How Many Churches? A Critique of Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole

by Eric J. Demeuse

In an important work recently translated into English,[1] the French Dominican Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole presents a bold and largely successful “introduction to the mystery of the Church.” This 628 page “textbook,” as he calls it, is anything but what that arid term suggests. Offering both an historical examination of sources (part I) as well as speculative suggestions for moving forward doctrinally and ecumenically (part II), de la Soujeole presents a rich and impressive work which will be engaged by students and scholars for years to come.[2]

A brief scan through the table of contents, however, reveals an all too common yet inexcusable bias. I am not speaking of the author’s clear and unabashed preference for the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas—Soujeole makes a fair and non-nostalgic case for the importance of the Angelic Doctor in the ecclesial tradition, and thus for his use of Thomas as the representative (though never exclusively so) of medieval ecclesiology. Rather, de la Soujeole’s inexcusable bias comes in his treatment of early modernity. In his examination of sources (part I), chapter subheadings frequently skip over the very era in which “ecclesiology” became solidified as a unique discipline within theology—the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. For example, the subheadings under chapter 2, “The Church Is the Body of Christ,” move immediately from “The medieval data: St. Thomas Aquinas” to “The modern rediscovery of the Mystical Body” in the De Ecclesia schema of Vatican I (1869-1870). Likewise, his chapter on the Church as “people of God,” which engages the intersection of Aristotelianism, political theory, and ecclesiology, fails to engage any major theological figure between Thomas Aquinas and Pius IX (1792-1878). Of course, the work is a textbook and cannot cover everything. Yet the very fact that de la Soujeole can find very little in early modernity to serve as an ecclesiological “source” for his ecclesiology seems problematic, especially in an age such as our own, so focused on ecumenism between confessions of the West.

Be that as it may, de la Soujeole reveals the reasons for such a bias in his more speculative part II of the book. Here, the author takes aim at a classic passage from St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (1542-1621), and through it levels a damning critique of Bellarmine’s ecclesiology. The passage comes from chapter 2 of Bellarmine’s On the Church Militant, and reads:

The Church is a living body in which there is a soul and a body. The internal gifts of the Holy Spirit (faith, hope, charity, etc.) are the soul. The external profession of faith and participation in the sacraments are the body. Hence we see that some men belong to the soul and the body of the Church and accordingly are united internally and externally to Christ the Head. They are perfectly and completely in the Church; for that are like living members in the body, although among them there are some who share more or less in this life, and some who have only the beginning of this life—the faculties of sense but not of motion, so to speak—such as those who have faith alone without charity. Still others are part of the soul and not of the body, such as catechumens and the excommunicated, if they have faith and charity, which can happen. Finally, others are part of the body and not of the soul, like those who have no interior virtue and, nevertheless, through some worldly hope or fear, profess the faith and receive the sacraments under the government of the pastors; they are like the hairs, the nails, or the bad humors in the human body.[3]

There is certainly much in this paragraph to unpack, and de la Soujeole offers a robust and multi-faceted critique of Bellarmine, but one based exclusively on this passage and select others from the same chapter. And, as will be shown, therein lies the problem. Among de la Soujeole’s numerous critiques—some, I would add, entirely justified—he writes:

Tradition (the Church Fathers, St. Thomas, etc.) has shown us that the soul of the Church is the Spirit in Person as the principle of the created gifts. The ecclesial Body is made up by men in whom the Spirit and his gifts are received. With St Robert Bellarmine, there is a considerable change of perspective: the soul of the Church is made up of persons who have the Spirit and his gifts; the body of the Church is made up of the persons who are externally members of the Church. The consequence is clear: the soul and the body of the Church are separable; they form two distinct communities that are normally united, but can be separated. Hence, we cannot avoid the following conclusion: the Holy Spirit—more by his gifts than by himself—is strictly speaking the soul of the ‘invisible Church’ but not of ‘the visible Church.’ That is where the break appears, and it is fearsome (185).

