Mind Aflame

Part I: Emile Mersch and His Thoelogy of The Mystical Body


Emile Mersch was one of the 20th century's greatest theologians. In fact, he probably ranks as one of the greatest dogmatic theologians in the history of the Church. Our failure to recognize this could be attributed to any number of external factors: his premature death and the unfinished state of his masterpiece, the decline in interest in dogmatic theology in the years before and after the 2nd Vatican Council, his style that extends his Theology of the Mystical Body to over 600 pages in the slightly abridged English edition, and so forth. But these reasons do not weigh as heavily as the intrinsic profundity of his work coming from a penetrating theological vision that makes more than ordinary demands on our power of understanding. In short, Mersch cultivated his inner theological vision to the highest degree and challenges us to see along with him into the heart of the Christian mystery.

In this first part we shall look at his life and writings in Chapter 1, and then the content of his Theology of the Mystical Body in Chapter 2.



The most accessible and complete sources of information on Emile Mersch's life and writings are to be found in the first French edition (1) of his Theology of the Mystical Body, and in a doctoral dissertation by Gregory Malanowski, "The Christocentrism of Emile Mersch and Its Implications for a Theology of Church." (2)

July 30, 1890. Mersch is born at Marche in Belgium into a fervent Christian family of 4 children. He had a younger brother, Victor, who also became a Jesuit, a sister, Marie, who died at 21, and another sister, Marie Louise, who was a religious of the Congregation of the Helpers of Holy Souls. His father was crippled at 38, and bore his affliction patiently until he death 13 years later saying, "As God wills. That my children may turn out well." (3)

Emile was a good student of the humanities and loved flowers, birds, trees, local history, and old buildings, especially the great cathedrals. Before he entered the Jesuits he planned a trip with a friend to visit the French cathedrals. When his friend couldn't go, he went alone, but returned after 3 days since he found it no fun that way.

September 1907. He enters the novitiate of the Company of Jesus at Arlon.

1910-1913. He studies philosophy for 3 years at Louvain with Pierre Scheuer and is influenced by Joseph Maréchal, both founders of the transcendental movement in Thomism. (4) His early inclinations towards the natural sciences are supplanted by a deepening interest in philosophy and theology.

1914-1918. Theological studies at Brussels and Louvain with Pierre Charles and Paul Claeys Boúúaert.

May 20, 1917. Ordained by Cardinal Mercier.

October 28 and November 4, 1917. Mersch gives to his fellow theological students and teachers a talk on the mystical body that contains the seeds of his later work, and incidentally arouses some of the same objections that will appear many years later when The Theology of the Mystical Body is finally published. (5) The road from the vision to the published book is going to be a long and difficult one.

1920. The Jesuit Superior General, Wladimir Ledochowski sends Père Bulot to speak with Pierre Charles and Pierre Scheuer about their support for some suspected philosophical propositions supposedly drawn from the work of Pierre Rousselot's Les yeux de la foi.

January 24, 1920. Mersch speaks with Bulot and writes to the General in defense of Charles and Scheuer.

August 4, 1920. Mersch receives a letter from his Provincial calling for "a new orientation for his activities." (6) Apparently his outspokenness has counted against him. Perhaps his bold theological speculations of 1917 are remembered, as well. Instead of being assigned to further theological studies, or to teach theology, he is sent to teach philosophy at Namur and take care of the lay students at the university. He accepts the situation and continues to pursue his private studies.

1921. Mersch begins a series of articles with one that appears in the Revue n6oscolastique called "Berkeley est-il empiriste ou spiritualiste?" that will eventually total 48 articles with more than half of them appearing in the Nouvelle revue theologique.

1924. He collaborates with C. Lemaitre and A. Mativa to create a small book, Saint Thomas d'Aquin, le théologien, le métaphysicien, le poète.

1926. He is directed to teach a course on religion to the students which gives him scope for his priestly ministry and theological inclinations, and he enthusiastically involves himself in creating apostolic action groups, and his students respond to his genuine interest in them.

1925. Mersch undertakes the spiritual direction of the students at the diocesan seminary, and later of the students at the Jesuit seminary. One of the Jesuit seminarians later recounts how when he arrived to see him Mersch would greet him with a large smile and joyful exclamation and immediately push aside the books and papers that covered his desk. This is a story which illustrates both his affection for the young men in his charge, and his dedication to his own studies.

1927. He writes L'obligation morale principe de liberté.

1928. For 7 years he will preach Days of Recollection for members of the Young Christian Workers' Movement of Namur. He is keenly aware of the differences in temperament among his young friends and tells them, "Each bird sings as his beak is made." It is with these young people he feels most at ease.

1920-1929. But the goal of his theological synthesis on the mystical body never leaves his mind. He realizes that it demands preliminary historical work to trace the history of this idea in the Scriptures, Fathers and theologians. He makes use of the materials at hand and spends his vacations in the better equipped libraries in Louvain. He carries his notes with him wherever he goes, and takes advantage of whatever spare moments he has.

June 1929. He presents his historical studies to the censors of the Order. They recommend further work, especially in the field of recent Patristic studies, which he does with the help of P. de Ghellinck. Once again he has to persevere on the long road to the theological work that he so much wishes to write. Le Corps mystique du Christ, Etudes de théologie historique, finally appears in 2 volumes in 1933. It meets with wide-spread critical acceptance, and a 2nd edition appears in 1936. An English translation is made from this 2nd edition called The Whole Christ, and comes out in 1938.

The reviewers pick up an essential point about Mersch's intellectual work. There is never scholarship without a desire to feed the spirit. "It is assuredly a book of science," writes G. Bardy in La vie spirituelle, "but also a book of the soul." (7) But it has been conceived as a preliminary chapter to his theological synthesis, "a veritable preface", he calls it.

