But Only One Church is ‘One’

There are many Christian confessions that recite, as part of their official worship, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which professes faith in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” But only one of those that confess this creed is, in reality, the Church so described by the fathers of the first two ecumenical councils.

These four marks — “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” — are attributes of the true Church of Jesus Christ. They are not mere external attributes, but intrinsic attributes. If, per impossible the Church ceased having all four marks or even any one of them, she would cease being the Church. Moreover, in Catholic theology, the four marks are also considered to be “notes,” that is — in the parlance of scholasticism — knowable attributes of an object. To be a note, an attribute has to be clearly manifest, for it helps us to know the object itself. When we say, for instance, that man is a rational, sentient, living, material substance, each of these five italicized terms is a note that identifies man. Lacking any of these, the object under consideration would not be a man (for instance, if the object lacked “rational” but had the other four notes, it would be a beast), but we see clearly that an object possessed of all five notes is a man, regardless of its size, shape, sex, color, etc. The humanity of the object is made known by these five notes.

To what purpose does the Church have these notes of oneness, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity? It is so that she may be recognized for what she is, as Vatican I tells us in its decree “On Faith”:

Since, then, without faith it is impossible to please God and reach the fellowship of his sons and daughters, it follows that no one can ever achieve justification without it, neither can anyone attain eternal life unless he or she perseveres in it to the end. So that we could fulfil our duty of embracing the true faith and of persevering unwaveringly in it, God, through his only begotten Son, founded the church, and he endowed his institution with clear notes to the end that she might be recognised by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word. To the catholic church alone belong all those things, so many and so marvellous, which have been divinely ordained to make for the manifest credibility of the christian faith.

In this Ad Rem, I would like to consider the first of these marks, that of oneness, as a unique note of the Catholic Church. In these days when various new forms of unity are aggressively propagated, it is necessary for us to understand in what the unity of the Church consists, and how it is sharply contrasted with any number of humanly contrived “unities” such as religious ecumenism or political globalism.

The first thing we should say, both to define the unity of the Church and to contrast it with these other unities, is that it is divinely authored. This unity is something that came to the Church not through human effort but by the grace of her Founder. Says Pope Leo XIII (Satis cognitum, 6):

But He, indeed, Who made this one Church, also gave it unity, that is, He made it such that all who are to belong to it must be united by the closest bonds, so as to form one society, one kingdom, one body — ‘one body and one spirit as you are called in one hope of your calling’ (Eph. iv., 4).

Here is how the BAC Sacrae Theologiae Summa treatise “On the Church of Christ” explains the note of oneness:

Unity is the property by which something is undivided in itself and divided from everything else. Therefore unity excludes the inner division of the thing and does not allow it to be a part of some other whole thing.

Social unity, which we are considering, is the working together of several persons for an end, under a supreme social power.

In the Church a threefold social unity is distinguished: of faith, government, and worship, “of minds, wills and things to do,” as Leo XIII says in the Encyclical “Satis cognitum”: D 3305.

Unity of faith is the agreement of minds in the same profession of faith under the supreme Magisterium of the Church.

Unity of government is the agreement of wills working for the same social end under the supreme power of the Church of ruling.

Unity of worship is harmony in the celebration of sacrifice and in the use of the sacraments and of liturgical acts, under the supreme power of the Church of sanctifying.

Notice that the first paragraph of this excerpt says that unity constitutes something as undivided in itself yet divided from everything else. This unity is what I like to call “ontological one” as contrasted from “mathematical one.” Mathematical one is a number; it is divisible, and is so to a virtual infinity, for it can be divided by any number, producing long strings of numbers with a decimal point in front of them. By contrast, ontological unity is a oneness of being which is by its very nature indivisible.

The Jesuit author of that BAC treatise above cited, Rev. Joachim Salaverri, tells us that the note of unity also divides an object from everything else. This means that the Catholic Church must, by virtue of her unity, necessarily be divided from all Churches that are not her. Otherwise, she is not truly one in herself, but subsists as part of a larger whole: a crazy idea that has in fact entered into Modernist ecclesiology. From this “divisive” aspect of Church unity, which is not sufficiently taught in our day, we may conclude that those who engage in ecumenical endeavors to achieve a generic, non-Catholic “unity” of Christians are actually obscuring the oneness of the Church. That, of course, is simply evil.