In a footnote, de la Soujeole re-emphasizes what he sees as one of Bellarmine’s crucial departures from the Tradition, that the “Holy Spirit [in Person] is absent” in Bellarmine’s description of the soul of the Church (363, fn. 6). De la Soujeole does clarify that Bellarmine ascribes to the unity of the Church, but laments that “his treatment does not make this evident” (364). Rather, Bellarmine’s understanding of the Church suggests “two formally distinct communities,” the invisible and the visible. Theologians of the 17th-20th centuries would follow Bellarmine’s distinction—de la Soujeole quotes Billuart (1685-1757), Perrone (1794-1876), de Groot (1859-1929), and Billot (1846-1931)—a distinction “tantamount to saying that this theology… recognize[s] two Churches, the visible Church and the invisible Church [and] in effect, joins the Protestants in their major ecclesiological premise” (371). A distinction, moreover, “which is all too clearly not in conformity with the remarks in [Vatican II’s] Lumen Gentium [§8]” (411).

This attitude toward Bellarmine’s ecclesiology is not new. Already in the early seventeenth century, Lutheran scholastic Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) would, for related reasons, argue that Bellarmine “is really approving our [the Lutheran’s] distinction between the visible and invisible church.”[4] Yet Bellarmine refuses to make this distinction in his writings, insisting that “the Church is only one, not two,”[5] and that “a visible congregation is always meant by the term Church.”[6] Further, Bellarmine nowhere makes a strict equivocation between body/soul and visible/invisible church. In fact, Bellarmine’s use of the body/soul analogy is much more fluid than Soujeole is willing to allow.

In an article written in 1944 for The American Ecclesiastical Review, Joseph Clifford Fenton addresses the very objection de la Soujeole raises (de la Soujeole does not reference the work). Fenton, like de la Soujeole, rejects the ecclesiology of Bellarmine’s eighteenth-century interpreters. However, whereas de la Soujeole thinks they were faithful readers of Bellarmine, Fenton thinks they departed radically from the Doctor Ecclesiae. In short, those theologians who used Bellarmine’s distinction in order to argue for a twofold Church failed to conceive the terms “body and soul” as metaphors, instead deeming them “names for some realities which demanded an explanation in their own right.”[7]

Fenton demonstrates his thesis by showing that the body/soul analogy has no one, exclusive meaning for Bellarmine. Rather, it is used for various purposes and in various ways precisely as metaphor. Fenton describes three different uses of this metaphor evident in De Ecclesiae militante:

  1. The body is used to designate the Catholic Church itself. ‘The Church is a living body.’ St. Robert speaks of God the Holy Ghost as the soul, the correlative of this body. ‘The Church is governed by Christ, as by its Head and its Spouse, and by the Holy Ghost as by its Soul.’[8]
  2. The external profession of faith and the communication of the sacraments are called the body within the Church, or of the Church. The internal gifts of the Holy Ghost, faith, hope, charity, and the rest constitute the corresponding
  3. Good Catholics constitute the interior part, and as it were the soul of the Church, while the wicked persons within the Church are its exterior part, and as it were the [9]

The first use of the body/soul metaphor directly refutes de la Soujeole’s claim that “the Holy Spirit [in Person] is absent” from Bellarmine’s description of the Church. In fact, Bellarmine uses this metaphor numerous times: in one instance to defend the inerrancy of the Church (“The Church is governed… by the Holy Spirit as by its Soul”), in another to defend the possibility of all members—good and wicked—to be instruments of God, “for the soul of this body, that is, the Holy Spirit, works equally well through good and bad instruments.”[10] Thus, the notion of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church—present in the Fathers and medieval scholastics, employed by the Tridentine Catechism, and codified in Leo XIII’s Divinum illud munus (1897) and Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi (1943)—is understood and utilized by Bellarmine.

