The Signs of the Church: “The Church is Catholic”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


At the turn of the last century, a member of the English Dominican Province published an insightful volume he named Meditations for Layfolk. In one of these reflections he observes,

The Church that Christ came to found was to teach truth. By that single sentence alone can be proved all the prerogatives that Catholics claim for their Church, for to teach truth in matters of such moment requires the gift of inerrancy, i.e., the gift of teaching without error the truths that are necessary for salvation; the gift of indefectibility, i.e., the gift of teaching without ceasing till the end of all the world. (Bede Jarrett, O.P., Meditations for Layfolk, (1915), “The Catholicity of the Church”)


To these qualities, our author also adds the Church’s responsibility to bring the Good News to the entire world. The dictionary defines “catholic” as “Universal or general; affecting mankind as a whole, or affecting what is universal in human interest.” Another author reflects this, observing: “Besides being One and Holy… [the Church] is also, we say, Catholic, that is, universal, adapted to the whole of humanity, and therefore free in every domain from everything that limits or restrains its actions, from all that implies particularism.”


This over-arching appeal and responsibility is reflected in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which noted that, in the beginning, God created one human family. Sin drove us apart, but the Church never ceases to call us together again, in Christ. Pentecost, with its miracle of tongues that allowed individuals from all nations to comprehend the apostles’ preaching, is a sign of that unity, the foundation upon which we place our hope for the triumph of one Church.


In our last reflection we observed that apostolic succession is far more than a mere history lesson – and far more rewarding to study. Apostolic succession is the Church’s continuing to maintain, throughout its history, the beliefs professed by the Apostles. We shall consider the apostolic nature of the Church in our next reflection, but for now we may rely on the Catechism, which quotes the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, when it teaches

Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. (CCC, #862)

The Vatican document points out that Rome rightfully lays claim to the allegiance of every local church. “…with this Church, by reason of its pre-eminence, the whole Church, that is the faithful everywhere, must necessarily be in accord.” (CCC, 834) However, the Roman Pontiff “presides in charity,” (Ibid.) and his care for local churches must reflect the concern loving Jesus ordered Peter to demonstrate, when he bade him “feed my sheep.”


Authority is an important factor in the life of Catholic Christians. Church leaders establish liturgical and other norms to protect the unity of the Church’s members. Pope Paul VI remarked the Church’s willingness to embrace the languages – and many of the customs – of the cultures it works among, but at the heart of this outreach is the Church’s unchanging desire to draw all people to the love of Christ.

Let us be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the…more or less anomalous federation of different particular churches. In the mind of the Lord the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social, and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances… [that] unified in a common effort, shows all the more resplendently, the catholicity of the undivided church. (CCC, #835)


Members of the Church must identify themselves by their willingness to profess what the Church teaches, but expressing this belief can assume many forms. Therefore, we can have no clear idea of what the future Church will look like. However, we may turn to the Church of the past, to understand how the future Church should establish itself.

The early Church was largely composed of Jewish converts to Christianity. As the Christian message attracted non-Jewish converts, the community was divided over questions regarding observance of the Mosaic Law, particularly the necessity of circumcision. In Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles we read that the religious leaders of the day gathered in Jerusalem to debate these matters.

This early gathering set the standard for all future Church Councils. What matters, they have stressed, is the universal character of the Church’s message; what should be abandoned are issues that underlie, and may even define, national communities.

Unfortunately, this is easier to say than to practice, so the Church finds herself faced with the sad reality of numerous communities that profess all, or nearly all, of the Roman Church’s beliefs, but do not embrace the entire disciple of our faith. Chief among these are the Orthodox Christian communions, which our Catechism (quoting Pope Paul VI) describes thus

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity… under the successor of Peter”…with the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.” (CCC, #838)


The question of the Church’s relations with non-Christians is more complex. On Good Friday, we acknowledge the Jewish people, “to whom the Lord our God spoke first,” and we ask God, “that the people you first made your own may attain the fullness of redemption.” Our Jewish neighbors anticipated our faith in God’s revelation; with them, we look forward to the coming of the Messiah – we to his return, in glory; they to his appearance as a fulfillment of all the promises of the Old Testament.


As we meditate the horrors wrought throughout today’s world by the forces of radical Islam, the Church’s relations with her Muslim brethren suggests that any mutual embrace may be quite elusive. However, Lumen Gentium reminds us, “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us, they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge of the last day.” (CCC, #841)


The Church strives always to reach out to people of faith, even to those who do not believe in Jesus, or in God. On Good Friday, the faithful pray God’s Spirit will enlighten those who do not acknowledge Jesus, so they “may enter on the way of salvation.” We pray, too, for those who do not believe in God, begging that “following what is right in sincerity of heart, they may find the way to God himself.”

These prayers are sincere, but we must not be misled by their gentle language. Our Catechism is unyielding when it states, “The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is ‘The world reconciled’.” (CCC, #845) Thus, from ancient times, the Church has maintained, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”


This affirmation has caused immense ill-feeling, but it states no more than the truth. Our Catechism teaches, “it means that all salvation comes from Christ…through the Church which is his Body.” Jesus sent his disciples to preach and baptize. If individuals acknowledge, but refuse to embrace, the salvation Jesus offers through this sacramental union – or, should they abandon it once they have embraced it – they must face the consequences. However, the threatened punishment does not apply to those who, through no fault of their own, have no knowledge of Jesus and his Church.


What is the fate, then, of those who have not heard the gospel message? God is just, so He will not condemn individuals for their ignorance. Striving to lead a moral life will always draw us closer to God, and we have no idea how God may speak to those seeking perfection in ways unknown to us. That some in our midst may not know God or the paths that lead to Him and His Kingdom should remind us of the Church’s – and our own – missionary vocation.

In our previous reflection, we stressed the relation between the Church’s holiness and the holiness of the Trinity. Here we might profitably consider Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations….” Our faith teaches that gifts are never given simply to enrich the one who receives them, but, rather, are given for the benefit of the whole Church community. Our Baptism, then, is a gift to be shared with all God’s people; our life in the Trinity makes each of us a missionary.


When we consider those with whom God expects us to share the gospel, we realize immediately that we – perhaps more than our listeners – are those who will be changed by our missionary endeavors. If we take our task seriously, we will quickly appreciate the value of patience, as well as respect for those whose beliefs differ from ours. Fr. Jarrett is very eloquent when he says

The Church is Catholic. To that Church I myself belong…But apart from these fixed truths, there are paths and bypaths which each can follow for himself…Let me, then, be wide-minded enough not to question or be scandalized in my brother. His conscience is lit up by the glory of God, and that should be enough for me.


When we consider the liturgical feasts we celebrate in autumn, the number that commemorate Christians’ victories over their Muslim foes are quite numerous. These include the Holy Name of Mary on September 12, the Holy Rosary on October 7, John of Capistrano on October 23. The Feast of the Holy Rosary is dear to your Dominican friends because a Dominican Pope, Pius V, helped organize the multi-national navy that won the Battle of Lepanto, a victory he attributed to praying the Rosary.

We might be tempted to conclude that praying the Rosary will guarantee a result similar to the victory Christians enjoyed against the Turks 446 years ago, but that is probably not the point of our celebration. The Mysteries of the Rosary remind us of the Incarnation. And by calling us to identify ourselves with Mary, the Rosary reminds us more clearly than any prayer other than the Eucharist, the God in whom we trust has loved us enough to take on our flesh, to be a sign of His everlasting and loving presence in our midst.

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