Recognizing the True Church

FATHER JOHN A. HARDON, S.J.

There are two basic positions in the medley of world religions outside the Catholic Church.

One group of religious bodies professes lineal descent from the society that Jesus Christ established during His stay on earth. These are all the churches of Christendom separated from the unity of Rome. Another and larger group has either no historical dependence on the teaching of Christ, or, as in Mohammedanism, the relation is negligible. And these are the countless Oriental and African cults whose origin is generally pre-Christian and in some cases, like the primitive religion of China, has a traceable ancestry from third millennium B.C.

Any reasonable Catholic will ask himself what right he has to claim that his Church, alone of all the religious systems in the world, has the fullness of divine revelation and the guarantee of absolute truth. How does he know?

His method of proving that Catholicism is true will be determined by the purpose he has in view. If he intends to show that the Catholic Church today is the organization that Christ founded, he will examine what qualities the Savior wanted His Church to have, and if no other Christian body has them, then only Catholicism is the veritable Church of Christ. Since the time of Bellarmine (1542-1621) who wrote against the Reformers, four visible properties have been used to identify authentic Christianity from its pseudo counterpart. Christ made His Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Consequently whatever Christian body answers to that description may legitimately call Jesus Christ her founder. An objective analysis of Roman Catholicism shows that only she satisfies the conditions and therefore she alone was founded by Christ and is animated by His divine Spirit.

But if a Catholic approaches the question on a global scale, and wants to prove that no other religion outside of his own is true, whether Christian or otherwise, he will not be immediately concerned with comparing the original Church of Christ with Catholicism. He will look for a broader and more inclusive principle of discrimination by which any religious system can be tested and its divine authorization verified. Such a principle is the norm of miracles, which even the unlettered primitive should recognize. It says simply that when God communicates a revelation (as claimed in some form by every organized religion), He will confirm the mysteries He reveals and make them rationally acceptable by working miracles in favor of the truths that he wants believed. Or put negatively He will not work miracles in support of a pretended revelation because, as Master of miraculous phenomena, He would be actively cooperating in a lie.

When Vatican Council in the last century set about defining the nature of the Catholic faith, it chose the latter method of proving the Church's divine authority by way of miracles, in preference to the former from the four qualities, on the assumption that the method chosen really includes the one transmitted. [1] After declaring that without faith it is impossible to please God, the Council explained how, "in order to enable us to fulfill our obligations of embracing the true faith and steadfastly persevering in it, God established the Church through His only-begotten Son and endowed her with unmistakable marks of her foundation, so that she could be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word." What are these unmistakable marks? They are "all the many marvelous proofs that God has provided to make the credibility of the Christian faith evident, (which) point to the Catholic Church alone." Specifically "the Church herself is a great, a perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable proof of her own divine mission" by reason of five classes of miracles that God has been working in and through her to the present day. There is the Church's "remarkable propagation, her exalted sanctity, her inexhaustible fruitfulness in all that is good, her catholic unity and her unshakeable stability." [2]


Phenomenal Propagation of Catholic Christianity

It would be naïve to invoke the miraculous assistance of God to explain a mere numerical increase in the Church's membership since the first mass conversion on Pentecost Sunday. There is a purely natural sense in which every religious institution multiplies its members, and even purely civil bodies like states or anti-religious movements like Communism can have a remarkable growth in numbers with the passage of time. In order to be supernatural, the development should be more than numerically considered; it must be in a society that loses none of its organic unity no matter how rapid or wide the extension; the increase must be in the face of great obstacles, violent opposition and contrary to the normal laws of social expansion; and above all, it must occur in spite of a natural repugnance to join or remain in an organization that places the heaviest demands on human generosity in voluntary submission and self-control. Moreover, to be genuinely miraculous, the propagation should be truly universal and extend to all Classes of people, in every nation and period of history.

First Three Centuries of the Christian Era. The diffusion of Christianity from the death of Christ to the Edict of Constantine (313 A.D.) was so remarkable that it became one of the strongest arguments of the second and third century apologists. In his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, St. Justin points to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachy as a confirmation of the Christian religion. "Your nation," he says, speaking of the Jews, "does not even now extend from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof, for there are nations among which none of your race has ever lived. But there is not one single race of men – whether barbarians, or Greeks, or persons called by any other name, nomads, or vagabonds, or herdsmen dwelling in tents – among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered to the Father and Creator of the universe in the name of the Crucified Jesus." [3] Justin's dialogue is dated about 155 A.D.

Towards the end of the second century, Tertullian adds further details on the number and variety of converts to Christianity. Addressing himself to the pagans, he tells them, "We are but of yesterday, yet we have filled every place among you: cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces, camp, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the forum. We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods…Unarmed, we could have overcome you. For if such a multitude of men as we are had broken loose from you and had gone into some remote corner of the earth, you would have had to look around for people to rule. There would have been more enemies than citizens left to you." [4] Even allowing for rhetorical exaggeration, this testimony is substantially accurate and corroborated by contemporary pagan writers. Thus Pliny the Younger as Proconsul of Bithynia wrote in the early second century to the Emperor Trajan for instructions on how to apply the laws of the empire in ferreting out the Christians. "This contagious superstition," he complained, "is not confined to the cities alone, but has spread through the villages and the rural districts." Then more hopefully, "It seems possible, however, to check and cure it. Certainly at least the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented." He therefore suggests leniency, since "it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open for repentance." [5]

