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Communion of Saints: St. Robert Bellarmine on the Mystical Body of Christ | John A. Hardon, S.J. | Part 2 | Part 1

The Functions and Parts of The Mystical Body

For seven years, starting in 1568, Bellarmine taught theology at Louvain, where he met and successfully routed Michael de Bay, father of Baianism and author of the pernicious theory that man can live the life of friendship with God even before Baptism and without the remission of sins. During this time he also preached every week at the Cathedral to a mixed congregation of Catholics and non-Catholics, some of whom came all the way from Elizabethan England just to hear him speak. About a hundred of these discourses have come down to us, among them a panegyric on Our Lady, given on the Feast of her Nativity, in which the Saint recalled that this was the anniversary of another sermon preached not far away by Martin Luther, when he blasphemously attacked the sanctity of the Mother of God, telling his audience that: "She has no more intercessory power with God than you or I, because she is no more holy than we."

Bellarmine launched into what perhaps the most bitter attack on any opponent that can be found in all his extant writings. Best of all, though, is the occasion which this defense of Mary's sanctity gave him to reveal her transcendent position in the Mystical Body of her Divine Son.

"The Church," he explains, "is a most beautifully organized and stately Body of which Christ, the God-man, is the Head. 'For the Lord hath made Him Head over all the Church,' as the Apostle says. What is the Head? It is the principle and governing force of the Body. Christ is, therefore, the Head because, as He tells us, 'I am the principle who speak with you.' In what way is the head superior to the other members of the body? In this that, while the rest of the body is possessed of only one bodily sense and that the most ignoble, the head is gifted with all the senses, including the sense of touch. Christ is, therefore, the Head in whom are the eyes of His providence, by which He watches over us; the ears of His mercy, by which He listens to our prayers; the nostrils of His justice, by which after death He will separate the good from the wicked and who have lived among us; and the palate of experience, by which He tries the virtue and fidelity of the least and the greatest of us.

"What is the special function of the head? To give sense and movement to the other members. So, Christ is the Head because He freely gives life and movement, that is faith and charity, and all the virtues, to the faithful members who compose His Body. And although at times and to a limited degree He permits, or rather commits, to mere man the function of certain senses (like the sense of sight to teachers, of speech to preachers, of sight and smell and hearing to pastors), yet He always reserves to Himself the faculty of giving life and motion, which is the special prerogative of the head of every body." [8]

The Holy Spirit in The Mystical Body

Anticipating by three centuries the doctrine of the Mystici Corporis in which Pope Pius XII attributes to the Holy Spirit the invisible principle of life in the Mystical Body, Bellarmine declares: "The Heart, which is in the center of the Body, and which, although itself unseen, mysteriously nourishes the parts that are seen, is the Holy Ghost. For He is not clothed with human flesh and thus made visible, like the Head, who is Christ our Lord. They rant, therefore, who madly assert that Melchisedech or one of the prophets is the Holy Spirit. No, the Spirit of Christ is not visible to human eyes, and yet it is He who governs and feeds and keeps alive the Body of Christ, which is the Catholic Church." [9]

Bellarmine lived in the period of horrible transition from orthodoxy to heresy, when Calvin was teaching the people that there is no priesthood and no hierarchy, when Luther was calling the Pope "Antichrist" and bishops and priests "destroyers of human souls."

But if the Church which Christ established is His Body, this Body must have shoulders, and these shoulders, according to Bellarmine, are the Apostles, and the Roman Pontiffs, bishops and priests who have succeeded them. "We are accustomed to placing burdens on our shoulders," he writes, "and so also Christ has done, by placing the burden of the Church's government on the shoulders of the Apostles and their priestly successors. It follows, therefore, as the Fathers of the Church keep reminding us, that the episcopal office is not so much a dignity as a heavy responsibility. Hence also, the Supreme Pastor of souls, on whom rests the heaviest burden of all, appropriately calls himself the servant of the servants of God." [10]

There are two sorts of enemies with whom the Church has had to contend in the course of her history: pagans and infidels from without, and heretics from within her ranks. Against both of these Christ has endowed His Mystical Body with adequate means of defense. Bellarmine conceives the martyrs and teachers of the Catholic Church as the arms of the Mystical Body. "What are the martyrs," he asks, "but the arms of the Body of Christ—men and women who fight with the sword of God's word and conquer the enemies of His name by the shedding of their blood? And not only the martyrs but the teachers of Christ's doctrine are the arms of His Body. Both are equally necessary to combat the forces of evil that are aligned against the Church. Pagans and the spirit of idolatry are met and defeated by the martyrs; heretics and apostates by the teachers. If the most painful kind of death is martyrdom, the most dangerous kind of life is to teach the truth. To both has Christ promised the reward of victory, not only in heaven, but over their enemies even here on earth." [11]

Protestant Assaults on The Practice of Celibacy

An unfamiliar side of the Protestant revolt was the disgraceful way in which the self-appointed reformers of the Church's morals allied themselves against her doctrine and practice of celibacy. In a rhetorical passage of his "Babylonian Captivity," Luther pleaded with "the prisoners of the monastic life" to break the chains which bound them to their monasteries and to serve Christ with the untrammeled liberty of the children of God. If any of them still hesitated to accept the responsibilities of marriage, he argued, let them remember that this is only a ruse of the devil who would have them reverse the order of divine providence and obey man rather than God.

