"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church

By McGinn, Bernard | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church


McGinn, Bernard, The Catholic Historical Review


In the Bull In agro dominico, issued by Pope John XXII on March 27, 1329, the first fifteen articles extracted from the works of Meister Eckhart are condemned as haereticos, while the final eleven are said to be male sonantes, temerarios, et suspectas 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 Bull's preface. Here Eckhart is said to be someone who "wished 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 field 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 Eckhart's 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the events and of evaluating its outcome.2 In 1980 the Dominican order petitioned the Holy see to have the condemnation rescinded, so that Eckhart, like a mystical Gallileo, might be freed of whatever clouds still hang over his name.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 Eckhart's rehabilitation-he 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 figures, 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.

On June 1, 1310, the wandering beguine, Marguerite Porete, was burned at the stake in the Place de Greve 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 finally 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 Fair's 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 Bergman's 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 ofNangis 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 testified. …

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