Mystici corporis Christi

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Pope Pius XII

Mystici corporis Christi (29 June 1943) is a papal encyclical issued by Pope Pius XII during World War II, on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. [1] It is one of the more important encyclicals of Pope Pius XII, because of its topic, the Church, and because its Church concept was fully included in Lumen gentium but also strongly debated during and after Vatican II. The Church is called body, because it is a living entity; it is called the body of Christ, because Christ is its Head and Founder; it is called mystical body, because it is neither a purely physical nor a purely spiritual unity, but supernatural. [2]

Pope Pius XII 260th Pope of the Catholic Church

Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, was head of the Catholic Church from 2 March 1939 to his death. Before his election to the papacy, he served as secretary of the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, papal nuncio to Germany, and Cardinal Secretary of State, in which capacity he worked to conclude treaties with European and Latin American nations, most notably the Reichskonkordat with Nazi Germany.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Roman Church. At that time, the word could be used for a letter sent out by any bishop. The word comes from Late Latin encyclios.


The encyclical followed the commencement of Nazi Germany's programs of "euthanasia" of the disabled, and race-based murders of Jews and other minorities, and is therefore significant for its reiteration of Church teachings against racism and the killings of people with disabilities.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

The Holocaust Genocide of the European Jews by Nazi Germany and other groups

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews—around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—between 1941 and 1945. Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event during the Holocaust era, in which Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered other groups, including Slavs, the Roma, the "incurably sick", political and religious dissenters such as communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and gay men. Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises to over 17 million.

Theological background

The encyclical builds on a theological development in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, France, Germany and England, which all re-discovered the ancient Pauline concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. [3] Pius XII utilized these new discoveries and authoritatively added his directions to them, as the Dutch Jesuit Sebastian Tromp documented. [4] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Raimondo Spiazzi and Mariano Cordovani, all professors at the Pontificium Athenaeum Internationale Angelicum, the future Dominican Order-affiliated Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, had a great influence on the drafting of the encyclical. [5]

Italy republic in Southern Europe

Italy, officially the Italian Republic, is a country in Southern Europe. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Italy shares open land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia and the enclaved microstates San Marino and Vatican City, as well as a maritime border with Croatia. Italy covers an area of 301,340 km2 (116,350 sq mi) and has a largely temperate seasonal and Mediterranean climate. With around 61 million inhabitants, it is the fourth-most populous EU member state and the most populous country in Southern Europe.

France Republic with mainland in Europe and numerous oversea territories

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.3 million. France, a sovereign state, is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Germany Federal parliamentary republic in central-western Europe

Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany, is a country in Central and Western Europe, lying between the Baltic and North Seas to the north, and the Alps, Lake Constance and the High Rhine to the south. It borders Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, Austria and Switzerland to the south, France to the southwest, and Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to the west.

According to the encyclical, the Church has two aspects: one visible and one invisible. Those who live under the visible representative of Christ have full membership. Further, the relationship of the faithful and Christ is mystical, not physical. The faithful, through their faith, hope, and love, are united with Christ in the Church. Christ loves and lives in the faithful. Christ and the Church as the whole Church is made alive by the Holy Spirit, which also guides each of the faithful, and as such is an important element of the body of Christ. The unification with Christ takes place in the Holy Eucharist. Within the Church, there does not exist a bifurcated active and passive element (e.g. leadership and lay people), but rather all members of the Church are called to work on the perfection of the body of Christ.

New role of lay people

The encyclical teaches, that while lay people animate human society, the Successors of the Apostles (the Catholic Bishops) are to be responsible in matters of religion and morals. Until this encyclical of Pius XII, Church was considered as societas perfecta, a perfect society, consisting primarily of Pope, bishops, clergy and the religious. Mystici Corporis includes lay people as equal and important elements of the body of Christ. The faithful are united with Christ in the Church. Christ loves and lives in them. Christ is alive through the Holy Spirit.

Apostles follower of Jesus Christ tasked with the spreading of the holy gospel

In Christian theology and ecclesiology, apostles, particularly the Twelve Apostles, were the primary disciples of Jesus. During the life and ministry of Jesus in the 1st century AD, the apostles were his closest followers and became the primary teachers of the gospel message of Jesus.

A bishop is an ordained, consecrated, or appointed member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight.

