“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon the earth, it shall be loosed in heaven.” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew)
The words of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel have traditionally been understood as the establishment of the Christian Church, with St. Peter the apostle at its head. For fear of sounding lachrymose – or worse yet: coy – let us confirm (as the title suggests) that we believe the Church that Jesus founded to be the Catholic Church whose current head and successor of St. Peter is Pope Benedict XVI.
But what is the Catholic Church? This seemingly irrelevant question is a question that has perplexed many a sinner since the fourth century when the Bishops at Nicea declared the Christian Church to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”. Some would have you believe that the “catholic” church is only the spiritual union of all the Christian faithful. Others, to avoid this sickeningly moderate claim, promulgate the far more noisome notion that Nicea got it wrong, and Jesus meant only to establish various local churches not in union with each other.
This pandering lukewarmness can be dispensed with immediately with an assertive explanation of what the Catholic Church, in its essence, is which, without getting into too much detail, goes as follows: The Catholic Church is the mystical body of Jesus Christ (who was God in the flesh) through which God doles out grace freely, reveals the mysteries of the Divine Order, and through which he desires the salvation of the world. This mystical body subsists today in the Church of Rome, whose leader Pope Benedict XVI and all the Bishops of the world alone possess the authority handed down to them from the Apostles, through the Fathers and their successors. Perhaps I sound severe, but this is essentially what the Catholic Church is. In more human terms: the Catholic Church is the means by which God shows his love to the world. When the Church speaks, in its councils and its traditions, it speaks with the help of the Holy Spirit, which is the voice of God.
God reveals the truths of the faith in three ways: through the Scriptures (the Bible), through the Magisterium (the teaching power of all the Bishops), and through Sacred Tradition (unwritten, oral teachings passed down from generation to generation). One such Tradition, handed down to us from the Fathers, is the aforementioned Nicene Creed: a profession of faith formulated at the city of Nicea in the fourth century. It is from this widely used Creed that we get those all important “four marks of the Church”:
“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
St. Paul, in the opening passages of his first letter to the Corinthians admonishes Christians to be “perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment.” This was in fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer “that they may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee” (St. John 17:21). To say the Church is one is to make a claim no other church can truthfully claim. We are one in the body of Christ, caught up in his salvific suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
It can also be meant to say that there is no disunity of belief, faith, or doctrine. All Catholics, everywhere, are obliged to believe all that the Lord teaches through the Church without addition or subtraction. All faithful Catholics believe the same thing, and have done so for two thousand years. The Church is one in its allegiance to the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ on earth, and in its subjection to the teaching power of the Magisterium (CCC #816).
No other Christian community can rightly claim unity. For either they profess conflicting doctrine (as in Protestantism), or they are not united as one whole body with visible leadership (as in Eastern Orthodoxy). This mystery of Christian unity has been articulated as “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). It is fitting that after hundreds of years of factions within Judaism, Jesus would wish his people to be in union with each other. This prayer is fulfilled within the Catholic Church.
“The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: Strengthened by so many and such great means of such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state – though each in his own way – are called by the Lord to the perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” (CCC #825).
The Church can be said to be holy because it is the mystical body of Christ, who was perfectly holy by the nature of being God. Also because through its rituals and sacraments, the Church makes people holy. Those who live the faith radically, those to whom God has given sanctifying grace, those who have taken (if you will) the medicine of the Church, are made holy. People such as St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Bernadette of Lourdes, and most of all Mary the Mother of Jesus, are shining examples of this supernatural holiness by which the Church thrives.
The Church’s namesake, incidentally, has a double meaning. The word ‘catholic’ is derived from two Greek words: kata and holos. The first and most well-known meaning for the word is “universal”, open to everyone at all times. No one is excluded from the Church because of race or social class. All one needs to join is faith in its teachings.
The second meaning of “Catholic” is perhaps more controversial. It means “according to the whole”. Thus the Catholic Church teaches “according to the whole” of revelation. All that God desires man to know for his salvation is taught through the Catholic Church without omission. Other churches may teach a part of this revelation, or a version of it, but only the Catholic Church teaches the fullness of God’s revelation to the world. Oh, does this rankle people – not surprisingly though. Claims of absolute authority have never set well with the masses.
The catholicity of the Church is evident throughout the world. Since the time of the Apostles the Church has assimilated to hundreds of different cultures, never compromising the faith, but always adapting to the needs of the people. For this reason the Church worships in Latin, so that there is one universal language of the Universal Church.
The first known occurrence of the title “Catholic” in reference to the Christian Church appears very early in Church history: from the early second century in fact, in a letter from Ignatius of Antioch to the church at Smyrna, who said, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (8th Smyrneans c. A.D. 110). He uses this term without explanation, implying the term was already in use at the time. St. Augustine in his Confessions also uses the word to distinguish between the true Church of Christ and the Manichean cults he had followed during his youth. It seems most likely the word was originally used for this purpose, to distinguish the Universal Church from schismatic and heretical groups which had fallen away.
The mark of “apostolic” simply means that the teaching power of the Twelve Apostles is handed down through history to the Bishops. Peter, the leader of the Apostles, handed down his authority as leader to his successor Linus, and likewise Linus to Anacletus so on and so forth to the present Bishop of Rome Benedict XVI. The other Apostles handed their authority down to their successors and finally to the Bishops of the world today. Through this apostolic succession, the Church maintains orthodox doctrine (the faith handed down by Jesus to the Apostles) and the ability to confect sacraments (the physical means by which God infuses grace to the people).
The Eastern Orthodox share with the Catholic Church the mark of apostolic succession, being able to trace the pedigree of Bishops back to the Fathers and the Apostles. Protestants are not so lucky. Unfortunately the furthest they can trace their lineage is the early 1500s to an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther. However, most Protestant communities reject the concept of apostolic succession altogether so let them not be called hypocrites.
The mark of apostolic succession is paramount in discerning the true Church of Jesus Christ, because as Christ laid hands on his Apostles and gave them authority, so must the Apostles also lay hands on their successors giving them authority. This process is called ordination. Through ordination, ordinary men are able to act in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. For this reason a priest wears robes and vestments. He puts on clothes that are not his own to symbolize that when saying Mass or hearing Confessions he is not acting in himself or by his own power, but by the power of God as Jesus Christ.
Catholicism, also, is a distinctly intelligent faith. In that if a dogma or teaching cannot be explained logically, it cannot be promulgated. Many other Christians follow Martin Luther’s example, who suggested we “pluck the eyes out of our reason” and blindly follow religious faith. This ideology has resulted in opposition to the geocentric theory of the solar system, as well as flat out refusal of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Catholic Church sees no dichotomy between religious faith and reason (science and philosophy). Blessed Pope John Paul II said, “Reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world, and God in an appropriate way.” This is perhaps the Church’s most interesting feature. It has found the healthy medium between the high mysticism of the Eastern Churches and the intellectual fervor of St. Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus.
Of course there will be more to say on these subjects, but for now enough pontificating. In later posts I shall explore in more depth the themes of this article and the mystery (and manners as O’Connor would put it) of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church established by God for the salvation of souls.
Cole Webb Harter