In this wide-ranging historical study Mersch will devote one part to the Scriptures, especially St. John and St. Paul, a second to the Greek Fathers, and a third to Western tradition featuring Augustine, the scholastic theologians and the French School of Berulle. The result is that when he picks up his pen to begin the formal composition of The Theology of the Mystical Body he has spent years deeply immersed in the history of this idea, which has given him not only a sense of its content, but "a general outline of the history of the development." (8)

Speaking of this kind of development in the early Fathers he writes, "Yet, despite the important position that it occupies, it is seldom explained for its own sake and ex professo." (9) But then he realized: "If at first sight one fails to recognize the doctrine, the reason is not that it is absent, but that it is within. To discover its presence a superficial glance is not sufficient; one must study, even meditate upon the innermost meaning of Christian dogmas." (10) Or rather, "They presuppose this truth in their explanation of dogma." (11)

The scholastics, in their turn, because of their attempts at rigorous exposition, preferred certain aspects of the doctrine of the mystical body, but at their hands other aspects regressed from the vigor by which they had been treated by the Fathers, and their remarks on this subject were often lost in the vastnesses of their summas.

In this way Mersch gained a first-hand sense of the state of this doctrine, and he gained, as well, some sense of what he wanted to do with his own work. He would formally examine the mystical body, focusing directly upon it, and using it as a burning glass to shed an intense light on the unity of the Christian mystery. The time was finally ripe.

1929-1935. The stage is set for the writing of The Theology of the Mystical Body, which J. Levie, one of the editors of the 1st edition, rightly calls, "the true end of all his works." (12) The lst version appears during these years.

August, 1935. Relieved of his duties of teaching philosophy he is sent to Louvain to dedicate himself to his work. A 2nd version occupies him from 1935 to the beginning of 1939.

1936. He writes "Amour, mariage, chasteté" as an article which appears in English as a small book, Love, Marriage, Chastity in 1939.

1937. Having considered a synthesis of moral theology in the light of the mystical body, he settles for collecting a number of his articles which appear as Morale et Corps mystique, and he prepares a 2nd edition of this work in 1939. In that same year an English translation appears as Morality and the Mystical Body.

1940. He begins a more concise and scholastically rigorous final version which he was close to finishing in May. He tells his confreres that he has condensed and shortened and virtually finished the final version, but has yet to write the final conclusion and work on chapters XVI, XX and XXI.

May 10, 1940. The phony war ends when the Nazi armies attack Holland and Belgium.

May 13, 1940. Panzer units advancing through the Ardennes cross the Meuse at Sedan into France, and start driving for the Channel, a path that will lead them to Dunkirk.

May 14, 1940. Mersch is ordered by his superiors to leave Louvain and, by way of France, to go to the Isle of Jersey, a route already being cut by the German forces. At Tournai he is put in charge of some elderly fathers. Heavy bombing causes them to leave.

May 18, 1940. Mersch in an English automobile arrives at the French border at one p.m. The unexpected German advance has created chaos, and it is difficult to find transportation. He leaves most of the old priests in neighboring villages, and he takes the two weakest, saying to the others, "The good God has only given me two arms." The three of them join a Madame Juste, the wife of a military doctor, her parents and children. With ten people jammed in the car and Mersch standing on the running board, they proceed into France.

The countryside is in panic, waiting for the Nazi forces to appear. At the village of Orchies Mersch, dressed in his clerical garb, asks some soldiers directions, and he is arrested as a potential spy. He tells Madame Juste to go on without him lest they all lose their chance to escape, and he asks her to put the two old priests, Henri Fallon and Bruno Lefevre, in the hospital at Douai, or some rectory in the town until he can catch up. And he tells Fr. Fallon to take special care of his two suitcases and leather briefcase which contain the manuscript of The Theology of the Mystical Body.

May 23, 1940. Mersch has been released and says Mass at Raches, having arrived at Lens the previous evening. The town is being bombed. At about 2:30 p.m. two soldiers arrive at the rectory where he is staying with the report of wounded not far away. Mersch goes off to tend them and is never seen alive again. At 4:30 p.m. his body is seen lying along the side of the road to Douai, apparently a victim of the bombing, though a story later circulates that he was killed by robbers.

Meanwhile, on May 20th, Madame Juste has arrived at Saint-Pol around 11:00 a.m. and has stopped by the house of M. Leleux, 101 rue de Bethune. The French military accuse the two old priests of being spies and interrogate them in the house of one M. Hamon. Fr. Lefevre is 82, and Fr. Fallon, 72! The interrogation is cut short by the arrival of the Germans. Fr. Fallon sits down on the side of the road with the leather briefcase and Mersch's two suitcases. Fr. Lefevre wanders off. On May 21st he is found by a passing priest, to whom he incoherently talks about Mersch, who takes him to the hospice of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, where he dies on May 22nd. Later that same day the same priest, Abbe G. Brisors, is ten minutes from the center of town on the road to Bethune when he comes across a body propped up against a large electric spool and covered with a coat and hat. He looks at the man's face and seems to remember him. He looks in the leather briefcase sitting beside him and sees it is crammed with cheap school children's notebooks. He takes one out and sees that Mersch's name is on the cover, and he imagines that this is Fr. Mersch, whom he had once had as a retreat master. He makes no mention of the two suitcases, which had probably already disappeared. Most likely the briefcase was left by whoever took the suitcases, for the notebooks would have appeared worthless in contrast to the personal effects in the suitcases. In this way, Mersch dies, and part of his final manuscript disappears, never to be seen again. He is buried at Lens, and later his body, with those of his two companions, is moved to the cemetery of Bricniot at Namur. (13)


After the death of Mersch his editors, Jean Levie, André Wankenne, René Thibaut and José de Wolf faced a formidable task. (14) Eleven chapters of the final draft were found in the leather briefcase: I, III, IV and V (these two appear as IV, Parts I and II in the Ist edition), VI and VIII (which appear as V, parts I and III in the 1st edition), and what will become chapters VI, VII, X, XI and XIX. Chapters IX and XIII had already been published as articles, while a proposed chapter on the Old Testament had never been written, nor had the conclusion, and the book had no title.

Chapters II, VII (chapter V, Part II in the Ist edition), XII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XX and XXI apparently disappeared in the two suitcases. To make up for this lack the editors fell back on the 1935-1939 version. But the travail of the editors was not over. The 1935-1939 version, itself, had problems. Of the ten lost chapters in the final version, only chapters II, VI, part II, and XII were complete. The others had omissions. Mersch hand-wrote his manuscripts and did not like to repeat himself. He would cut out citations and pieces of text and paste them in the new version. So to supply the lacks as much as possible, the editors turned to the 1929-1935 version, indicating insertions from this version in the text of the Ist edition. And when even this failed, they indicated their best judgment of what the omission probably contained.

