Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum taught 20th century theology an important lesson: the rise of the Western nation state and concomitant demise of the Church as a political entity in it’s own right were created by a seemingly innocuous shift or migration of Eucharistic theology.* Ivan Ilich, in The Waters North of the Future, argues something similar. Like de Lubac he reads [the perversions of] religious practices and liturgies as gestating modern political formations. In addition to the Eucharist, Illich traces the migration of the conspiratio – the kiss of peace – to a later institutionalized form, the conjuartio.

For centuries Christians had followed the proscription of oath taking outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Their communal and political bond was the Holy Spirit, symbolically depicted and enacted through the kiss of peace. This symbolic ritual, the bodily enacting of the Holy-Spirit-as-communal-bond, held at bay the perennial temptation to establish community through contractual means. As Illich explains,

“The high point of Christian ritual and ceremony still consists in a communal meal of bread and wine, a symposium, but in the first centuries of Christianity there was also conspiratio, that is a breathing into each other’s mouths. That’s what Christians did. They came together to eat and kiss, to kiss on the mouth. In this way they shared the Holy Spirit and became members of a community in flesh, blood, and spirit” (85).

This mysterious sense of the conspiratio soon faded into the background as new understandings of human bonding emerged; namely, the modern sense of oath-taking (conjuratio). The bond of the conspiratio could not compete, it seems, with the emerging conceptions of the self. The Church, for various reasons, was loosing its way; especially so in the 12th century. New efforts were then needed to not only establish the unity of the Church, but to “give worldly stability to their peace and concord. And, consistently, the conjuratio remained, while the conspiratio was forgotten, or regulated to a second place, or reduced to a symbolic handshake” (192). Like de Lubac’s historical work, the migrations traced by Illich reach a high point during the Gregorian reforms when marriage becomes contract based, sin is criminalized and the invention of the private-individual-conscience is wedded to the discipline of the state.  As Illich argues, this represents an unfortunate attempt “to give the Church this worldly solidarity and clarity and definition and to create, through legal, contractual means, a social body entitled to recognition as an equal by the Emperor and the civil law” (218).

The gradual migration of the conspiratio, perhaps not unlike the migration of the corpus mysticum away from constituting the Church, became an attempt “to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation” And so, corruptio optimi quae est pessima [corruption of the best is the worst] – the guiding axiom of Illich’s oeuvre, if not one of the most helpful ways of understanding the meaning of secularization. It’s fascinating to read how such mundane events – passing the peace among the faithful, participating in the Eucharist – soon became tools in service of the nation-state.

*See Chad Pecknold’s, Christianity and Politics.

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