Pliny's letter to Trajan gives only a hint of the barbaric persecution waged against Christians precisely because their continued expansion was hostile to the state religion of paganism and therefore construed as a threat to the empire itself. Thus according to ancient records Diocletian and Maximian issued edicts for the suppression of Christianity, "when they saw almost all men deserting the worship of the gods and attaching themselves to the Christian people." [6] And before them, reaching back to the first generation after Christ, "when Nero noticed that not only at Rome but everywhere a large multitude were daily falling away from idolatry and coming over to the new religion, he vowed to destroy the heavenly temple and as the first persecutor of the saints of God crucified Peter and executed Paul." [7] Nor was the hostility limited to government circles, but private individuals shared in the common distrust and hatred of what Tacitus called "the enemies of the human race," and others "a confederacy to be detested and rooted out." [8]

Consistent with these sentiments, the Christians were first despised and ridiculed, then deprived of their civil and political rights, and when this failed to subdue them, were imprisoned and put to death. "Various forms of mockery were added to enhance their dying agonies. Covered with the skins of wild beasts, they were doomed to die by the mangling of dogs, or by being nailed to crosses, or to be set on fire and burned after twilight by way of nightly illumination." [9] Yet their only crime, as Tertullian protested, was the Christian name; which to the pagans meant "sacrilege and treason"; sacrilege for not worshiping the Roman pantheon and treason because the religion of the gods was identified with the prosperity of the state.

The diffusion of Christianity from the death of Christ to the Edict of Constantine (313 A.D.) was so remarkable that it became one of the strongest arguments of the second and third century apologists.

In spite of all this oppression, however, the Church grew in numbers and influence until by the fourth century it quite literally dominated the Roman world. The evidence is so convincing that historians who cannot be suspected of favorable bias report that, "about the year 300 the human race of the Mediterranean belonged without exception to this Church, in so far as religion, morals and higher attainments of these nations were of any consequence." [10]

Corresponding attempts to explain the remarkable diffusion on purely natural grounds have been fruitless. The most notorious effort was by Edward Gibbon, a lapsed Catholic, who attributed the Church's expansion to purely natural causes, notably the zeal of its missionaries, its doctrine of rewards and punishments, reputed miracles, purity of morals and heroic charity of the early Christians, and the Church's strict discipline and organization. To which we subsume and ask: was it only a natural power that produced this extraordinary zeal, motivated such exalted virtue and maintained the strong discipline that proximately and ostensibly accounted for the Church's development in spite of every opposition against it? [11] If nothing more than nature was in operation, and nature is repetitive, the origins of Christianity should have been duplicated many times over. But no other religious movement in history, making such demands on concupiscence and human pride, has even approximated the Christian phenomenon.

Growth of the Church in Modern Times. Comparable to the development of the early Church is the propagation of the Catholic religion in our own day. Perhaps it is less spectacular in the absence of a startling comparison between nothing at the beginning and a large body after a short time. But the growth is no less phenomenal when studied in the full context of contemporary history. The Church's demands for self-sacrifice are no less today than during patristic times. If anything they are more exacting where Catholics live on such intimate terms with people who do not share their convictions of faith and moral attitudes. To live in a world that may not be openly hostile, but whose institutions and philosophy of life go counter to the most radical instincts of Catholicism, and remain faithful to Catholic ideals; to further live these ideals so faithfully that those on the outside are attracted to share them, often at great cost; and to dedicate time, money, and effort, even oneself for a lifetime, in order to give others what are believed to be the treasures of the faith – this can safely be compared with the obstacles that pre-Nicene Christianity overcame to reach the diffusion that we call miraculous.

Moreover, we have a norm of comparison between Catholicism and other religious bodies that is quite as valid as the contrast between the Church at Pentecost and the Church when the Edict of Milan was published. What other religious group can show the steady organic growth of the Catholic Church, say, in the past one hundred years? In absolute numbers, the world increase was about 200 million to make a present total approaching half a billion members. Mere quantity, however, is not so important. Other religions have also grown in membership, even though not so extensively. But none of them can be legitimately compared with Roman Catholicism. The religions of the East are not juridical societies with a unified authority and consequently should not properly be called churches except in the widest analogous sense. Some, like Buddhism whose founder did not teach a personal deity, are scarcely theistic; others, like Mohammedanism, are so tied in with the political power as hardly to be distinguished from the national state. Greek Orthodoxy has become the unwitting tool of atheistic Communism; after a generation of iron control by the Marxist government, its Patriarch blandly declared that "everything in the world takes place in its good time and according to God's will, as in this case the State, built on a democratic basis, has allowed the rebirth of the Church in its high dignity. This was brought about by the will of God, and our Church was given full ecclesiastical freedom, protected in this by the laws of the State." [12] The mélange of Protestantism is so lacking in juridical authority and disunited on basic doctrinal issues that its numerical increment cannot be regarded as a growth in membership, except within the sectarian limits of each denomination.

Catholicism, on the other hand, has not only increased by family accretion, which itself requires higher than natural motives to resist the practice of contraception; it continues adding by adult conversions an average of one million persons every year. Even a minority of heretical apostasies is evidence to the Church's continued growth as being more than human achievement. "For heretics are made," says Augustine, "from the ranks of those who even if they were in the Church would go astray notwithstanding. Since they are outside the Church, they are of very great service, not by teaching the truth, of which they are ignorant, but by exciting the carnally-minded Catholics to seek the truth, and the spiritually-minded to disclose it." [13] This providence, we may believe, includes such major defections as the Protestant Revolt, whose break with the Church temporarily depleted her ranks but whose opposition, often in good faith, has served as a powerful stimulus for Catholic zeal and evangelization.


Exalted Sanctity and Miracles

Personal sanctity is an elusive concept. The title of "saint" has been applied indiscriminately to such varied individuals as Savonarola, John Wesley and Mahatma Gandhi. It is found in Scripture as a generic name for all the believers. And most technically, in the Catholic Church only those are called "saints" who have been duly canonized by papal authority.