Finally they looked at the length of Book I, which formed the philosophical and theological introduction, and decided to abridge chapters IV and V on the human consciousness of Christ, and chapters VI, VII and VIII, which was Mersch's treatment of the unity of the human race from a philosophical point of view. They reasoned that Mersch's readers would be impatient with the delay in reaching his properly theological exposition, but as Fr. Levie notes, Mersch "seemed to have developed the subject for itself without limiting himself to only the aspects of interest to the theology of the mystical body." (15) Perhaps this indicates something of the ambivalence the editors felt in shortening the text this way.

To compound all these problems, Mersch's handwriting left much to be desired. Levie describes it as "small, rapid, irregular, omitting points, accents, any signs of punctuation, often cutting off the last letters of the words, some of the most difficult handwriting we have ever encountered." (16)

The critical question, however, is whether Mersch's work has been dealt a fatal blow by the fate that befell it. I don't believe that it has. There was a certain built-in redundancy in Mersch's style. Mersch knew he tended to go on. He left notes to himself in the margins of earlier versions to tighten up the text, but what caused him to go on was not long-windedness. It stemmed from his highly intuitive nature. "More intuitive than dialectician," Levie explains it, "he attempts to show, to make it be seen more than to prove or deduce." (17) Mersch aims at and becomes enthralled with the central point, the inner vision, and then he tries to express it, first in one way and then in another. He ends up circumambulating it, and if the final result is somewhat long, the central vision shines forth, and a certain redundancy, as I said, is built into the text. A fully finalized version from Mersch's hand would have been wonderful: more concise, more rigorous in scholastic expression, but what we have contains the essence of his theological vision. This built-in redundancy cushions the damage of the loss of some of the chapters of the final version. The 1st French edition appeared in two volumes in 1944, with subsequent editions following in 1946, 1949 and 1954.

In 1951 an English translation, the work of Cyril Vollert, S.J. appeared, and this is the version we will be citing in the next chapter. Fr. Vollert reasoned that scholars would go to the Ist French edition, so he stripped away most of its critical apparatus, making less evident the major problems that the French editors had tried to overcome.

There is still ample room for a truly critical edition of Mersch's Theology of the Mystical Body, which would take into account what appear to be large differences in the text of the various versions, and there is room, as well, for a more detailed study of Mersch's life. A dozen or so archival boxes of Mersch's papers still exist in Brussels in the Jesuit Archives of the southern Belgium province. They include the various drafts of La théologie du corps mystique, the handwriting, indeed impenetrable to the ordinary reader, various sermons and retreats, extracts of spiritual notes and letters of direction, extracts of letters, an Enchiridion Metaphysicum apparently Mersch's school notes - letters, the reports of the censors of the Order, various manuscripts, as well as notes and correspondence about his death. Material well worth a careful examination to shed more light on the life and inner creative processes of such a brilliant theologian.



While this condensation of Mersch's Theology of the Mystical Body is in no way to suggest that we forego a direct reading of his book, it can perhaps serve as an introduction to it. Mersch was keenly aware that he was constrained to analyze the various dogmas, one after another, when what he was aiming at was a synthesis in which all of them radiated out from the truth of the whole Christ. "Inevitably," he writes in the Preface, when the reader "comes to the last page of the book, he will have lost sight of points made at the beginning; yet such truths will not receive their full illumination till the end." (1) Mersch diffidently suggests that the remedy might be to read the book again, and I hope that this chapter will serve as an orientation to that kind of intensive reading.


The first three chapters of The Theology of the Mystical Body are quite straightforward and can be summarized in three interconnected ideas: as Christians we should think boldly and lovingly about the divine mysteries; theology is a search for the unity of these mysteries, and this unity is to be found in the whole Christ, both head and members.


We will not find in Mersch any of the fearfulness and timidity that sometimes afflicts Christians when they face the prospect of truly thinking about their faith. Far from thinking being in opposition to faith, it demands it, and Mersch makes his own the statement of Augustine, "If faith is not charged with thought it is nothing." (2)

But neither will we find in him any trace of a theology pursued as if it were meant to be a display of human ingenuity decked out in the latest intellectual fashion. Rather, it is reason enlightened and guided by faith which is to make a wholehearted attempt to understand the divine mysteries, even "what is mysterious in the mysteries" (3) that faith has put it in contact with.

Mersch takes as his starting point in exploring the nature of theology the tersely worded summary of the Ist Vatican Council: "When reason, enlightened by faith, seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, by God's gift it attains some understanding of mysteries, and indeed a most fruitful understanding: partly from analogy with truths it knows naturally, partly from the relations of the mysteries with one another and with man's last end." (4) And he reads this text with the intellectual exuberance of someone who feels himself free to throw himself without reserve into his quest for some understanding of the mysteries of faith that are at the center of his life. He exclaims again with Augustine, "Love understanding intensely!" (5)

Mersch's credo is, "Think! Think with all your power, with all your love, with all your loyalty." (6) To think with love is an essential part of letting our thought be illumined by faith. We cannot truly penetrate into these divine mysteries which, above all, are mysteries of love and union unless we love and let our thought be guided by that love. This is an understanding that comes from our union with Christ and rests on what he will later describe as the "being of union" that Christ's humanity possesses. (7)


In this chapter the guiding thought is provided by St. Thomas, "Everything is intelligible insofar as it is one." (8) The search for the deepest understanding in theology is at the same time a search for unity. Mersch is driven by his thirst to see the source from which all the divine mysteries flow, to search for the "unity intrinsic to revelation," "the ultimate principle of theology." (9) He will probe "the relations of the mysteries with one another" until he has arrived at the luminous center from which they all radiate.