Against this background it is easier for us to sympathize with the strong feeling to which Bellarmine would give expression whenever he wrote on the subject of virginity. "Virgins," he believes, "are the vitals of the Mystical Body, comparably close to God as the vitals of a physical body are close to the human heart. If only the swillers, gluttons and lechers among the heretics understood how pleasing is virginity in the eyes of God, how 'they follow the Lamb wherever He goes, singing a new song before the throne which no one else can sing' (Apoc., xiv. 3, 4)! If only they would read the promise which the Lord had spoken through the prophet Isaias: 'Let not the eunuch say: "behold I am a dry tree." For thus saith the Lord to the eunuchs; 'I will give to them in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall never perish' (Is, lvi. 3, 4). But the enemies of the Church will not read and will not understand. If only they realized that, by forcing consecrated virgins to marry, they are tearing at the very entrails of the Mystical Body and robbing it of its dearest possession. If only they realized this, I say, they would not so readily debauch the minds of the young with their devilish doctrine about the unchristian character of celibacy." [12]

Mary's Place in The Mystical Body

In a way, the most inspiring feature of Bellarmine's theology of the Mystical Body is the place which he assigns within it to the Blessed Mother of God: "The Head of the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ, and Mary is the neck which joins the Head to its Body." Because she has merited so well of God by her perfect conformity to His holy will, He has decreed that "all the gifts and all the graces which proceed from Christ as the Head should pass through Mary to the Body of the Church. Even the physical body has several members in its other parts—hands, shoulders, arms and feet—but only one head and one neck. So also the Church has many apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins, but only one Head, the Son of God, and one bond between the Head and members, the Mother of God. By virtue of her transcendent merits before God, the Blessed Virgin stands closer than any other creature to the Head of the Mystical Body; it is no exaggeration to say that she unites the Head to the Body, and that therefore through her, before all others, flow the heavenly blessings from the Head, who is Christ, to us who are His members." [13]

The doctrine of the Mystical Body is anything but sterile theology. Among the practical consequences which St. Robert derives from our incorporation in Christ is the motive which it gives for the practice of fraternal charity. The Saints in heaven intercede for the souls in purgatory, he says, because they are both members of the same Body. The souls in purgatory intercede for each other because they are also members of one Body; the Saints and poor souls intercede for us because we are one Body with them, member of member; and we are moved to pray for each other on earth, to ask for favors from the Saints in heaven, and to pray for the souls in purgatory because "together with them we form one Church and one Body, united by the bond of the same charity in the Kingdom of Christ." [14]


[1] Mystici Corporis, English Translation (American Press, 1943), p. 24.
[2] De Ecclesia Militante, lib. III, cap. 7.
[3] Ibid.
[4] De Eucharistia, lib. VI, cap. 8.
[5] De Conciliis, lib. III, cap. 10.
[6] Mystici Corporis, p. 12.
[7] De Ecclesia Militante, lib. III, cap. 7.
[8] Concio xlii de Nativitate B.V.M.
[9] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Catholic Faith.

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Father John Hardon, S.J. (b. June 18th, 1914 - d. December 30, 2000) was the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine. He was ordained on his 33rd birthday, June 18th, 1947 at West Baden Springs, Indiana. Father Hardon was a member of the Society of Jesus for 63 years and an ordained priest for 52 years. Father Hardon held a Masters degree in Philosophy from Loyola University and a Doctorate in Theology from Gregorian University in Rome. He taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University in Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine at St. John's University in New York. A prolific writer, he authored over forty books, including The Catholic Catechism, Religions of the World, Protestant Churches of America, Christianity in the Twentieth Century, Theology of Prayer, The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan, History And Theology Of Grace, With Us Today: On the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and The Treasury Of Catholic Wisdom, which he edited.

In addition, he was actively involved with a number of organizations, such as the Institute on Religious Life, Marian Catechists, Eternal Life and Inter Mirifica, which publishes his catechetical courses. For more about Fr. Hardon, visit this page at Dave Armstrong’s website.

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