Catholic Church: One, Holy and Apostolic
From the October AD 1995
Our Lady of the Rosary
Our Sacred Faith - Part VIII
In this installment we examine the way in which the things of God, entrusted
to men, are preserved in their purity for all generations. We will see that the
Catholic Church, alone among the institutions of men, is the keeper of God's
revelations, His Sacraments, His laws, and His teachings. We shall see that the
Church is the locus of God's sacred things in the midst of mankind.
We have already seen that there are theological truths that are simply
undiscoverable by the unaided mind of men. For example, while man can know that
there is a God through his own reasoning powers, he is unable to determine for
himself that God is a Trinity of Persons, or that the Second Person has two
natures. This is not to say that these truths (which we call
"mysteries") are unreasonable or illogical. They are simply beyond the
powers of natural experience and reason.
`Even those truths which can be known by natural reasoning powers are often
complex, and might not be discovered by all who need to know them. While a
natural knowledge of God and the divine natural law is possible, there are many
who would not make the effort to reason out such truths. Experience proves that
there are many who have done a less than adequate job in these two areas.
Since God is concerned with our individual souls, He has taken great pains to
ensure that no truth which may be important to our salvation is left to be
guessed. He has, in fact, revealed both kinds of truth to us; both the
discoverable and the undiscoverable. The sources of revelation contain both the
mysteries we could not know, and the complexities it would be hard to know
without the help of Almighty God. The Catholic Church was instituted, at least
in part, to serve as the guardian of this revelation; to ensure that mankind's
revealed knowledge of God is free from error, and that the truths needed for
salvation are easily available to all. Just as the Jews marveled because Christ
spoke "as one having authority," so too the Church teaches
authentically, because it speaks with the same authority of Jesus Christ.
Before Abraham Was, I AM
The development of God's revelation, and consequently of the Church, is
traced in the record of the Old Testament. Mankind often takes a long time to
accept new ideas, so God gave us thousands of years to adjust to the idea of His
Among the many gifts enjoyed by our first parents, Adam and Eve, was the gift
of direct communication with God. Adam had no Bible to read, and needed no one
to tell him about God, because he knew God on a direct and personal basis. God
came down and spoke with him in the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately for all of us,
Adam sinned and lost all the special gifts of his creation. After the fall, man
had to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and woman had to bring forth her
children in pain. But worst of all, we lost personal contact with God—we no longer heard His voice in the garden. Those who wished to know of Him had
to rely on what was passed on by word of mouth, and whatever they could
determine with fragile intellect.
As time went on, however, it became obvious that God had no intention of
abandoning His fallen creatures. Reading through the book of Genesis we see that
God favored various holy men with His revealed wisdom. Noe, Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, Joseph, Job, and others are mentioned by name. Each one had some sort of
personal contact with God. But none of these men was sent to organize His people
into anything like a Church. The beginning of the Jewish people may have been
with Abraham, but the beginning of the Jewish Church comes more properly with
As we read in the Book of Exodus, the Jews were living in Egypt when God
summoned Moses to organize His people and lead them to the Promised Land. In
order to deliver them from the Egyptians, God sent a series of plagues upon the
land, the last of which was the death of every firstborn sun in Egypt. God's
people were delivered by offering the Passover sacrifice of a lamb, eaten with
bitter herbs, unleavened bread and wine. As they journeyed through the Sinai
desert, God revealed His plan for their salvation in greater detail. They came
to know that they were to be His people, were given His laws, told how He wanted
to be worshipped, and were organized as a Church under the high priest Aaron and
his descendents. It was clear to the Jews that within the fold of the
"Chosen People, there was salvation and the way to please God; while
outside the fold there was idolatry and damnation.
The Jewish Church continued throughout the period narrated in the Old
Testament. It went through periods of freedom and of exile, as well as through
phases of faithfulness and infidelity. But in the main, it preserved the truths
of theology, law, and liturgy entrusted to it by God, and was then the primary
instrument of salvation. The sacrifice of the Temple at Jerusalem, and the
teaching of the rabbis were to suffice until these things were replaced with the
Sacrifice of the Cross and the teaching of Christ.
