Having professed our faith in the Holy Spirit, we continue
by professing to believe in the Holy Catholic Church, of which the Holy Spirit
is the soul or source of her corporate life.
In one sense, the Church began with the origins of the human
race. God wants to save people not only as individuals but as members of
society. Consequently the Church corresponds on the level of grace to our
social existence on the level of nature.
The foreshadowing of the Church goes back to the call of
Abraham, the father of all the faithful. But the Church actually came into
existence only with the Incarnation. Here we can find three stages in her
establishment. Christ began building the Mystical Body, which is the Church,
when by His preaching He made known His precepts to the world. He completed the
Church when He died on the Cross. And He proclaimed the Church when He sent the
Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost Sunday.
What exactly do we mean when we say that the Church was born
on Calvary? We mean that by His death on the Cross, Christ merited the graces
that a sinful world needed to be reconciled with an offended God. However, that
was only the beginning. Certainly Jesus won for us all the graces that we need
to be saved and sanctified. But these graces have to be communicated to the
world. It is through the Church, which came into existence on Good Friday, that
the Savior ever since has been channeling His grace to the human family. Having
founded the Church, Christ made sure she would endure until the end of time. I
am with you, He promised, all days even to the consummation of the world.
By the close of the apostolic age, the Churchs leaders had
to take a stand and declare who belongs to her. There was no choice. There were
dissenters from within, and opponents from without. By the end of the fourth
century, the description of the Church as holy and Catholic was expanded to
what we profess in the Nicene Creed: We believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic
Church. These four adjectives have become the four marks that identify the
true Church of Christ.
The unity of the true Church is a unity of faith and
communion. By their union of faith, those who belong to the Church believe the
same faith as proposed to them by the Church. By their unity of communion, the
faithful submit to the authority of the bishops united with the Bishop of Rome.
We should distinguish, however, between belonging to the
Church, and being a member of the Church. Strictly speaking, only those who
fully accept all that the Church declares as revealed truth are members of the
Catholic Church. Those who are baptized and in varying degrees accept some of
the Churchs prescribed teachings are said to belong to the Church.
This is clearly brought out in the statement of the Second
Vatican council when it defined the Church founded by Christ and identified her
presence in the world today. According to the Council:
This Church, constituted and
organized in the world as a society, subsists
in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the
bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, there are many elements of
sanctification and truth found outside her structure. These elements, as gifts
belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity
(Constitution on the Church, I, 8).
The important word in this declaration is the verb subsists. Behind this carefully chosen word stands
the claim that the actual fullness of Christs heritage to His Church the
fullness of His revealed truth, the fullness of the sacraments He instituted,
the fullness of authority to govern the People of God in His name resides in the Catholic Church of which
the Bishop of Rome is the visible head.
Other Christian bodies share, in greater or less degree, in
these elements of sanctification and truth that exist in their divinely
intended fullness hence subsist in the Roman Catholic Church. These
elements, we are told, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity. In other
words, Christian bodies are drawing closer to the unity willed by the Redeemer
in the measure that they share in the supernatural riches of the Catholic
Already in apostolic times, the Church was considered holy.
If we inquire more closely in what sense the Church is holy, we find that she
is holy three times over: in her purpose for existence; in the means she
provides for making people holy; and in the proved holiness of her members.
Why Christ Founded the Church. There
is no question that Christ instituted the Church to make her holy. St. Paul
told the early Christians to imitate Christ, who loved the church and
sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy (Ephesians 5:25).
All of the Saviors preaching and all His exhortations to
the disciples had one principal aim: that those who believe in Him would become
perfect, even as their heavenly Father is perfect. Christ not only preached
holiness, but He practiced it to a sublime degree and then told His followers
to follow His example. Moreover, He sent them His Holy Spirit to move everyone
interiorly to love God with their whole heart, and to love one another as He
had loved them.
How the Church Sanctifies. Having
founded the Church to sanctify her members, Christ provided teachings of faith
and morals: the Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments, especially the
Eucharist; the directives of ecclesiastical authority; and especially His
indwelling Holy Spirit.
One other means of sanctification is available but it must
be used to be efficacious, namely the free will of those who belong to the
Church. There is no substitute for the willingness to listen to the Churchs
teaching, to obey her directives, and to make use of the sacraments on the road
What Are the Fruits of Sanctity? Two
thousand years of history show how effective the Church of Christ is in
Already in the first century, St. Paul addressed the
Christians as saints. He called individual communities as well as the whole
Church, the Church of God (I Corinthians 1:2). Since the days of the
catacombs, members of the Church have given evidence of above-ordinary
holiness. Martyrs and confessors of the faith; men, women, and even children;
persons of every social level; the rich and the poor the Churchs history is
the story of countless believers who practiced exalted virtue because they had
access to extraordinary sources of divine grace in the Catholic Church.
The word Catholic means universal. As a title for the
Church, it was first used by St. Ignatius of Antioch in 107 A.D. when he wrote,
Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. The term soon acquired
the two meanings that are now associated with Catholic, namely universal
Christ certainly intended His Church to be universal, when
He told His disciples: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to
me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-19). We get some idea of
how well the apostles obeyed Christs command from the fact that there were
some one hundred Catholic dioceses established in Europe, Asia, and Africa by
the beginning of the second century.
The Churchs universality had to be joined with her
orthodoxy to ensure true catholicity. This would have been impossible except
for her final quality of being truly apostolic.
The Church is apostolic on several grounds: her origin,
doctrine, authority, and episcopal succession.
