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

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Shortly after his defection from Rome, Johann Döllinger bitterly reproached the First Vatican Council with "doing nothing but defining the private opinions of a single man—Cardinal Robert Bellarmine." The accusation is false but suggestive, because it leads us to investigate the teaching of St. Robert on the organization of the Catholic Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Most of the Council's business had to deal with the origin and nature of the one true Church. Moreover, Bellarmine's ecclesiology was the main source from which the Fathers of the Council drew their decrees and definitions. Consequently, with the current interest even among non-Catholics in the Church of Christ as the Mystical Body, we should not overlook what St. Robert Bellarmine has to say about a subject in which the Church herself considers him the outstanding authority.

Pope Pius XII, in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis, confirms this authority when he quotes St. Robert to support his explanation of why the social Body of the Church should be honored with the name of Christ. "As Bellarmine notes with acumen and accuracy," the Pope says, "this naming of the Body of Christ is not to be explained solely by the fact that Christ must be called the Head of His Mystical Body, but also by the fact that He so sustains the Church, and so in a sense lives in the Church, that it is, as it were, another Christ." [1] So much for an apologetic of Bellarmine's qualifications. What follows is a synthesis of his doctrine on the Mystical Body taken from his sermons and controversies, which, it is hoped, will help to amplify several points of detail which the Mystici Corporis only suggests but otherwise does not develop or dwell upon.

The Mystical Body of Christ Is the Catholic Church

It is significant that Bellarmine went out of his way to emphasize what seems so obvious to us—that the Mystical Body of Christ is also the established Church of Christ. Until his time, there were relatively few Christians not in communion with Rome who claimed that their organization was the Body of Christ of which St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "You are the Body of Christ, member for member" (I Cor., xii. 27). But with the advent of Luther and Calvin the situation changed. On the one hand, they preached an invisible Church founded on faith and predestination; on the other hand, they called their Church the Body of Christ. This was a new idea and challenge to traditional Catholic theology.

The Mystical Body of Christ, the predestinarians argued, is not unlike His tangible physical Body. And since the whole physical Body of Christ is in heaven and glorified with all its component parts, it follows that the Mystical Body should also arrive at heavenly glory in all its individual members. The statement looks harmless enough until we examine its implications. If every member of the Mystical Body is going to be saved and the Church of Christ is the Body, then the only members of the Church are those whom God has eternally decreed should enter heaven. Everyone else is a putative member only, deceived by God and deceiving himself that he is even a Christian, much less a part of the Mystical Body.

"My first reaction to this doctrine," Bellarmine observes, "is that the opposition has pushed the analogy between the mystical and physical Bodies of Christ far beyond the limits ever intended for them by the Apostle. They are certainly alive in general outline, but not in every detail. And besides, even the physical Body of Christ entered heaven and was glorified only in its formal constituents, but not in all its natural parts, many of which were lost and changed with the passage of time, as we notice happens in our own bodies.

So, it is correct enough to say that the whole Mystical Body will be saved in its constitutive elements, inasmuch as every class in the Catholic Church—apostles, prophets, teachers, confessors and virgins—will be represented among the saved. It is not true, however, that all its material elements, that is, every numerical member of the Mystical Body, will finally attain to salvation." [2]

Calvinists and The Mystical Body

Another argument, of the Calvinists particularly, was that the only Church of which Christ may be said to be the Head is the one which He will eventually save and "set before Him on the Day of Judgment—glorious and without spot or wrinkle," as described by the Apostle in his Epistle to the Ephesians. However, since only the predestined will be saved and glorified, only they are properly to be considered members of the Church of Christ.

St. Robert answers: "It all depends on how you understand the expression, 'His Church.' If it is taken to mean that Christ is Head only of that part of 'His Church' which He will save, then the proposition is false. Christ is Head of the whole Mystical Body, in spite of the tragic fact that certain people who are now its members, will be lost for all eternity. But if 'His Church' is understood to include the whole body of the faithful as distinguished from the societies of unbelievers, then the proposition is true, while the conclusion deduced from it is false. For although some members of this Church will not be saved, it is wrong to conclude that therefore Christ does not save His Church, of which He is the Head." [3]

However, Bellarmine does not limit his concept of the Mystical Body to the visible Church on earth. The Mystical Body of Christ is composed of three "Churches"—the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. He has as little sympathy with those who denied membership in the Body of Christ to the souls in purgatory and the Saints in heaven, as he had with anyone who restricted its membership to the predestined and elect or extended it to those who were united only by a common, internal faith in Christ.

