The Four Marks of Christ’s Church

(James Kent Stone is an English convert)
(First Published in 1870)

The Church at the Council of Constantinople declared concerning herself that she is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. These are not only her essential qualities, but her outward and visible signs, the marks whereby she may always be infallibly recognized.

I. The Church is first One. Unity is its prime characteristic. Whatever else the Church may be, it is one — visibly one, unmistakably one, incontrovertibly one.

The Church, then, is first One. It is one because God is one, and as God is one (St. John, 17:21). The Church cannot be divided; for if it could be divided, it would cease to be one; and if it could cease to be one, it would cease to be the Church. To refer to an “undivided” Church in the past is to assert the existence of a divided Church in the present; and to affirm the fact of division is to admit the loss of unity; but unity is of the Church’s eternal essence, and cannot be lost. There is a sense in which we may speak of the undivided Church; but it is the same in which we speak of the undivided Trinity-undivided because indivisible. Nothing can be plainer than this. And now, O reader, ask yourself whether anything can be more plain than this also which I am about to assert further. All churches but one acknowledge that the Church universal is divided. There is one Church, and only one, which holds and proclaims that unity has never been and never can be severed.

Let us go back to more than a hundred years before the time when the Church first dogmatically announced the fact of that unity with which her Lord had endowed her, and read the faith of the primitive Fathers concerning the nature of this supernatural oneness. The treatise of St. Cyprian, De Unitate Ecclesiae, is, incidentally, a splendid dissertation upon the truth that divine unity implies indivisibility, and that the Church, being divinely one, can never suffer partition or mutilation. Members may be cut off from the Church, but the Church itself remains whole and undivided. A few passages will give the tenor of the whole discourse.

“The Lord says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ And again, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is written: ‘And these three are one.’ And does anybody believe that this unity, coming from the divine solidity, cohering by means of heavenly sacraments, can possibly be divided in the Church, and divorced by the collision of wills?”

“He who holds not this unity of the Church, does he think that he holds the faith?” “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother.” A type of the Church’s unity is found in the seamless coat, woven from the top throughout, which even the Roman soldiers did not rend. In short, “unity cannot be severed, nor the one body by laceration (discidio compaginis) be divided.”

St. Augustine follows St. Cyprian, and uses his metaphor with excellent effect against the Donatists. “The Catholic Church, which as St. Cyprian says, ‘stretches her branches in the richness of exuberance over the whole earth,’ endures everywhere the scandals of those who, through the fault of their grievous pride, are cut off from her, some in one place and some in another….For where they fall there they remain, and in the place where they are severed there they wither away; whence the Church herself from which they are cut off is spread even through those lands where those broken branches lie each in its own region.” And again: “Wherever heretics exist there is also the Catholic Church; but the reverse is not true, that wherever the Church exists there is also any particular heresy. Whence it is evident enough which is the tree that spreads its branches over the whole earth,” (here he quotes St. Cyprian again) “and which are the broken branches that have no vital connection with the root, but lie and wither each in its own place.” Even the people of Africa could have told us what was meant by the figure of the vine and the branches; for their great Bishop taught them to sing a psalm against the Donatists, one of the closing stanzas of which runs thus:

Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine;
We grieve to see you lie thus cut off from it.
Number your bishops from the very Chair of Peter,
And in that list of Fathers trace the succession.
This is the Rock against which the proud gates of hell do not prevail.

II. The Church is Holy. Holiness is of the essence of the Church. The Church, therefore, cannot cease to be holy without ceasing to exist. As the unity of the Church implies its indivisibility, so the sanctity of the Church implies its incorruptibility. But the Reformation can only be justified by the assertion that the Church had become corrupted. Protestantism, therefore, is founded upon an absurdity. It is not to be supposed that as a Protestant I failed to see this difficulty. But, said I again, it is only a difficulty. The Church in the fifteenth century must have been holy in some divine sense which is not obvious. And so I set myself to work to demonstrate, this time, that the Church could be holy and at the same time not holy. I did not perceive, any more than before, that no absurdity could be greater than to turn what should be a note of the Church into a difficulty to be explained away.

The true Church, then, is holy. It is holy because the Third Person of the Eternal Trinity, who inhabits it, guides it, and controls it, is Holy. The true Church not only has never been reformed, but cannot possibly be reformed. The Council of Trent, as Bossuet somewhere says, feared not the word reformation; but the work accomplished at Trent was a reformation, not of the Church, but by the Church. It was the same which has been done by all Councils from the beginning, for which Councils are assembled, and for which the Church itself was created. The Church is engaged in a perpetual reformation of the degenerating tendencies, the evil passions, and the erring imaginations of men. But the Church itself, in its faith, in the order of its government, and in all its means of grace, is incorruptible, and cannot be reformed. “Men may gird a dome, or reform a political society, but they can no more reform the Church of God than they can give cohesion to the earth, or control the order of the seasons or the precessions of the equinox.” (Cardinal Manning) The Church which Christ loved and for which He gave Himself, which by a divine lustration He has sanctified and cleansed, remains forever holy and without blemish-a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, nor any such thing.