Catholic unity embraces the threefold unity of faith, of government, and of worship that correspond to the three munera (offices) of the bishops: teaching, governing, and sanctifying. Taken together, these things keep the Church one in herself and divide her from all that is not the Catholic Church. I say “taken together” because it is possible for one to have the faith of the Church, and even the worship of the Church, while being in schism. An authentic schismatic, as distinguished from someone who is merely disobedient or even unjustly marginalized by the hierarchy, is one who rejects the governing authority of the pope or the bishops in communion with him. His is a sin not against faith, but against charity (cf. The Contradiction of Core).

If the kind of unity that we describe as ontological and also as divinely authored is something possessed by the Catholic Church, then it is necessarily lacking in every other Christian body claiming the name Church — whether Protestants, Anglicans, or the Eastern Orthodox. None of these have unity in themselves, as seen by their historical “multiplication by division,” giving us not only the various sects, but even distinct synodal confessions within those sects (e.g., the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, each of which has multiple permutations with differing professions of faith). Moreover, many of these sects are only insufficiently distinguished from each other, hence the history of sectarian amalgamation among these bodies, so that new, hyphenated sects sometimes arise that combine the old ones (e.g., the Unitarian-Universalists, the United Church of Christ, and various “federated congregations”). The Orthodox, of course, aside from having the seven sacraments and adhering to a greater number of Catholic doctrines, also have a greater cohesiveness among themselves. Yet, the fact that they do not accept any ecumenical councils after the first seven and are constitutionally incapable of holding one (even though these bodies have undergone the kind of historical crises that would call for ecumenical councils) is a sufficient indicator that they, too, are essentially divided from one another. The symbolic respect shown to the Patriarch of Constantinople does not prevent Moscow from frequently opposing and upstaging the older yet much smaller Orthodox body. It seems that the Third Rome often still thinks she has superseded the Second Rome. (For a glimpse at the state of unity among the Orthodox Churches, consider the so-called Pan-Orthodox Council and recent events in Ukraine.) The only way they can come into a genuine unity is if they come together under the pope and bishop of the first Rome, or “elder Rome,” as the city on the Tiber has been called by at least one ecumenical council (Constantinople III, cf., Roberto de Mattei, “The Heretic Pope”).

One practical way the note of unity is manifested is the moral and political opposition that the Catholic Church suffers from all that is not Catholic. While we might not like being opposed, persecuted, or hated, this does serve to distinguish the one Church from what is not the one Church; it also fulfills the words of Our Lord about being hated like Him. For an interesting little study of this aspect of the Church’s oneness, see “Hatred Converted Me To Catholicism,” by the Catholic convert, Laramie Hirsch.

To remind ourselves of the supernatural character of the Church’s oneness, we should meditate on the Scriptural proofs of this doctrine, including these passages:

  • Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate: and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
  • John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”
  • I Cor. 12:12: “For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ.”

And we cannot omit to mention the High Priestly Prayer of Our Lord recorded in John 17, especially verse 21, or Saint Paul’s lengthy and deep encomium of Church unity in Ephesians 4:1-16.

This unity that Our Lord gave to His Church is found in our one faith taught by the Magisterium, our one government via the pope and the bishops in communion with him, and our unity of worship, which is manifested in the Church’s sacramental and liturgical rites, most especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the great Sacrament of Unity itself, the Holy Eucharist.

It is fitting if I close out these lines with a tribute to this great Mystery of the Altar; Saint Paul, in I Corinthians (10:16-17), explains the supernatural unity of the Church in terms of Its very matter:

The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body: all that partake of one bread.

And I will happily give the last word to Saint Augustine, who comments on this passage in his Sermon 272 (cited in Emile Mersch, S.J., The Whole Christ, pp. 426-427):

But why is this mystery accomplished with bread? Let us offer no reason of our own invention, but listen to the Apostle speak of this sacrament, ‘We are one bread, one body.’ Understand this and rejoice. Unity, truth, piety, charity. ‘One bread.’ What is this one bread? It is one body formed of many. Remember that bread is not made of one wheat; at baptism water was poured over you, as flour is mingled with water, and the Holy Spirit entered into you like the fire which bakes the bread. Be what you see, and receive what you are.

This is what the Apostle teaches concerning the bread. Though he does not say what we are to understand of the chalice, his meaning is easily seen. … Recall, my brothers, how wine is made. Many grapes hang from the vine, but the juice of all the grapes is fused into unity.

Thus did the Lord Christ manifest us in Himself. He willed that we should belong to Him, and He has consecrated on His altar the mystery of our peace and unity.