Fenton rightly locates the controversy in Bellarmine’s second use of the body/soul metaphor—the use de la Soujeole targets with his criticism. In this use, Bellarmine designates the three theological virtues as the “soul of the Church.” De la Soujeole concludes from this that those “of the soul of the Church—de anima” (note that the word “part”—as de la Soujeole’s translation above renders it—does not appear in the original Latin) form a distinct community. Fenton, however, rejects such an interpretation. “Manifestly, there can be no such thing as a ‘member of the soul of the Church’… Faith, hope, and charity constitute neither a body nor a society.”[11] Bellarmine’s examples of those “of the soul and not of the body” are telling: catechumens and excommunicates. Fenton writes:

[Bellarmine] teaches explicitly that such people are not members of the Catholic Church. Yet, far from postulating the existence of some spiritual and invisible society or Church, in any manner distinct from the Catholic Church, to which such persons would belong and through which they could achieve their eternal salvation, St. Robert teaches distinctly that they can be saved by being of the Church by desire. Thus there is one, and only one necessary social vehicle of salvation. There is no society in any way distinct from the visible Catholic Church through which men may attain to the beatific vision. The men who are saved must be either actually members of this Church or desire to enter this society as members.[12]

By emphasizing that some may be “of the soul and not the body,” Bellarmine is simply trying to allow the possibility of salvation for those presently outside the Church’s pale. He is not positing an “invisible community.” We may certainly take issue with Bellarmine’s use of the analogy here, yet we must also account for the spirit in which he makes it—a spirit utterly antithetical to the conclusion de la Soujeole draws from the text. In this regard, Yves Congar’s assessment seems closer to the mark: “It is only [Bellarmine’s] wording that we take exception to, for it is perfectly plain that in some way or other we must make the distinction which it implies and answer the question which it involves.”[13]

Bellarmine’s third use of the body/soul analogy—to describe wicked and good Catholics respectively—proves another employment of metaphor in no way identical to the former two. Further, the metaphor is used, as in the second instance, in order to defend ecclesial unity. Bellarmine writes, “[The Catholics in the time of Augustine] never dreamed of two Churches, but only distinguish parts, or times of the Church. Parts, because on the one hand the good pertain to the Church, and on the other the wicked, since the good are the interior part, just like the soul of the Church [quasi anima Ecclesiae], and the wicked are the exterior part, just like the body [quasi corpus], and they give the example concerning the interior man and the exterior, which are not two men but one part of the same man.”[14] As Fenton acutely observes, “Not by any means all of the men who are said to be ‘of the soul of the Church’ [in the second usage], appear [in the third usage] within the quasi anima Ecclesiae.[15] There is no such thing, Fenton concludes, as a “member” of this soul of the Church.[16] Again, though we may find the analogy inadequate, we could not by it suggest the existence of an invisible, “distinct community.”

In the end, it appears that de la Soujeole, in his analysis on this point of Bellarmine’s doctrine, slips into the same interpretive error as those eighteenth century commentators of whom he is highly critical; namely, he fails to see the fluid and metaphorical nature of “body” and “soul” in Bellarmine’s ecclesiology, instead reading them as, in the words of Fenton, “realities which demanded an explanation in their own right.”

An even deeper problem, however, rears its head in de la Soujeole’s treatment of Bellarmine—and one by no means unique to the Dominican. In de la Soujeole’s analysis of biblical, patristic, and medieval texts, the author does not restrict his search to a specific treatise (say, Augustine’s De unitate ecclesiae directed against the Donatists). Rather, he searches the breadth of an author’s theological corpus—treatises, sermons, commentaries—for the ecclesiology evident on every page. De la Soujeole’s use of this method with St. Thomas is especially impressive. However, when he turns to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he restricts his investigation merely to the increasingly popular treatises De ecclesia—and, in the case of Bellarmine, to one section of that treatise. De la Soujeole even admits that “St. Robert Bellarmine and his successors… do not present ecclesiology for its own sake, for the purposes of a synthesis, but solely from the perspective of refuting Reformation thought.”[17] If this is indeed the case—that treatises De ecclesia serve a specific and often controversial purpose, not a systematic one—then should not the same method employed in analyzing the Fathers or St. Thomas be extended to early moderns? Should we not scour their commentaries, their sermons, and their treatises to gain a fuller view of “post-Tridentine ecclesiology,” and to avoid all too common interpretive errors? This seems not only reasonable, but imperative for historians and theologians alike.

