Q: What Makes the Catholic Church “Catholic” A: The Four [indelible] Marks of the Church

My very dear friend and God and Cheeseburgers contributer (well, he can post any time he pleases) Dan, who runs the Protestant blog Arminian Chronicles recently posted his take on a very serious question:

What Makes the Catholic Church ‘Catholic’?:

Is it her people, her leadership, her beliefs? The term catholic usually means universal, so one would think it’s her 1 billion plus people spread throughout the world. 

However, I recently pointed out that an overwhelming majority of Catholics use birth control. (link) Does this mean the Catholic Church is OK with birth control? Matthew Bellisario responded by pointing me to an earlier post he had written where he claimed all Christians up till the 1930’s rejected birth control. 

All Christians up until the 1930s interpreted this text as referring to Onan’s punishment of death [Genesis 38 7:9] by his act of “coitus interruptus.” (link

I responded by quoting Jovinianus‘ alternative explanation in the 4th century (link).
Matthew then made an interesting move; backing away from his claim of ‘all Christians’ to ‘every Christian group’. 

every Christian group before the 1930 interpreted this passage the way I am interpreting it. (link

So what is a church group? Given that 1) the Catholic church group rejects birth control and 2) most Catholics use birth control, one might think a church group is not really about her people, but rather her leadership. Rome‘s leadership is so small a group compared to the whole Catholic church that they are statistically insignificant – and in this case they don’t represent most Catholics. 

Recently Matthew Bellisario added another wrinkle, by posted that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are united in Christ due to their common belief of the real presence in the mass. (link) So there’s a connection between the East and West that transcends leadership differences; since the East does not recognize the Pope as their leader. So if it’s not her people or her leadership, what makes the Catholic church ‘Catholic’. 

I think Matthew’s move here undermines a fundamental principle of Roman Catholicism – namely the epistemic priority of the Church over doctrine. Indeed, for a Catholic to know some doctrine is true, they must first know it’s approved by the Church. In some cases knowing the Church teaches something is sufficient to know it’s true, without further inquiry. This is of course contrary the the scriptural model of ‘search the scriptures’ or teach then baptize, but it’s also at odds with Matthew’s finding unity across Church boundaries, which seems to invite people to examine doctrine first, then look for the Church. How could Rome stand up doctrines such as the assumption of Mary based on the evidence rather than her authority? 

Of course, the right answer here is that the catholic church is all those who are assembled to Christ by the call of the Gospel (Hebrews 12:22-24). [My bold] Other than that, the bible simply speaks of individual, local congregations as churches.

While there is certainly truth to everything that Dan brings up here, such as the fact that church refers to a body of believers (in particular Christians) and that catholic (greek original katholikos) does mean universal, he fails to take into account what is at the core of Mathew Bellisario’s (Catholic Champion blog) arguement: the Four Marks of the Church.


Okay, so the exhange above began with a post that Dan did highlighing an article on a survey/study that was done that sadly shows that a majority of self-identified Catholics choose to disobey the Church (and subsequently God) opt for artificial contraception. Dan raised the ire of Matt in the com-box by simply posting the following short intro to the linked article:

It appears most Catholics ingnor Rome’s extra-biblical requirements on birth control.  (link)

The blogosphere and com-boxing being what they are, there was certainly more to it this friendly banter but my point is that Catholics and Protestants, the faithful mind you, are now divided on an issue that up until the Seventh Lambeth Conference (1930, mainstream Anglican), was the official line for most if not all Christian denominations. I will concede that the issue of aritificial contraception is ancient (see Dan’s reference to Jovinianus). Just as ancient as that of infanticide and feticide.

This neither makes the use of contraception just or acceptable it simply means that it is a long standing issue just like many other grave sins such as murder, lust, etc. Furthermore, the sad fact that many self-identified Catholics choose to break God’s heart in this fashion does nothing to deminish or limit the authority and primacy of the Church. Saying as much is akin to saying that because we are given free will and we choose to sin continuously against God we have somehow weakened or diminished Him or His existence, etc.


The Four Marks of the Church was originally articulated at the First Council of Constantinople back in AD 381 and is found in the resutling text of the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed that remains in use till this day:

We believe (I believe) in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. (God of God) light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not madeconsubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. 

And (I believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets

And one holycatholic, and apostolic Church. We confess (I confess) one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for (I look for) the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to comeAmen.” [via New Advent]

It is the line, “…one holy, catholic and apostolic Church” that lays out the Four Marks. No other Church except the Catholic Church has these Four Marks, or as many Protestants refer to them “Attributes.”