In the present setting, however, as evidence of divine approval, exalted sanctity means the faithful practice of the moral virtues over a long period of time, under severe trial and temptation, and to a degree that clearly exceeds the native capacity of the human will. All the virtues are comprehended, but especially charity, fortitude and temperance. Moreover the testimony in favor of these virtues must be convincing. Pious sentiments are not enough; there must have been deeds, tried in the crucible of suffering and testified by unimpeachable witnesses.

Historical Evidence of Holiness. In the first five centuries of the Christian era, saints were "canonized" by popular acclaim after a person's death following a life of great holiness. All the ancient Fathers of the Church like Ambrose and Chrysostom, virgins like Melania and Eustochium, and missionaries like St. Patrick belong to this category. Their moral heroism was too obvious to be lost on the most prejudiced observer and is proved by authentic records that are still extant. Athanasius' Life of Anthony (251-356 A.D.) for example, has come down to us in several versions, including Syriac and Armenian, all dating from the fourth century and drawing on first-hand knowledge of the Father of Monasticism.

Did he show abnegation of his will by internal mortification? Did he control his anger and the movements of concupiscence, and curb an effusive temperament? Was he always meek and patient in suffering whatever persecutions came his way? Did he ever show himself disturbed on such occasions?

From the sixth to the twelfth centuries, the bishops reserved to themselves the sole right of examining the virtues of people who died with a reputation for sanctity; and finally in 1170 Pope Alexander III universally prescribed that the final verdict on sainthood must come from the Holy See. Present legislation on how to determine heroic virtue is summarized in the Code of Canon Law, covering 142 canons, and going into the minutest detail of judicial scrutiny. The method has been substantially the same for nine hundred years. There is first a gathering of all the documents relative to the person's whole life; letters received and sent, writings of every sort including spiritual notes and diary and testimonials from eye-witnesses. This mass of material is submitted to Rome, where the Congregation of Rites under the Pope decides if further investigation is permissible. If so, there begins a tedious (years long) informative process in all the places where the candidate for sainthood lived and was known personally. Witnesses are examined and asked to testify under oath on all they know from childhood to death about the person's virtues and failings. In the single canonical process for St. Francis Xavier a total of 202 witnesses was interrogated in India alone, giving sworn testimony that runs to five hundred pages of printed text. [14] On completion of the informative process the cause for beatification is formally introduced and from then on the critical examination or apostolic process begins. A committee of five judges in the diocese spends at least two years going over the data to decide whether there is good evidence of moral heroicity. If the conclusion is affirmative, a report is sent to Rome to each of three committees acting independently; if two of the three favor heroicity they offer their conclusions to the Pope who, in session with a fourth committee decides for or against declaring the investigandus as Venerable, which means that he or she had practiced virtue to a heroic degree.

The following is a sample questionnaire to be answered by the Roman judges on the virtues of temperance practiced by the person under examination. "Did he show abnegation of his will by internal mortification? Did he control his anger and the movements of concupiscence, and curb an effusive temperament? Was he always meek and patient in suffering whatever persecutions came his way? Did he ever show himself disturbed on such occasions? Was he abstemious as regards food and drink? Did he faithfully observe the fasts prescribed by the Church (and the Rules of his Institute)? What was he in the habit of eating and when? Was he temperate in the use of sleep? Did he sleep on the ground, or if in bed, was it hard and uncomfortable? Was he sparing in the matter of clothing? Did he like to have his room (or cell) very simple, and avoid bodily conveniences? Did he control his flesh (even) with extraordinary fasts and penances? Did he subdue the other bodily senses and never allow them illicit pleasures? Did he prefer to be silent and alone, and was he grave and modest in his walk? And finally did he appear moderate in his speech and actions?" [15] With all its detail, however, the foregoing is only one of more than ten similar questionnaires on all the major virtues, including poverty, chastity and obedience in the case of religious.

Miracles as the Fruit of Sanctity. No matter how convincing the evidence of heroic virtue in a Servant of God, the Church will not proceed to his beatification until physical miracles, scientifically proved, had been wrought through the person's intercession. [16] Two, three, or four miracles are required, depending on the kind of testimony that was used in the canonical process, i.e., whether eye or ear-witnesses, or mere documents. One prescription from Canon Law illustrates the care exercised in testing miraculous phenomena. "In order to prove the miracles, two experts are to be hired expressly for this purpose when the case first opens; and if they agree that phenomenon is not miraculous, it must be discarded forthwith. (Moreover) since it often happens that in discussing miracles there is question of passing judgment on a cure, the experts must be outstanding in the field of medicine or surgery. In fact, if at all possible, they should be chosen from among specialists in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease which is supposed to have been miraculously cured." [17] Centuries may intervene before the requisite miracles take place. They are indispensable. However, once beatified, more miracles are needed, two or three depending on the type of beatification. And again, two or more hundred years may elapse without fully attested miracles. Until they occur, clearly through the intercession of the prospective saint, he is not canonized. The number of people raised to the honors of the altar varies with different periods of the Church's history. Pope Pius XI beatified 406 men and women, and canonized 40.