Bellarmine Defends Honoring the Saints

In his defense of the Holy Eucharist against the Calvinists, St. Robert had to answer some of their stock charges on the traditional custom of offering the Holy Sacrifice in honor of the Saints. He explains that the Protestant bias against this practice arises form two fundamental errors in their theology: one a misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine, where they claim that we offer the Mass as an act of adoration to the Saints instead of to God; the other is an unwarranted limitation of membership in the Mystical Body. "The practice of offering Holy Mass to honor the Saints," he says, "is especially appropriate as a public expression of our belief in the Communion of Saints. The Sacrifice of the physical Body of Christ is an oblation of the corporate Mystical Body of Christ. Moreover, since we do not hesitate to mention the names of living persons, such as the Pope and bishop, in the ritual of the Mass, why should we fail to remember those of the faithful departed who are in heaven or in purgatory, when all of them belong to the same Body of the Lord? According to St. Augustine, there is no better way of fulfilling the one great purpose for which the Eucharistic Sacrifice was instituted, than that it might symbolize the universal sacrifice in which the whole Mystical Body of Christ —the whole regenerated City of God—is offered by the hands of the great High Priest to the glory of His Heavenly Father. Once we recognize the Saints, no less than we, are organically united to the Mystical Body, it becomes not only proper but necessary that their memory should be recalled during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass." [4]

Membership in The Mystical Body

In general, however, when Bellarmine speaks of the Mystical Body, he has in mind only the first of its three branches, the Church Militant—or, in other words, the visible organization of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, in treating the delicate question of occult infidels, he refutes the doctrine of Calvin who held that, if a baptized person has lost the virtue of faith, in spite of his external profession of belief and conformity with Christian practice he is no longer a member of the organic Body of Christ. "It is certainly true," he admits, "that a sincere faith and not its mere external profession is required if we are to be internally united to the Body of Christ, which is the Church . . . . But even the man who makes only an outward profession along with the rest of the faithful is a true member, albeit a dry and dead member, of the Body of the Church." [5]

It follows, therefore, that the Mystical Body of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, whose members are all those who have been baptized and who at least externally practice and profess the true faith. Commentators on the Mystici Corporis make special note of the fact that, after centuries of controversy on the subject, the Pope has authoritatively approved Bellarmine's doctrine on the minimum essentials for membership in the Mystical Body—which reads like a paraphrase from the third book of St. Robert's De Conciliis. In the words of Pope Pius XII, "only those are really to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith and have not unhappily withdrawn from Body-unity, or for grave faults been excluded by legitimate authority. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one Body." [6]

Sinners as Members of The Mystical Body

John Wyclif, and after him the Protestants in general, allowed that all the justified in the state of grace, and only they, are members of the Mystical Body. Even Catholic theologians like de Soto and Cano, when they came to explain how sinners are members of the Body of Christ, gave them analogous membership and nothing more. They admitted that baptized persons in the state of sin may be called "the faithful" and "Christians," but only in the sense that they are somehow externally attached to the Body of the Church. "Not only the organs and limbs," they argued, "but also bodily secretions, the teeth, the hair, and such like, all belong to the body." Bellarmine refused to accept this view. "If what they say is true, the consequences are impossible. A wicked Pope then is not the Head of the Church, and other bishops, if they are in sin, are also not heads of their respective churches. For the head is not a bodily secretion or the hair, but a member of the body—indeed, its most important member."

"To solve the difficulty, therefore, we have to distinguish two senses in which a member of the body may be understood. It may be taken in the strict sense to designate the member in itself, in its essence and substance as a member. Or it may mean a member of the body in its capacity as a medium of activity through which the body operates. Thus, for example, the eye of a man and the eye of a horse are specifically different as substances or entities because they are radicated specially different souls. But as kinetic instruments they are specifically the same because both have the same end and object of their operation—both being directed to the sensible perception of color.

"An evil bishop, a bad priest, a layman in grievous sin are dead members of the Body of Christ, and therefore not true members, if we understand 'member' in the strict sense of an integral part of a living body. However, these same 'dead members' are very vital members if we consider them as instruments of activity within the Church. So that the Pope and bishops are real heads, the teachers and preachers are real eyes and tongues of the Body of Christ, even when they have fallen from the grace of God. For while it is true that a Christian becomes a living member of this Body through charity, yet in the Providence of God the instruments of operation in the Church are constituted by the power of orders and jurisdiction, which can be obtained and exercised even by a man who is personally an enemy of God.

"Hence the great difference between a physical body, in which a dead member cannot serve as a vital instrument, and the supernatural Mystical Body, where this is not only possible but actually happens. To explain the paradox we should recall that in natural bodies their work depends entirely on the health and soundness of the organs by which they act. But the Mystical Body of Christ can operate independently of the virtue and vitality of its members, because the soul of this Body, which is the Holy Spirit, can function equally through good instruments as through bad, through instruments that are alive as through those which are dead." [7]

Part 1 | Part 2


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