A Pivotal 4x4: Of Marks of the Church and Last Things
“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)
As a convert from evangelicalism, I didn’t come into the Church as a blank slate. I knew the Scriptures pretty well (better than most Catholics, as I found out), I was already reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, and I knew about the Ten Commandments. In terms of enumerated lists, I also knew the Four Gospels, the Twelve Apostles (and twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed), the three Persons of the Trinity, and the dual natures of Christ.
Early on in my Catholic catechetical journey I discovered an unfamiliar enumerated list: the seven Sacraments. No surprise, it became my new favorite, but there were two more lists that I also embraced with enthusiasm: the four marks of the Church and the four last things.
Like a catechetical 4x4.
When most of us think of a 4x4, we think of a four-wheel drive vehicle – like a 4x4 Jeep Wrangler, or a 4x4 Dodge Ram. But if you’re handy around the house – or you’re in construction – you might also think of lumber. To frame a house, you use a lot of 2x4s, and if you’re going to build a deck, you’ll have to also get some 1x4s – which are also what you’ll use for fence pickets. But for fenceposts, you need something thicker, more durable. Hence, the 4x4s.
I’m no handyman, so I stopped by Menard’s to verify my catechetical metaphor, and I asked the lumber guy what 4x4s were used for. “Fenceposts,” he confirmed, “and mailboxes.” Of course! Our own mailbox is on a metal post, but I’ve seen many anchored in place by a sturdy wooden 4x4. It’s just the right size to provide the pivotal stability and durability necessary to withstand the ravages of weather, snow-blower bumps, and twice daily rattling from mail delivery and retrieval.
For me, as a convert, my catechetical acclimation to Catholicism was similarly pinned to a kind of 4x4 post – the four marks of the Church and the four last things – and I still rely on that pivotal stability today. The marks of the Church establish our Catholic bearings – where we’ve been and where we are (the Church militant). The four last things sketch out where we’re all going – the Church suffering and the Church triumphant.
I grew up as a Protestant Christian, and so I had always thought of myself as belonging to the church – belonging, that is, to the universal assembly of believers in Jesus and connected in some way to all such believers going back to the earliest days of the faith. But, even before I started considering the claims of Catholicism, I was troubled by the many, many iterations of that body: thousands of different churches and denominations – tens of thousands, really, and more every day it seems. Which one was the right one, the authentic one? Which, that is, was the true Church, the one most directly representative of what Christ established in his lifetime?
That’s where the marks of the Church came in – marks as in distinguishing features. In application, they’re akin to an ecclesial facial recognition software program, and their reliability was authoritatively confirmed by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea which incorporated them into the Creed we recite every Sunday: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Even so, they were foreign to me as an evangelical, and it was Frank Sheed who helped me grasp why the marks were so important:
They mean outward showings, visible to anyone who troubles to look; they do not require the eye of faith, any rational observer can see that they are there. He may not see the importance the Catholic sees in them, but once he knows what we mean by the marks, the qualities outwardly shown, he will admit that the Church does actually show them.
It was hard to deny this assertion, and it was instrumental in my decision to become a Catholic – no other church seemed to have these marks! But now, as a Catholic, they mean even more to me, for they constitute essential dimensions of my own identity. As Sheed writes, the marks “are the outward showings of inner realities. The showing can vary from age to age, according as men respond well or ill to the gifts from above. But the inner reality abides changeless; Christ made his Church thus; it can never be otherwise.”
So, let’s take a look at these four marks, or signs, of our Church. We’ll consider them individually, although, as we’ll quickly see, they are integrated and interdependent – there’s a lot of overlap between them. That’s no surprise, because we’re talking about distinguishing features of a corporate Person – the body of Christ – and when we’re describing the features of any person, it’s pretty tough to isolate them without reference to all the others.
I noted earlier that I used to recite the Apostle’s Creed as an evangelical. The Nicene Creed builds on that more rudimentary statement of faith by fleshing out (no pun intended) the unique personhood of Christ – one divine person, two natures – and his significance for our salvation.
The fourth-century creed of the Council of Nicaea (which was then further refined and tweaked at the Council of Constantinople) is thus longer and more detailed. One significant difference is that it lists all four identifying marks of the Church, while the Apostles’ Creed only lists two – “holy” and “catholic.” The fathers at Nicaea decided it was important to include two others, including the unity of the Church.
The Catechism teaches us that unity “is of the essence of the Church” (CCC 813), but it might sound strange to us today. Unity is an odd claim for a religion that is distinguished by so much division. However, this mark, like the other three, should be understood on different levels. Thus, regardless of current structural strife and fragmentation, the church (small “c”) is still one because of its divine origin, having one divine founder and head, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Moreover, it is animated by the one Holy Spirit. St. Paul got at this idea when he insisted that there was “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Although this small “c” catholic Church – the mystical body of Christ – subsists in the big “C” Catholic Church (LG 8), it nonetheless incorporates all true followers of Jesus, regardless of denomination.