But miracles in canonical processes are not the only kind that God works through the merits of His saints, in attestation of the Church's sanctity. Equally numerous and better known are the phenomena which occur at famous shrines like Lourdes and St. Anne de Beaupre. At Lourdes, annual average since 1858 is 78 cures declared at the time of occurrence as naturally inexplicable. Of these 4 have been further subjected to rigorous testing over a period of several years after the reported miracle and found absolutely beyond the powers of nature. [18] Among the unbiased witnesses of what happens at Lourdes in the late Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winner in 1912 for work on vascular ligature and grafting blood vessels and other organs. The experience of watching one of his patients suddenly cured of tubercular peritonitis while praying at the shrine prompted this commentary on the power of prayer at Lourdes. "In surroundings where men pray, there are frequent reports of cures being obtained in response to supplications addressed to God and His saints. The Medical Bureau at Lourdes has rendered a great service to science in demonstrating the reality of such cures. Sick people have been healed almost instantly of such afflictions as lupus of the face, cancer, kidney infections, ulcers, pulmonary and peritoneal tuberculosis, and tuberculosis of the bone. The phenomenon nearly always occurs in the same way. First great pain, then the feeling of being cured. In a few seconds, or at most a couple of hours, the symptoms disappear and lesions are automatically repaired. The miracle is characterized by an extreme acceleration of the normal processes of healing. Never has such acceleration been observed among surgeons and physiologists in the course of their clinical experience." [19] Carrel's experience at Lourdes, when publicized, first cost him a temporary loss of prestige in the medical profession and later contributed to his conversion from agnosticism.

What is most significant about miracles since apostolic times is their close integration with sanctity under the aegis of Catholic Christianity. Reported miraculous occurrences outside the Church's atmosphere are not impossible, but even then would be found to confirm what is objectively true and in accordance with Catholic teaching. However, the evidence for non-Catholic miracles, when reported, has not been scientifically conclusive – barring always those phenomena which indeed surpass the powers of nature but are clearly demoniac productions.


Inexhaustible Fruitfulness in Benefiting Mankind

It would easy to draw up a list of benefits that Catholics and others have drawn from the Church's treasury over the centuries: her conquest of Roman paganism and raising the status of women; her preservation of the wisdom of antiquity, in Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, that would have been lost except for the patient toil of the monasteries; her bold defense of the rights of man and his dignity against unjust oppressors; her shining example of courage against the vandal hordes, the Moslem terror and currently the inhumanity of atheistic Communism. Underlying these and similar benefits, however, is a more radical contribution that cuts across the history of all nations, going back to the origins of the Hebrew people and finding its full expression in the rise and dissemination of Christianity.

The glory of the Catholic Church is that she has remained faithful to the trust committed to her, by safeguarding the content and meaning of the Judaeo-Christian revelation and as a consequence keeping alive the fountain-head of all peace and happiness in the world. . .

Although this contribution is scarcely appreciated by most people, it involves the transmission from God to the human race of those fundamental religious truths on which the whole structure of private and public morality depends. It is true that absolutely speaking, our reason by its natural powers can arrive at a correct knowledge of the one personal God whose providence governs the world, and also of the natural law which the Creator has written in the hearts of men. But for most people the obstacles to this knowledge are insurmountable. Concupiscence and lack of time, mental limitation and the pressure of daily needs prevent the average persons from acquiring any more than the barest minimum about the moral law and its necessary, so that religious and moral truths which by their nature are not beyond the capacity of the mind, might be known by everyone with absolute conviction, with ease, and without any admixture of error.

If the Catholic Church had done nothing else than transmitted to mankind this revelation from God and preserved it from deterioration, she would justify her claim to being the greatest benefactor of the human race.

Revelation Identified by the Catholic Church. Before the time of Christ, God communicated His revelation to chosen prophets like Abraham and Moses, and protected its integrity by a special providence over the Jewish people. In the first century of the Christian era, He extended and amplified this communication in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and His followers, up to the death of John the Apostle, about the year 100 A.D. Within the ambit of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, therefore, was contained all that men would ever need to understand the moral law and be faithful to its observance in future generations. But human nature is blind and prone to error in the very act of recognizing the revealed word of God, as evidenced by the strange vagaries among the ancient Jews on such basic truths as the immortality of the soul, and by the plethora of gospels and apocalypses, histories, acts and epistles, all claiming to be inspired, that arose in competition to the authentic writings of the New Testament. With every new heresy, there appeared another gospel. Thus the Gospel of the Egyptians was created by the Gnostics who rejected matrimony; the Ebionities wrote the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles as an attack on the birth and genealogy of the Savior; the Gospel of St. Peter was a Docetist fabrication which made Pilate a hero and questioned the reality of Christ's bodily death and resurrection.

Due to the Church's vigilance, however, these apocrypha were duly recognized as spurious and exposed in scores of writings that have come down to us from the early patristic age. "The Church has only four Gospels," wrote Origen, "the heretics have many, among which there is one according to the Egyptians and another by the Twelve Apostles. Basildes (a Gnostic) has also dared to write a Gospel and attached his name to it. I know of another Gospel by Thomas, one according to Mathias and several others. But of all the evangelical writings we accept only what the Church has approved, namely, the four Gospels." [20]

Church as Custodian of the Revealed Word. After identifying the true revelation and transmitting it to the people, the Church had the further task of preserving it from corruption at the hands of pious meddlers or unscrupulous persons who will falsify the word of God. An outstanding example of this type of vigilance was the condemnation of the Protestant Reformers by the Council of Trent. Breaking with fifteen centuries of Christian tradition, they excised seven books of the Old Testament, along with part of five others, and dropped from one to nine books of the New Testament, including the Apocalypse and the Epistle of St. James. Luther's test for the validity of any book in the Bible was the conformity of its teaching with what he a priori laid down as the essential element of Christianity; Calvin's was even more elastic, claiming that the Holy Spirit individually teaches every man to distinguish the word of God from its spurious counterfeit. [21] One result of this tampering with the biblical canon was a new concept of the moral law which postulated a divine responsibility for all our actions, whether good or bad, and reduced human liberty to a mere name, or made it a creation of the devil who deceives us into thinking we are free agents on the road to salvation.

