THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
by Matthew A. C. Newsome ©2002
The definition of a Christian is one who believes that Christ was who He said He was (and is who He said He is) -- that He is God Incarnate. If Christ is God, then we must conclude that He spoke the truth, He meant what He said, and He has the power to do what He said He would do. According to the testimony of the Gospels and the early Christians, Christ said He would found a Church (Mt 16:18). And if we are to be followers of Christ we should strive to be faithful members of His Church.
What is a church? In one mundane respect, a church is a building, used for worship and fellowship. But certainly we mean more than that. That is “a” church. We are discussing “the” Church. The word “Church” in Latin is ecclesia which comes from the Greek ek-ka-lein, which means a convocation (literally, “to call out of”). The Church, therefore, is to be set apart -- that is, holy, as Christ is holy.
All Christians have some concept of “the Church” even if they do not necessarily agree on what that Church is. To many Protestants today, “the Church” exists only as an invisible abstract, a body made up of all “true believers” of every denomination. Just who is and is not a true believer is known only to God. This view of the Church is favored among Protestants because it conveniently explains the many divisions within Christianity as a result of the Reformation. But the notion that the Church exists only as an invisible entity would have been foreign to any believer before that time.
Certainly the Church does have an invisible existence, but she has a visible existence as well. One of the metaphors used to describe the Church is the Body of Christ. This Body is made up of all who are united to Christ through their baptism. A body is a physical thing, present in this world. Every human body has a soul, an invisible thing that is just as much a part of the person as the physical body. So the Church, the Body of Christ, has an invisible soul (the Holy Spirit), and an invisible bond shared by all the baptized through Christ. But the Church also has a visible Body.
While on earth, Christ established sacraments – visible signs of the invisible reality of God’s grace. He selected twelve men, the Apostles, to safeguard His teaching, spread the gospel message, and administer His sacraments. The Apostles ordained bishops to succeed them, and priests to aid them, and so on down the line of Apostolic succession to our present day. They, and all of the lay faithful, are a part of this visible Church.
Why is there a need for this visible structure? Because Christ knew of our human desire for certainty. Fr. Leo Trese shares his experiences in The Faith Explained.
. . . I am sure that I have poured the water of baptism on the heads of many adults whose souls already were in the state of sanctifying grace. They had already made acts of perfect love for God; they had already received the baptism of desire. And yet in every such case, the convert has expressed his relief and joy at receiving, actually, the Sacrament of Baptism. Because, up to that moment he could not be sure that his sins were gone. No matter how hard he might try to make an act of perfect love, he never could be sure that he had succeeded. But when the saving water had flowed upon his head, he knew then with certainty that God had come to him. . . The peace of mind, the happy confidence which such assurance brings, indicates to us one of the reasons why Jesus Christ established a visible Church.
Visible sacraments require a visible Church to make them available to the faithful. But the sanctifying work of the Church is but one of three great missions that the Church has.
Jesus left His Apostles, and through them the Church, with three tasks: The first is the mission to teach (Mt 28:19-20), the second is the mission to sanctify (Mt 28:19, Lk 22:19, Jn 20:23), and the third is the mission to govern in His name (Mt 18:17-18, Lk 10:16). Would we look to some purely invisible body to govern us, teach us, and make us holy? How would we know when we found it?
The Authority of the Church
In addition to it’s mission to sanctify us the Church has the mission, and consequently the authority, to both teach and to govern in Christ’s name. Where does this authority derive from, and where does it reside?
Like everything else in the Catholic Church, its authority derives from Christ. Christ taught with the authority of the Father (Jn 5:22, Mt 28:18-20). Christ gave that authority to the Apostles (Lk 10:16). And the Apostles passed it on to those whom they selected and ordained as their successors, the bishops. This is summed up in Christ’s own words, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16).
Those who claim that Christ did not establish a Church with the authority to teach in His name are forced to find some alternate explanation for these and many passages of Scripture.
- “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
- “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:17-19).
