Émile Mersch and the Liturgical Quality of the Mystical Body

There has been some debate over the past decade about the state of Catholic theology. Many of the questions circle around the suggestion of some that the dissolution of the “Thomistic synthesis” leading up to and following Vatican II has resulted in a kind of chaos of Catholic theology. According to this read of the situation, this chaos is the result of a collective lack of common approach and method. Aside from the historical reality that there have always been various theological schools and approaches in the church, the concerns stem from what is often experienced as a particularly unstable and relativistic cultural context.

Purveyors of this view typically say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with modern theology, but that we’ve lost the universal, metaphysical grounding generously supplied by Aquinas, a grounding particularly apt to our historical moment. Put recently by Thomas Joseph White, OP, “In the Church today, we typically encounter a generalized doctrinal amnesia and nescience of our best philosophical traditions. This creates intellectual indetermination and disorientation, which lead many back to fundamental metaphysical questions, and to a revived interest in Thomism.” In other words, mainstream theology after the sixties has left us bereft of grounding.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris had called for the restoration of Thomistic philosophy, encouraging Catholic faithful “to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences” (31). The encyclical gave ballast to the already bubbling neo-scholastic movement in Catholic theology, which asserted that a recovery of scholastic (mostly Thomistic) thinking was the remedy to modern problems.

Many have already pointed out that neo-Thomist thinking was in many cases a mirror of its opponent. It challenged the rationalism of modernity by a kind of “clear and distinct ideas” approach to the tradition. It ceded some of the ground to its modern critics by working out an all-encompassing system that left little room for the affective, the mystical. It wasn’t that such thinkers thought that prayer and mystical approaches to the faith were unimportant; it was just that they didn’t represent real, hardball theology.

It may not be a surprise to learn that I think one of the answers to this problematic in contemporary theology is a liturgical theology. Note, I wrote “one of the answers.” Adamantly, this is not a panacea. But I think liturgical theology represents a pathway, an opening perhaps, in conversations about a general, consensus, Thomistic theology. Further theological development and discourse is at its best when it proceeds from liturgical theology. Of course, this brings to mind liturgy’s classical designation as theologia prima.

In his modern classic by that name, David Fagerberg defines liturgical theology as “the theological work of the liturgical assembly, not the work done by an academic upon liturgical material.” Fagerberg goes on to describe two defining attributes of liturgical theology: “it is theologia prima and it is found in the structure of the rite, in its lex orandi” (ix). It may be obvious, then, that the same debates I mentioned above are also—though by no means always—framed by debates around liturgical celebration, especially of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. If the structure of the rite is where liturgical theology is found, then it follows that the OF and EF have different liturgical theologies, as many have pointed out.

And so, I’d like to reflect for a moment on an insight from an oft-overlooked theologian of the World War II era. Émile Mersch, SJ, was key to the recovery of mystical body of Christ theology that so influenced Virgil Michel and other liturgical reformers. While Mersch is critical of scholastic theology (perhaps a proxy for neo-scholastic theology of his own day), his 1938 work The Whole Christ is a constructive, ressourcement reading of the tradition drawing out the strains of mystical body of Christ theology in various writings. For him, the theology of the mystical body was not simply an ecclesiology or a model of the church, but rather a fundamental theology, a starting point for the entire theological endeavor.

But one comment that Mersch makes is striking: “The doctrine [of the mystical body of Christ] always and necessarily retains a certain vagueness which, to judge from the mentality of many of the Scholastics, was scarcely calculated to win their sympathy” (452). At the end of this section, Mersch sums up his reflections: “though the picture is more distinct, it is also less vivid. The Scholastics indicate more clearly the nature of the mystery, but they do not describe it with vigor and forcefulness. Their doctrine possesses neither the amplitude and richness in which St. Cyril had clothed it, nor the depth of interior life that characterized it in the writings of Augustine” (484-5).

Vague, Émile? How can it be vague and yet so important? My guess is that Mersch’s comfort with the mystical body is indebted to a rich liturgical theology. For him, the goal of the theological enterprise is not “clear and distinct” categories and ideas, but rather a gateway into the divine mystery. I would suggest that he is comfortable with the vagueness of the mystical body is because it is fundamentally liturgical. That is, Mersch’s theology of the mystical body proceeds from, and returns to, fundamental liturgical theology.

This is not to suggest that liturgical theology is somehow irrational. Rather, since the creation of the word is accomplished through God’s logos (word, reasoned order), to come to know God and ultimately to worship God for God’s wonders is an inherently reasonable act.

But liturgy is not cut and dried. It’s not clear and distinct. And I find it interesting that many appeals to the need for the EF are appeals to the mystery and the reality that “not everything needs to be immediately comprehensible” to quote Lee Fratantuono’s comment on Fr. Anthony’s recent post. Theologies are typically measured by their explanatory power. Of course, though, when talking about God, we sometimes forget that explanatory power always has a mystical streak in it.