"(W)hat is the unity of dogma? What is the center around which the whole is organized"? (10) It is none other than Christ, both God and man, head and members, the whole Christ. And this unity is not just a simple unity of common beliefs and assent, but a mysterious ontological one, a "super-real" unity. (11) The unity of theology, and hence its deepest understanding, is to be found in Christ and in the deepest mysteries of his personality.


Until now it has been relatively easy to follow Mersch on his voyage of discovery. From the 70 pages or so of the first three chapters we have extracted three closely linked ideas: as Christians we should love to understand, and this means a search for the unity of theology which is to be found in the depths of the God-man Jesus.

But now our going becomes more difficult. In this chapter which existed in two chapters in the original manuscript, Mersch's leisurely pace is greatly accelerated. He has shown that the unity of theology is Christ, but now he refines this insight further. The center of this unity is "Christ consciousness, his human consciousness" (12) and it is as if in saying this his mind becomes inflamed.

Consciousness is an intrinsic dimension of being itself, "a way of existing fully." (13) The more something is, the more it is present to itself. The very source and mystery of existence, who is God, must be completely conscious of himself and all else.

In contrast, we receive existence from God, and it is an existence very much bound up with the fact that our spirits are profoundly united to matter, and through matter with the whole material universe, and profoundly united to all other human spirits. Our consciousness follows upon this particular kind of human existence and strives to expand itself by understanding our relationship to all these other realities.

If the whole mystery of Christianity is to be found in the God-man, and if consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of spiritual being, then what will the human consciousness of Jesus be? It will be the very "first principle in the supernatural order" (14) and the very "doctrine taught by Christianity." (15) If we are to be Christians we must enter into this consciousness and share in it. On a supernatural plane this consciousness must become the very "consciousness of our consciousness." (16)

Mersch has gazed into the depths of the Christian mysteries and glimpsed how all of them are rooted in Christ, indeed, in the very consciousness of his humanity. The rest of the book will be devoted to exploring just what that means.


This chapter, like the proceeding one, has been condensed, this time from three chapters in the original draft, which is an indication of the importance it had in Mersch's mind. At first glance we might wonder why this was so, for it is a chapter devoted to philosophy rather than theology. But a moment's reflection allows us to grasp Mersch's strategy. How can we understand our union with Christ that comes through his humanity if we fail to grasp the mysterious nature of the unity of mankind of which it is a supernatural intensification? The idea of the natural unity of mankind, understood in a metaphysical way, is at first strange to us, for it is a topic not often discussed in depth, but Mersch has understood its importance and gone further in exploring it than anyone else I know.

"Man is a certain immensity. In his relation to the universe he is more than a part: he is a center, a totality, a culmination." (17) "(W)ithout man the universe is truncated and inexplicable: it has no center, no ultimate, no issue. It is nowhere conscious; therefore at no point does it take possession of its own being, and so it does not exist intrinsically... Man is the intrinsic end of the world, and is the relatively last end for the world." (18)

But he is this intrinsic end in virtue of his spirit which is profoundly united to matter, and through the body to the universe so that the universe, itself, enters the soul and "the soul's thought is, in a very real sense, the thought of the universe." (19) It is in terms of the human spirit, or spiritual form and its union with matter that Mersch describes first the unity of the universe in man, and then the unity of all mankind in every man. Following St. Thomas, Mersch sees that the human form is the very last among the spiritual forms. If it existed as a purely spiritual form without matter, it would be one, and contain in itself all the qualities of the material things which we see in the universe, and all the positive qualities we see in mankind. But in actual fact such a unitary human form is impossible. The human form, while spiritual, is meant to be united to matter, and matter means multiplicity so that the universe culminates, not in one human being, but in the human race.

Each human being only becomes fully human in becoming one with the universe and the whole of mankind. This takes place through memory and imagination, and in a deeper way through intellectual understanding which is "capable of expressing the very being of the object it knows, and therefore to have an ontological immensity of an absolute order." (20) And what the human intelligence is most geared to know is other human beings and, indeed, it must know them in order to be fully itself.

All human beings participate in what it means to be human. They have this or that concrete human form, which is a partial reflection of the full meaning of the human race, and therefore, "all men are one through their form." (21) Each human being, through their human form, which is the very principle of their human consciousness, is intimately connected with every other human. Paradoxically, the very spiritual nature which makes us most ourselves in knowledge and love, and in the self-possession of being we call consciousness, unites us to all other humans in their intimate personal depths, and unites us, as well, to the entire universe.

I can't overemphasize the importance of what Mersch is saying. By reflecting on the very human soul, or form, he glimpses its interconnectedness with the universe and with every other human being. This connection is not simply extrinsic, as if we sensed or imagined or thought the universe and the rest of mankind from the outside. it is intrinsic. The very nature of the human spirit as the least and last in the hierarchy of spiritual forms demands union with matter in order to actualize itself, or put in other words, it demands the whole universe in order to become itself, and at the same time it demands to be united with every other human being. True spiritual awareness and self-possession, far from leading to egotism and selfishness, requires our presence to other human persons in their depths.

These powerful reflections allow Mersch to conclude by examining a topic that is rarely ever talked about: the natural end of mankind, a natural escatology, which is "man such as no one has ever imagined him; man as completely man." (22) This is the human race in a state of realized unity in which it is closest to God by being what God meant it to be. Each individual human being becomes himself by being united with the rest of mankind that shares the same nature. This union with others will be definitively realized in death, which will allow each , person to "have a revelation of his human immensity and of other human immensities that are interior to themselves and one another." (23) After death we will possess ourselves fully in our own consciousness, but again, far from this sealing us up within ourselves, it demands that we be present to the very consciousness of others. It will be through this communion of consciousnesses that we will know God as the author of this tremendous mystery, which is humankind.

What Mersch is doing in this chapter is allowing us to see something of the splendor of the human race, which we are all too often blind to. Instead of us feeling like insignificant parts of a giant mass of humanity, each of us is a center of the human race, and each of us by our very form and spiritual consciousness is called to realize our deep communion with the universe, and with the whole human race.

Mersch is pioneering here a metaphysics of human unity that manifests its full stature in the natural end of mankind, and as fascinating as this exploration is, he is carrying it out as an indispensable prerequisite for his attempt to understand the humanity of Jesus.

