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Arguments Pro and Con: the Four Marks of the Church

October 18, AD2017

After a fruitful breakfast conversation with a searching friend, I realized that almost all the questions that he asked were in some way connected to the four marks of the Church, its holiness, oneness, Catholicity, and Apostolicism. In these marks, the Church finds its authority and its right to call herself holy—two points that are often challenged.

Afterwards, I reflected that most of the objections made against the Church go back to the marks. The questions about the crusades and the so-called atrocities committed by the Church are actually questions about the holiness of the Church. The question “how do I know that this is the Church of Christ?” can be answered by examining what it means for the Church to be Apostolic. Spend a second thinking over the most common reasons people give for not being Catholic or Christian. Throughout the ages, these marks of the Church have answered them. Here are some questions that are made these days against the Church’s four marks

Oneness and Catholicity

Many people—Catholics included—feel that the Church is not one. They say it is divided by a million points of view and cultural preferences. Partly, this comes from applying the problems in Christianity as a whole to the Church. Indeed, looking over protestant Christianity as a whole, people feel that the whole thing is horribly divided. They tend to apply this disunity to the Catholic Church. They feel that the Catholic Church is simply another faction.

To me, the unity and universality of the Church are connected ideas. Could the Church be universal but disunited? Could it be united but not universal? It has to be both. In a sense, Protestantism is universal but disunited. In almost any country, a protestant Church can be found, but each one is slightly different. In contrast, there is a creed that all Catholics ascribe to the world over.

Despite any amount of disunity in the Church on the surface, it remains one because of its source. “The Church is one because of her source: ‘the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit’” (CCC 813). The Church has persevered in its supernatural unity throughout the ages. Historically, the Church has not waffled in its social teaching.

This consistency is a sign of the unity in the Church, a unity that could not exist if it relied solely on human effort. On the other hand, Protestantism has often bent in the wind of moral and theological issues. A striking example is the Church of England which has changed its views on social issues.

This unity should be a strong selling point for those who view the disunity in Christianity. It is a sign that the authority of the Catholic Church has come from Christ; a sign which other churches lack.

Again, many times, non-Christians blame the Catholic Church for the faults of the Protestant Churches. They also base their ideas of the Church on what bad or confused Catholics have said.

HOLY

One of the most common objections to joining the Church is its history. Obviously, it is also a compelling reason to become Catholic. The Church’s place in the annals of history gives it more credibility while also making many feel skeptical. In a superficial way, it does seem that the Church has a rather besmirched record. People point to the popes that fathered children and the alleged injustices during the crusades.

Assessing the holiness of the Church seems to necessitate a detailed, factual study of past events. This is at least somewhat true. We need to combat the mainstream interpretation of historical events that paints the Church as a villain. In reality, the Church would shine through any century because of its saints and its steadfastness.
However, this historical approach is probably not the best way to prove that the Church is holy.

Trying to prove the Church holy might result in our trying to prove to ourselves that we are perfect when the source of the Church’s holiness is supernatural. Moreover, holiness is not so much something the Church merits as it is a gift from God. The Catechism states that “The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy’” (CCC 823). It also adds that “while in the most Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle, the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness” (CCC 829). Thus, the holiness of the Church exists partially here on earth but fully in heaven.

In this sense, the Church is the field sown with weeds and wheat described in Matthew 13:24-30 in which the owner, asked if he wished to uproot the weeds, replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest”. The action of the Holy Spirit makes the members holy, but the chaff will remain along with the wheat until the end of time.

Apostolic

There is a common agnostic argument around that is all too easy to give into because it has a false sense of humility about it. It says I wasn’t there. I don’t know. This argument is making it hard for anyone to be religious or believe in anything.

Through the apostolic tradition, we say as Catholics we do know even though we were not there. Any authority the Church has rests on its apostolicism. Catechism teaches that “the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ” (CCC 862). Catholics treat the authority of the bishops with reverence for a reason—they keep alive our connection to Christ and His first apostles.

Another argument common these days seems to attack the whole notion that the zeal to spread the Gospel ever existed—that an apostolic tradition could ever have existed. This argument says no one wants to be Catholic or ever really wanted to be Catholic. But is missionary zeal really dead?

Of course, the relevance of the Gospel message remains along with the urgency of spreading it throughout the world. Christ’s command in Mark 16:15 “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” is what the Catechism calls the “missionary mandate” (CCC 850) and also the duty of all Catholics. All Catholics should burn with zeal to spread the Gospel. We might feel that we are the only ones still trying to live a Catholic life, but we should know that we are not.

The Four Marks of the Church and Our calling as Catholics

It should be clear that all of the marks of the Church come from Christ rather than from human sources. However, all Catholics have the mission to conform their lives more and more to these marks. The Catechism says as much, “the Church does not possess them [the marks] 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” (CCC 811). We are called to become more unified, more holy, and, in short, more Christ like. When Catholics are disunited and unholy, they misrepresent the Church and its mission. That being said, Christ alone can transform His Church into what it should be.

In addition to serving as goals to reach, the marks also offer a rational explanation of our belief in the Church. The Catechism maintains that recognition of the marks comes through Faith, but it also adds that reason alone can recognize the marks and their importance in history. “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” (CCC 812). Some of the points already touched on come to mind such as the Church’s steadfast adherence to its creed and its moral tenets. The holy men and women through the centuries are another sign that the Church possesses these marks. Finally, I believe that inherently the marks appeal to our reason. They say that a Church that is united is more apt to be the true Church of Christ than a Church that is not.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Currently living in the Boston area, Paul recently completed his Masters in Teaching English as a Second language. Raised in Catholicism, he deepened his faith by completing his undergraduate degree at a Catholic liberal arts school. There he became familiar with inseparability of faith and reason even with a deeper realization of the ideological warfare faced by the faithful. A passionate educator and learner, Paul has taught in Mexico and Chile, as well as Boston. Faith and obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church remain the core of Paul's life. Encouraging others in their walk with Christ, he hopes to share the joy and peace of the Gospel by following in the footsteps of Pope Francis who reaches out to sinners with humility and compassion.

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  • Kevin Aldrich

    Thanks for this reasonable and orthodox review of the marks of the Church. Thanks also for the apostolate you are doing, personally and in writing.