The Marks or Identifying Characteristics of the Church

by Fr. William G. Most

We often speak of the four marks of the Church: one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. We do not mean that these are distinctive enough to prove the Catholic Church is the only Church of Christ. But they do help.

Christ established only one Church. "There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5). Presently we will speak of the relation of members of other churches to the Catholic Church.

We say the Church is holy, not in the sense that all members are holy--far from it. But her Founder gave it all the needed means to make people holy.

The Church is Catholic because it is universal: "God wills all to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). It aims to take in all persons, in fulfillment of the command of Christ in Matthew 28:19.

We say the Church is apostolic because it goes back to the Twelve Apostles chosen by Christ Himself. The Pope and Bishops have their authority in succession from the Apostles. The Pope is the visible Head as Vicar of Christ, Christ is the invisible Head. We know Christ intended His Church to last until the end of time, because He explicitly said: "Behold, I am with you all days until the consummation of the world" (Matthew 28:20). Again, many of His parables make this clear, such as the parable of the net in which the good will be separated from the evil at the end, or the parable of the weeds in the wheat, with the same idea.

There can be, and are, bishops validly ordained who are not in union with the Pope. These are called schismatics, and lose many graces by their rejection of the Head of the Church.

Vatican II taught that just as Peter and the Apostles formed a sort of college, with Peter as the head, so in a somewhat similar way, the Pope and the Bishops also form a college (LG chapter 3). This relationship is called collegiality. However Vatican II also taught in that same chapter that the Pope can even, if he so wishes, give a solemn definition of doctrine without consulting the Bishops, and that He has immediate authority over everyone in the Church, including each Bishop.

The Church is also called the People of God, that is, those who come under the new and eternal Covenant (cf. Exodus 19:5; Jeremiah 31:31-33). St. Paul in Romans 11:17-18 pictures Christians of his day--and so also today--as being engrafted into the tame olive tree, which stands for the original People of God, into places left empty by the fallen branches, Jews who rejected Christ.


Taken from The Basic Catholic Catechism
PART FIVE: The Apostles' Creed IX - XII
Ninth Article: "The Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints"

By William G. Most. (c) Copyright 1990 by William G. Most.


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