Chapter V completes Book One which can be summarized as follows: Love understanding, and search for the unity of theology, which is to be found in the whole Christ, and more precisely, in the human consciousness of Jesus. But if we are going to understand Jesus' consciousness, we have to understand the mystery of what it means to be a human being, both in relationship to the universe and to the whole human race.




Mersch clearly distinguishes between the natural knowledge we can have of creation and creation as a supernaturally revealed truth. In the first, we arrive at some idea of the creator by examining the things around us. With the second, we see the universe as a gift from our loving Father. In the first kind of knowledge we do gain some idea of God as the maker of all things, but we have no idea of God as Trinity, while in the second we are in the context of the Trinity.

When Mersch takes the second perspective, he is immediately faced with a thorny question that has vexed theologians for centuries. How does the coming of Christ relate to creation and the state of original justice of the human race? When God created the universe and gave supernatural life to our first parents, did He have the Incarnation in mind, or put in a negative fashion, if there had been no original sin, would Jesus have come?

If we say that the purpose of the coming of Jesus was to bring about redemption, then how can creation and our original supernatural life be intrinsically related to Him? If the Incarnation is due to sin, how can it be the culmination and very center of the human race?

These questions are all the more real to Mersch because his avowed purpose is to bring all the dogmas in relationship to Christ. He tries to embrace both positions: "The decision that decrees creation was one of the phases of the single decree that willed the Incarnation." (24) And a little further on he writes, "Nothing indicates that the Incarnation would have taken place without sin... At the same time, the Incarnation is willed for itself, for a redemptive Incarnation is but an Incarnation pushed to the extreme; the Incarnation is an act in which God gives Himself, and when God gives Himself to sinners, He gives Himself the more generously." (25)

This same problem appears in a slightly different guise when Mersch looks at the question of original justice. "No doubt sanctifying grace in this original period was not quite the same as ours. It had no sin to efface and was not the grace of the redeemer as such. Yet, if what we have said is correct, it was given solely in view of the God-man who was to come." (26)

Mersch has his eye on his exploration of the human consciousness of Jesus, even while he struggles with these issues: "If, as we shall bring out later, a divinization is incomprehensible without a literal and substantial union with God, we have to conclude that in Adam too it was impossible without such a union. This does not mean, evidently, that Adam received the hypostatic union. Nor does it mean, if Adam had not sinned, a God-man would have been born of his race, that is, a God-man free from suffering and wholely glorious. For, in the hypothesis we are discussing, Adam was chosen as the first sinner and as a man to be restored; the question of what would have happened had he not sinned does not arise. We mean only that Adam was willed as the ancestor of the race from which Christ was to issue, and hence as the ancestor of a divinized race." (27)

Mersch is struggling here, and the struggle will continue in the next chapter when he takes up the question of original sin. In what sense is it possible to say that Adam was chosen as the first sinner, and isn't it possible to ask what would have happened if he had not sinned, and what sense can we make out of Adam having a substantial union with God when, as we will see, Mersch's whole vision of our supernatural being is founded on the union of the sacred humanity with the Word?


Mersch is keenly aware of the deficiencies of the traditional ways of explaining original sin. They stem, in part, from the intrinsic difficulty of the problem. How can the sin of Adam be imputed to us when we did not commit it? If we try to mitigate the problem by minimizing the nature of original sin, itself, we are faced with the words of the Council of Trent that declares that we have received from Adam a sin which is the death of the soul. Further, if there is no original sin, then exactly what is Jesus redeeming us from? Still further, human experience teaches us that there is something seriously wrong inside ourselves and in the human race as a whole that gives rise to the most horrible crimes.

But the problem remains: how can a sin be a sin if we had nothing to do with committing it? Mersch is tempted to ask: "How could I have committed a sin if I was not born?" (28) One attempt to resolve this dilemma has been to create a juridical explanation in which sin is imputed to us by God because of the sin of Adam. But this is not very palatable. How can we be held accountable by God for a lack of grace when that grace was a gift to our nature that God, in fact, did not give us because it was lost by Adam? We are created by God, and so can we say that it is God, Himself, who is creating us in this state of original sin? "The sin is said to consist precisely in this privation (of grace); hence this consequence follows - we scarcely dare express the thought - that it exists in Him or because of Him. It is He who, by His way of regarding men, makes them sinners." (29)

Even St. Thomas' explanation of original sin Mersch finds incomplete. Thomas says that original sin is transmitted to us by way of origin. We are all one with Adam inasmuch as we have a common nature, and the disorder that we experience, which descends from Adam, is voluntary, not by our own will, but by him "who by the motion of generation moves all who take their origin from him... (S)o original sin is not a sin of this particular person except so far as he receives his nature from the first parent." (30) And how does Adam move us? Like the will moves the members of the body so that if the will commits a crime, the hand can be said to have committed it, as well.

What is lacking here, according to Mersch, and even more so in any kind of juridical explanation, is an understanding of "the supernatural, mystical, real, almost organic, and in any case vital unity that can bind all men together in Adam as that sort of unity does bind them together in Christ." (31) There is "the absence of any explanation that might enable us to understand a certain physical, ontological presence of all nature in Adam, a real union of all men in their first origin." (32)

Mersch sees that the dogma of original sin must be situated between a deeper understanding of the natural unity of the human race and the supernatural unity we have in Christ. He begins to sketch a more adequate solution. We are still called to grace, despite the sin of Adam that lost supernatural life for us. "There is no inexplicable divine decree declaring men sinners when they have as yet done nothing; there is nothing but an inconceivable tenderness that continues to pursue men, whatever evil they may have committed. The privation of grace which is their sin is but the negative expression of an interior orientation toward the grace that God is keeping for them, and this orientation itself is but the effect corresponding in them to the eternal offer that refuses to be withdrawn." (33)

"The supernatural elevation, by supernaturally perfecting men from the social as well as from the individual point of view, establishes a supernatural solidarity in virtue of which a collective sin will destroy the elevation." (34) Original sin becomes a kind of supernatural tension. God could have created the human race simply in a state of nature, but "once it has received grace it is wounded to death when it loses grace, because the gift has actuated splendors of life which were but possible before and which, vanishing with the grace that departs, leaves nature bereft of what had become its supreme necessity..." (35) Grace was a gift freely given by God, but once given it was so supernaturally human a gift, so to speak, that it became the very center around which the whole personality revolved. And each of us "In losing grace therefore... loses a life that has been his own, and so this sin is for him the death of his soul." (36)