- She is apostolic because her origin reaches back to Christs call of the apostles
and ordaining them to the fullness of the priesthood at the Last Supper.
- She is also apostolic because the doctrine
she has taught over the centuries has remained faithful to the
teaching of the apostles.
- She is apostolic because the popes and
bishops authority to teach, govern, and sanctify comes from their being
direct successors of St. Peter and the first apostles.
- She is finally apostolic because this succession derives not only by delegation
or appointment, but is actually rooted in episcopal ordination. When Christ ordained
the apostles, He enabled them to confer the same powers they had received from Him. And
the bishops ordained by the apostles could transmit their episcopal powers in
unending line to their successors until the end of time.
Papal Primacy. The Bishop of
Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter. Christ promised Peter that He would
make him the rock on which He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18). After the
Resurrection, Christ actually gave Peter the authority to teach and govern the
universal Church. Peter was told to feed my lambs and feed my sheep by
nourishing their minds with Christs truth, and to tend my sheep by leading
the wills of the faithful according to the will of Christ.
The popes as Bishops of Rome have succeeded St. Peter as
visible heads of the Church on earth. From the first centuries they have been
thus recognized by all believing Catholics. The pope is therefore called the
Vicar of Christ because he has received from the Divine Master delegated
authority over all the People of God.
His authority is called the papal primacy. It means that he
has supreme authority to teach and govern the universal Church. This authority
is not merely nominal, but real: It is not merely honorary, but binding in
conscience on everyone who belongs to the Catholic Church.
Episcopal Collegiality. From
earliest times, the apostles and then their successors worked together
collectively. They cooperated with one another, under the Bishop of Rome, in
what we now call episcopal collegiality.
As stated by the Second Vatican Council: St. Peter and the
other apostles constitute a single apostolic college. In like manner, the Roman
Pontiff, Peters successor, and the bishops, successors of the apostles are
linked together (Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church, III, 22). In further commenting on collegiality, the council
carefully explained the relationship between the bishops and the pope.
There are three basic powers that belong to the episcopacy:
- First is the power of administering the sacraments,
including the consecration of other men as bishops.
- Second is the power of teaching authoritatively and sharing in
the Churchs guidance by the Holy Spirit to communicate revealed truth.
- Third is the right to govern and direct the faithful according to
the norms of worship and conduct that are binding on all the People of God.
Among these three powers, the first comes to a bishop when
he is consecrated. He should not, however, exercise this power without the
popes approval. But if he does, he acts validly. The sacraments he confers
including the ordination of other bishops produce their effect as soon as the
sacrament is received.
The second and third powers of a bishop are quite different.
They are, of course, rooted in the bishops consecration. But this consecration
gives a bishop only the capacity to teach and govern, not the actual power of
doing so. As interpreted by the Vatican council, episcopal consecration
confers the offices of teaching and ruling. This, however, is not enough. Of
their nature they can only be exercised
in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.
What are we being told? Episcopal collegiality becomes effective
only if a bishop, or group of bishops, is in actual communion with Rome and the
rest of the hierarchy united with the pope. Apart from such communion, any
episcopal action has no assurance of divine approval, no matter how many
prelates may agree among themselves.
Infallibility. One of the consequences of
the Churchs being apostolic is that she must necessarily be infallible in
teaching the essentials of faith and morals. Otherwise, Christ would have left
her in open contradiction. On the one hand He obliged His followers to accept
the teaching of Peter and the apostles as a necessary condition for salvation.
On the other hand, He would not have assured His Church of proclaiming the
truth, which alone deserves to be accepted and followed, if He had not endowed
her with infallibility.
He told the apostles: If anyone does not . . . listen to
what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from
your feet. I tell you solemnly, on the day of Judgment it will not go as hard
with the land of Sodom and Gomorrah as with that town (Matthew 10:14-15).
Later on, he told Peter: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you
loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).
Infallibility is preservation from error. Properly speaking,
only persons can be infallible. When they teach infallibly, their teaching may
also be said to be infallible, although more accurately it is irreversible. What
has once been taught infallibly cannot be substantially changed or reversed.
Truth is essentially unchangeable.
The primary source of infallible teaching is the successor
of St. Peter, when he intends to bind the consciences of all believers in matters
of faith or morals. What he thus teaches is irreversible because of its very
nature and not because others in the Church agree with him. This was solemnly
defined by the First Vatican Council.
At the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of infallibility
was further refined. Individual bishops, the council declared, are not
Yet, when, in the course of their
authentic teaching on faith or morals, they agree on one position to be held as
definitive, they are proclaiming infallibly the teaching of Christ. This
happens when, though scattered throughout the world, they observe the bond of
fellowship tying them to each other and to Peters successor (Constitution on the Church, III, 25).
In other words, the Holy Spirit guides the successors of the
apostles as teachers of the truth, provided they are united among themselves
and under the Bishop of Rome.
Communion of Saints. The Church
founded by Christ has three levels of existence. She is the Church Militant on
earth, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in heaven.
After the last day, there will be only the Church Triumphant in heavenly glory.
It is understood that there is communication among these
three levels of the Mystical Body. Those on earth invoke the saints in heaven
and pray for the souls in purgatory. Those in heaven pray for the Church
Militant and the Church Suffering; they obtain graces for us on earth and an
alleviation of suffering for the poor souls. Those in purgatory can invoke the
saints on high and pray for us struggling with the world, the flesh, and the
We might, then, describe the Communion of Saints as the
unity and cooperation of the whole Church. Together, we all form one Mystical
Body. We share our merits and prayers with one another for the greater glory of
God and the upbuilding of Christs Body which is His Church.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism