Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and The Church in The Middle Ages

de Lubac, Henry (Cardinal) SJ
SCM Press (2006)
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When I explain that I was brought up a Roman Catholic but am now an English Catholic, the question I am most often asked is whether I believe in transubstantiation, to which my usual reply is to ask whether my questioner knows what it means; as like as not what such people have in mind is some sort of Papist theatrical, the vague shadow of a 16th Century Protestant caricature. But for this the Roman Catholic Church only has itself to blame, having turned a proposed explanation of the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist into a dogma of the "real presence", conflating the how with the what, a development begun in the 9th Century, confirmed at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 following the magisterial Summa of Saint Thomas Aquinas c1225-94), re-confirmed by the post Reformation Council of Trent (1545-63) and not even abandoned by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in spite of the presence there of Cardinal Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) as one of its Aperti, or experts.

Although de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum was completed in 1939 it was not published until 1944 after which he was banished from all teaching at the instigation of the Papacy but was, as noted, reinstated later to such a degree that he was made a Cardinal (without being a Bishop) in 1987 by which time the erstwhile radical had become a conservative.

In a nutshell, what de Lubac says is that whereas in the first millennium of the Church the body of Christ was considered, on the one hand, to be historical and on the other to be sacramental and ecclesial whereas, increasingly after the 9th Century, it was considered on the one hand to be historical and sacramental and, on the other, to be ecclesial; in other words, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, instead of being a symbol of the Church as the body of Christ became the "real presence" of the body of Christ; thus, the term "body of Christ" came to mean the consecrated elements and not, in the line of Pauline and Augustinian theology, the Church. The patristic symbolism of the Eucharist, amongst many other instances of symbolism, became a realistic object. At the same time, though de Lubac only mentions this in passing, the interaction with the Eucharist gradually morphed from being eschatologically collective, embodied in the Church, to being an intensely personal, pietistic experience, often generating excesses, including indulgences which were the result of the development of the individualistic doctrine of purgatory. In turn - and this is my extrapolation, not de Lubac's - made the Reformation more possible because it emphasised the subjective experience and down-played the concept of Church unity embodied in the Sacrament. For him, the Church and the Eucharist are formed by one another day by day; "true" replaced "mystical" in respect of the Sacramental body; and mystical took the place of true in the case of the ecclesial body. What de Lubac has to offer, then, is a doctrine of the Eucharist based on the patristic understanding of the Church as the body of Christ whose unity was preserved by faithful Eucharistic observance.

I hope I have done justice to the book which is, to be honest, is a complete mess. The discussion of numerous theologians from Augustine to Aquinas, largely focused on the 9th-11th Centuries, is frequently jumbled; the key controversialist in this area is Berengar of Tours (999-1088) but his actual thesis is never systematically stated nor explained (he never specifically denied the "real presence"  but he did deny transubstantiation); and the last part of the book is devoted to a lengthy explanation of the theory of Amalarius (775-850) on the symbolism of the Eucharistic Fraction, although he could have chosen at least half a dozen others. After this third part there are lengthy "footnotes" which are actually sections of text which should be in the main body. So be careful to study the titles of these Notes A-H before deciding the order in which you will read the text.

In spite of such shortcomings, this book was and still is theological dynamite: in the Roman Catholic context it underlines the role of the whole Church in Eucharistic observance, an area where de Lubac's influence was obvious at Vatican II; and in the Protestant context it underscores the importance of the Eucharist. For all Christians, however, the key message which de Lubac does not spell out is that if we, as Christians, are the "body of Christ" then our disunity is a scandal. Set aside all those trite metaphors about different instruments in orchestras, different colours in the rainbow or unity in diversity and face the fact: from the Epistles of Saint Paul for almost a thousand years any individual considerations had to be subordinated to collective, ecclesiastical membership in the collective, eschatological body of Christ. There is more than a little irony in the Protestant attachment to Saint Paul which is, surely, highly selective.