Apostles and bishops

The encyclical states that Christ, while still on earth, instructed by precept, counsel and warnings "in words that shall never pass away, and will be spirit and life" [7] to all men of all times. He conferred a triple power on His Apostles and their successors, to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness, making this power, defined by special ordinances, rights and obligations, the fundamental law of the whole Church. [8] God governs directly and guides personally the Church which He founded. Pius quoted Proverbs 21:1 noting that God reigns within the minds and hearts of men, and bends and subjects their wills to His good pleasure, even when rebellious. [9]

Mystici corporis requests the faithful to love their Church and to always see Christ in her, especially in the old and sick members. They must accustom themselves to see Christ Himself in the Church. For it is Christ who lives in His Church, and through her, teaches, governs, and sanctifies; it is Christ also who manifests Himself differently in different members of His society.

If the faithful strive to live in a spirit of lively faith, they will not only pay due honor and reverence "to the more exalted members" of this Mystical Body, especially those who according to Christ’s mandate will have to render an account of our souls, but they will take to their hearts those members who are the object of our Savior’s special love: the weak, the wounded, and the sick who are in need of material or spiritual assistance; children whose innocence is so easily exposed to danger in these days; and finally the poor, in helping whom is recognized the very person of Jesus Himself as a perfect model of love for the Church. [10]

Errors and condemnations

In brief, this document which sees the Church as the one and only means of salvation, has been challenged by the Documents of Vatican II, especially Lumen Gentium, where we read in 1,8, that the true Church of Christ subsists in this church, but elements can also be found in other Christian Churches. As a result, the view of the Roman Catholic Church as the ONLY means of salvation has been challenged and people seem to more and more identify with the latter rather than the former.

Exclusion on the basis of race or nationality

Murdering disabled people

Forced conversions

Pope Pius XII condemns forced conversions in strong terms. These had been opposed by previous Popes such as Leo XIII, [18] and are in violation of existing Canon Law, the law of the Church. [19] Church membership and conversions must be voluntary. Regarding conversions, "We recognize that this must be done of their own free will; for no one believes unless he wills to believe." [20] Hence they are most certainly not genuine Christians who against their belief are forced to go into a church, to approach the altar and to [21] receive the Sacraments; for the "faith without which it is impossible to please God" [200] is an entirely free "submission of intellect and will." [22]

Mariology of Pope Pius XII

The encyclical concludes with a summary of the mariology of the Pope. The 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX defined the Virgin conceived without sin, as the mother of God and our mother. Pope Pius XII built on this in Mystici corporis: Mary, whose sinless soul was filled with the divine spirit of Jesus Christ above all other created souls, "in the name of the whole human race" gave her consent "for a spiritual marriage between the Son of God and human nature", [25] thus elevating human nature beyond the realm of the purely material. She who, according to the flesh, was the mother of our Head, became mother of all His members. Through her powerful prayers, she obtained that the spirit of our Divine Redeemer, should be bestowed on the newly founded Church at Pentecost. [26]

While the Early Fathers of the Church tended to contrast Eve's disobedience with Mary's fiat at the Annunciation, Pius looked rather to her presence at Calvary where "...she, the second Eve, who, free from all sin, original or personal, and always more intimately united with her Son, offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father for all the children of Adam, sin-stained by his unhappy fall." [27] Pius viewed her compassion there as the basis for her role in redemption. [28]

She is Most Holy Mother of all the members of Christ, and reigns in heaven with her Son, her body and soul refulgent with heavenly glory. [26]

Significance of Mystici corporis Christi

Theological views at the time

Mystici corporis did not receive much attention during the war years but became influential after World War II. It had rejected two extreme views of the Church. [30]

  1. A rationalistic or purely sociological understanding of the Church, according to which she is merely a human organization with structures and activities. The visible Church and its structures do exist but the Church is more, she is guided by the Holy Spirit: "Although the juridical principles, on which the Church rests and is established, derive from the divine constitution given to it by Christ and contribute to the attaining of its supernatural end, nevertheless that which lifts the Society of Christians far above the whole natural order is the Spirit of our Redeemer who penetrates and fills every part of the Church". [31]
  2. An exclusively mystical understanding of the Church is mistaken as well, because a mystical “Christ in us” union would deify its members and mean that the acts of Christians are simultaneously the acts of Christ. The theological concept una mystica persona, one mystical person refers not to an individual relation but to the unity of Christ with the Church and the unity of its members with Him in her. [32]

Relevance to Nazi Germany

Pius' statement of "profound grief" at the murder of the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease... as though they were a useless burden to Society" is a condemnation of the ongoing Nazi euthanasia program, under which disabled Germans were being removed from care facilities and murdered by the state as "life unworthy of life". It built upon the high-profile condemnations offered by the bishop of Munster, Clemens August Graf von Galen and others. It was followed, on 26 September 1943, by an open condemnation by the German Bishops which, from every German pulpit, denounced the killing of "innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped, incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages, and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent". [33]

Secular institutes

The new role of the laity resulted in the foundation of numerous secular institutes with faithful members of all walks of life. Against significant difficulties and opposition from established religious orders, Pius XII issued in 1947 the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia , [34] which, for the first time in Church history, allowed lay people to form their own secular communities, and establish them within a newly established Canon Law framework. The Pope himself used the encyclical to encourage active participation of the laity by addressing a wide variety of groups and professional associations throughout the world.