Novi et æterni Testamenti
The New Testament outlines the life of Christ, the Son of God, sent to redeem
mankind. It describes the founding of His Church, the means by which His
teaching, rule, and Sacrifice are perpetuated. It shows how the Jewish Church,
under the leadership of the Aaronic priesthood, gave way to the Church of Christ
and the priesthood of the New Law.
Our Lord organized the body of the Apostles around Himself from the beginning
of His public life. He had other disciples, but there was an obvious distinction
between these others and the chosen twelve. "He went up to the mountain to
pray ... and day broke He summoned his disciples; and from these He chose twelve
... Simon, whom He named Peter, and his brother Andrew; James and John; Philip
and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James; Simon; Jude the brother of James,
and Judas Iscariot who turned traitor" (Lk. vi). As they lived and
traveled with Him, they prepared for the time when they would be made priests,
and sent out to represent Christ in His threefold role of Lawgiver, King, and
Priest. "Go, therefore, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them Á
teaching them to observe all I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all
days, even until the consummation of the world" (Mt. xxviii). Our Lord
gave His Apostles the power to forgive sins: "Whose sins you forgive, they
are forgiven them...." And He gave them the power to renew His Sacrifice on
the Cross: "This is My Body ... do this in remembrance of me ... for as often
as you shall eat this Bread and drink the Cup, you proclaim the death of the
Lord until He comes" (1 Cor. xi). In short, our Lord gave the Apostles
all of the power and authority needed to represent Him in every time and place.
Like any other organization, the Apostles needed a leader to set policy and
to make authoritative decisions as the need arose. To this end, our Lord
appointed Peter as head of the Church. Even though he was not the first Apostle
appointed, Peter is always the first of the Apostles listed in the scriptural
accounts. Sometimes the list is abbreviated to "Peter and the twelve."
Our Lord told him, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My
Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt. xvi).
After the resurrection (Jn. xxi), He again emphasized the role of Peter when he
asked him to feed not only His lambs (the faithful) but also His sheep (the
The successors of St. Peter, the bishops of Rome, or Popes, have this same
authority. If the Church is to endure "until the consummation of the
world," its supreme leaders must share the same plenitude of power. History
records recognition of the papal authority from the earliest times. While
St. John the Apostle was still alive in Ephesus, the Corinthians appealed to
the fourth pope, St. Clement, in far away Rome to settle their ecclesiastical
disputes. The matter of the Donatist heresy was referred to Pope Melchiades in
the early 300s and again to Pope Honorius in 412. Likewise, the Africans
obtained confirmation of their condemnation of Pelagius from Pope
St. Innocent I in 417. Pope Leo's letter to the Council of Chalcedon (451)
defining the two natures of Christ was acclaimed by the assembled bishops as
"Peter speaking through Leo." Such actions of the Roman Pontiffs in
settling disputes between churches, and defining dogma for the entire Church
have been common. Vatican I defined that in addition to being able to speak for
the entire Church infallibly in matters of Faith and Morals, the Pope possesses
universal jurisdiction. That is to say that even though a local church has its
properly elected or appointed bishop, the pope may intervene in the affairs of
that church for the good of souls.
It is important to understand that the Pope cannot err when he speaks as head
of the whole Church in defining truths of Faith or Morals. This does not keep
him from making errors at other times, even in theological matters. It does not
keep him from making errors in judgment, nor does it keep him free from sin. On
rare occasions, the Church has found Itself faced with the anomaly of a bad pope
on the throne of Peter. The pope is to be followed insofar as he teaches the
doctrines of Christ. Should a pope depart from orthodoxy and teach things at
variance with the immutable traditions of the Church—that is to say,
if his teachings contradict those of previous popes and the Universal Church in
matters of the Faith—even he must not be obeyed. The Church is
indefectible; It is founded upon the rock of Peter, but it is the Church and not
Peter against which "the gates of hell will not prevail."
Some so-called "conservative" Catholics make the mistake of
overstating the Church's teaching about papal infallibility, or of claiming that
the Pope (instead of the Church) is indefectible. In doing so, they set the
stage for completely losing their faith in the Church, or for adopting the error
that there currently is no pope (sedevacantism). Once they admit to themselves
that they have seen a modernist pope doing the things which their erroneous
"faith" tells them he is unable to do, they must either conclude that
their faith was wrong, or that the Pope is not really the Pope. The best
antidote to this "conservative" error is a strong dose of reality.