*AUTHOR’S CORRECTION: Michael J. Miller’s English translation above which renders Bellarmine saying that some are “part of the soul” and “part of the body” is not a an exact rendering of de la Soujeole’s French. Rather, de la Soujeole’s French proves more faithful to Bellarmine’s Latin, and reads: “D’autres son de l’âme et non du corps… D’autres encore sont du corps et non de l’âme…” (de la Soujeole, Introduction (Parole et Silence, 2006), p. 365). Of course, the meaning which de la Soujeole draws out of this text suggests a “part/part” understanding which proves problematic in the ways suggested above. However, he cannot be accused of infidelity to Bellarmine’s Latin itself.

[1] Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole, O.P., Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), French copyright 2006.

[2] De la Soujeole also offers a third part in his book on “The Properties of the Church.”

[3] Robert Bellarmine, S.J., De Ecclesia militante, cap. 2, cited in Soujeole, 362-3.

[4] Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Church, trans. Richard J. Dinda, ed. Benjamin T.G. Mayes (Concordia, 2010), 98.

[5] Robert Bellarmine, On the Church Militant, trans. Ryan Grant (Mediatrix, 2016), 10.

[6] Bellarmine, On the Church Militant, 109 [the Latin reads: “nam semper nomine Ecclesiae visibilis congregatio significatur”].

[7] Joseph Clifford Fenton, “The Use of the Terms Body and Soul with Reference to the Catholic Church,” The American Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 110 (1944), 57.

[8] “Ecclesia gubernator à Christo, tanquam à capite sponso suo, & à Spiritu sancto, tanquam ab anima,” Bellarmine, De Ecclesia militante, cap. 14, B.

[9] Fenton, 49-50.

[10] “Anima enim hujus corporis, id est, Spiritus Sanctus” Bellarmine, On the Church Militant, 73.

[11] Fenton, 53.

[12] Fenton, 55.

[13] Yves Congar, O.P. Divided Christendom: A Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion, trans. M. A. Bousfield (London: The Centenary Press, 1939), 225.

[14] Bellarmine, On the Church Militant, 79.

[15] Fenton, 56.

[16] Ibid.

[17] De la Soujeole, 369.


2 thoughts on “How Many Churches? A Critique of Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole

  1. Eric,

    Always love your posts. Would you say that you are skeptical of ‘re-discovery’ narratives when it comes to this aspect of ecclesiology? Is this related to your assessment that Enlightenment-era Catholicism is under-studied?

  2. Andrew, thanks for the comment. Yes, I’m generally wary of narratives which either (a) skip over early modernity or (b) offer all too neat representations of early modern ecclesiology only to reject it. I think there is a richness and complexity in post-Tridentine ecclesiology which often gets boiled down to Bellarmine and the trajectory his thought had in subsequent centuries. There’s more to this period than Bellarmine, and, quite often, there’s more to Bellarmine than meets the eye (Matt’s recent column points this out well, as does Stefania Tutino’s book Empire of Souls (2010)). From a theological method standpoint, I’m very comfortable saying with Sertillanges that “every age is not as good as every other” and that certain periods offer more riches than others, but I do think we haven’t sufficiently mined the riches of early modernity in order to make a fair judgment, especially in ecclesiology, and as a result we face ecumenical impasses because (a) we can’t convincingly draw the line between Trent and Vatican II, and (b) we neglect sources which could arguably help us move forward toward deeper communion. In every age there is “loss and gain,” and I think too much focus on the former obscures our vision of the latter, such that at times modern “rediscoveries” or “developments” are not as novel as we think, as the groundwork for them has been laid centuries before (U. Lehner’s two recent books argue this). This is not the case with every development or rediscovery – I’m not endorsing a nostalgia that suggests that everything can be found in nuce in early modernity. There are real developments, real (re)discoveries, real and beneficial departures from the past which we see throughout ecclesial history, and which we see in twentieth-century ecclesiological developments. I think de la Soujeole’s book points a lot of these out, and his text offers a lot of fruitful ways forward in our understanding of communion (I hope we can engage the work more on TRF). But I think his treatment of Bellarmine in the regard indicated above is lacking, and that a more robust treatment of early modern ecclesiology would only benefit his work.

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