The Book of Acts and the Epistles all illustrate a Church in action, a living Church with a hierarchy already established. In the New Testament, we read of a new bishop being ordained to replace Judas (Acts 1), of the first Church council (Acts 15), of bishops ordaining priests (Tit 1:5), a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons (Eph 4:11, 1 Tim 3:1, 3:8, 5:17), all being led by a single shepherd, the successor of Peter (Jn 10:16).
All of these things mean nothing, of course, if the Apostles did not have the power to pass on their commission (and charisms) to their successors. We see above how the New Testament illustrates the selection of successors with Mathias being selected to replace Judas. We know this is valid because Christ intended His Church to go on for all time, not just the lifespan of the Apostles (Mt 16:18, 28:20).
When we speak of the Catholic Church as being an Apostolic church, we mean that she has preserved Apostolic Succession – an unbroken line from bishop to bishop from the Apostles to the present day. We also mean that she maintains the Apostolic teaching, the Divine Deposit of Faith, as well as the Apostolic authority given to her by Christ.
The Church’s Book
We see the authority of the Apostles being carried on in the formation of the book that all Christians hold to be authoritative – the Bible. Why is this book authoritative for our faith? Because we believe it to be the inspired Word of God, and therefore infallible (or without error). And how do we know that?
Christians are able to have an authoritative book because we have an authoritative Church. The canon of the Bible (the various books that make up the Scriptures) was not formally decided upon until well after the death of the last Apostle. While Christ was teaching during His ministry, the Scripture He used consisted of the Jewish Septuagint, what we now call the Old Testament. After the Ascension, many of the early Christians, including some Apostles, wrote accounts of Christ’s life called Gospels (or good news). Also, many of the early leaders in the Church wrote letters, to individuals or to the new churches that had been established, of support or fraternal correction.
These new writings began to be read, and used in the liturgy (the Mass) along side the Jewish Scriptures. Many were recognized as being inspired texts. But there was no unified canon. And not everyone agreed on what books were and were not inspired by God. Some thought that John’s Revelation should not be used. Others read from the Epistle of Clement, or the Gospel of Thomas. What Scriptures you heard read depended on what your local bishop allowed. Certainly a unified Church needed a unified body of Scripture.
The issue was not addressed until the Council of Rome prompted Pope Damasus, in 382 AD, to compile a listing of books he considered canonical. The issue was discussed at both the Councils of Hippo in 393, and Carthage in 397. Both of these Councils agreed with Damasus’ canon. And finally, in 405 AD, Pope Innocent I officially declared this same canon of 73 books (the same 73 books in Catholic Bibles today) to be Sacred Scripture, inspired by God, the unified Bible of the entire universal (Catholic) Church, case closed.
We have an authoritative book because we have an authoritative Church. St. Augustine himself said, “I would not believe in the Gospels if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.” How could we believe a book to be infallible if a mere fallible source was making that claim? A fallible cause cannot have an infallible effect. And an infallible text does no good without an infallible interpreter. God would not keep His children wondering about where to find accurate information about Him. He safeguarded His Deposit of Faith with an infallible and authoritative teacher – the Church.
Infallibility simply means “without error.” We believe the Church to be without error in matters of faith and morals. The Church is not infallible when it comes to science or mathematics, economics, politics, or the weather. She has never claimed to be any of these things.
It is easier for most of us to understand infallibility by first discussing what it is not. Infallibility is not the absence of sin. That is impeccability. We do not believe the leaders of the Church to be without sin – they are all men, and like all men are faced with temptation and have the free will to yield to that temptation. Look at the Apostles. Peter denied Christ three times. Judas betrayed Him, and then committed suicide. Yet the Apostles found a successor to Judas, and Peter, their leader, went on to spread Christ’s teaching to the greatest city in the world, Rome.
Infallibility is not inspiration. The Church does not have God continuously transmitting messages to her, like a whisper in her ear. Her job is not so much to receive new revelation but to safeguard the old, as it is found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. When it makes decisions about matters of the faith or morality, it is granted a special charism, a protection from the Holy Spirit, from teaching in error, lest the faithful be led astray. God has all the power He needs to ensure that His message is passed on faithfully, that “the gates of hell” do not prevail against His Church (Mt 16:18).
