Emile Mersch - A Theological Introduction July 2, 2021 22:01 1 Comment

We begin a new series on Emile Mersch's The Whole Christ by guest contributor Andrew Kuiper. This is the first of five posts.

Along with Matthias Scheeben, Emile Mersch, S.J. (1890-1940) is another theologian whose neglect seems to be due to the misfortune of his having lived and worked within the interstices of major modern events. He spent WWI studying theology in Brussels and Louvain, seeing only the first spasms of the second world-wide conflict before he died tending to the wounded on the French-Belgian border. Fr. Mersch also occupied a moment that, in hindsight, may seem to us somewhat indeterminate with respect to modern ecclesial history; he was born twenty years after the conclusion of Vatican I and died twenty-two years before the opening of Vatican II.[1] Yet, also like Scheeben, he was a figure in which the best lines of future theological work can be clearly seen in development.

His masterpiece The Whole Christ[2] (English translation 1938, Original French edition Le corps mystique du Christ 1933) is a dogmatic and historical tour de force concerning the doctrine of the Mystical Body. He organizes the work into three sections: Scripture, Greek Patristics, and the Western Tradition (comprising Latin Patristics, the Scholastics, and The French School of Pierre de Bérulle). These three can stand as independent monographs but this would be to misunderstand them simply as historical studies. For as Mersch excavates sources from within Church history, we encounter his own notion of history as a providential mystery from which theological insight is drawn forth by perpetual meditation.

For Mersch, the content of revelation itself has been given in history—completely, once, and for all. The history of theological reflection in the Fathers and the Medievals is, then, a communal and ecclesial journey of understanding. In this journey, the theological tradition develops in its expression of this once and for all given deposit of faith. Earlier ages must not be discarded in favor of the most developed summary statements. In the first place, the development is not a matter simply of increasing propositional accuracy and clarity; for the mystery is too deep to be wholly expressed by any particular theologian or dogmatic statement. Second, to immerse oneself in historical theology is to undertake a spiritual journey of one’s own conformity:

There is question here of a truth that is ever the same, which an infinite Wisdom, ever the same, allows to penetrate gradually into the souls of men by means of a manifestation that continues through the ages, ever more complete yet ever the same; while His goodness, ever the same, gives clearer vision to their intelligences.[3]

Mersch discerns that, under the providence of God, “different ages are intrinsically connected to each other” and studying the history of theology precisely as theology requires attunement to the “logical order corresponding to this historical order.”[4]  In this sense, we can speak of a double application of Christ’s words in John chapter 16, especially:

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (Jn. 16:12-14)

 The Church has been given the fullness of truth in a definitive manner and authoritatively exercises the stewardship of the depositum fidei. However, the mysteries of God are so staggering that our understanding must grow into them both historically over the course of many generations of faithful and personally over the course of our lives. One way of reading the parable of the scribe of the kingdom of heaven in heaven in the Gospel of Matthew is to identify the Church as she who continually brings forth treasures old and new. This is in fact how Bl. Cardinal John Henry Newman interpreted that passage in his essay “Milman’s History of Christianity” (1841):

Nor are we afraid to allow, that, even after his coming, the Church has been a treasure house, giving forth things old and new, casting the gold of fresh tributaries into her refiner’s fire, or stamping upon her own, as time required it, a deeper impress of her Master’s image.[5]

Like Newman and de Lubac, Mersch believed that the providence of God always takes the form of a loving pedagogy and that our part is to strengthen our capacities and desires, the more fully to participate in the perfectly complete Man, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Personally, this is a journey both intellectual and moral; ecclesially it is a journey of increasing clarity of expression that sharpens the Church’s ability to respond to the challenges of each new age.

Fr. Mersch’s facility with the Fathers, his sympathy with the philosophical writings of Joseph Maréchal and Pierre Rousselot, and his affinity for the spirituality of Pierre Bérulle together suggest comparison with another Jesuit theologian: Henri de Lubac. Mersch and de Lubac seem to have been on almost identical theological paths at the same time. Only five years after Mersch’s volume, De Lubac’s Catholicisme: Les aspects sociaux du dogme (1938; first English translation 1950, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man) was published, covering many of the same themes.

Both Mersch and de Lubac consider the “social” dimension of theology. We must distinguish the theological “social” from contemporary uses that would reduce the “social” to the merely “sociological.” The theologically social aspect of dogma is the sublime mystery that, through these realities, God unites Himself with us and makes us partakers of his divine nature. To expound dogma with an eye toward this divine-human society means to display how the divine light, beyond any shadow of turning, catches us up into a divinizing sonship. The merely sociological understanding of “social” typically refers to a flattened-out and bottom-up definition of Church as just another human organization. Mersch and de Lubac both affirm that the doctrine of the Mystical Body extends indeed to all areas of human existence and activity—and thus they are interested in the sociological and political implications of Christian theology—but that theology is applicable to these spheres only because it is grounded in and aimed at a society that transcends them. Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all of these things will be given to you. (Mt. 6:33) For Mersch, the mystery of the Whole Christ is “before all else a prodigy of unity” where salvation means an unfathomable union with Christ and the saints within the vivifying matrix of the Church. “And what is life but a particular mode of unity?”[6]


[1] More detailed bibliographical information can be found here

[2]  The title draws on St. Augustine’s preferred term for the Mystical Body: totus Christus

[3] Introduction, 15

[4] Ibid, 14

[5] Newman quotes himself in the Essay on the Development of Doctrine, p. 382.

[6] Introduction, 3