But what about the structural, big “C” Church? We have plenty divisions of our own, which make it awkward to speak of “unity.” Yet this sign has both an actual signification and an aspirational signification in the temporal realm – that is, what is in addition to what ought to be. The reality expressed by the mark – what we want to look for if we’re hunting for the true Church – is that we Catholics are, despite appearances, still somehow unified as a visible body. And what is required for all organizations to have unity? Somebody in charge. Somebody at the top of the org chart. A CEO. A president. A Pope.
The Church is one – visibly, structurally – because we have one shepherd, the heir of St. Peter, appointed by Christ to be our rock and the visible, embodied sign of unity for all his followers. We acknowledge the Pope’s leadership, not because he’s holy (plenty popes haven’t been), but because he’s Peter for us today. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Pope faithfully safeguards the unity of our belief and, consequently, the unity of our believing family (CCC 936).
The aspirational side of this sign is that we’re all called to deepen and expand our unity under Peter’s successor by growing in our understanding of our common Faith, and then going about putting it into practice. We can, naturally, disagree about how that’s done, but we ought to seek to be unified in what matters most, and it’s the Pope, along with the Magisterium (or bishops in union with him) to help us figure that out.
What’s more, we also want to be instruments of bringing into the one fold all of our Christian brothers and sisters who aren’t themselves yet Catholic. More on that later.
Of the four marks, this one’s perhaps the toughest to tackle today considering what’s been in the news almost constantly since last summer. The revelations of priestly sexual abuse going back decades and the associated apparent cover-ups are hard to reconcile with a Church that’s supposedly characterized by holiness. In other words, if “holy” is a mark of the true Church – the Church founded by Christ on the Apostles – then should we be looking elsewhere to find it, some place other than the Catholic Church?
Obviously, I don’t subscribe to that point of view, but I don’t want to minimize the horrific tragedy that all the recent revelations represent: the harm to souls and psyches, families and marriages, entire parishes and dioceses, not to mention the Church’s reputation and credibility in the world, her ability to carry out her mission. All that is true, and the sooner we as the Church address the underlying problems in a substantive, honest and thorough manner, the sooner healing can come to those who’ve been harmed, and the sooner we can re-build trust in our overwhelmingly exemplary clergy and their vital pastoral ministry.
But the question remains: How is the Church holy in the current situation? Well, the same question could be asked of the Church in any age. In fact, as a student of history while still a Protestant, I couldn’t help marveling at the Church’s ability to persevere despite repeated disastrous scandals, century upon century – almost always generated by pope, hierarchy and clergy. This idea is captured in the old story of a Cardinal who was confronted by Napoleon, who argued that he had the power to destroy the Church. The cardinal shot back: “Your majesty, we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
No, the Church isn’t holy because all her members are holy – least of all the hierarchy and clergy. The Church is holy primarily because of her holy pedigree, her identity as the people of God (CCC 823). We’re all cells of that body – sometimes healthy, sometimes not – and Christ is the head. If we’re sick, sinful cells, then, as long as we stay in that body, we can get healthy again – which, of course, is what the head, Christ, wants, both for us individually, but also for the body as a whole. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about the vine and branches: We need to stay connected to the healthy vine in order to thrive ourselves – although it might entail pruning. If we get cut off – if we cut ourselves off – we’ll die.
And by staying connected to Jesus, to the vine, we have access to that which will make us holy people and healthy cells – namely, the sacraments, the liturgy, the Mass, as well as the intercession and spiritual camaraderie of the saints, a benefit of our being incorporated into the communion of saints as the Church militant. And that’s another dimension of the Church’s fundamental holiness, despite glaring lapses in holiness – whether on an individual or institutional scale – that might plague the Church at any given time: The witness and legacy of countless full-fledged holy people, the saints and martyrs, who populate the universal Church along with all us sinners. Remember that Christ likened the Church to a field with both weeds and wheat in it, and they won’t get sorted out and separated until the end of time. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of wheat out there, particularly if we look beyond the headlines to the uncelebrated saints in the next pew.
All of that is the actual signification of the mark of holiness. But there’s the aspirational dimension as well – what Vatican II deemed the “universal call to holiness” (LG 39). If we come to the Church and stay in the Church, we’re obligated to aspire to holiness. We strive to become saints, to become little Christs in the world, to be his hands and feet in the world, out of love for him. We so often fail at this, but we have the Sacraments (especially Confession) to help us keep going – and that’s the point: we have to keep going!
