Mystici corporis Christi
Latin for 'The Mystical Body of Christ'
Encyclical of Pope Pius XII
Coat of arms of Pope Pius XII
Signature date 29 June 1943
Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII

Mystici corporis Christi (English: 'The Mystical Body of Christ') is a papal encyclical issued by Pope Pius XII on 29 June 1943 during World War II.[1] It is principally remembered for its statement that the Mystical Body of Christ is the Catholic Church, a claim later repeated by Pius XII in Humani generis (1950) in response to dissension. According to Mystici corporis, to be truly a member of the Mystical Body one must be a member of the Catholic Church. Other Christians who erred in good faith could be unsuspectingly united to the Mystical Body by an unconscious desire and longing.[2]

It is one of the more important encyclicals of Pius XII because of its topic, the Church, which was strongly debated and further developed in the Second Vatican Council document on the Church, Lumen gentium.

Mystici corporis identified the earthly presence of this body with the Catholic Church, at a time of much theological debate on the meaning of 'Mystical Body'.

According to the Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, Mystici corporis was "the most comprehensive official Catholic pronouncement on the Church prior to Vatican II."[2] Its primary writer Sebastiaan Tromp drew mainly on the first schema of Vatican I and on the encyclicals of Leo XIII.[3] It de-emphasized papal jurisdiction but insisted on the visibility of the church, warning against an excessively mystical understanding of the union between Christ and the Church.[2]


The encyclical builds on a theological development in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, France, Germany and England, which all re-discovered the Pauline concept of the Mystical Body of Christ.[4] In 1936, Emile Mersch had warned of some false mysticisms being advanced with regard to the mystical body, and his history of this topic was seen as influencing the encyclical.[5] On 18 January 1943, five months before the promulgation of Mystici corporis, Archbishop Conrad Gröber of Fribourg promulgated a letter in which he addressed the docetic tendencies of some mystical body theology (to separate the spiritual and the material elements in man). Timothy Gabrielli saw Pius' emphasis on the church as a perfect society on earth as an attempt to save the mystical body theology, with its many theological, pastoral, and spiritual benefits, from the danger of docetism.[6]

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.[7]

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  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".[8]
  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.[9]


Role of the laity

The encyclical teaches that both lay people and the leadership have a role to play in the Church. Lay people are at the forefront of the Church, and have to be aware of 'being the Church', not just 'belonging to the Church'. At the same time, the Pope and bishops are responsible for providing leadership for all the faithful. Together, they are the Church and work for the good of the Church.[10]

In 1947, Pius XII later issued the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, which allowed lay people to form their own secular communities, and establish them within a newly established Canon Law framework.[11]

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"[12] 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.[13] God governs directly and guides personally the Church which He founded. Pius XII 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.[14]

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.[15]

Opposition to Nazism

Pius XII wrote: "The Church of God … is despised and hated maliciously by those who shut their eyes to the light of Christian wisdom and miserably return to the teachings, customs and practices of ancient paganism." He quoted the book of Wisdom to the effect that "a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. ...The mighty shall be mightily tormented. ...A greater punishment is ready for the more mighty."[16] Ronald Rychlak has described the encyclical as "an obvious attack on the theoretical basis of National Socialism."[17]

Killing of disabled people

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" was 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".[18]

Exclusion on the basis of race or nationality

Pius XII appealed to "Catholics the world over" to "look to the Vicar of Jesus Christ as the loving Father of them all, who… takes upon himself with all his strength the defense of truth, justice and charity." He explained, "Our paternal love embraces all peoples, whatever their nationality or race." Christ, by his blood, made the Jews and Gentiles one "breaking down the middle wall of partition… in his flesh by which the two peoples were divided." He noted that Jews were among the first people to adore Jesus. Pius then made an appeal for all to "follow our peaceful King who taught us to love not only those who are of a different nation or race, but even our enemies." Pinchas E. Lapide, the Israeli consul in Italy, wrote: "Pius chose mystical theology as a cloak for a message which no cleric or educated Christian could possibly misunderstand."[16]