Natural Benefits Derived from Divine Revelation. Incalculable blessings follow as a logical consequence to the revelation of religious truth, even in the natural order. Cut off from the moorings of revealed truth, there is no limit to which the human mind cannot go into denying the very foundations of the moral order. "Science," according to a recent Soviet publication, "sets out from the proposition that there is nothing in the universe except matter and its motion, that the universe is one and material. Religion on the contrary sets out from the position that alongside the material world there is also the non-material, spiritual, supernatural world which is prior to and determines the material world." Consequently there must be "a conscious intervention in the process of destroying religion by waging a special war against it." [22] This attitude is not confined to militant communism but in greater or less degree is the mental aberration of all who have lost their faith in the revealed word of God.

Comparable to the knowledge of a personal deity is the admission of man's responsibility for his own actions, which is written on every page of the Scriptures and which those who reject the Bible may vaguely recognize as a handy postulate but scarcely acknowledge as absolutely true. "The real grounds for supposing free will," says William James, "is pragmatic." [23] It has no guarantee in objective reality.

On the level of social morality, how many of those who are ignorant of Christian revelation or who knowing it follow their own interpretation, still believe that marriage is permanent contract which binds one man and one woman until death, and that any liberties outside the marital union are adultery? The same with contraception and pre-marital relations. "The Presbyterian Church," writes one spokesman for that body, "does not legislate for its people on personal moral issues. Nothing in the Church's teaching, however, can be construed as forbidding an intelligent, conservative, and unselfish employment of birth control. The commandment of God to our first parents, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' was given at a time when the world was underpopulated. Presbyterians do not believe this precept is relevant today." [24]

The glory of the Catholic Church is that she has remained faithful to the trust committed to her, by safeguarding the content and meaning of the Judaeo-Christian revelation and as a consequence keeping alive the fountain-head of all peace and happiness in the world – which is the knowledge of the one true God and of man's duties to himself, to his neighbor and his Creator.


The Catholic Unity of Roman Catholicism

What appears to be the earliest use of the title "Catholic Church" is found in the authentic record which commemorated the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (156 A.D.) and was dedicated "to all the communities of the Holy and Catholic Church, residing in every place." [25] In the third century, Cyprian appealed to the Church's unity as the mark of her divinity. "God is one and Christ is one, and one is His Church, and the faith is one, and one His people joined together by the bond of concord into a solid unity of body." [26] By the fourth century this unbroken concord of her members, spread throughout the world, was crystallized in the article of the Nicene Creed which to this day is part of the Eucharistic liturgy, "I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." [27]

As defined by the Vatican Council catholic unity comprehends two evidences of the Church's miraculous origin and conservation: her unity of membership, where every rank and type of personality is joined together in common obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff; and her universality, which extends to all nations and regions of the world, in every age since apostolic times.

As defined by the Vatican Council catholic unity comprehends two evidences of the Church's miraculous origin and conservation: her unity of membership, where every rank and type of personality is joined together in common obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff; and her universality, which extends to all nations and regions of the world, in every age since apostolic times.

In order to appreciate the transcendent character of this catholic unity we should reflect on the inherent difficulty that even a small group of men finds to agree on almost anything which their reason does not convince them is objectively true. The difficulty increases in proportion to the sacrifices that agreement may demand and rises to a practical impossibility where the concord must prevail over a long period of time.

If this is valid in the ordinary affairs of life, it is eminently true in the sphere of religion, where the natural instinct is to rebel against any imposition by human authority and reject any person or society, no matter how exalted, that would stand between the individual and God. Hence the provision for autonomy in all religions outside of Judaism in the Old Law and of Catholicism in the New, to preserve a liberty of action that is independent of any earthly agency claiming to speak with the authority of God.

Catholic Unity in Faith and Doctrine. Since apostolic times, the first care of the Church has been to preserve inviolate the deposit of faith which Christ had committed her. St. Paul rebuked the Galatians for deserting the teaching of the Master, telling them that "even if an angel from heaven should preach a gospel to you other than that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema." [28] Throughout the subsequent history of the Church, the primary concern was always to safeguard the unity of faith against the encroachment of heretics who would divide the seamless garment of Christ. Within a century of the Edict of Milan, four general councils were convened to clarify and define certain doctrines that were controverted, with never a thought of compromise and often at the cost of heavy losses among the clergy and laity who refused to accept the Church's interpretation. One after another, the recalcitrants were condemned as heretics: the Arians for denying the divinity of Christ, the Pelagians for rejecting the necessity of grace, the Albigenses for reviving Manichean dualism, the Protestants for teaching that man is absolutely corrupt and incapable of any good, the Jansenists for holding that grace is irresistible, and modern Rationalists for making reason the sole arbiter in matters of faith.

As a result of this constant vigilance and the demand for submission of her members to the Roman Pontiff, the Church's solidarity is acknowledged even by those who are alien to her principles. "The unity of the Roman Church," Reinhold Niebuhr told the World Council at Evanston, "is indeed impressive, and in some respects enviable, in comparison with our unhappy divisions." [29] But Catholic unity is more than enviable because it is more than natural, as the least study of other religious systems will show. Whatever agreement they have is social rather than theological, and beneath the surface of a common name is a medley of beliefs on the most fundamental issues that cannot, except by an abuse of language, be called unity of faith and doctrine.

