October is the month of the Rosary and a time when Catholics continue their 2,000 year old tradition of fighting to protect the life of the unborn through 40 Days for Life. October 2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of the final Marian apparitions at Fatima.—an event witnessed by more people than Jesus’ resurrection! For Protestants, though, this October is being celebrated as the 500th “birthday” of the Reformation – the worst schism the Church has ever suffered. In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Although few Christians follow Luther’s teachings today, Protestants celebrate him as a sort of patron saint for his eventual rebellion against the Church.
In response to this tragedy, here is a quick look at why the Church that Jesus founded remains today what it has always been: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The four marks of the Church as affirmed by the Nicene Creed and all orthodox Christians.
Why the Catholic Church is ONE
When Christians recite the Nicene Creed, they affirm that the Church is one. Jesus prayed for unity (see John ch. 17), and St. Paul demanded it of believers (see all of 1 Corinthians). The Catholic has no problem with this affirmation, because our faith is truly one. This unity comes not from the agreement the laity, but by having one source (God), one head (Jesus Christ), one authoritative leader (the Pope), and a Church led by Bishops in union with the Pope as identified by apostolic succession.
The very fact of schisms and heresies presupposes that there is a single Church to be in schism with, or removed from by heresy. But what happens when a schism or heresy results in a new religious body? This is the problem with the Reformation. Following from the Protestant principle of “sola scriptura” (that the Bible Alone is authoritative for the faith), individuals may challenge not only Catholic authority, but that of the Reformers as well. Early on, the Reformation became anybody’s game (e.g., John Calvin, the Reformation’s most respected theologian, was a lawyer), which resulted in numerous splinter groups before Luther or anyone else could stop it (Calvin even approved execution for those who disagreed with his teachings).
Today, there are thousands of Protestant and other groups claiming the title of “Christian Church” even though none are united. In a recent attempt to display unity amongst Protestants, one group produced the “Reforming Catholic Confession” which describes Christian unity like this: “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is God’s new society, the first fruit of the new creation, the whole company of the redeemed through the ages.” How can these churches which are not united claim unity? Only by redefining the term to not mean actually being “one.” They do this by claiming agreement on the “essentials” of the faith (so-called “mere Christianity”). However, who gets to draw the line between essential and non-essential doctrines? The Bible does not make such a distinction, and so each denomination makes its own.
Why the Catholic Church is HOLY
When Christians recite the Nicene Creed, they affirm that the Church is holy. This is probably the most difficult of the four marks of the Church to explain because it seems to be the least believable given that the Church is composed of sinners! However, several considerations show that Christ’s true Church is indeed holy.
The word “holy” means “set apart” – not perfect. The perfection of a given holy thing or person is relative to the thing itself. God is holy, the Scriptures are holy, the saints in heaven are holy – but none have attained equal levels of perfection because they are all very different kinds of things. Actually, the words “holy,” “sacred,” “saint,” and “sanctify” all come from the same word. So simply being set apart by God makes a thing holy even when it is not yet perfected. This is why St. Paul can use the word “sanctification” to describe a Christian’s past (1 Cor. 6:11), present (2 Cor. 7:1), and future (Heb. 12:14).
In a similar manner, the Church is properly said to be holy in at least three ways. First, the Church was made holy in the past because it was founded by God – set apart from the world by His holiness. Second, the Church is holy presently because it is united with Christ and being sanctified by him; through him and with him (CCC 824). At this time, the Church does not possess holiness of herself but through Christ who is making her holy. But the holiness of the Church is not only part of its past (being founded by God) and its present (as it is being sanctified by God). Third, the Church’s perfect holiness is true of its future as something promised to be acquired (CCC 825). God is not content to merely call something “holy.” When God speaks, reality happens! The Church was set apart in the past, is being sanctified in the present, and will be made perfectly holy in the end (cf. Mt. 5:48 and Rev. 21:27).
Why the Catholic Church is CATHOLIC
When Christians recite the Nicene Creed, they affirm that the Church is catholic. Originally, this term referred to universality – that is, the Church is not limited to certain leaders or locations (something St. Paul decried in his letter to the Corinthians), nor can it be cut up and divided into legitimate schisms or “denominations” (see Jn. 17). (“Roman Catholic” simply designates one of several rites within the Catholic Church – it does not mean that there are several “branches” of the overall Catholic Church as some teach.)
It was St. Ignatius of Antioch who first used the term when he said in his letter to the Church at Smyrna that, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” This was written in A.D. 107 – just a few years after the death of the last apostle. The term became more strongly attached to the Church and was solidified at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in A.D. 325. Only a few decades later, St. Augustine could say in his letter Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus:
“And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should.”
The Catechism also describes the Church’s catholicity in terms of its mission: to bring the gospel message to the whole world (849-856). And indeed, even during the Reformation when Protestant groups ceased missionary activity, the Church never stopped going to make disciples of all nations. This mission is itself universal because the Church “proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times” (CCC 868).
Therefore, in both its unified scope and mission, the Catholic Church is truly catholic.
Why the Catholic Church is APOSTOLIC
This last mark is critical when it comes to identification of the Church founded by Jesus Christ – for without apostolic succession, identifying God’s Church would become a subjective matter.
The Church is said to be apostolic in three ways. First, the Church is built on the foundation of the Apostles. Second, she keeps and hands on the teaching of the Apostles. Third, she continues to be guided by the Apostles through their successors, the bishops (CCC 857). When the Church is said to be apostolic, then, it is not simply that the Church teaches what the Apostles taught. Disagreements over the content of apostolic teaching is, in fact, a significant cause of division between the Catholic Church and her dissenters. Rather, this is an objective historical claim based on the succession of Church leaders from the original Apostles to today.
This distinction is critical to understand. For non-Catholics, choosing place of worship is based on the level of agreement that exists between it and one’s private understanding of the faith. For the Catholic, it is a historical question – “Where is the Church Jesus founded that I may submit to its teachings?” Just as it would not make sense for first century Christians to test Jesus’ or the Apostles’ teachings against their own in order to decide to follow them, the same holds for their successors – the bishops in communion with the Pope (CCC 862 cf. Acts 1:24-25).
Finally, if individual Bishops can fail in their calling, how can one ever be sure which of their teachings is correct? This is where he Pope comes in. Jesus specially picked St. Peter from among his Apostles to possess the gift of dogmatic infallibility, and that gift continues in the office of the Bishop of Rome. Today, only Bishops in communion with him are considered part of the Church’s teaching authority (the Magisterium). This has been proven historically – while even Eastern Patriarchs have been judged heretical, no Pope has ever dogmatically defined heresy as part of the faith.
Therefore the Catholic Church is objectively identifiable as apostolic, and can distinguish between true and false teachings at any level.
As we have seen, the Nicene Creed affirms that the Church has four distinguishing marks: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. The Catholic Church alone possesses these marks in their fullness as understood by the Church Fathers. Catholics can, then, confidently proclaim that the “Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (CCC 870).