One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Marks of Christ’s Church

Issue: What are the four marks of the Church?

Response: The four marks of the Church are an important element of the Catholic faith, dating back to the earliest ecumenical councils in Church history (Nicea in 325 and First Constantinople in 381). In the Nicene Creed we profess one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Those four adjectives for the Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—are what we call the four marks of the Church.

Discussion: The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the four marks of the Church in its treatment of the Creed. The Catechism begins its discussion in the following manner:

This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities (no. 811).

The marks of the Church simply are fundamental, distinctive features by which the Church founded by Christ can be recognized. Only faith can recognize that the Church received these features or characteristics from God, but certainly their historical manifestations are signs that speak to human reason. For example, we believe by faith that the pope is the successor of St. Peter and that bishops are true successors of the apostles. Yet our ability to historically trace apostolic succession back to the time of Christ is itself strong evidence that bolsters and supports our beliefs.

Our profession of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church was not only affirmed in the first Church councils, but reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. In the 19th century, the Vatican Holy Office reiterated this teaching, writing:

The true Church of Jesus Christ was established by divine authority, and is known by a fourfold mark, which we assert in the Creed must be believed; and each one of these marks so clings to the others that it cannot be separated from them; hence it happens that that Church which truly is, and is called Catholic should at the same time shine with the prerogatives of unity, sanctity, and apostolic succession.

Moving to the present, the Catechism devotes an entire section—paragraphs 811-70—to the four marks of the Church.

We profess one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church because we believe that God in His goodness bestowed these blessings on His Church, which He has given us as the instrument of salvation for the whole world. So when we say that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, or we believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, or we believe in seven sacraments, we understand that all our beliefs are inseparably tied to our belief in God the Holy Trinity, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, and who calls us to communion with Him.

Still the One

The first mark is our belief in one Church, or the Church’s unity. This truly is a difficult mark to grasp today, in the face of centuries-old divisions and the existence of tens of thousands of Christian denominations.

Unity is an attribute of God. God is one. Christ is one with His Father and fervently prayed that His disciples would fully experience this unity. Unity in the family, unity in the Church, and unity in all social structures are all reflections of God’s unity; the disunity we encounter reminds us of the lingering effects of sin in our lives and in the world. Unity requires obedience to lawful authority, and all authority comes from God. Those to whom God
has entrusted authority are to exercise their authority for the sake of unity. In fact, Vatican II emphasizes that individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches (cf. Catechism, nos. 886, 938).

Further, unity is not necessarily “sameness.” The Trinity has three distinct Persons without compromising the unity of the Godhead. Similarly, man and woman are different, yet their complementarity allows them to come together as one through the Sacrament of Marriage. And in the Church there are many roles and gifts that help build up the one Body of Christ.

The Church teaches that there are three visible bonds of unity in the Church:

(1) profession of one faith received from the apostles;

(2) common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments; and

(3) apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family (Catechism, no. 815).

Catholics share a common belief, worship, and Church governance. Above all, charity, as St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:14, binds everything together in perfect harmony.

But there is such a proliferation of Christian denominations and beliefs, how can we say the Church is one? We need to make an important distinction here. We do believe in one Church, and in fact the Church is one. However, Christians are divided and are still striving for the unity that Christ wills for His followers when He prays in John 17:20-21: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

So we don’t pray for the unity of the Church, but we fervently pray for the unity of all Christians (even of all Catholics!). Vatican II and our Holy Father have made ecumenism, or the quest for Christian unity, a real priority in our time. The division among believers is a cause of scandal and hinders the Church in her mission of bringing Christ to the world.

The one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with them. The profound reality of our membership in the Catholic Church is a blessing and gift. More has been given us, so more is expected of us. Vatican II makes it abundantly clear that Catholics who don’t persevere in charity cannot be saved (cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 14). This should rule out any and all condescension or arrogance toward those who do not possess the fullness of the faith.

As Catholics we have to uphold both the truth and the desire for unity. Denial of a truth of faith is heresy, and a breach of Church unity is schism. These are not popular or pleasant terms, but as St. Thomas More said, these aren’t pleasant things. We have to resist heresy or falsehood as well as divisiveness or schism to be loyal sons and daughters of the Church.

