07 February 2002

Good news. Graham Ward, of the University of Manchester and a proponent of "radical orthodoxy", is busy translating Henri de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum: L'Eucharistie et L'Eglise au Moyen-Age for Blackwell.

I've often been frustrated that this important work of history, theology, philosophy, and liturgics has remained untranslated since its initial publication in 1949. As the subtitle indicates, Corpus Mysticum is a study of the relationship between the eucharist and the church in the middle ages, with particular reference to the notion of the "mystical body" of Christ. De Lubac argues that from the early middle ages to the late middle ages there is a significant shift in how these realities are thought about and experienced, a shift that has been detrimental to both Protestant and Catholic theology (though authors like de Certeau, Pickstock, and others have drawn out the implications more than de Lubac did).

De Lubac's entire argument is difficult to summarize, but I give it a try. The term "Body of Christ" can have three referents: [1] the historical body of Jesus that was crucified and raised again, [2] the Church united to Christ as her Head, and [3] the sacramental Body of Christ received in the eucharist. De Lubac notes that in the early middle ages, [2] and [3] were closely aligned with one another and distinguished from [1], but over time [1] and [3] came to be aligned and distinguished from [2].

This is evident in the use of terminology such as "mystical body" and "true body." In the earlier period (starting really with the Fathers) the term "mystical body" referred primarily to the eucharist, though it could also be used in reference to the church, because the two were mutually constitutive. That is to say, the church gathers as the Body of Christ in order that the eucharistic Body of Christ be presently enacted and received, and in receiving the eucharistic Body of Christ, the church not only receives Christ, but also receives one another as his Body. The receiving of Christ in the eucharist is an ecclesially-embedded event, a liturgical action in time that also is the process by which the church herself as Christ's Body continually comes-to-be. In a fundamental way, the church constitutes the "true body" of Christ in which the eucharistic body is manifest and received in the communion of the church, sacramentally receiving one another.

In the later middle ages, this whole complex shifts and flips around, so that by the end of the 13th century it is the church that becomes the "mystical body" of Christ and the eucharist that is thought of in terms of the "true body" of Christ (corpus Christi verum). This shift represents a theological development in which the confecting of the eucharistic presence of Christ's body becomes the foundation for the reality of the historical church, rather than the two being mutually interdependent. Moreover, it de-temporalizes the relationship so that the eucharist is thought of less as an event, an action of the gathered church, and more as a thing, a miracle that can be positively and spatially located, fetishized, and marked out by particular consecratory words.

This gives rise to the late medieval understanding of "transsubstantiation" against which the Reformers were rightly objecting as an inauthentic interpretation of biblical faith and patristic (and early medieval) tradition. This does not, of course, absolve Protestant thought from its own problematics, for in many respects the Protestant reaction against the emerging Roman Catholic position was just as much caught up in the matrices of late medieval (and early modern) concepts.

Where the post-medieval Roman Catholic tendency was to see the eucharist as the "real" presence of Christ of which the church, as the "mystical" body was only a (juridically and hierarchically produced) metaphor, Protestants tended to see the church (produced by an act of faith in a juridical and propositional revelation) as the "real" body of the Christ to which the eucharist only points as a symbol. In a more extreme and individualized version, this Protestant tendency came to focus upon the individual believer's interior "receiving of Christ" through faith as the real of which the eucharist was only a symbolic expression.

To be fair, I should point out that figures like Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer, and others (at least on their best days) did try to call for a return to something like the patristic and early medieval view. But the forces of modernity that were already afoot, perhaps as early as the thought of Duns Scotus and certainly in the thought of these very Reformers, were too pervasive for much progress to be made.

In any case, I look forward very much to the publication of de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum so that English-speaking readers may finally directly benefit from his insightful study.