- "This is a Profound Mystery":Union and Distinction between Christ and His Church in Johann Adam Möhler and His Twentieth-Century Successors
Modern Roman Catholic ecclesiology is indebted to the work of Johann Adam Möhler (1796–1838). His creative synthesis of diverse historical, philosophical, and ecclesial influences refreshed post-Enlightenment Catholicism with a view of the Church defined less by abstract, Scholastic assertions and more by the living, historical reality of the community of faith. Yet Möhler by no means resolved all the questions he raised by taking this tack. This essay focuses on one such question that has been especially fecund for Möhler's successors: how are the union and the distinction between Christ and his Church to be understood?
The apostle Paul set the terms of this question most provocatively in his letter to the Ephesians. After citing the Genesis passage concerning Adam and Eve's nuptial union—"the two shall become one flesh"—the apostle goes on to comment: "This is a profound mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and his Church" (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:32). Aside from whatever Paul meant by this exactly, Möhler [End Page 705] at least came to interpret this one-flesh union between Christ and Church as being somehow realized through the Incarnation itself, as will be shown.1 By the end of his career, however, Möhler had not clarified sufficiently how, despite its union with Christ, the pilgrim Church on earth could still be seen as ontologically distinct from him. But, as I will explain, some of Möhler's twentieth-century successors turned to Mariology to remedy this point of confusion, hoping to retain the Tübingen theologian's organic view of the Church as a living communio united by the Spirit while illuminating the "profound mystery" in which Christ and Church become one (though remaining distinct) in the dialogical freedom of what Scripture pictures in terms of spousal love.
After describing Möhler's place within modern Catholic ecclesiology, I will recount the historiography concerning "Möhler's shift," his shift from a "pneumatocentric" account of the Church's divine–human communion to a more "incarnational" account. For some scholars, Möhler bequeathed a bifurcated ecclesiology that remains unsettled, according to which the visible Church on earth is fundamentally constituted either by its receptivity to the Holy Spirit or by its ongoing exercise of the visible authority given directly by Christ incarnate. In a third section, I will query this either–or by assessing the contributions of a trio of Möhler's successors who sought to deal with this particular problem. For Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph [End Page 706] Ratzinger, and Henri de Lubac, a deeper consideration of Mary overcomes the apparent dualism between a "pneumatological model" of the Church and an "incarnational model." More specifically, by attending further to Mary's role in the mystery of the Incarnation, Balthasar, Ratzinger, and de Lubac resituate the visible authority of the Church within a deeper communio ecclesiology, but in a way that does not diminish the sacramental character of the hierarchical ministry.
Möhler's Place in Modern Catholic Ecclesiology
Möhler is widely acknowledged as the most significant theologian to have been associated with the so-called "Catholic Tübingen School," which he is also credited for cofounding, along with his teacher, Johann Sebastian Drey.2 This "school" took its bearings when the faculty of Ellwangen seminary joined the University of Tübingen in 1817. From here, the faculty became more active in the German Catholic renewal following the culture shock of the French Revolution and the intellectual challenges of the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung).3 The philosophical resources supplied by romanticism were amenable in some ways to Catholic attempts to modernize, but Drey and Möhler (who went from student to teacher in 1823) were adaptable, drawing as much from the early Church Fathers, historical theology, and the katholische Aufklärung as from Lessing, Schelling, or Schleiermacher, and their notable colleagues Johannes Kuhn and Johann Baptist Hirscher were likewise adaptable.4 Michel Deneken's recent biography notes this interdisciplinary theological dialogue: "What...