Disunity Outside of Roman Catholicism. In the western world, the most familiar disunity is among the Protestant denominations, where 200 million Christians are divided into more than a thousand sects, and these in turn into further autonomous denominations. Sectarian apologists claim that the essence of Protestantism is "the freedom of the Christian man," and its appeal is to "those who are willing to assume the responsibilities of liberty as well as enjoy its privileges." Consequently they openly encourage dogmatic individualism. Unlike the "false freedom" in the Catholic Church, "which consists in liberty to believe and do what the infallible authority of the Church says is true and right," Protestants are free to accept or reject, as the Spirit moves them, even what their own denomination proposes as the official doctrine. [30]

The fruit of this denial is a rampant sectarianism of which thoughtful Protestants are deeply ashamed and which the current ecumenical movement is trying to control if not eradicate. Divisions among pagans and infidels, they admit, are expected and understandable. "But for those who are called Christ's people to be at enmity with one another, to withdraw from one another, to have no intimate, brotherly dealing with one another, is a scandal. It is a scandal even to the unbelieving and half-believing world around us." [31] Protestants are divided on every issue of faith and morals, and every level of religious practice. Not even the nature of God is exempt from the discord, for though most churches subscribe to the formula, "I believe in God the Father Almighty," some, like the Christian Scientists (who call themselves Protestant) profess an open pantheism, summarized in Mrs. Baker Eddy's maxim that, "All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All in All." [32] They are further divided on the person of Christ, from the extreme of accepting the Nicene Creed that Christ is consubstantial with the Father to making the Incarnation a mere symbol of God's love for mankind. The Scriptures are still believed to be inspired and inerrant by certain denominations, like the strict Baptists and conservative Lutherans. But for most Protestants, Bible authoritarian is dead. "During the past century and a half, it has crumbled under the impact of biblical and philosophical criticism." [33]

In place of the bible, human reason and personal experience have become the ultimate norms of faith, or, as among the Quakers, the Inner Light, which is variously described as the Indwelling Spirit, or the Voice of God, speaking to the soul without the encumbrance of any book or institution. Some Protestants baptize in infancy, others only after adult profession of faith, and some do not require baptism for salvation, and much less for church membership. Most Protestants have some semblance of the Eucharist which they call the Lord's Supper, but they differ infinitely in describing what Holy Communion means. For some it is the physical body of Christ, for others His body in spirit, and for most only a symbol or sign of His redemptive love. But the acme of discord is their confusion about the very essence of Christianity, whether Christ ever founded a Church or only started a movement, and if there is a Church what are its qualities and can it be identified. Perhaps the most candid statement at the World Council of Churches in 1954 was the admission by one of its ranking leaders that while verbally "we proclaim that in some profound sense the Church is one, we are divided and stultified over defining that unity. That, of course, is a glimpse of the obvious. If we were agreed on the nature of the Church's one-ness, our struggle between each other would be over." [34] Yet they will not have unity at the price of submitting to an ultimate authority. "Only a church with a high command" like Roman Catholicism can achieve unanimity. "Protestantism has no such dictator." and therefore "has no united voice. It does not want it on those terms" [35] – which is both an explanation of Protestant discord and a proof that the unity of Catholicism is divine. Human nature is too radically autonomous to be submissively united on such a cosmic scale, except through the special intervention of God.


The Church's Invincible Stability

There is a close relation between unity and stability, but they are not the same thing. While unity refers to the Church's members, who agree among themselves under a common visible head, stability describes the Church's perdurance in keeping the same doctrine, worship and juridical structure, substantially unchanged over the centuries in spite of opposition, persecution and the native inconstancy of her members.

Stability and unity are related as cause and effect, since without a stable body of principles and organization, the concord of her members would never be guaranteed and the very possibility of change would provoke disunity, at least between those who feared innovation and those who did not.

Constancy of Apostolic Doctrine. Hostile critics of the Church accuse her of having "promulgated many new doctrines," since "the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands within his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture." [36] The fact is that of all religious systems in the history of the world, only Catholicism has remained faithful to the principles of her Founder, and those who charge her with the contrary are only hiding their own instability behind the accusation.

The history of the Catholic Church is the history of her conflict with elements within or outside her body that sought to rob her of the deposit of truth that was built upon the Apostles. All the general councils were convoked to withstand this threat of innovation, and heretics were proscribed for disagreeing with the Church's original doctrine. In ancient times, at the Council of Constantinople, the Nestorians were condemned because they contradicted "the tradition in the Church of God from the beginning." [37] The Semi-Pelagians, who claimed that the power of believing "inheres in us naturally and not by a gift of grace," were condemned as "adversaries of the apostolic teaching." [38] And currently, in the Oath against Modernism, a Catholic is required to say, "I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously." [39] Even the doctrines which are most controverted by her enemies, the Church has derived from the original sources of faith. Thus in proclaiming the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Pope Pius XII could accurately say that "the truth of this dogma is based on Sacred Scripture. It is sanctioned by the worship of the Church from the most ancient times and is completely in accord with all other revealed truths." [40]

But the worst enemies of the Church were those nurtured in her own household.

In contrast with this sedulous care to preserve the apostolic tradition, other Christian bodies have all departed in greater or less measure from the revelation found in the Scriptures and universally professed by the nascent Church. The Trinity of Persons in one God, the union of divine and human natures in Christ, the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, the existence of hell as eternal punishment, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the remission of sins at baptism, the prohibition of divorce with remarriage – are only partial evidence of how deeply and widely the churches separated from Rome have broken with the faith which the Apostles preached and for which thousands of martyrs in the early Church had sacrificed their lives.