Those churches and Christian communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church nonetheless possess elements of sanctification and truth. These elements, such as love of Christ, devotion to Scripture, Baptism, and other fundamental beliefs and practices impel us toward full communion, and the Church also teaches us that our fidelity to that portion of the Gospel that we’ve received from Christ will be the basis of our salvation. In other words, while the fullness of the means of salvation is found in the Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit indeed uses other Christian communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church (cf. Catechism, no. 819).

Catechism, no. 821 provides a number of ways to promote unity among Christians, which of course begins with our own deepened conversion to Christ and prayer for unity, as well as fraternal dialogue and cooperation, such as in pro-life activities.

Ephesians 4 is one of the usual scriptural references in support of the oneness or unity of the Church. In verses 4-6, St. Paul refers to one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.

But let’s look at the verses that immediately precede St. Paul’s emphatic affirmation of the oneness of our faith. He writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). This is an examination of conscience for all of us; our faith calls us to live true humility, meekness, patience, self-sacrificing love, and peace. When we live this way—which is our calling as Christians—we truly are building Christian unity.

Saints and Sinners

The holiness of the Church may even be more difficult to understand and accept at first blush than the Church’s unity. After all, the Church is composed of frail, weak, sinful human beings, yet Catholics have the gall to say the Church is “holy.” The truth is that we’re able to make such a bold statement only because individually and as a Church we have Christ in us, transforming us, healing us, reconciling us to the Father.

As a holy people, we have been consecrated and set apart by God. As St. Peter writes, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Church is the bride of Christ, for whom Christ died. According to St. Paul, in laying down His life for His bride, Christ sanctified and cleansed His Church, making her holy and without blemish. We talk about being part of the communion of saints through Baptism, and “saint” is just another word for “holy one.” We don’t often think
of ourselves as saints. But the truth of the matter is that, if we’re to enjoy eternal life in heaven, we need to become saints.

The reason we don’t typically think of ourselves as saints is that we recognize we’re works in progress. We still haven’t rooted all sin out of our lives. This reality of sin and grace is beautifully reflected in the ancient Marian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater, or Loving Mother of the Redeemer, in which we ask Our Lady to assist us who have fallen yet strive to rise again. This falling and rising, this battle of sin and grace, continues in the Church and in each of us individually.

Vatican II drives home this point: “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (Catechism, no. 827, Lumen Gentium, no. 8). We don’t join the Church because we’re saints, but because we want the Church to help us sinners become saints. We are all in need of the divine Physician, who calls people who realize they’re sinful and in need of grace.

The Church’s holiness is found in various ways. Our beliefs are holy, and so we speak of the Holy Bible and Sacred Tradition. The holiness of the Church’s Magisterium as an authoritative teaching office is reflected in the title we use for the pope. He’s our Holy Father, through whom God ensures that our faith bears the fruit of holiness from generation to generation. The Church is holy in her worship and sacraments. For example, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, even if celebrated by a priest living in sin, is still the Holy Eucharist, which brings us the fruits of holiness. Even the government of the Church
reflects a certain holiness. The word “hierarchy,” which to some today might have negative connotations, actually means “sacred power.”

And holiness is found in the Church’s members. The Church canonizes men and women through the centuries who have faithfully and heroically responded to the call to holiness and who now enjoy eternal life in heaven. Many of them died for our holy faith. They are held up for us as models and intercessors in our own journeys of faith. And chief among these, of course, is our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the real emphases of the Second Vatican Council as well as the apostolate of Catholics United for the Faith has been the truth that all of us—without exception—are called to holiness. Holiness doesn’t happen automatically or by accident. Rather we must cooperate with God’s grace and strive for charity in all things. Prayer, sacraments, acts of penance and charity, and good spiritual reading are all vital to a healthy spiritual life. We must strive to see in all things an opportunity to grow in holiness. This can’t happen unless we embrace the present moment and gratefully accept whatever comes our way as an opportunity to grow in love of God and neighbor.