Controversy at Vatican II

For many years, it was thought that Vatican II had made one significant exception to Mystici corporis. [35] The encyclical of Pope Pius stated that the Body of Christ is the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI quoted Mystici corporis from Pius XII verbatim in his first encyclical Ecclesiam suam : "Consider, then, this splendid utterance of Our predecessor: 'The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, a doctrine revealed originally from the lips of the Redeemer Himself...'" Pope Paul VI continues: "We wish to take up this invitation and to repeat it in this encyclical, for We consider it timely and urgent and relevant to the needs of the Church in our day." [36]

The Council defined that the Church subsists in (subsistit in) the Body of Christ. [37] This seemed to some theologians to relativize the identity of the one Catholic Church with the Body of Christ. Pope Paul VI, Pope Pius XII and all popes before him have taught complete identity. [38] After some confusion over what subsistit in meant, the Vatican in 2007 clarified its position as being identical with Pope Pius XII. [39] Leading Council theologians like Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac expanded on this. [40]

Ecumenical implications


Protestant theology since Martin Luther always rejected the Catholic view of the Church as one Church with both visible and invisible aspects, and with a Pope as the Successor of St. Peter. It employs instead the interpretation of the Bible as the sole source of orthodox theology ( Sola Scriptura ), yet its biblical interpretation of the mystical Body is different from the Catholic Church's doctrine as stated in Mystici corporis Christi: The Church receives all the graces from Christ its singular head prior to active participation. The doctrines of the mystical unity of the Catholic Church through engagement with the sacraments is thus rejected by most Protestants. However, Mystici corporis uses a biblical base for its teaching, and thus contributed to ecumenical dialogue with Protestantism, while still reaffirming that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. As well, in recent years, some Protestant theologians have returned to the doctrine of the "mystical body of Christ" afresh, often following the thought of Henri de Lubac in sympathetic fashion (Milbank, Suspended Middle, 2005; Boersma, Sacramental Ontology, 2009), and others have embraced the doctrine in a way which examines its development over time, and the call to ecclesiastical unity that it issues (Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 2010).

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox churches share a tradition-based sacramental theology with the Catholic Church. Mystici corporis, establishing equality of all apostles under the Successor of Peter, instead of a supposed “papalist” Societas Perfecta , was viewed quite positively; even so, not all aspects were shared by all. [41] Pope Pius recognized, and often criticized, an over-centralized papacy and related Church laws and regulations, as an obstacle to relations with the Eastern Orthodox churches. After issuing Mystici corporis, the Pope ordered a reform of the CIC Orientalis, the Canon Law for the Eastern Catholic Churches united with Rome. In its new constitutions, Eastern Patriarchs were made much more autonomous [42] with regard to Eastern marriage law, [43] civil law, [44] laws governing religious associations, [45] property law [45] and other laws. These reforms were intended to provide for more independence to the Eastern Catholic Churches, establishing them as equal within the mystical body of Christ [8] and supplying a model for Eastern Orthodox churches if they decide to reunite with the Catholic Church.