However, Catholic stability of doctrine is not only unique among the bodies of Christendom. It is also unparalleled outside of organized Christianity. Added to the motley collection of sects among the oriental religion is their constantly shifting position on the most elementary principles of morality and doctrine. Hinduism is a fair example. With no ecclesiastical organization to unify its 300 million adherents, split into several thousand casts, we should expect a wide deviation of beliefs between such extremes as the Brahman philosophers and the illiterate "untouchables" or Sudras. But Hinduism is more than divided; it is by nature changeable due to the very concept of the deity. According to its most prominent exponent, "Hindu thought believes in the evolution of our knowledge of God. We have to vary continually our notions of God until we pass beyond all notions into the very heart of the reality itself. Hinduism does not distinguish ideas of God as true or false, adopting one particular idea as the standard for the whole human race. It accepts the obvious fact that mankind seeks its goal of God at various levels and in various directions, and feels sympathy with every stage of the search. The same God expresses itself at one stage as power, at another as personality, at a third as all-comprehensive spirit, just as the same forces which put forth the green leaves also cause the crimson flowers to grow. We do not say that the crimson flowers are all the truth and the green leaves are all false. The bewildering polytheism of the masses and the uncompromising monotheism of the classes are for the Hindu the expression of one and the same force at different levels." [41] Every man therefore is encouraged to form his own notion of the deity, on the assumption that none of the ideas is objectively true, destined to be changed as different circumstances arise.

Stability of Catholic Worship and Government. Parallel with the Church's constancy of doctrine is the unbroken tradition of her religious practice and juridical structure. While adapting herself in accidentals to the needs of her members at various times, her stability in worship and government is a scandal to those who either have no Christian heritage of their own, or who believe that development in other areas calls for a similar change in the forms of religion.

In the field of worship, the Sacrifice of the Mass is a classic instance of unchanging constancy. Liturgical ceremonies have been added and subtracted, but the substance remains the same. The text of the words of Consecration goes back to the Synoptic Gospels, repeated by St. Paul and confirmed by the most ancient writers. Likewise in the sacrament of baptism, the same continuity of practice – using water with the invocation of the Trinity. Even the method in which the water is now used, by ablution, is sanctioned by apostolic custom, dating from the first century and instructing the presbyter to "pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." [42] Extreme Unction, fasting and abstinence, Sunday observance, prayers for the dead, veneration of the saints and, in fact, all the substantials of Catholic piety can be traced – often in the smallest detail – to practice of the early Church.

Underlying the Church's constancy in everything else is the stability of her government that for nineteen centuries has literally withstood the gates of hell and that even her adversaries are forced to admire. Concretely this means of the institutions in history, none has a longer and more contradicted tenure than the papacy. In the previous chapter we have seen something of its origins, which gradually developed with the Church's expansion but from the very beginning was a monarchy that vindicated its right to judge the consciences of men because it was founded by the Son of God.

Militating against the papacy has been every form of human malice and pride. Up to the Edict of Milan, twenty-six of the first thirty-three popes were martyred. With the Church's deliverance from pagan oppression arose an equally dangerous political control by the State, which the popes resisted under bribery, threats and physical violence. Champions of papal liberty like Gregory I and VII, Innocent II and Boniface VIII, stand as symbols of resistance to encroachment by the civil power.

But the worst enemies of the Church were those nurtured in her own household. Although the popes, as a class, have been men of high integrity, there were tragic exceptions. John III (955-964) was elected Bishop of Rome at the age of eighteen and in less than a decade proved so unworthy that a synod, ordered by the emperor, tried and deposed him on charges of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder and incest. Benedict IX (1032-1048) was driven out of Rome because of his wicked life. To most people, Alexander VI (1492-1503) epitomized the degradation of the papacy, when the Vicar of Christ condoned the public crimes of his illegitimate children and bartered the highest offices in the Church for political gain.

The forty years of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) typify the virulence of passion that would have destroyed any other institution. Though validly elected, Urban VI gave cause for complaint by his arbitrary conduct in trying to reform the French segment of the College of Cardinals. They proceeded to choose one of their own number, Clement VII, as anti-pope, and until the Council of Constance settled the dispute by electing Martin V, there were three lines of rival claimants to the papacy: the Roman started by Urban VI, the French under Clement VII, and the Pisan, begun by Alexander V. Theologians, canonists and even saints were divided in their allegiance, St. Catherine of Siena recognizing Urban VI and St. Vincent Ferrer acknowledging Clement VII. True, the Great Schism was not schismatic in the ordinary sense of the term because no question of faith was involved and all parties upheld the supremacy of the Holy See. The problem was: which of the two or three claimants is the legitimate pope? That the issue should have been solved at all is remarkable, considering what happens in civil governments under less trying circumstances. But that in spite of this trial, the papacy grew in strength and vitality has baffled secular historians, even when they admire the phenomenon. "What human institution could have withstood the ordeal?" asks de Maistre. A bitter enemy of the popes, Gregorovius, declares that the Schism "raised the papacy from decadence to a new eminence, and showed the world once again how the mystical faith of the people endows the pontiffs with power that can rise to glory even when apparently dead." [43]

One of the curiosities of religious psychology is the intransigence of sincere non-Catholics when faced with the Church's continuity. Forced to admit the evidence, they cannot see the cause. Few Protestants have written more eloquently on the stability of Catholicism than Lord Macaulay. "There is not, and there never was, on this earth," he wrote, "a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian ampitheatre., The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of .the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we can trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century, to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable." Republics and kingdoms have risen and fallen. Yet "the Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique; but full of life and youthful vigor." After this eulogy, we are not prepared for the conclusion. "It is impossible to deny that the polity of the Church of Rome is the very masterpiece of human wisdom. In truth, nothing but such a polity could, against such assaults, have borne up such doctrines. The stronger our conviction that reason and Scripture were decidedly on the side of Protestantism, the greater is the reluctant admiration with which we regard that system of tactics against which reason and Scripture were arrayed in vain." [44]

Macaulay's attitude is less surprising in the light of what the Vatican Council teaches on the credibility of the Catholic Church. "Like a standard lifted up for the nations, she calls to herself those who do not yet believe, to be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word." The objective evidence is not enough. Unless "the most merciful Lord stirs up and helps those who are wandering astray, to come to knowledge of the truth," [45] they may admire the Church's doctrine and liturgy, and praise her constancy in every storm, without realizing that these phenomena are signs of miraculous approval and a mark of the presence of God.