With a deep and sure perception Mersch grasps the root of devotion to Mary: "The essential thing about Christ is that He is God, man, and one... The essential thing about the Blessed Virgin is her part in making her son what He is, a causality in making Him perfectly man." (37)

Jesus takes on human nature, not in some abstract sense, as if He found it floating in some platonic heaven of the forms, but our nature; He becomes part of "the concrete human race." (38) All of Mary's prerogatives flow from this fundamental fact, and at a stroke Mersch can avoid a misplaced Marian piety that focuses on the unessentials and, indeed, on the unknown details of Mary's life, and avoid, as well, an emotionalism that tends to obscure her union with Jesus, and to avoid them both without in the least diminishing his devotion to her. Indeed, he will become lyrical in praise of Mary in showing how her role is inseparable from Jesus.

It is Mary who allows the Word to become flesh, and does so in a fully human way by accepting in her heart and living out in her life what that union means for the whole human race. Difficult themes like Mary as the mediatrix of graces and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception are convincingly explained by Mersch as he unswervingly holds to his central tenet; it is through Mary that Jesus becomes one with us in the unity of the human race, and she does this by freely and lovingly accepting to be the mother of God, not only in the moment of the Incarnation, but in the whole mystery of redemption so that she becomes the mother of the whole Christ.




Mersch draws close to the heart of his work in this chapter. His early thoughts in Chapter IV on the human consciousness of Jesus will now be greatly expanded and deepened in this concentrated meditation on the Incarnation. What happens to the humanity of Jesus, he asks himself, so that it is the humanity of the Son of God? it must become Godlike, for its deepest center is the personality of the Word, the second person of the Trinity; yet at the same time this assumption of the human nature must make it more fully and perfectly human, "a 'transcendent' humanization." (39) When Jesus takes our human nature, it does not become less, but more human, and it is made more by its contact with God, the very source of all being, and this intensification of Jesus' human nature must be understood not only in a personal sense, but in a social one, as well, and it is an examination of this social perspective that is going to be Mersch's special contribution.

The assumption of a human nature by the Word profoundly effects that nature, not by making it something else, for that would destroy the very purpose of the Incarnation, but by making it more fully and deeply human. But precisely what happens to this human nature when it becomes the human nature of the Word? What perfection comes to it from its very union with the second Person of the Trinity? Mersch calls this, "the great question in all theology." (40)

The human nature of Jesus subsists with the personality of the second person, but that very union with the Word transforms this human nature so that it has an "entity of union." (41) just as the soul animates the body and gives it a "being of union" so that it displays in gestures and facial expressions the riches of the human spirit, this union with the Word makes the humanity of Jesus display the richness of divinity. But the humanity of Jesus "does not differ from ours except in the intensity of its existence." (42) And this intensification effects both its individual and social aspects.

If human nature on the natural plane is already profoundly social, what will an intensification of that nature cause it to be? Men and women by their very spiritual forms possess a certain illimitation and universality by which they are called to be in union with the rest of the human race. "What, then, will the form be in this Man, who is illimitation and infinity itself?" (43) Jesus becomes the source and agent of the divinization of mankind and the very center of the human race.

Here we approach the center of Mersch's vision; "...Christ's humanity has its mystic fullness and illimitation through union with God, and it has its union with God through union with the Word. Hence it is attached first and directly to the Trinitarian life as such." (44) And this humanity, in virtue of its intimate link with us, brings us into the life of the Trinity.


Once again, as was the case with original sin, Mersch is dissatisfied with an overly juridical view of redemption. Even though most of the Thomist school had gotten sidetracked into the intricacies of this juridical view, Mersch, following St. Thomas, wants to explore the "persona mystica" we form with Christ. But before he can do this, he has to develop his ideas on sin and death.

Sin makes us break with the infinite being and our own natures. (45) The sin that redemption is meant to repair "is the totality of sin, that is, original sin so far as it has penetrated into each man and has been assimilated and actuated in different degrees through actual sins..." (46) It is this kind of sin "committed in the order of grace and the Incarnation" (47) that Jesus came to save us from. In Adam we had lost a social solidarity in grace that is restored in and through the humanity of Jesus.

Mersch also elaborates a philosophy of death following the reflections he had begun in Chapter V. Dying must be a free and conscious act "that crowns the series of human acts and crystallizes it." (48) The very act of death sums up all the free acts that went before, and if this is what happens in us, what will death be in the God-man?


"The preceding chapter has brought out, step by step, what the redemption ought to be. We must now consider what it actually is." (49) Mersch is going to apply two now familiar principles to this question. First, he will have nothing to do with the redemption that somehow remains extrinsic to us, imputed to us from the outside, in view of the suffering and death of Jesus. Redemption is a gift of God, but it is wrought by the God-man. If it can be said to descend from God, it also takes place in the center of mankind through the humanity of Jesus.

The second point is precisely this social dimension. Jesus is the very center of unity of the human race, and this is where his redemptive death has its effect. God, by a kind of exquisite tact, allows mankind in the God-man to effect redemption, which is then worked out in the members of his mystical body. The pain and suffering that Christians experience are not some arbitrarily decreed punishment, but the price of reorienting the very depths of their souls back towards God. "Sin has contorted man in such a way that he cannot stand upright again without dislocating his bones." (50) By the Incarnation Christ is profoundly united to a sinful race, and his redemptive death is the way he draws this race back to the Father.

Mersch is taking us on a voyage of discovery in which the very mysteries of the faith begin to reveal their interconnections, and could almost be said to be one mystery, and we are seeing this multi-faceted mystery from the inside, for we are brought within it by our union with Christ. In the case of the redemption: "Men receive this redemption, not as a gift coming from another, but as a grace incorporating them into that other. They receive it by becoming one with Christ..." (51) We are not simply passive recipients of redemption, either, but active participants by our own life, suffering and death in union with Christ.