Highlights of the encyclical

See also


  1. Mystici corporis Christi
  2. AAS 1943, 193
  3. La Cristologia in Italia 1930-1990, Sergio de Marchi, Piemme, 1994, P. Parente, De Verbo Incarnato, 1933, Hofmann, Der Kirchenbegriff des hl. Augustinus, München 1933, H. Käppeli, Zur Lehre des hl. Thomans von Aquin vom Corpus Christi Mysticum, Freiburg, 1931, E Mersch, Le Corps Mystique du Christ 2 Vol. Paris, 1936, A E Rawloson, Corpus Christi Mysticum, Berlin, 1931, Robinson, H Wheeler, The Cross of the Servant, London, 1926
  4. Sebastian Tromp: Annotations ad enc MC Periodica 32, 1943, pp 377-401.
  5. Kommentar zur Enzyklika "Mystici corporis" von Dr. David Berger (Die Tagespost, Nr. 76, 28.06.2003): "Innovation verlangt Treue zum Wesentlichen - Die Kirche ist übernatürlich und sichtbar zugleich - Vor sechzig Jahren erschien die Enzyklika 'Mystici corporis' von Papst Pius XII"; "Einsicht", Romisch-Katolische Zeitschrift, 34 Jajrgang, Nummer 2, Februar 2004, Muenchen, 40. "Bei der Abfassung der Enzyklika standen Pius Xu. bedeutende Gelehrte wie P. Hürth S.J. und die Dominikaner Garrigou-Lagrange, Spiazzi und Cordovani zur Seite, besonders aber der Jesuit Sebastian Tromp, der die Enzyklika nicht nur durch wichtige ekklesiologische Forschungen indirekt vorbereitete, sondern auch federführend an deren Redaktion beteiligt war.
  6. Pius XII, Discourse, February 20, 1946:AAS 38 (1946) 149; quoted by John Paul II, CL 9.
  7. Cf. John VI, 63.
  8. 1 2 Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 38
  9. ."Proverbs, XXI, 1Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 39
  10. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 93
  11. 1 2 Cf. Rom., XII, 5; I Cor., XII, 25.
  12. 1 2 Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 96
  13. Cf. Luke, X, 33-37
  14. Cf. Luke, VI, 27-35; Matth., V, 44-48.
  15. Cf. Eph., III, 18.
  16. Cf. Decree of the Holy Office, 2 December 1940: A.A.S., 1940, p. 553.
  17. Cf. Gen., IV, 10 Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 94
  18. Cf. Leo XIII, Immortale Dei: A.S.S., XVIII, pp. 174-175
  19. Cod. Iur. Can., c. 1351
  20. Cf. August., In Ioann. Ev. tract., XXVI, 2: Migne, P.L. XXX, 1607.
  21. Cf. August., In Ioann. Ev. tract., XXVI, 2: Migne, P.L. XXX, 1607
  22. Vat. Counc. Const. de fide Cath., Cap. 3
  23. Cf. Leo XIII, Immortale Dei: A.S.S., XVIII, pp. 174-175; Cod. Iur. Can., c. 1351
  24. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 104
  25. Office for Holy Week
  26. 1 2 Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 110
  27. Pope Pius XII. Mystici corporis Christi, §110, June 29, 1943, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  28. Jelly, Frederic M., Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998 ISBN   9781579101954
  29. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici çorporis Christi, §111
  30. Heribert Mühlen, Una Mystica Persona, München, 1967, p.51
  31. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 63
  32. S Tromp, Caput influit sensum et motum, Gregorianum, 1958, pp353-366
  33. Richard J. Evans; The Third Reich at War; 2008 pp.529-30
  34. Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, Vatican city, 1947
  35. Lumen gentium, 7
  36. Ecclesiam suam, 31
  37. Lumen Gentium, 1,7.
  38. Otto Hermann Pesch, das 2. Vatikanische Konzil, Echter, 1995, 219 ff
  39. see Sebastian Tromp and "Subsistit in" in Lumen Gentium for details
  40. Josef Ratzinger, Das neue Volk Gottes, Düsseldorf 1969, pp225-245; Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum, Einsiedeln, 1969
  41. At the height of the Cold War, there were notable divergences of view between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Western-based patriarchs
  42. CIC Orientalis, 1957
  43. CIC Orientalis, 1949
  44. CIC Orientalis, 1950
  45. 1 2 CIC Orientalis, 1952
  46. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 11
  47. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 78
  48. 1 2 Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 62

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Ecclesiam suam is an encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Catholic Church given at St. Peter's, Rome, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 1964, the second year of his Pontificate. It is considered an important document, which identified the Catholic Church with the Body of Christ. A later Council document Lumen gentium stated that the Church subsists in the Body of Christ, raising questions as to the difference between is and subsists in.

A number of Christian denominations assert that they alone represent the one true church – the church to which Jesus gave his authority in the Great Commission. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox communion and the Assyrian Church of the East each understands itself as the one and only original church. The claim to the title of the "one true church" relates to the first of the Four Marks of the Church mentioned in the Nicene Creed: "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church". The concept of schism somewhat moderates the competing claims between some churches – one can potentially repair schism. For example, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches each regard the other as schismatic rather than heretical.

Corpus Mysticum: Essai sur L'Eucharistie et l’Église au moyen âge was a book written by Henri de Lubac, published in Paris in 1944. The book aimed to, in de Lubac's words, retrieve the doctrine that "the Church makes the eucharist and the eucharist makes the church".