Here Comes Everybody

Today’s Catholics are called to be leaven in the new millennium. This is a tremendous challenge, as the richness of our Catholic faith isn’t reducible to mere sound bites, and timeless Christian wisdom is often portrayed today as simply one voice among many or as the “spin” of the religious right. This all points to the ongoing need for prudent inculturation, which is the process of adapting the Gospel —without diluting or disfiguring it—for new cultures and generations. Rather than withdraw into a secure Catholic ghetto, we’re called by our Holy Father to be an evangelizing presence in the world, allowing
God’s grace to transform a generation that at times seem to be lost in cyberspace.

The Catechism provides an excellent exposition of the catholicity of the Church. The Church is catholic or universal, both because she has already received from Christ the fullness of salvation (cf. Eph. 1:22-23), and because she has been entrusted with the mission of bringing the Gospel to the entire human race.

Regarding the Church’s missionary nature, the Catechism devotes an important paragraph to inculturation, worth quoting in full:

By her very mission, the Church travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God. Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the Gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are a sign of God’s presence in the world, and leads to the foundation of local churches. It must involve a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture. There will be times of defeat. With regard to individuals, groups, and peoples it is only by degrees that [the Church] touches and penetrates them, and so receives them into a fullness which is Catholic (no. 854).

This incarnational, sacramental dimension of the “new evangelization” requires profound respect for other peoples, cultures, and generations, and absolute fidelity to the Person and teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s not an either-or proposition. The Church calls us to build on the truths we already have in common with others while patiently fostering full communion in the Body of Christ. The glass is never only half full or half empty, it’s both. Dialoguing without ever summoning to conversion is cowardly and weak; summoning to conversion without first connecting with other people is foolhardy and harsh. We need grace and courage to hold these two realities together in our own particular network of relationships.

But, most of us are not missionaries in foreign lands. Our journeys generally lead us to work, the grocery store, or the mall. How do we live the catholicity of the Church?

First, we have to affirm with St. Paul that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for through Christ we all become through Baptism children of God and heirs of heaven. No group of people is excluded from this invitation. For us to look down on or refuse to engage others because of their race, culture, or nationality is an implicit denial of the catholicity of the Church.

Second, the Church is by her nature missionary. She has been sent to make disciples of all peoples. All Catholics are bound to support the missionary efforts of the Church. Material support by way of contribution, clothing, medicine, and the like are all very important. But even more fundamentally, we should regularly pray and offer our daily sufferings for the spread of the Gospel. This spiritual foundation is the engine that powers the Church’s missionary activity.

Third, we must not be ashamed of the fact that all salvation comes from Christ. As Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). And we further believe that Christ entrusted the fullness of the means of salvation to His Church, so that those who hear the apostles and their successors hear Christ. This does not mean that those who are not Catholic or who are not even Christian can’t be saved, for nothing is impossible with God. The Church’s traditional understanding of
the maxim “outside the Church there is no salvation” is treated in Catechism, nos. 846-48.

But if we really do believe what the Church teaches about salvation in and through Christ, shouldn’t we use every means at our disposal to let the whole world know about it? This is not to use truth as a club to beat people or as a license to be obnoxious. However, most Catholics probably err on the side of being too soft-spoken in our presentation of the Gospel to others. With St. Paul we must say, woe to us if we don’t proclaim the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16).

Sent on a Mission

Finally the Church is apostolic, which is a form of the word “apostle” that comes from the Greek, meaning “one who is sent.” The Catechism says that the Church is apostolic because she was founded on the apostles in three ways:

(1) She was and remains built on “the foundation of the apostles” (Ephesians 2:20), the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;

(2) With the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the deposit of faith, the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;

(3) She continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, “assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor” (Catechism, no. 857).

Apostolicity or apostolic succession has everything to do with authority. Nobody takes it upon himself or herself to be sent, to be an apostle, but rather it is an authority, a power, a mission given by the One who does the sending.