In the United States, it would be seen as a critique of any kind of prejudice against African-Americans.[19]

Forced conversions

Mystici corporis Christi strongly condemned the forced conversions to Catholicism that were then occurring in Fascist Croatia.[20] 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."[21] 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" is an entirely free "submission of intellect and will."[22]


Main article: 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",[23] 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.[24]

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."[25] Pius viewed her compassion there as the basis for her role in redemption.[26]

If the Mother of God was born as the "second Eve", the Church was born as the "new Eve". Pius XII repeated that, according to "unanimous teaching" of the holy Fathers and the magisterium of Christ, the "Church was born from the side of our Savior on the Cross like a new Eve, mother of all the living."[25]


Main article: Subsistit in

The encyclical is principally remembered for its statement that the Mystical Body is identical with the Roman Catholic Church, repeated by Pius XII in Humani generis (1950) in response to dissension. According to Mystici corporis, to be truly (reapse) a member of the Mystical Body one must be a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christians who erred in good faith could be unsuspectingly united to the Mystical Body by an unconscious desire and longing (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto). In 1947, Pius XII wrote the encyclical Mediator Dei which acknowledged that baptized Christians were members of the Mystical Body and participated in Christ's priestly office.[2]

During the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar argued that the term ecclesia ('church') concerned the people "called forth", the People of God, those over whom God reigns. "Body of Christ" then would emphasize the special union with the risen Christ that came with the new covenant. Congar was later denounced by the Holy Office for describing the Church as essentially a community in the Spirit, a gathering of the faithful.[2]

The Second Vatican Council would later define in Lumen gentium that the Church subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church. Dulles argues this to be "an expression deliberately chosen to allow for the ecclesial reality of other Christian communities", implying that non-Catholic Christians are members of the Body of Christ, and thus of the Church.[2]

See also


  1. ^ Mystici corporis Christi
  2. ^ a b c d e f Avery Dulles, “A Half Century of Ecclesiology,” Theological Studies, 50 (1989), 420-431.
  3. ^ Sullivan, SJ, Francis (2006). "Quaestio Disputata: A response to Karl Becker, SJ, on the Meaning of Subsistit in" (PDF). Theological Studies. 67: 395–409.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2011).
  6. ^ Gabrielli, Timothy R. (2017). "One in Christ". Liturgical Press.
  7. ^ Heribert Mühlen, Una Mystica Persona, München, 1967, p.51
  8. ^ Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 63
  9. ^ S Tromp, Caput influit sensum et motum, Gregorianum, 1958, pp353-366
  10. ^ Pius XII, Discourse, February 20, 1946:AAS 38 (1946) 149; quoted by John Paul II, CL 9.
  11. ^ Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, Vatican city, 1947
  12. ^ Cf. John VI, 63.
  13. ^ Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 38
  14. ^ ."Proverbs, XXI, 1Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 39
  15. ^ Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 93
  16. ^ a b Bill. "A Response to: The Vatican and the Holocaust, A Preliminary Report by the International Catholic-Jewish Commission". Catholic League. Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  17. ^ "Pius XII as a Righteous Gentile | EWTN". Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  18. ^ Richard J. Evans; The Third Reich at War; 2008 pp. 529-30
  19. ^ Ruth Fox, “Catholicism and Racism,” Interracial Review 17 (February 1944), 25; Catherine de Hueck Doherty, “The Baroness Jots It Down,” Harlem Friendship House News (April 1944), 6.
  20. ^ "Goldhagen v. Pius XII | Ronald J. Rychlak". First Things. Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  21. ^ a b Cf. August., In Ioann. Ev. tract., XXVI, 2: Migne, P.L. XXX, 1607.
  22. ^ Vat. Counc. Const. de fide Cath., Cap. 3
  23. ^ Office for Holy Week
  24. ^ Pius XII, Enc. Mystici corporis Christi, 110
  25. ^ a b Pope Pius XII. Mystici corporis Christi, §110, June 29, 1943, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  26. ^ Jelly, Frederic M., Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998 ISBN 9781579101954