So when the Church teaches, we listen. We are bound by obedience of faith to believe her doctrines. We do this because we recognize the Church to be infallible, authoritative, and therefore teaching us the truth. It is the Church, Scripture tells us, that is “the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
The infallibility of the Church resides first of all in the Magisterium, which is the name for the teaching body of bishops. The Magisterium is exercised when the bishops of the Church meet together in an Ecumenical Council (like the Council of Nicea, the Council of Trent, or most recently the second Vatican Council). But the Church’s infallibility resides in a very special way in her leader, the Bishop of Rome. Just as the bishops are today the successors of the Apostles, the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope, is the successor of St. Peter, the leader of the Apostles. And, as we see from the Gospels, Christ promised some specific things to Peter that He did not to the rest of the group.
The primary Petrine passage of Scripture (that is, dealing with Peter) is Matthew 16:17-19. This passage immediately follows Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah. “Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter [Kepa, which means “rock”], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
You can see here two important things. One is that Peter, formally Simon, had his name changed to Peter, which means “rock.” Name changes, especially those prompted by God, are of immense importance in the Bible (just think of Abrahm/Abraham, or Jacob/Isreal). This clues us in that something extremely important is happening. And notice also that Jesus is giving the keys to His kingdom only to Peter – not to any of the other Apostles. The significance of the keys comes from Isaiah 22:22, where God gives Eliakim the “key of the house of David” as a symbol of his authority as Prime Minister of the Davidic Kingdom. In almost the same language, Jesus makes Peter the Prime Minister of the New Covenant Kingdom. Jesus is the head of the Church, but He leads us vicariously through the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ.
Jesus also gives Peter the gift of faith. “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back [after the denials] you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Christ tells Peter again to “strengthen his brothers” in John 21:15-17 where He instructs Peter three times to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep.” Peter is whom Christ appointed as shepherd after He was to depart.
So whoever sits in Peter’s chair today, that is, whoever is the Bishop of Rome, also inherits these promises and responsibilities. Cyprian of Carthage, in 256 AD, wrote, “Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?” (Epitulae 59 (55), 14).
Along with the gift of infallibility comes the duty to teach and proclaim the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “’The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,’ above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself” (892).
Church, Churches, and Rites
The Pope is the head of the Church, but he is also the Patriarch of the West, and the Bishop of Rome. What do these different titles mean?
The Catholic Church, by definition, is one. In the Nicene Creed that we recite each Sunday at Mass, we profess faith in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” There is only one Church. But within the one Catholic Church, there are many individual churches. So St. Paul could write to the Church in Corinth, the Church in Ephesus, the Church in Thessalonica, etc.. The Pope is the bishop of the Church in Rome. But all these churches are part of the one Catholic Church, because they are united with the visible head of the Church, the Pope, who represents the invisible head of the Church, Christ.
Individual Catholics will be members of their local parish church. Their parish church will be a part of a diocese. This is led by a local bishop, who is under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. As long as your particular church is in union with the Pope, it is part of the Catholic Church. (And if they are not in union with the Pope, they are consequently not Catholic, even if they use the word “Catholic” in their name, i.e. “Old Catholic” or “Anglo-Catholic.”)
Just as there are different individual churches within the Catholic Church, some of those churches practice different Rites. A Rite is a manner of religious observance. There are two ways we use the term in the Catholic Church. One is to describe a particular religious observance, such as the “rite of blessing the palms” on Palm Sunday. Or the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) that converts to the Church participate in. But more broadly, we speak of a Rite as the entire system of services observed by a Church or a group of Churches. Most Catholics in America belong to the Roman Rite (also called the Latin Rite), which is the dominant Rite in the Western Church.
However, many other different Rites exist, especially among Eastern Catholics, chief of which is the Byzantine Rite. The language, prayers, liturgy, and customs may differ from Rite to Rite. For instance, in many Eastern Rites, the mass is called the “divine liturgy” and Holy Communion is received via a spoon. Greek is the ecclesial language, and married men are allowed to be ordained as priests.
What makes these various and diverse Rites part of the one Catholic Church is their unity in doctrine, and their unity with the successor of St. Peter.
The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Protestants and Catholics alike recite the Creed that proclaims this, but they mean very different things by the term “catholic.” What does it mean, and why is it used as the proper name of the Church?