All authority comes from God the Father, who in the fullness of time sent His Son, Jesus Christ, among us to show us the Father and lead us to salvation. At the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says as much, indicating that all authority has been given to Him, and then He gives this same authority to His apostles, who are commissioned to go to the end of the world—baptizing and teaching through the abiding power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

We then read in the remainder of the New Testament, particularly the Acts of the Apostles, about how the apostles “father” the infant Church over which they’ve been given authority. We see individual apostles tending to particular Churches and the apostles collectively and collegially acting on behalf of the Universal Church at the Council of Jerusalem, always with due regard for Peter’s primacy.

We also see in the New Testament that the apostles are already making provision for the next generation of Church leadership, particularly in the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. After all, the Church was instituted to continue to the end of time. So we do have apostles consecrating episkopoi or bishops, such as Timothy and Titus, giving them apostolic authority—and not merely human authority—as ministers of the Gospel. The living Tradition of the Church, the sacred deposit of the faith, is entrusted to each living and breathing bishop in an unbroken line of succession—as we hear St. Paul exhort the
young Bishop Timothy: “Guard O Timothy that sacred deposit that has been entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20).

We also have the testimony of the Church’s Apostolic Fathers, such as Pope Clement and Ignatius (3rd bishop of Antioch, disciple of St. John), and of the early Church Fathers, including Ireneaus and Cyprian, among others, who not only attest to the hierarchical nature of the Church, but manifest it in their very ministry (Clement). Church councils through the ages have further clarified the solemn teaching that the office of bishop is of divine origin and bestows apostolic authority and power.

But what does this mean for the 99.9% of Catholics who aren’t the pope or even a bishop? As Vatican II emphasized, all of us are called to the “apostolate”—that by virtue of our own Baptism we have been sent to build up the Church, and in that regard laity have the special vocation of engaging the world and directing all things in accordance with God’s will. All have a role to play, but always in communion with the rest of the Body of Christ.

The Church’s apostolic nature does oblige us to remain staunchly loyal to all bishops who are in communion with the pope, particularly one’s own bishop. We cannot drive a wedge between the Universal Church, represented by the pope, and the diocesan or “particular” Church, headed by the bishop. There are only two possibilities: Either we’re in communion with the pope and his bishops, or we’re not.

In an address given on November 20, 1999, Pope John Paul II accentuates this point, quoting extensively from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:

I likewise point out the attitude that the laity should have toward their bishops and priests: “To their pastors they should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. . . . If the occasion arises, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage, and prudence and with reverence and charity toward those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.” Unity with the bishop is the essential and indispensable attitude of the faithful Catholic, for one cannot claim to be on the Pope’s side without also standing by the bishops in communion with him. Nor can one claim to be with the bishop without standing by the head of the college.

Our Church is incarnational, and thus human and divine elements are intimately (yet without confusion) brought together. We see this preeminently in Christ Himself, the eternal Son of God, yet fully human in all things but sin. We see this in the Bible, the inspired, inerrant Word of God, yet at the same time fully the work of diverse human authors. We see this in the Church, which is both the Mystical Body of Christ and at the same time a human institution composed of sinners. And so in bishops we find divine power and authority held in frail human vessels.

Bishops are human beings and consequently are not exempt from the frailties and weaknesses all of us experience in this life. The conduct or teaching of these “human vessels” may not always be worthy of an apostle of Jesus Christ. Yet we live the apostolicity of the Church by manifesting a filial or “childlike” piety in all our dealings with bishops and priests by virtue of their office as our “spiritual fathers.” We absolutely must not accept error, but with patience, fortitude, and charity we always must preserve unity in our pursuit of Christ’s truth.

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible (Catholic edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Vatican II Documents

Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis

Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions

To order, call Benedictus Books toll-free: (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive a 10% discount.

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• Rock Solid: Salvation History of the Catholic Church • Without the Church There Is No Salvation • Following Our Bishops • “We Believe in One God….”: The Nicene Creed and Mass • That They May All Be One: The Difference the Church Makes • The Theological Virtue of Faith

© 2000 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 12/12/01

Date created:
2/23/2005
Date edited:
9/26/2007

Associated PDF File:
Download Here

You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this PDF file