Endnotes:

  1. From the published proceedings of the Council we know that the original draft of the statement on recognizing the true Church gave the historical method, from the properties of unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. But this schema was completely modified, leaving only the passage "unmistakable marks," and substituting for the four notes the present method by way of miracles. Acta Concilii Vaticani (Collectio Lacensis) VII, 511-512 (for the original draft), and 161 (for the point at which the via miraculorum was introduced.
  2. Denzinger, 1793-1794.
  3. St. Justin, "Dialogus cum Tryphono Judaeo," cap. 117, MPG 6, 747.
  4. Tertullian, "Apologeticus" (written about 197 A.D.), cap. 37, MPL 1, 462.
  5. C. Plinius Secundus Minor, "Epistula ad Trajanum" (generally dated 111-113 A.D.), num. 96, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum, Leipzig, 1933, p. 363.
  6. Eusebius, "Historia Ecclesiastica," Lib. IX, cap. 9, MPG 20, 1491.
  7. Firmus Lactantius, "De Mortibus Persecutorum," MPL 7, 196-7.
  8. Tacitus, Annales (written under Trajan, 98-117 A.D.), Lib. XV, cap. 44. Minutius Felix, Octavius, X.
  9. Tacitus, loc. cit.
  10. Adolph Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, London, 1905, vol. II, p. 143.
  11. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, chap. 15.
  12. Alexei, Patriarch of All Russia, "Statement to the delegation of the National Council of Churches, U.S.A.," American Churchmen Visit the Soviet Union, New York, 1956, p. 13.
  13. St. Augustine, "De Vern Religione," cap. 8, num. 15, MPL 34, 129.
  14. Monumenta Xaveriana, Madrid, 1912, pp. 134-642.
  15. Codex Pro Postulatoribus Causarum Beatificationis et Canonizationis, Rom, 1929, p. 15.
  16. Though normally one or two miracles are required for the beatification of martyrs, the pope may dispense from this obligation. However there is no dispensation from miracles for canonizing a beatus, whether he was martyred or not.
  17. Canon 2118, parag. 1-2.
  18. "Lista de las Curaciones on Lourdes Reconocidas por la Iglesia como Milagrosas," Ecclesia, Madrid, Feb. 8, 1958, pp. 146-148.
  19. Alexis Carrel, La Priere, Paris, 1944, pp. 26-27.
  20. Origen, "Homilia in Lucam," MPG 13, 1803.
  21. By the eighteenth century most Protestant divines had reinstated the books of the New Testament that were dropped by Luther and Calvin. But to this day the Protestant Bible has a mutilated Old Testament canon, on the theory that the Catholic Scriptures include writings acceptable to the Jews of the Diaspura but not to the Jews in Palestine. However, this theory is the later rationalization of an act of rebellion against the Church's authority to determine the content of revelation.
  22. Atheist Education in School, Government Directive to teachers, Sovietskaja Pedagogica, Moscow, 1955, num 5, pp. 10-11.
  23. William James, Pragmatism, New Yori, 1907, p. 118.
  24. John Sutherland Bonnell, "What Is a Presbyterian?" A Guide to the Religions of America, New York, 1955, p. 107.
  25. "Martyrium S. Polycarpi" (Inscriptio), MPG 5, 1029.
  26. St. Cyprian, "De Unitate Ecclesiae," MPL 4, 534.
  27. The present Nicene Creed was partly composed at the Council of Nicea, but its present form, including the article on the Church, dates from the Council of Constantinople in 381. A.D.
  28. Galatians 1:8.
  29. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Our Dependence Is on God," Christian Century, Sept. 1, 1954, p. 1035.
  30. Winfred E. Garrison, A Protestant Manifesto, New York, 1952, pp. 193-194.
  31. Angus Dun, Prospecting for a United Church, New York, 1948, p. 12.
  32. Mrs. Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Boston 1934, p. 468.
  33. Albert C. Knudson, "Cardinal Principles of Protestantism," Protestantism: A Symposium, Nashville, 1945, p. 132.
  34. Oliver Tomkins (Vice-Chairman of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches), Address at the Evanston Assembly, Aug. 17, 1954, Num. IV, 5-E, p. 1.
  35. Garrison, op. cit., p. 190.
  36. Smalcald Articles, Part III, Art. VIII, 4. Drafted by Luther in 1537 for a proposed General Council, they offer a perfect contrast between Catholic doctrine and the principles of the Reformation.
  37. Denzinger, 221.
  38. Denzinger, 178.
  39. Denzinger, 2145.
  40. Denzinger, 3032.
  41. S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life, London, 1949, pp. 31-32.
  42. "Didache (seu) Doctrine Duodecim Apostolorum," Patres Apostolici, Paderborn, 1905, vol. I, p. 16.
  43. Ferdinand Gregorofius, Storia della Citta di Roma nel Medio Evo, Citta di Castello, 1943, vol. XIII, p. 249.
  44. T. Babingon Macaulay, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, New York, 1861, vol. III, pp. 303-304, 327.
  45. Denzinger, 1793-1794.

 


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father John A. Hardon. "Recognizing the True Church." chapter IV from Christ to Catholicism (Inter Mirifica, 2003.

Reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica.

THE AUTHOR

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including Spiritual Life in the Modern World, Catholic Prayer Book, The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and many other Catholic books and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Order Father Hardon's home study courses here.

Copyright © 2010 Inter Mirifica




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