mcginn 2004 tension between mystics and magisterium

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The Catholic Historical ReviewVOL. XC APRIL, 2004 No. 2



In the Bull In agro dominico, issued by Pope John XXII on March 27, 1329, the rst fteen articles extracted from the works of Meister Eckhart are condemned as haereticos, while the nal eleven are said to be male sonantes, temerarios, et suspectos de haeresi, a traditional formula. The pope absolved Eckhart himself of conscious heresy, noting in the conclusion of the Bull,The aforesaid Eckhart . . . professed the Catholic faith at the end of his life and revoked and also deplored the twenty-six articles which he admitted that he had preached . . . insofar as they could generate in the minds of the faithful a heretical opinion, or one erroneous and hostile to true faith.1 This did not prevent Pope John from engaging in a damnatio memoriae of the deceased Dominican in the Bulls preface.Here Eckhart is said to be someone who wished*Dr. McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He read this paper as his presidential address at a luncheon held in the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, D.C., on January 10, 2004, during the eighty-fourth annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association. 1 The critical version of the Bull In agro dominico has not yet appeared in the edition of Eckharts writings, Meister Eckhart. Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke herausgegeben im Auftrag der deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (Stuttgart/Berlin, 1936). This edition has two sections, Die deutschen Werke (hereafter DW ) and Die lateinischen Werke (LW). The best current version of the bull is that of M.-H. Laurent, Autour du procs de Matre Eckhart, Divus Thomas, ser. III, 13 (1936), 435446. For the translation used here, see Meister Eckhart. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, translation and introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and Bernard McGinn (Classics of Western Spirituality Series [New York, 1981]), pp. 7781.




to know more than he should, who was led astray by the Father of lies, and who sowed thorns and obstacles contrary to the very clear truth of faith in the eld of the Church. Eckhart is castigated for presenting many things as dogma that were designed to cloud the true faith in the hearts of many, things which he put forth especially before the uneducated crowds in his sermons. Much has been written on Eckharts condemnation, both in terms of sorting out the events and of evaluating its outcome.2 In 1980 the Dominican order petitioned the Holy See to have the condemnation rescinded, so that Eckhart, like a mystical Gallileo, might be freed of whatever clouds still hang over his name. Thus far there has been no word from Rome. My purpose here is not to plead for Eckharts rehabilitationhe scarcely needs one today. Rather, I will try to put the condemnation of 1329 into a broad perspective in order to gain some insight into the sources of the tensions between mysticism and the magisterium, the authoritative teaching of the Church.3 My contention is that such tensions are not merely accidental, the result of the bad will of heretics or the mistakes and incomprehension of authority gures, but that they also are partly the result of inherent issues, pressure points if you will, in the relation of mysticism and magisterium in the history of Christianity. By the time of the 1329 condemnation, Eckhart had been dead for fourteen months.4 What would have happened to the respected Dominican had he still been alive remains speculation. But the fate of other mystics condemned for heresy is well known. Let me present two famous cases.2 Some of the issues still under discussion appear in Eckhardus Theutonicus, homo doctus et sanctus. Nachweise und Berichte zum Prozess gegen Meister Eckhart, edited by Heinrich Stirnimann and Ruedi Imbach (Freiburg Schweiz, 1992). For the context of academic trials for heresy, see J. M. M. H. Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris 12001400 (Philadelphia, 1998), chap. 1. 3 On the notion of magisterium, see Karl Rahner, Magisterium, in Encyclopedia of Theology, The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, edited by Karl Rahner (New York, 1975), pp. 871880. The most recent ofcial documents on the magisterium are Vatican Council IIs Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, chap. 3, arts. 2526; and the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially Part I, Section 2, chap. 3, art. 9, nn. 888892; and Part 3, Section 1, chap. 3, art. 3, nn. 20322040. 4 The date of Eckharts death was thought to have been lost until Walter Senner, O.P., discovered that later German Dominican sources celebrated his liturgical remembrance on January 28, so it is very likely he died on that date in 1328.See Senner,Meister Eckhart in Kln, Meister Eckhart: LebensstationenRedesituationen, edited by Klaus Jacobi (Berlin, 1997), p. 233.