The Church is holy, and its office is to make men holy. By the communication of the merits of Christ, through supernatural channels of grace, man believing is justified. Of unjust he becomes just, receiving the justice of God within him, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and cooperation. By the merits of the most holy Passion, man receives both the remission of sins, and the infusion of faith, hope, and charity; for faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body; for which reason it is most truly said that “Faith without works is dead” and profitless (St. James, 2:20), and “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity (Gal. 5:6). (See Council of Trent, Session Vl, chapter 7.) But Protestantism, having declared the Church itself corrupt, proceeded to deny the effectual operation of grace in the justification of the sinner. Not content with endeavoring to soil the stainless robe of the Spouse of Christ, the Reformers aimed a deadly blow at the principle of divine sanctity in man. With the recklessness that marked all their movements, they announced the new doctrine that when God justifies man He does not do what the word implies that He does; that in fact He does nothing at all, but merely considers as done what His Almighty power does not actually accomplish. In justification man is not made just, but only accounted so.

III. The Church is Catholic. Catholicity is the third note of the Church. I have already spoken of the error of those who make it the first or the second. No one can rightly apprehend the Church’s universality who does not first understand the nature of the Church’s unity. Unitas Catholica, quae toto orbe diffusa est (The Catholic unity which is spread throughout the whole world), is the canon to which St. Augustine holds the Donatists, and by which he annihilates one after another their versatile sophistries. (1. Ep. xliii, al. clxil. cap. 1. Unitas Christi, quae toto orbe diffunditur,— De Bapt. cont. Petil. c. xxiv. Christiana unitas, diJfusa toto orbe terrarum,—Cont. Lit. Petil. I. 1. c. 20. et alibi.) The formula which is to guide us in our work of identification is not, “the Catholic Church is somehow or other One”; but “the Church, which is one and undivided, is also Catholic.” And, read thus, the mark of Catholicity is so plain that “the wayfaring man, though a fool,” cannot err by it. For first there is only one Church which claims to be Catholic, to be the whole Church. All other churches, though absolutely isolated — though between each and all the rest a great gulf is fixed — pretend only to be portions of the universal Church. And, secondly, there is only one Church which is in fact spread throughout all the world (toto orbe diffusa). All churches but one are local. Ubi cadunt ibi remanent (Where they fall there they remain).

IV. Finally, the Church, One, Holy and Catholic, is also Apostolic. We shall have no difficulty in ascertaining the sense in which Apostolicity is, and was intended to be, a note of the Church. Evidently it cannot be meant that the Church is to be recognized by the fact that its doctrine is apostolic. This would be saying that the true Church is that which teaches the truth — which might be called an indeterminate proposition. We cannot know what the truth is until we have first found the true Church. And to discover the true Church we must have some external and visible mark to guide us. The sign which we are seeking can conceivably be no other than that of which all the ancient Fathers speak, and by which they identified the Church of their creed. It is found in the fact of the Apostolic Succession.

Are we to understand, then, that all churches which claim to have derived their orders from the Apostles are apostolic? Most assuredly not. We are not taught to believe in two apostolic churches, but in One Apostolic Church. To interpret the note of Apostolicity in such manner as to make void the note of Unity is rank absurdity. Away, then, with the threadbare notion that a church with orders is ipso facto a portion of the Church Apostolic. It is our old acquaintance, the Branch Theory, in a shabbier garb than ever. Why, all the heretics and schismatics that were ever anatomized by the Fathers and anathematized by the Church set up this self-same pretension — and on far more plausible grounds than is done nowadays; and it was in condemnation of them that the Church defined herself to be Apostolic. This is a truth which no one who has read the history of the Church, except through the pages of Anglican schismatics, can for one instant fail to understand or hesitate to believe. The Apostolicity of the true Church resides in that supreme Episcopal Chair, where first sat one who by divine election was the Chief of the Apostles, to whom a New Name was given, and upon whom the indestructible Church was built; in that central seat where all the offices of the Kingdom of God meet and find their expression, which from the days of Peter to the days of Pius IX has been known and honored, in grand pre-eminence, as The Apostolic See.

And thus we are brought at last to the direct consideration of that aspect of the Church towards which it is evident we have been gradually tending, and upon which we have more than once indirectly trenched. Indeed, I have found it impossible to treat of many things which are of the Church’s essence without some reference to that which is the crown and consummation of them all, that in which, as I have just said, concenter all the functions of the divine economy which infinite Wisdom devised and called into action for the salvation of a fallen world.

Ah me! I feel as if I had but now laid the foundation of the work which I have undertaken. Not only the true proportion of the subject, but the plan which I had actually drawn out for myself, and the material already at hand, would make what has been thus far written only the introduction to a stately volume. But the circumstances under which I write warn me that it is time to be drawing to a close. Yet let me take courage from the hope that, though the labor be hurried and the execution imperfect, there may still be enough of symmetry in the design to accomplish the effect which I so earnestly desire. It will not, perhaps, be difficult even in a few words to give some sort of completeness to what has been thus far premised. We have learned that the Church must be one; it will be easy to understand by what means its unity has been divinely secured. We have seen that the Church is holy; we shall see what provision has been made for the perpetual purity of its faith and integrity of its government. There can be no indestructible unity without a fixed and indivisible center. There can be no incorruptible faith without a constant and infallible tribunal by which that faith may be determined. There can be no true universality without agreement, and no agreement without a standard of uniformity. There can be no apostolic order without an apostolic governor, presiding “as a head over the members.” Thus the several notes of the Church will be summed up in one. We shall know and believe that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic because it is also Roman.