Marked as Catholic

Faith Focus
How well am I able to explain the four marks of the Church?

"An Introduction to the Four Marks of Catholicism" by David Werning, OSV Newsweekly InFocus

The Catholic Church: Its Basic Foundation

Jesus, during his earthly ministry and before ascending into heaven, instituted his Church upon the “rock” of Peter and the other apostles (see Mt 16:18; 18:18). This Church that Jesus founded subsists in the Catholic Church, according to Catholic teaching, and it still bears the four distinguishing marks that Jesus intended: namely that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. “This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society … is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him …” (Lumen Gentium No. 8). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states further: “Only faith can recognize that the Church possesses these properties from her divine source. But their historical manifestations are signs that also speak clearly to human reason” (No. 812).

The Church is one

Claiming that the Catholic Church is one may seem naïve at best and triumphalist at worst. Given the differences within Christianity already mentioned and considering the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, how can unity be claimed? It depends on the source of unity. If one keeps in mind the divine origin of the Catholic Church, then its unity can be appreciated even when individual Catholics obscure it by error and sin or when people choose to leave the Church.

The German bishops make a good point in “The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults”: Unity, they say, is “not a goal of Church organization” (No. 231). It is not something that can be manufactured by human beings. The unity of the Church “is already a reality in Christ as a first fruit of the Holy Spirit” (No. 231; see also Lumen Gentium, No. 7). Therefore, unity is a gift that must be received and lived by the members of the Church, who, as St. Paul tells us, are called to be one with their head (Col 1:18).

If one chooses to participate, then he or she will join in the “visible bonds of communion” that Jesus provided (CCC, No. 815):

— “Profession of one faith received from the apostles.”
— “Common celebration of divine worship, especially the sacraments.”
— “Apostolic succession through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Participation in these bonds, needless to say, cannot be pro forma. They amount to nothing unless love “binds them together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).

Caution About the 'One' Church

Two notes of caution about the unity of the Church should be kept in mind. First, unity does not preclude diversity. As the Catechism states: “Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions and ways of life” (No. 814). This includes even the way Mass is celebrated. Most people are familiar with the Latin, or Western, rite of the Catholic Church, which includes most U.S. Catholic parishes. But there is an Eastern part, which includes 21 churches that celebrate Mass according to their own traditions. Together the Western and Eastern churches make up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

A second note of caution concerns Christians outside the Catholic Church. Ruptures to the “unity of Christ’s body” (CCC, No. 817) were caused by human sin on both sides of every divide. Yet, “one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation]” (CCC, No. 818). The Catholic Church accepts other Christians as brothers and sisters, and it recognizes in their communities “elements of sanctification and truth” (CCC, No. 819). Moreover, the Catholic Church is committed to continual conversion on its part and to responding to Jesus’ prayer that all be one in him (Jn 17:20-23).

The differences between the Catholic Church and religions outside Christianity are obvious, for the latter do not believe Jesus is God. Within Christianity, the contrasts fall along a spectrum. Quite a few differences stem from both a rejection of the papal office and a disagreement over holy orders. The differences here are very stark. On the other hand, some branches of Christianity, like the Orthodox (which also claims a direct link to apostolic times) are so close that full unity is in reach. Nevertheless, in order to give an account of their own tradition, Catholics need to understand each of the four marks. Taken together they form a foundation for the entire Catholic faith.

The Church is holy

The claim of the Church to be holy may seem false taken at face value. But, again, one has to consider the source to appreciate how the Church is holy. If the Church’s holiness depended on its human members, then it would have succumbed to evil long ago. Clearly, individual members and even groups within the Church can be sinful. They may even be actively opposed to holiness. The eruption of scandals throughout the history of the Church, even in the present time, is proof enough. Yet the scandals operate ipso facto against the Church’s intrinsic holiness.

The Lord says, “Be holy because I am holy” (1 Pt 1:16; cf. Lv 11:44, 19:2). We are to reject sin and to live by God’s words. So Christ, when he brought the Church into being, did not mean for its members to exist apart from him. On the contrary, the whole point of the Church is to provide a way that people might be united to Jesus and share in all his gifts (cf. 1 Pt 1:13-16). Jesus bestowed the Spirit upon the Church and communicates divine grace through the sacraments. Moreover, the Church has reminded its members that God “does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness” (Lumen Gentium, No. 9). The key is to remain in Christ, the source of holiness.

If living a holy life seems impossible to an individual member, then the Church must support that person and remind him or her what Jesus says: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). It’s also good to keep in mind models of the faith, the saints, who persevered in holiness because they never gave in to sin and continued to follow Christ. The saints bring to life the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

The Church is Catholic

The third essential characteristic of the Church has become part of its name: catholic, meaning universal. Many people may have heard or read another title: the Roman Catholic Church. However, official Church documents never use “Roman” because it can obscure the universal nature of the Church. Jesus sent the apostles to the whole world (cf. Mt 28:19-20) so that every person might be offered the fruits of his salvation.

That’s why the Church goes to every land and exists among every people. The Church is even willing to adopt local customs as long as they are good and complement the truth of the Gospel of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 13).

The universality of the Church is enhanced by its presence in so many localities and by existing within so many political systems across the globe. Every diocese, or local Church, makes present the one Catholic Church in its particular place. For instance, just as Paul could write to the “church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2), a person today can write to the “church at Fort Wayne, Indiana,” or the “church at Paris.” There are also the Eastern rite churches, which bring the variety of their liturgical traditions to the Catholic Church. The fathers at Vatican II were very proud of this richness: The “variety of local churches with one common aspiration is splendid evidence of the catholicity of the undivided Church” (Lumen Gentium, No. 23).

The Church is Apostolic

Closely connected to the catholicity of the Church is its apostolic character. Here again one can find people who charge the Church with dissimulation, stating that whatever the Church calls its leaders, it cannot call them apostles. This is true in one sense: The Twelve Apostles chosen by Christ during his earthly ministry, and who received from Christ the great commission to spread the Gospel, are unique. However, the Twelve soon realized that Jesus’ promised return was not going to be as quick as they originally thought. Indeed, the Second Coming might happen after their deaths, so they returned to Jesus’ words in order to discern how they could fulfill the mission he gave them.

Jesus promised to be with the Church until the end of time through the Holy Spirit, whom the apostles received in a special way at Pentecost. Through prayer the apostles discerned that they were to choose successors to carry the Gospel to the end of time. These successors, who are called bishops today, are not the apostles and they do not claim to be so. What they do claim is to be in the line of apostolic succession that was initiated by the apostles through the laying on of hands. This line of succession is what binds the bishops to hand on the Faith they have received, to guard it and protect it, and to prohibit any innovations obnoxious to it.

Two Ways the Church is Apostolic

1. Just as the Twelve were given their mission as a body with Peter as the leader, the bishops form a college with the pope as head. As the pope serves his brother bishops as a leader among equals, he shares with them the primary mission of preaching the gospel of Christ.

2. The whole Church is apostolic in so much as both people and ministers are united in Christ and share in the same mission to make Christ and his kingdom known and available to all.


While other Christian denominations celebrate some of the sacraments, revere sacred Scripture and have many holy people within their ranks, only the Catholic Church has all the elements Jesus intended.

This is the one Church of Christ which in the creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after his resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which he erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.” 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 by the bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity (Lumen Gentium, No. 8).

This teaching is important for two serious reasons apart from how it distinguishes the Catholic Church from other denominations and religions. First, it grounds the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church in the authority of Christ. Second, it warns the Catholic Church never to take for granted its divine gifts, but to work tirelessly to share them with all.

This article comes to you from Our Sunday Visitor courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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