In other words, unity. The One True Church of Christ must be united in all things. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, says in 4:3-6:

“…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

Other Scripture references to this Oneness/unity include:

  • Jn 10:16 – there will be one fold and one shepherd.
  • Rom 16:17 – I urge that there be no divisions among you
  • 1Cor 1:10 – I urge that there be no divisions among you
  • Phil 2:2 – be of same mind, united in heart thinking one thing
  • Rom 15:5 – God grant you to think in harmony with one another
  • Jn 17:17-23 – I pray that they may be one, as we are one
  • 1Cor 12:13 – in one spirit we are baptized into one body
  • Rom 12:5 – we, though many, are one body in Christ
  • Col 3:15 – the peace into which you were called in one body
  • Mt 16:18-19 – upon this rock I will build my Church (singular)
  • Mt 18:17 – tell it to THE Church; if he refuses to listen even to THE Church… (must be visible)

How does the Church even come close to this unity? The answer is simple, through her teaching authority otherwise known as the Magesterium. Through ths mechinism the Church, being graced with the aid and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Jn 16-13), instructs the faithful concerning what is truth and what is error. This very Magesterium infallibly articulated the hypostatic union or the fact that Christ is both True God and True Man. Also the nature of God – One God, Three Persons. The Virgin Birth, the Canon of Scripture (all Christians agree at the very least on the New Testament), etc.

That said, some argue that divisions within the Church such as the debates on women’s ordination, married priests and the sad fact above that many self-proclaimed Catholics use artificial contraception agains the Church’s teaching prove that the Catholic Church is not united. This actually does nothing of the sort. What it does prove is that now, just like the day that Adam and Eve sinned, humans continue to freely elect to go against God, His Commanmendts in addition to those persons and/or institutions He has designated to represent Him. The Maegesterium today serves a similar role as Moses and Aaron did in the Old Testament: authorized spokesmen of God and stewards of His people.

In other words, sanctity. The One True Church of Christ must have been founded by Jesus Himself and no other. Furthermore, by nature of her founder, the One True Church will be protected from error. Matthew recounts the following in his Gospel:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Other Scripture references include [adapted from Sripture Catholic]:

  • Is 35:8, 54:13-17 – refers to the Church as the Holy Way and cannot teach error
  • Acts 9:2; 22:4; 24:14,22 – the early Church is identified as the “Way” (cf Is 35:8)
  • Mt 10:20; Luke 12:12 – Jesus tells His apostles it is not they who speak, but the Spirit
  • Mt 18:17-18 – the Church (not Scripture) is the final authority on questions of the faith.
  • Mt 28:20 – Jesus promises that He will be with the Church always.
  • Lk 10:16 – whoever hears you, hears me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me.
  • Lk 22:32 – Jesus prays for Peter, that his faith may not fail.
  • Jn 11:51-52 – God allows Caiaphas to prophesy infallibly, thus showing that this grace comes from God not men
  • Jn 14:16 – Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit would be with the Church forever.
  • Jn 14:26 – Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit would teach the Church (the apostles and successors) all things regarding the faith.
  • Jn 16:12 – Demonstrates that the Church’s infallible doctrine develops over time.
  • Jn 16:13 – Jesus promises that the Spirit will “guide” the Church into all truth.
  • 1 Cor 2:13 – Paul explains that what the ministers teach is taught, not by human wisdom, but by the Spirit.
  • Acts 15:27-28 – the apostles know that their teaching is being guided by the Holy Spirit. He protects the Church from deception.
  • Eph 3:10 – the wisdom of God is known, even to the intellectually superior angels, through the Church (not the Scriptures).
  • Eph 3:9 – this, in fact, is a mystery hidden for all ages – that God manifests His wisdom through one infallible Church for all people.
  • Eph 3:20 – God’s glory is manifested in the Church by the power of the Spirit that works within the Church’s leaders.
  • Eph 5:23-27, Col. 1:18 – There is only one Church, just as Christ only has one Bride.
  • 1 Th 5:21 – Paul commands us to test everything. The Catholic Church, whose teachings on faith and morals have never changed.
  • 1 Tim 3:15 – Paul says the apostolic Church (not Scripture) is the pillar and foundation of the truth.
  • 1 Jn 4:6 – John writes that whoever knows God “listens to us” (the bishops and successors to the apostles).

No other religious organization, intusution, whatever…comes close to backing up what the Church claims with this Mark. That for over 2,000 years she has reigned, not altered her dogmas and doctrines despite persecutions, schisms and “Reformations.” Even secular historians can show that the Catholic Church extends her reach to AD 33. To quote Rabbi Gamilieal:

“So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”  (Acts 5:38-39)

In other words, universality. This mark not only directly answers Dan’s question but also answer’s the greater meaning of Dan’s question, which, if I understand my good friend correclty, is, “How can the Church claim to be what she says and how can she back it up becuase I see no evidence?”

