The Pillar and Foundation of the Truth (CCC 748-780) Church Fathers
One of the most important – and consequently most attacked – doctrines of the Catholic Church is the doctrine concerning the Church herself. The view that the Church is visible, hierarchical, authoritative and possessed of “all truth” forms a key understanding of all other Catholic doctrines. It is the Church who administers the sacraments, which are the ordinary means of salvation and grace. It is the Church who wrote the Bible and only the Church who can correctly interpret Sacred Scripture.
This article will show how the Catholic apologist can defend the Catholic doctrines and refute the anti-Catholic views concerning the Church. Note that many of these positions rely on simple, direct logic – a Church which possesses certain characteristics must possess others. Just as a building which possesses a roof must have rooms which possess ceilings, so must a Church which is authoritative be visible, for example.
Did Christ want a Church at all?
Although Saint Paul speaks of the Church as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in I Timothy 3:15 (a passage which clearly shows that he considered the Church to be massively important) did Jesus want to found a Church? Scripture makes it clear that He did.
In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus says that He will build His Church – this very clear! Later on, Jesus speaks of the Church again in Matthew 18:17-18. Jesus constantly tells the apostles to go out and spread the Gospel – Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16 – why would He do this if He did not wish to found some sort of community? This community is called the Church – and these Scriptures prove that Jesus intended to found one. Other Scriptures, logic and common sense will show that Jesus intended to found – and did found – a Church which has all the characteristics of the Catholic Church and is, therefore, the Catholic Church.
The Authoritative Church
One of the major objections to the claims that the Church makes regarding herself is that she alone has authority to interpret God's word in the Bible, and indeed to formally what the Christian religion is when it is revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. Many people who react badly to this are simply having a problem with any form of authority, and consider that there is an invisible church rather than the visible one Christ actually founded.
However, Scripture is clear that the Church has authority – in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus delegates His power to the apostles. The authority to perform specific acts is given in other passages – John 20:23 (the power to forgive sin), I Corinthians 11:23-24 (the power to offer sacrifice, the Eucharist), Luke 10:16 (the power to speak with Christ's voice), Matthew 18:18 (the power to legislate) and Matthew 18:17 (the power to discipline).
From a perspective of pure common sense and logic, what would be the point of founding a Church (which Christ clearly wanted to do) without giving her authority? If the Church has no power, what what is she? She is simply a collection of believers with no power to enforce laws or discipline those who are dissident – anyone could claim to be a member of her even if they denied all the tenets of her laws and beliefs! Organizations logically require authority over their members and authority to determine what the criteria for membership are; otherwise they are not organizations at all, but simply a label without a clear definition.
The Four Marks of the Church
The Church is often described as bearing four “marks” - One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Defending these “marks” (qualities she possess) of the Church is essential. It necessary to show that not only is the Church these things, but that it is also necessary for the Church to be these things.
This means that the Church is unified, single and one. There are not two or three or more true Churches; there is a single Church which is the one Christ founded. This is logically necessary based on the nature of exclusive truth and the fact that the Church has authority.
Exclusive truth states that two contradictory things cannot both be true. If there were two Churches these Churches would have to teach, believe and practice different things (on some level – even if it were just a minor difference). If they are not different from each other, then they cannot really be considered to be different Churches! They are the same Church if they are identical.
However, if the two Churches are different then at least one of them must be wrong – this is simple logic. If one Church is wrong, then it is not the true Church and does not have the authority which Jesus wished to give to the true Church.
In addition, Scripture is very clear that the Church must be one. Whenever Jesus speaks of the Church (or uses a metaphor such as flock or His body) He speaks in the singular. Additionally, the Scripture tells us to avoid divisions of all sorts – Romans 15:5, 16:17, I Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2:2. Jesus prays that “all may be one” - John 17:17-23.
Other verses which show the fact that the Church must be one are; John 10:16, 17:23, Ephesians 4:3-6, I Corinthians 12:13, Romans 12:5 and Colossians 3:15.
What does it mean to be “holy” and why is that necessary? To be holy means, in some way, to be like Jesus Christ. Why is this necessary for the Church?
If Jesus specifically founded something (as is shown above) and He intended it (or her) to have the authority to act in His place on Earth, who could it not be holy? If she is acting as Jesus does, does she not – in fact – need to actually be, in some way, Jesus Himself? This is a logical necessity, but how can this be possible?
