The Failure to Understand the Church as both Institution and Humanity

One of the most interesting theoretical problems, however, which indeed is at the basis of [the German churches' cooperation with the Nazi government]— the intellectual slovenliness and sloppiness, as [Fr. Alfred] Delp called it— is the fact that there is no worked-out idea of the nature of the church, neither in the Evangelical nor in the Catholic Churches, and that the relationship of the church members to their humanity is not the object of theoretical investigations. That was not always so.

And so I will now present to you a text from which you will see how one spoke about such things in better times, when spiritual heads were still dominant in the church. For this purpose I will read out to you Thomas Aquinas's section on the corpus mysticum in the Summa theologiae, third part, chapter 8, article 3. It is headed "Utrum Christus sit caput omnium hominum," "whether Christ is the head of all men." In the corpus of the article can be read (I am translating it now):

The difference between the natural body of a man and the mystical body of the church [ the ecclesia ] is that the members of a natural body all exist together, whereas members of the mystical body do not. They are not together in their natural existence [ esse naturae ], because the body of the church is made up of people from the beginning to the end of the world. Nor are they all together in grace [ esse gratiae ], because at any given moment there are people who do not have grace then but may have it later on; and there are others who already have it.

So people can be classed as members of the mystical body because of their potentiality, and not merely when they are actually in it. Some members have a potentiality that will never be actuated. Others are eventually actuated, and this in three degrees: the first is by faith, the second by charity on earth, the third by the enjoyment of heaven [ fn ]

Therefore, it is generally to be taken that for the entire time of the world, Christ is the head of all men, but at different degrees. So there now follows the distinctions of degree and the question of the manner in which the heathen and the Jews, particularly the patriarchs of the Old Testament, belong to the corpus mysticum of Christ. The text passages that support the investigation are, first, the [First] Letter to Timothy, chapter 4, verse 10, he is the salvator omnium hominum et maxime fidelium, "the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe"; and the First Letter of John, [chapter 2], verse 2, ipse est propitiatio pro peccatis nostris: [ non pro nostris autem tantum, sed etiam pro totius mundi. - fjw add. ] , "he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

Please note now this definition of what the corpus mysticum means in comparison with later interpretations. Let us first be clear what is proposed here: Christ is the head of all men, not only of the members of the church. Humanity is not disavowed by a thinker like Thomas. What happens to the nonmember of the church happens to a member of the corpus mysticum of Christ, just as much as what happens to a church member.

. . . . What is the significance of the appearance of Christ and of his incarnation as a historical event? It means that, in the sense of Thomas, the presence under God, and the presence of God in the world, which up to then was available to men only in a profoundly ineffable form, was differentiated through the incarnation and became historically clear. Thus the whole of mankind can become retrospectively included in the incarnation as a historic event, and all of mankind is a member of the corpus mysticum in the sense of inclusion in God, as he realizes himself in history. And this holds similarly for the entire future.

As opposed to the philosophic heights of the understanding of the problematic, there always arise the concrete practical problems. For the churches are organizations in the world— in relation to the appearance of Christ in historical reality —and therefore tend to set themselves up as interest groups and legal persons, which is quite all right.

It is not all right, however, that the Catholic Church and other churches that have branched off from it, through schism and separations of other kinds, then set themselves up as the one and only corpus mysticum, as if the rest of mankind did not belong to it. So, since the Middle Ages, we have in theology a strange tension running parallel to the development of the nation states, where, in the idea of the corpus mysticum, the church understood as a social and legal institution predominates over the universal conception of the corpus mysticum as formulated from a philosophical height by Thomas.

From this tension arise the peculiarities of the churches in the contemporary situation, which in Germany are much more dangerous than in other countries. Because in other countries the church people and the clergy belong to a people's society, or rather, to a national society, that, moreover, is civilized through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and so on. These civilizational factors are missing in German society. Hence the particular danger that membership in the church, which, theologically, we need not further speak about here, is somehow misunderstood as a special position opposed to the rest of mankind, as if the rest of mankind did not belong to mankind, and as if that belonging to mankind were a privilege of church membership. . . .

So, because of the tension I have just characterized, there is this ghettoizing tendency that exists between the church as institution and the church in Thomas's sense, the ecclesia as corpus mysticum, which comprises the whole of mankind from the beginning to the end. For Germany this is a particularly dangerous tension on account of the miserable intellectual and philosophical level that prevails in this country.

FN. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae , vol. 49, The Grace of Christ (3a, 7-15], trans. Liam G. Walsh (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 61-62. BACK TO TEXT

FN. [by fjw]. But see: recent Church pronouncement, DOMINUS IESUS footnoted at the end of the fifth part on this topic.

CW VOL 31,
Descent into the Ecclesiastical Abyss
The Catholic Church,
pp 201-203.