I answer this question with a question: Which Church carried out the Great Commission?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19)

Other Scripture references include:

  • Mt 28:20 – teach all of my commandments
  • Mk 16:15 – preach the gospel to the world
  • Acts 1:8 – witness unto the uttermost parts
  • Acts 10:9-28 – universality revealed to Peter
  • Rm 1:5-6 – the faith among all nations
  • 1 Cor 12:13 – of many origins, we are one
  • Ep 3:20-21 – glory in church for all ages
  • Mt 5:14-15 – the light…shining for all
  • Mk 7:24-30 – the Syro-phoenician woman

The Catholic Church has been in the business of evangelizing since AD 33 and by the grace of God working through the faith and deeds of her saints and sinners spread and continues to spread the Gospel of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to all corners of the Earth – baptizing all peoples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

There are other facets about the Church that demonstrate the unversality or catholicity of the Church. For example, the Liturgy. Despite some variations that are unique to the different churches within the greater Church (e.g. Latin Rite, Byzantine Rite, Dominican Rite, Anglican Rite, etc.) the basic liturgy remains the same and must be approved by the Roman Pontiff.

I wish now to draw attention to a common mistake made by many Protestants when refering to the Church. The Church is universal. To call me Roman Catholic or Latin Catholic or even Western Catholic is okay and accurate but to call…Fr. Thomas Loya a Roman Catholic would not be. He is a Byzantine Catholic – an Eastern Rite Church. Get the idea? Roman Catholicism is but a rite within the Church. It just happens to be the most common.

Because the Latin Church is the most common, it makes sense that the official, universal language fo the Church become and remain Latin. This offers me and every other Catholic the opportunity to attend Mass in any part of the world actively know what is going on, what prayers are being said, (by way of the Litrigical Calendar) what celebration is taking place, etc. I have had the privalige to attend Masses in English, Spanish, Korean and of course Latin. (Obviously I did not understand the Korean vernacular but knew exactly what was going on.)

Thanks be to God, the Catholic Church is the only church that fulfills this prophecy (because every day at every hour – except Good Friday – Mass is said somewhere on this Earth):

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

In other words, continuity (or as all other sources refer to it, apostolocity). Here again, is another unique mark of the One True Church of Christ that no other institution can claim or meet except the Catholic Church. Paul speaks of this mark in his letter to the Ephesians:

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…”  (Ephesians 2:19-20)

Other Scripture references include:

  • Jn 15:16 – Jesus chose special men to be his Apostles
  • Jn 20:21 – Jesus gave the Apostles his own mission
  • Lk 22:29-3 – Jesus gave them a kingdom
  • Mt 16:18 – Jesus built Church on Peter, the rock
  • Jn 10:16 – one shepherd to shepherd Christ’s sheep
  • Lk 22:32, Jn 21:17 – Peter appointed to be chief shepherd
  • Eph 4:11 – church leaders are hierarchical
  • 1Tim 3:1, 8; 5:17 – identifies roles of bishops, priests, deacons
  • Tit 1:5 – commission for bishops to ordain priests
  • 2 Chr 19:11 – high priest is over you in everything of Lord’s
  • Mal 2:7 – seek instruction from priest, he is God’s messenger
  • Eph 4:11 – God gave some as apostles, others as prophets…
  • 1 Cor 12:28-29 – God designated in church: apostles, …
  • Acts 1:20 – let another take his office
  • Acts 1:25-26 – Matthias takes Judas’ apostolic ministry
  • 1 Tim 3:1, 8; 5:17 – qualifications for: bishops, priests, & deacons
  • 1Tim 4:14 – gift conferred with the laying on of hands
  • 1Tim 5:22 – do not lay hands too readily on anyone
  • Acts 14:23 – they appointed presbyters in each church
  • 2Tim 2:2 – what you heard from me entrust to faithful teachers
  • Titus 1:5 – appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed

Apostolicity refers directly to being of or related to the Apostles. This of course includes succession and authority. For if the Church of Christ was to remain in this world until its consumation (Mt 28:20) then certainly Jesus must have intended that the offices of bishop, presbytyr and deacon would continue and be passed on. Moreover, apostolicity ties the other three marks together:

  • Continuity lends itself to unity. Think of why the U.S. is the only country in the entire world to have the oldest Constitution despite declaring her independance from Great Britain only 235 years ago. Without this reverence for the consistent nature of this governing document our nation would have surely crumbles and divided long ago. Same goes for the Church. Without a direct link to the Apostles, the authority of Church leadership would become nullified once public favor leaves them. The Church is not a democracy – it is the “pillar and foundation of Truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
  • Continuity of this fashion proves divine origin. The U.S. may remain united but the Constitution, Congress, the President and the Judiciary are from infallible. Constitutional amendments prohibitng and then repealing alochol prove that – not to mention other more serious issues such as slavery and women’s sufferage. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says as much when he reminds them to “maintain the traditions even as [he delivered them]” (1 Cor 11:2).
  • Continuity allows to for universality. Again, the greatest empires in history and the most powerful nations on earth today hold in common one thing with the Church: one continuous vision despite changes in leadership, revolts, etc. For the U.S. this vision rests with that of the Fathers. Thus the debates over the constittionality of one law or another. Same goes for the Church. We can expand and spread the very same Gospel in different parts of the world because we have a visible, identifiable succession of leaders from the Original Twelve through today. But there is one added caveat that the Church has that no earthly instution has: a guarantee of continuity, authority and infallibility from God Himself.

This is what makes the Catholic Church “Catholic.”


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