Mersch is deeply rooted in the best of the theology Of the past as his historical study, The Whole Christ, amply illustrates. But this does not prevent him from seeing where this tradition has failed to find satisfactory expression, for example, in the case of a too juridical view of redemption, or has not pursued a promising path like the social dimension of the mystical body. Precisely by being keenly aware of the theological tradition he is working out of, he can be critical of it and see when and where he is trying to advance it. But he advances that tradition from within. He is innocent of an egocentrism that can mar theology by excessively seeking to be up to date and to remake all anew. While Mersch knows that tradition can ossify into a false kind of dogmatism, he is also aware that at its best it is the effort of the Church community to understand the divine mysteries, themselves.

In this chapter he begins by invoking the Scriptures and Fathers in regard to the Trinity, which he sees as the central and most sublime mystery of Christianity from which all life comes. Once he has situated himself within the best Trinitarian theology he can find, he proceeds to write some of his most powerful pages.

He starts with a paradox. All creation, tradition says, is a work common to the three divine persons, rather than to any particular one of them. But the same tradition also asserts that we become the sons of God through the Son. And Mersch feels that the tension between these two ideas has not been harnessed adequately to produce new theological insights. His own approach is to look at the humanity of Jesus and our incorporation into that humanity. The Incarnation can be viewed in two complementary ways. The principle of this work is the three persons in common, but the term of it is that one of the divine persons becomes man. It is only the Word, and not the Father or the Holy Spirit, who becomes incarnated. The human nature that is taken up by Jesus is transformed by becoming the humanity of the second person of the Trinity. It has a new entity of union, as Mersch puts it, a filial perfection. The deepest center of this humanity is the Son, and through the Son, the Trinity. Mersch cites the medieval analogy in which the humanity of Jesus is like the air that is illuminated by the sun of the divine Word. As long as the air is united to the sunlight, it is radiant with a glory that is its own particular way of participating in this light.

But we are one with Jesus, so we, too, are sons, not by nature, but by adoption. The filial character of Christ's humanity becomes our own. If, as creatures, we are the result of the action of the three persons in common, and are thus works ad extra, our union with Jesus draws us to share in his Sonship. We become rooted in the Trinity through the humanity of Jesus. In this way the term of our incorporation is to make us enter ad intra into the life of the Trinity, and this perspective is Mersch's gift to the centuries long reflection that the Church has carried on about the Trinity. The sacred humanity of Jesus, and us as members of that humanity, are works ad extra that are drawn to the Word, and because of their union with the Word exist ad intra and enter into the life of the Trinity.


For Mersch the whole of revelation is to be found in the humanity of Jesus. just as ontologically this humanity is transformed by its union with the Word, so, too, in the order of knowledge, it possesses a filial knowledge of the mystery of the Trinity, a knowledge born of union.

The very self-awareness that Jesus has of himself as a human being finds its ultimate termination and completion in the person of the Word. This human consciousness, in virtue of this union with the second person, possesses a knowledge of the inner life of the Trinity. Once again Mersch is determined to take the deepest and most central perspective. While it is true that revelation, to be accessible to human beings, must be uttered in words, these words are an expression of the mystery of the Incarnation, indeed, of the mystery of the very consciousness of the humanity of Jesus inasmuch as that consciousness is transformed by its union with the person of the Word. The humanity of Jesus has a Trinitarian consciousness, and since we are all supernaturally one in this humanity, all of us are called to share in that same consciousness. If our very being has been supernaturally transformed so that we are sons by adoption, so, too, are we sons in our very way of knowing.

Mersch has put into place the foundations for the kind of knowledge that comes through faith. This knowledge is a share in the knowledge of the humanity of Jesus, and so it is a "verbal" knowledge, a knowledge of the Word. Since Christians are ontologically members of the Word, "they must be conscious of this membership in the Word." (52) In virtue of our participation in the humanity of Jesus, we possess an inner sympathy and connaturality with Jesus. Christ teaches us without through his words in the Gospels, and in the life of the Church, but He also teaches us within, and this teaching within is the very transformation that Mersch has been discussing, which allows us to grasp the full import of the external words. This teaching within is the very process of transformation by which we are made sons in the Son, and are given the ability to recognize in the external words this same mystery.


Mersch will now look at the role of the Holy Spirit, but always in the context of the whole Christ, and he will follow the pattern he used to describe how the humanity of Jesus is related through the Word to the Father, and how we, as Christians, share in that relationship.

The Son not only receives all from the Father, but together with the Father, breathes forth the Holy Spirit. This means that the humanity of Jesus, in virtue of its union with the Word, will not only have a filial character, but it will be the humanity of the Spirator. "Although the assumed humanity is not the divinity nor spiration, it subsists in Him who is the Spirator of the Holy Spirit and is truly and intrinsically the humanity of Him from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds." (53) The reality of being the Spirator in the humanity of Jesus is an "entity of union," a "love of union," another of the "series of theandric realities" Mersch has been describing. (54)

We, too, if we are truly united to the humanity of Jesus, must share in that mysterious reality, and somehow, in union with Him, breathe forth the Spirit. In bold, yet loving pages, Mersch explains how the humanity of Jesus, both head and members, is the humanity of the Spirator, and how the Church, both "possesses yet receives" (55) the Holy Spirit. As members of the body of Christ, we are sanctified by the Spirit and are called to help in the sanctification of others.




It will come as no surprise that Mersch will deal with the supernatural by applying the same principles he has so successfully used in the previous chapters. The first treatises on the supernatural appear in the 16th and 17th centuries because they demanded a "reflex judgment," (56) a new kind of consciousness that was only then emerging. But these treatises made progress at a price which, in this case, was looking at the supernatural in us as a work ad extra, an accident that modified us, and they did not keep in clear focus the vital relationship between the supernatural and the humanity of Jesus, and through that humanity the Son, and through the Son the inner life of the Trinity. This was a theme that earlier centuries had developed, but not in a reflexive way. Mersch wants to bridge the gap between these two perspectives, and consciously view the idea of the supernatural in terms of the essential relationships that constitute it.