From what we know—Mersch died trying to help a wounded priest during a German air raid in May 1940—Mersch was a supporter of liturgical reform. His work certainly found favor with several key liturgical reformers. Lambert Beauduin “read and reread” Mersch’s The Whole Christ. In one of his letters, Michel recommended that same book as one of the best available texts on the mystical body of Christ.

When the rest of theology proceeds from liturgical theology, it seems that it is led to be less concerned with the utter exactitude and more open to that “certain vagueness.”

*The original version of the post was missing both italics and links. Sorry! It has been edited to insert that formatting.


  1. This topic deserves further development.
    Henri de Lubac, in his book Corpus Mysticum (1944; 2nd edition 1949; English translation 2006) points out the intriguing development of the use of the words “Mystical Body”, and the reversal of usage today.
    Before the 12th century, “Mystical Body” was used to refer to the Eucharist, while “Real Body” referred to the body of believers, the Church. “Communion” referred first to the communion of the members of the Church in one body rather than to the sacrament of the Eucharist, which served and strengthened the communion of the faithful.
    The title of Chapter 1 of de Lubac’s book is “The Eucharist as Mystical Body.”

  2. Yes! Thanks, Padraig. Keep your eye out for my forthcoming book from Lit Press this Fall. It’s called *One in Christ* and takes up some of these questions re: de Lubac and all things mystical body.

    By the way, de Lubac too was arguing against what he saw as the rationalistic hegemony of dominant theology in his day.

  3. I sometimes think this quest to produce an impermeable theological edifice (neo-Thomistic or otherwise) is somewhat idolatrous – a theo-tower of Babel. In the 20th-21st century we can be guilty of living out John Shea’s definition of theology: faith scrambling for respectability.

    Wasn’t it on the day that he stopped writing (or dictating) that Thomas Aquinas declared all of his work to be but straw compared to the ineffable mystery?

  4. Thomas’s mystical “straw” moment is a good reminder, Alan. Thanks. I always imagine the entire church in the wake of Thomas’s proclamation, scrambling to gather up his work, saying “No, no! There’s so much great stuff here!” And there is.

    Woven even throughout Thomas’s work is, I think, a good deal of comfort with the ineffable. Perhaps that comes from his deep indebtedness to Pseudo-Dionysius.

    I think Mersch is a good example of robust theological thinking that does not succumb to rationalistic tendencies. I think this dovetails, in a different kind of way, with several of the points that Fr. Anthony has raised related to rationalism here at Pray Tell recently, namely, “Blessed Captivity” and “Why I Want ‘Cup’ and You Want ‘Chalice.'”

    1. When the problem of excessive rationalism arises, I agree that it is not a problem in the works of Thomas himself, but in our use of his writings.

      Thank goodness nobody took his “straw” burning comment literally!!

  5. Tim and I have visited a bit about this issue – Tim, thanks for a fascinating and important post!

    I suppose one conclusion would be that the liturgy is a mystery and not always rationally comprehensible… so just put it in Latin. I know you don’t mean that Tim – can you tell us why?

    Or to put the question the other way: what does the insight of this post mean for our worthy celebration of the vernacular liturgy? What sort of minimal base of comprehension do we need? How does our theory need to allow for a kind of participation that goes beyond comprehension, even when the texts are in our language? How should the vernacular texts be sung and proclaimed, given our understanding of ‘mystery’?


    1. Thanks, Anthony. I think this can be one of the hazards of mystical body theology: we might call it a kind of “mystification” approach: the more distant or incomprehensible, the better. This is not what Mersch, Michel, and other liturgical reformers intended by their theology of the mystical body. They saw it as consonant with a push for vernacular in the liturgy.

      One of the reasons for that is the question of the vernacular was/is about inculturation and not about rationalism. It’s about recognizing the redeeming quality of culture, of cultural expression and comprehension as an opening to deeper understanding. Understanding is good, even a gift of the Spirit! Subjecting everything to the rational faculty is not.

      Latin is wonderful. It’s a profound expression of the church’s universality. In fact, I sing the Salve Regina to my two-year-old son every night as I put him to bed.

      But a profound insight of the liturgical movement—and this was an insight *driven by* mystical body theology tethered to the liturgical life of the church—was that our catholicity is not best expressed by one universal language. Catholicity is about wholeness. In addition to breadth, it has a depth dimension that drives us toward an embrace of what is good and true in cultures, so that they might be exploited (in the best sense of that word) for the sake of the gospel.

      Richard Powers follows this logic: “After all, the liturgy is meant for ‘the multitude,’ so often mentioned in the Gospel as attached to our Lord and beloved by Him. It must come to them with some of its original simplicity and charm. Unless the Ordinary of the Mass is established in the minds and hearts of the people, young and old, as the noblest and dearest of all their forms of communion with God, the liturgical apostolate will strive in vain to realize the purpose of its existence…. Our best form of propaganda is, therefore, an English (or, if you will, an American) text of superlative excellence” (“The Liturgy in Translation” Orate Fratres I, no. 7, p. 206).

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