The Church is like a big saint-making machine, which is a reality that’s hard to deny, even in the face of the current tumult. Can’t you see in yourself a bit? Your spouse? Your kids? I’ll bet you can: You’re becoming saints, little by little, as you struggle against weaknesses and shortcomings, seeking grace to change and struggling to act on it, and so you’re constantly adding to the Church’s holy character every day.
All right, on to catholic – which, as you know, means “universal” (CCC 830). At one level, this mark is pretty straightforward because there’s no denying that the Church has an established presence all around the world (with few exceptions). This is the actual signification of catholicity, although the Church was catholic even in the very first days of her existence after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – even before the Apostles started traveling to all corners of the globe. Indeed, she was Catholic the moment those tongues of flame began hovering over the heads of those gathered in the Upper Room because she was intended for everyone.
As a Protestant, I committed to memory all the versions of the Great Commission: Christ’s post-resurrection commandment to his Apostles to go out – beginning in Jerusalem, and then everywhere – and proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, and baptize them. This charge to evangelize was so central to the Church’s identity that it’s explicit, in one form or another, in all four Gospels and at the beginning of the Book of Acts. Universality was always part of God’s rescue plan for humanity – something we celebrate every January in the Feast of the Epiphany. The Gentile Wise Men who came to adore the infant King were living affirmations that salvation might be from the Jews, but it wouldn’t be only for the Jews. All peoples, all men and women, everyone from all ethnicities and languages and background, social status, age, everyone, everyone was invited to become part of the body of Christ.
Admittedly, this visible dimension of catholicity got more than a bit complicated when the body of Christ started experiencing splits and divisions – remember that first mark of unity? As we saw, oneness in the Church was and is key, but it’s hard to maintain given our human weaknesses and pride. St. Paul attests that there were divisions in the Church from the get-go, but the big ones were in the 11th-century (the split between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches) and the 16th-century (the split between Catholics and Protestants, commonly known as the Reformation).
These major divisions were severe injuries to the mark of catholicity, but they are by no means deal breakers. The Church teaches us that all those who are baptized and proclaim Jesus as Lord, regardless of ecclesial membership, are really part of our Catholic family (CCC 838). Obviously, it would facilitate the Church’s mission if we were all unified again institutionally, but we carry on regardless, cooperating where we can with our separated brothers and sisters and ecclesial cousins, and being respectfully tolerant and even gracious when we can’t.
And what is that mission anyway? Well, it’s like I said, the Great Commission, which means that we’re all called to spread the Gospel in its fullness – to everyone who hasn’t heard it and to those who already know Christ but aren’t yet Catholic. Although everyone can get to heaven without being a fully initiated and practicing Catholic (LG 16), we know that the Church provides us with the best and most complete set of tools to get there – the “fullness of the means of salvation” (CCC 816). Thus, we’re still a missionary Church – the aspirational part of the catholicity sign – and we all have a role to play in that mission.
Finally, the fourth mark of the Church: apostolicity. Like catholicity, here the actual signification of the mark is clearly discernible, and it is literally linked to its divine origins: It’s the connection, through history and direct links of consecration, between the apostles themselves and the hierarchy of today. It’s essentially an extrapolation on a grand, two-thousand yearlong scale – a universal scale – of what happened in the first pages of Acts. Following Judas’ betrayal and death, the remaining eleven Apostles, at Peter’s behest, determined that they’d bring their number back up to the Lord’s original designation of Twelve. After discernment and prayer, they settled on St. Matthias, “and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26).
These days, we don’t throw lots (as the eleven Apostles did) to choose new apostolic heirs, but we do affirm that full apostolic authority is transmitted to each new generation of bishops. “To proclaim the faith and to plant his reign,” reads the Catechism, “Christ sends his apostles and their successors. He gives them a share in his own mission. From him they receive the power to act in his person” (CCC 935).
Just like the original Twelve, our bishops are not only entrusted with teaching the Truth of the Faith (their role as the Magisterium), but also implementing it – that is, evangelizing, ensuring our access to the liturgy and the Sacraments, addressing and correcting error, ordaining others to assist them in these tasks, and living out, with God’s grace, a life of holiness for us all to model (CCC 857). They’re our fathers and shepherds in the truest sense, and our priests, in a sense, represent our bishops to us on a local level. Similarly, our job, as laity, is to come alongside our bishops in supporting them, praying for them, and being apostolic ourselves in our daily lives. “[L]ay people are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world” (CCC 940).
OK, so we’ve come to the end of our summary of the Church’s marks – of where we’ve been, where we are, and why we stick with the Church no matter what. But what’s the point? What’s the end game? What’s the purpose of sticking with the Church, propagating the Faith in cooperation with our bishops, pursuing holiness, and picking up our crosses, big and small, in union with Jesus? That’s what our next group of four – the Last Things – will teach us.