On June 1, 1310, the wandering beguine, Marguerite Porete, was burned at the stake in the Place de Grve in Paris as a relapsed heretic.5 Marguerite had been arrested in 1308 for continuing to disseminate her book The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls after having been forbidden to do so by the bishop of Cambrai. She refused to say anything to the inquisitorial board under the leadership of the Dominican William of Paris, confessor to King Philip the Fair; so she was nally handed over to the secular arm for execution.6 As is often the case, the relation of the motivations behind the condemnation of Marguerite is unclear. Defense of orthodoxy, suspicion of the beguines, and possible political implications, such as Philip the Fairs desire to appear as a staunch proponent of correct belief in the midst of his quarrels with the papacy, all probably played a part.7 Movie versions of the death of Joan of Arc, or the scene of the burning of the woman accused of witchcraft in Ingmar Bergmans Seventh Seal, have given us some sense, if a sanitized one, of what such a horrible scene must have been like. Although the surviving documentation is negative toward Marguerite,the anonymous continuator of the Chronicle of William of Nangis records that she showed many noble and devout signs of penance at her death by which the feelings of many were moved to heartfelt compassion toward her and even to tears, as eyewitnesses who saw it testied.8 Others may have found it no more than an entertaining public spectacle,as was so often the case with gruesome public executions in premodern times. Unlike Eckhart, Marguerite Porete was not a trained theologian, nor did she belong to an established, papally supported order, but rather to the increasingly suspect unenclosed beguines.Characterized as a pseudomulier, or false woman, by her foes, even had she recanted her views, she would have faced life imprisonment.The heretical articles that were the basis for her condemnation, partly recoverable through modern5 There is a growing literature on Marguerite Porete. For a survey, see Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism. Men and Women in the New Mysticism (12001350) (New York, 1998), pp. 244265. 6 The texts relating to the trial and execution of Porete can be found in Paul Verdeyen, Le procs dInquisition contre Marguerite Porete et Guiard de Cressonessart (1309 1310), Revue dhistoire ecclsiastique, 81 (1986), 4194. For a useful account, see Robert E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley, California, 1972), pp. 7178. 7 For the political implications, see Lerner, op. cit., p. 77. 8 Verdeyen, op. cit., p. 89:Multa tamen in suo exitu poenitentiae signa ostendit nobilia pariter et devota, per quae multorum viscera ad compatiendum ei pie ac etiam lacrymabiliter fuisse commota testati sunt oculi qui viderunt.



study, helped form the basis for the Council of Viennes 1312 attack on the dangerous mystical ideas attributed to beguines and beghards.9 This was the birth certicate of the movement traditionally referred to as the heresy of the Free Spirit (secta libertatis spiritus), though, to use Robert Lerners phrase, it may have been an example of a birth certicate without a baby,10 since evidence for an actual movement of libertine heretics,an elite of amoral supermen,as Norman Cohn once called them,11 tends to dissipate when the sources are closely examined. Although copies of Poretes Mirror of Simple Souls circulated in four languages during the later Middle Ages, it was subsequently lost to history until 1946, when Romana Guarnieri identied a Vatican manuscript with the treatise known through inquisitorial sources.12 The work has been controversial both in the fourteenth century and in the twentieth. In her own time Porete convinced three reputable theologians to write in support of the book, although they all testied to its difculty and the need for careful interpretation.13 One of them was a

9 On the decrees of Vienne, see Lerner, op. cit., pp. 7884; and Jacqueline Tarrant,The Clementine Decrees on the Beguines: Conciliar and Papal Versions, Archivum Historiae Ponticiae, 12 (1974), 300308. 10 Op. cit., p. 83. 11 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised and expanded edition (New York, 1970), chaps. 89. 12 The 1946 article of Romana Guarnieri is reprinted in her essay, Il Movimento del Libero Spirito dalle Origini al Secolo XVI, Archivio Italiano per la Storia della Piet, 4 (1965), 661663. 13 The three theologians Approbatio of Marguerites treatise is not found in the one surviving French manuscript,but it is found in both the Latin and Middle English translations. For the text, see Marguerite Porete. Le mi