The Local Church
Shortly after our Lord's Ascension into heaven, the Apostles began to leave
Jerusalem in order to spread His teachings throughout the known world. Peter, of
course, went to Antioch and then on to Rome, the capitol of the Empire.
St. Thomas went to India, Andrew to Greece, John to Ephesus. Simon labored in
Egypt, Jude in Persia, and Matthew in Parthia. Only James remained in Jerusalem
as bishop. Wherever they went, they established local churches and consecrated a
bishop to rule as the "apostle" for those people. The bishop, in turn,
conferred the priesthood upon those whom he trained, and allowed them a share in
his apostolic jurisdiction, so that they might assist him in ruling his diocese.
When a bishop died, his successor would be elected by the clergy and people, and
consecrated by the bishops of the neighboring communities. A politically
powerful diocese might eventually gain the right to confirm the election of its
subordinate communities, or even to appoint them. Thus we see the development of
Archiepiscopal and Patriarchal sees.
As the Church grew and had time for theological reflection, it became
necessary to have a more official and precise understanding of Catholic
doctrine. Occasionally someone would propose a doctrine that didn't agree with
the rest of the revealed body of dogma. In the local church, dealing with such
heretics was the responsibility of the bishop. If the dispute effected several
dioceses, or was an argument between bishops, the matter might be referred to
the pope as we saw earlier. For a matter effecting the entire Church, all of the
bishops might gather in a general, or "ecumenical," council to
formulate a comprehensive statement of the disputed doctrine. (The word
"ecumenical" means that the bishops come from throughout the Church;
it does not imply the toleration of heresy as the word is often misused today.)
In the history of the Church there have been about twenty councils, and until
this century they were called only to deal with serious heresies effecting the
Membership in the Church
In Old Testament times membership in God's Church was more or less restricted
to His chosen Jewish people. The Jews were not expected to make converts, and
God gave them positive instructions to avoid (or even destroy) the pagans who
might influence them to idolatry.
In the New Testament, though our Lord first offered salvation to the Jews, it
quickly became clear that many others would "feast with Abraham in the
kingdom of heaven," while many of "the children of the kingdom would
be put forth into the darkness outside." Much more important than any
racial heritage is belief in the truths revealed by God and the love of fellow
man for the sake of God. The Epistles and Gospels are filled with admonitions on
the necessity of faith and the requirement to forgo dissention among the
Christian people. To be avoided is the heretic who might lead Christians away
from the means of salvation or lead them toward immoral behavior; likewise the
schismatic who will break the community into opposing factions.
If the Jews were the community of the circumcised, Catholics are the
community of believers. Before an adult is admitted to Baptism he is instructed
and must make a profession of the faith; a statement that he believes the
essential truths of the Catholic Faith. Before an infant is Baptized, his
god-parents recite the Creed for him, and promise to educate him in the Faith.
Only in the past few decades have heretics seriously suggested that there might
be salvation apart from the Faith, or without even as little as a well
intentioned effort to know and practice that Faith.
Modernism has confused many about what it means to be a Catholic. Those who
purposefully contradict Its immemorial teachings separate themselves from the
Church through heresy, even though they remain in apparent union with Its
hierarchy. Those in such apparent union, who reject or even excommunicate those
who cling to the true Faith, separate themselves from the Church through schism.
Those who deliberately persist in such heresy or schism are, themselves,
automatically excommunicated, and may be deprived of their position in the
Church by competent authority.
Nor can faithful Catholics be cut off from the Mass and Sacraments through
the caprice of those who deny the Faith. If, for just reason, Catholics may
approach even an excommunicated priest for the Sacraments and sacramentals, all
the more may they approach one who has been put out of the Church for holding
the true Faith!
Lest we forget, authority exists in the Church for one purpose. The supreme
law is the salvation of souls.
1. c.f. Matthew viii: 12
2. o.c. 1325 ¹2., n.c. 751. (o.c. and n.c. refer to the old (1917) and new
(1983) Codes of Canon Law, respectively.)
3. o.c. 2314 ¹1., n.c. 1364.
4. o.c. 2314 ¹2., n.c. 194.
5. o.c. 2261 ¹2., n.c. 1335.