The answer is found in the references in Scripture the fact that Jesus is married to the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32, Revelation 19:7, 21:2), the teaching that marriage makes man and wife one flesh, and the constant references in Scripture that the Church is Jesus' Christ's mystical body. A correct understanding of the nature of marriage is needed to understand the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Church (conversely, an understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ's relationship to the Church is needed to understand marriage!)
The following verses make it very clear that the Church is Jesus Christ's body and is, therefore, holy (although individual members of the Church are not impeccable!)
Colossians 1:18, I Corinthians 6:15, 12:20-27, Ephesians 5:30, Romans 12:4-5
The word “catholic” means universal – the Church established by Jesus Christ must be universal and be found everywhere. Why is this necessary? If Jesus Christ came to save all men from their sins and directed His followers to preach to everyone (Matthew 28:18-20) then it is necessary that the Church be found in all those nations – that means a universal Church. Because the Church also has to be one it has to be universal – there could not be national or geographically limited Churches because they would either teach different things, or they would – in fact – be one Church!
Some non-Catholics make a claim concerning “catholic with a small 'c'” - this is simply the opinion that the Church can be invisible, something which is refuted both below and elsewhere.
Is the Catholic Church truly “catholic”? It she universal? She is the only Christian denomination in the world to not be split into geographically local groups and to have consistent theological teachings across all individual places of worship. She is also found on every continent and in virtually every country in the world, and is constantly expanding. Her membership is open to all and she has endured for nearly 2000 years – by anyone's standard, that has to be considered universal!
Apostolic means that the Church claims genuine descent from the apostles who were selected and chosen by Jesus Christ. Why is this important? Simply because Scripture tells us that that is what Jesus Christ wanted to do. He desired to found a Church which would contain genuine priests who were capable of acting in His place to administer the ordinary means of salvation, the sacraments (the office of the priesthood is covered in a separate article – this article is concerned with the notion of apostolic succession rather than the sacerdotal priesthood per se.)
In John 15:16 we see that Jesus chose men to be His apostles and in John 20:21 He gave them a special mission. The book of Acts (the story of the early Church) is full of examples of men being appointed to the office of priest by other priests (this is apostolic succession) – Acts 1:20 and 1:25-26 are the first example of apostolic succession, but this is followed by Acts 14:23. Saint Paul speaks of the creation of priests – giving instructions to do it in Titus 1:5 and II Timothy 2:2, and giving instructions to not do it too readily in I Timothy 5:22 (this passage refers to the laying on of hands – I Timothy 4:14 makes it clear that this is the means by which the priesthood is to be passed on). Saint Paul says, very clearly, in Ephesians 2:20 that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Clearly, therefore, Jesus wanted a Church which not only had a priesthood, but also a Church whose priesthood could claim legitimate descent from the apostles. Today, the only Church which has legitimate descent from the apostles is the Catholic Church – few other denominations claim such a thing, and of those that do (the Anglican communion, the Orthodox Church and some Lutheran denominations) only the Orthodox Church has valid apostolic succession (owing to the fact that the other Churches formally broke from Rome and denied the authority of the Church to ordain priests). The Orthodox Church is not the Church that Christ founded, however, as it denies Petrine Primacy.
The Perpetual Church
Additionally, simple logic tells us that the Church which has authority, is visible, is apostolic and which was founded specifically by God as the ordinary means of salvation has to be perpetual – would God create a Church which had all these characteristics which would only last for a few years or centuries? However, there are people who do maintain that this is the case – this theory is called “The Great Apostasy” by some and is covered in a separate article.
Once again, both logic and Scripture show that the Church must be infallible in matters of religious teaching – if the Church must be perpetual, then she has to never teach something wrong. If she did teach something wrong then she would cease to be correct and therefore could no longer be considered to be Christ's Church. She would have apostatized and would cease to be Christ's Church – and therefore Christ's Church would have ceased to exist. If this were the case, then Christ's promise that the Church would be perpetual would be incorrect.
Additionally, the Scriptures contain many verses which support the notion that the Church is infallible and cannot make mistakes in teaching (although individual men can make mistakes and members of the Church are not impeccable). John 16:13 says that the Church will be guided by the Holy Spirit to all truth, and John 14:26 once again reaffirms this. The Church will “speak with Christ's own voice” according to Luke 10:16 and the apostles speak with the voice of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15:28. The Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth in I Timothy 3:16.
Visible versus invisible
Logically speaking, when it is shown that the Church must possess the four marks she does, that she possess authority and that she is perpetual it is completely necessary for her to be visible and identifiable! How else would people be able to find the Church if she were invisible? However, the concept of the “invisible church” is often inspired by a disdain for organized religion, and this is covered in a separate article.