Mystici corporis Christi

Mystici corporis Christi is a papal encyclical issued by Pope Pius XII on 29 June 1943, 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]

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.

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]

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.

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. 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.

  • Within the Church, there exist not an active and passive element, leadership and lay people. All members of the Church are called to work on the perfection of the body of Christ. ... Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church.[6]

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

Exclusion on the basis of race or nationality

  • And first of all let us imitate the breadth of His love. For the Church, the Bride of Christ, is one; and yet so vast is the love of the divine Spouse that it embraces in His Bride the whole human race without exception. Our Saviour shed His Blood precisely in order that He might reconcile men to God through the Cross, and might constrain them to unite in one body, however widely they may differ in nationality and race. True love of the Church, therefore, requires not only that we should be mutually solicitous one for another[11] as members and sharing in their suffering[11] but likewise that we should recognize in other men, although they are not yet joined to us in the body of the Church, our brothers in Christ according to the flesh, called, together with us, to the same eternal salvation.[12]
  • There are some who extol enmity, hatred and spite as if they enhanced the dignity and the worth of man. Let us, however, while we look with sorrow on the disastrous consequences of this teaching, follow our peaceful King who taught us to love not only those who are of a different nation or race,[13] but even our enemies.[14]
  • While Our heart overflows with the sweetness of the teaching of the Apostle of the Gentiles, We extol with him the length, and the breadth, and the height, and the depth of the charity of Christ,[15] which neither diversity of race or customs can diminish, nor trackless wastes of the ocean weaken, nor wars, whether just or unjust, destroy[12]

Murdering disabled people

  • Conscious of the obligations of Our high office We deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to Our profound grief We see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as though they were a useless burden to Society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgment does not recognize that this not only violates the natural and the divine law[16] written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity?
  • The blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemer because they are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth".[17]

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]

  • Therefore, whenever it happens, despite the constant teaching of this Apostolic See,[23] that anyone is compelled to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, Our sense of duty demands that We condemn the act.[24]

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]

  • May she, then, the most holy Mother of all the members of Christ, to whose Immaculate Heart We have trustfully consecrated all mankind, and who now reigns in heaven with her Son, her body and soul refulgent with heavenly glory - may she never cease to beg from Him that streams of grace may flow from its exalted Head into all the members of the Mystical Body. May she give to the Church today, as in times gone by, the mantle of her protection and obtain from God, that now at last, the Church and all mankind may enjoy more peaceful days.[29]

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

In 1947, Pius XII issued the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia,[34] which 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

  • Our purpose is to show the beauty of the Church in its full light, the nobility of the faithful, who in the body of Christ are united with their head.[46]
  • We are not ignorant of the fact that His profound truth - of our union with the Divine Redeemer and in particular of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in our souls - is shrouded in darkness by a veil that impedes our power to understand and explain it, both because of the hidden nature of the doctrine itself, and of the limitations of our human intellect.[47]
  • Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from His Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to Her members.[48]
  • And if at times, there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her juridical constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each individual, which its Divine Founder permits even at times in the highest members of His Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the Shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith.[48]

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. 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. Cf. Rom., XII, 5; I Cor., XII, 25.
  12. 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. 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. CIC Orientalis, 1952
  46. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 11
  47. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 78
  48. Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 62


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