“Catholic” comes from the Greek words kata and holos and means “according to the whole” or “universal.” The first person (that we know of) to use this term as the proper name of the Church was St. Ignatius, second bishop of Antioch (after Peter), who wrote many letters to various Christian communities, and whose body of writings tells us much about the Church in the generation after the Apostles. He wrote in a letter to the Smyrneans in 110 AD, “Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he ordains [i.e., a presbyter]. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
At this time, the term “Catholic” Church was being used to distinguish the true Church of the Apostles from the various heretical sects that had already begun to spring up. We find the name “Catholic Church” being used frequently in the second and third centuries, and it is this usage that the authors of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds had in mind.
St. Augustine wrote of it in The True Religion in 390 AD. "We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic and which is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard."
For the early Christians, there was no concept of “Christianity,” a religion made up of a multitude of varying Christian denominations. If you were a follower of Christ you were called a Christian, and you belonged to His Church, which was called Catholic. To be otherwise was to be a pagan or a heretic (or an infidel).
The Church is called Catholic because its truths are universal, and the salvation Christ brings is meant for all men, for all time. The New Covenant established by Christ was not with one nation or one people, but for the world. The Catholic Church, likewise, is not of one particular culture or era, but of everywhere and all times. And most importantly, for all people.
Salvation Outside the Church
The Church teaches that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. (CCC 846-8). Does this mean that only members of Catholic parishes will be saved, and Protestants or Eastern Orthodox are all damned? Of course not. This is not what the early Church Fathers meant by this statement, and it is not what the Church teaches now.
The Church recognizes that all salvation comes from Christ. Anyone who is saved is only saved by Christ. Since the Catholic Church is Christ’s Church, the vehicle Christ established to be the normal conduit of His salvific grace, we can truly say that anyone who is saved is saved by Christ, through the Catholic Church. (If you weren’t a Catholic before you enter heaven, you will be by the time you get there).
This does not mean that all Catholics are saved. It is possible to be a baptized Catholic living in a state of unrepented sin, and therefore jeopardizing one’s salvation. Neither does this mean that non-Catholic Christians are automatically damned. The Church teaches that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ, or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentem 16).
The Catholic Church and Protestants
This means that Protestants (as well as non-Christians) have the possibility of salvation through Christ. Of course, a Protestant, who has received the Gospel of Christ, has a much better chance than does the non-Christian (whose salvation we recognize as a possibility, but not apart from Christ).
Protestants continue to be connected to the Catholic Church through their common baptism. The Church recognizes all baptisms done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be valid (except in those rare cases where the meaning of the baptismal formula has been too grossly distorted, as in the case of Mormons). Insofar as they are baptized into Christ, all Christians are a part of the Body of Christ, the Church.
This does not mean that all are in communion with the Catholic Church. Only those who, according to the Catechism, “possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who – by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion – are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops” (837).
Protestants, though they belong to heretical sects, are not heretics, but “separated brethren.” Heresy is the post-baptismal denial of some truth that is infallibly taught by the Church. The original Protestants were heretics, because they rejected parts of the Catholic faith. Those born into a Protestant communion never held the Catholic faith to begin with, and so therefore could not reject it.
Though they are not in union with the Catholic Church, they are joined to her imperfectly, and it is a better thing to be a faithful Protestant than an unfaithful Catholic. Mere membership in a church is not enough to save anyone. But humble obedience to divine authority should move us to join – and participate in the life of – Christ’s true Church, which is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Once we know the fullness of truth that can be found only in the Catholic Church, it is our responsibility to react to it with our submission.
The Church, at the second Vatican Council, proclaimed, “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it” (Lumen Gentem 14).
The Purpose of the Church
The Church teaches us so that we may know of Christ. The Church sanctifies us so that we may be more like Christ. And the Church governs so that we may know these things with the authority of Christ. For the Church exists for but one reason, and that is to make us holy. The Church, and all her sacraments and teachings, is here so that we may become closer to God, closer to heaven, and closer to being what we were created to be – saints. Peter Kreeft calls the Catholic Church a “saint making machine.” We are all called to be saints. We are all called to be Catholics.