Bodies. Scholars have increasingly understood how Kantorowicz’s book engages sub rosa with the authoritarian political theology of Carl Schmitt. Rust proposes that Kantorowicz’s use of de Lubac against Schmitt is disingenuous — Kantorowicz “ransacks” de Lubac:

“Kantorowicz himself strategically misapprehends crucial elements of de Lubac’s account as he argues that the mystical steadily turns into the fictional in medieval political theology. For de Lubac, as a Jesuit theologian, is emphatically not guided by an impulse to reveal the fictiveness of the corpus mysticum, at least in any conventional, secular sense” (104).

For Kantorowicz, the corpus mysticum is a mere metaphor, a “whiff of incense” shaken in the direction of the secular polity. Medieval political theology is exposed as a flimsy cover, a ‘mere fiction’ papering over the emerging secular order. Kantorowicz corroborates the more explicit attack against Schmitt in Erik Peterson’s “Monotheism as a Political Problem“, which argues that fourth-century Arian heresy was the last serious attempt at political theology.

De Lubac’s idea of the mysteriousness of the Church offers a different way to push back against Schmitt, one that affirms the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council whom Schmitt decried. Rust draws out how, for Schmitt, the Church is a complexio oppositorum, embracing antitheses and paradox:

“In [Schmitt’s] compexio oppositorum, we could see a concept akin to the paradoxical, dynamic character of de Lubac’s corpus mysticum. Schmitt, however, tends to short-circuit the potential of the complexio in favor of reinforcing a vision of the church that emphasizes the singularity of hierarchical authority” (109).

Does Schmitt reprise the “imprudence” of the fourteenth century papal theologians? Perhaps the takeaway paradox here is that for the Church to regain a place of authority over temporal matters, Christians must emphasize her dimensions that transcend temporal authority.


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