The supernatural is "of a different order," a "divinization." (57) It does not change us into something else, but causes us to be ourselves in a deeper and higher way. But what can be more interior to us than the very being that God has given us? "When God has communicated Himself to a thing by the being that is interior to the thing, He can still communicate Himself by the being that is interior to Himself." (58)

Mersch has only to recall the main lines of his synthesis to express how this comes about. The supernatural is our elevation in the humanity of Jesus, and all that implies. If, as a work ad extra, it can be seen as an accident residing in us, as a work ad intra, it is a "new type of being" that brings us into the Trinitarian life, the very interior of being, itself. In contrast to the act of creation by which we exist, this supernatural life comes about through a "causality of union" which gives rise to the entity of union we met before. The idea of contingent being must be complemented with an ontology of this new kind of supernatural being.


As he did in studying the supernatural, Mersch does not want to study the Church in itself, but rather, in the light of Christ, its "inner principle and cause." (59) This is the Church as "nothing but a continuation of Christology." (60)

Like Christ's humanity, the Church has a visible, outer, empirical existence, and an inner, mysterious one. This inner existence is one of adoptive sonship, "diffused throughout all mankind..." (61) The notes of the Church by which it makes itself known can also be expressed in the light of Christ's humanity. The very humanity of Jesus in its concrete human existence shone with the light of His divinity, and there was a harmony and connaturality between this divinized humanity and the grace working in every person so that they could recognize in Jesus the fullness of what He was. In a similar way, though obscured by the weakness and imperfections of its members, the Church as the body of Christ shines with more than an earthly light and draws people to itself, or more precisely, to Christ through it. This is the foundation of the traditional notes of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. All these notes have their source in Jesus, for the Church has no other unity or holiness or universality in space or continuity in time than that which springs from the Incarnation.


"When we were considering the notes of the Church, we saw that Christ abides and lives in the Church. We now go on to show that Christ thus remains in the Church to act in it." (62) He acts in the Church by His teaching, governing and sanctifying offices, all of which Mersch will naturally view from the point of view of the whole Christ.

The humanity of Jesus, "subsisting as it did in the Word, was in itself a human teaching without limit, and was so great that it could not express itself fully except in the totality of the human race." (63) It does this both in a visible and in an invisible way, invisibly by enlightening "the consciousness of every man within" (64) and visibly by the Church which is the continuation of Christ in space and time.

In a similar way, doctrinal development does not consist in any new content of revelation, but in a progressively deeper assimilation by the members of the Church of the mystery already present completely in Jesus. Faith is no intellectual timidity of intellect, afraid to really think, but a more piercing and luminous vision that arises out of our union with Christ and the Church. (65) In a like manner, the Church governs both exteriorly and interiorly. This interior governing "is a charity that enables us to evaluate, judge, will, and love in the way that is fitting for members who have been raised to the supernatural life..." (66)


Mersch completes his discussion of the functions of the Church by turning to its sanctifying role, again in the light of Christ's humanity, for all the Church's power of sanctification flows from this source. During his life Jesus' humanity was a sign that brought people into contact with his divinity. His "sacred humanity is the great sacrament." (67) And this sacramentality expresses itself in all his acts, and especially in his act of dying. The Church is the continuation of this humanity, and as such is a sacrament, itself, and the seven sacraments are expressions of the activity of Jesus through it.

Mersch proceeds to examine the common nature of these sacraments, and then examines each one of them in turn, emphasizing, as is his wont, their social dimension which shows how they are sacraments of the whole Christ, both head and members.

By baptism the Church gains new members. By confirmation these members become adult participants in the Church, and by penance they are restored to it, while extreme unction is penance's "consummation." (68) These four unite us to the Church, . while marriage is the source of new members of the body of Christ, and holy orders provides the ministry of the sacraments, but the Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence, for it is Christ, himself, in his supreme act of dying, and the Mass makes Christ present in the very midst of the lives of the members of the Church.


The sacraments are part of the exterior structure of the Church, that is, "interiorly animated by a supernatural life. This life is grace." (69) Once again Mersch will not look at grace as theology often did in the past as if it somehow existed by itself, but in relationship to the supernatural mystery of the life we have through the humanity of Jesus. "The Blessed Trinity is the ultimate transcendent source of all grace, and the humanity of the Word is its first interior principle." (70)

Mersch launches into a brilliant summary of his central vision that forms the axis of his theology of the mystical body: the humanity of Jesus, in virtue of being the humanity of the Word, receives an entity of union which is "like a flash of intelligence that can appear in the eyes." (71) This new way of being is the divinization of this humanity that, far from destroying its nature, makes it to be itself more intensely by elevating it to share in the life of the Trinity through the Word. The humanity of Jesus is divine by union and the principle of grace, and all grace comes to us through this humanity which is so intimately united to the human race.

Sanctifying grace, then, is our participation in the new life we have in the Trinity. "It is our very soul as internally ennobled and elevated by the indwelling of God and for this indwelling. Or we may say that it is the union of God in man, so far as this union produces an 'amelioration' that perfects man's nature with a perfection that is transcendent and supernatural, for it confers on us a sort of intrinsic proportion with God Himself." (72) Once again Mersch calls for a new ontology to explore this new way of being, a "meta-metaphysics" (73) which he has laid the foundation for with the development of the idea of the entity of union.


If sanctifying grace can be looked at as a state of divinization arising from our union with Christ, actual grace is the activation of that state even though there can be actual graces that precede the state of sanctifying grace. Actual grace is God's elevation of our cooperation in the process of divinization, and it comes through Christ's humanity which needed actual grace in order to act as the humanity of the Word. This actual grace was due to his humanity by the very fact of the Incarnation.

Our call to divinization demands a divinized activity, "a transcendent strengthening of human energy." (74) Actual grace, itself, can be viewed as an "entity of union" by which God elevates all our acts so they are fitting for our new life in Christ. Mersch has no interest in analyzing actual grace as if it stood alone, and still less in understanding it in any juridical way. In his mind both sanctifying and actual grace can only be understood in light of the union we have in Christ, and the same can be said for supernatural merit which is an approaching and obtaining of our supernatural goal.



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