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The Catholic Church: Seven Historical Marks of Its Identity and Mission

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  1. Introduction


n the Spring of A.D. 325, by the order of Emperor Constantine, over 200 bishops[i] of the Catholic Church assembled in the great hall of the imperial residence in Nicaea to respond to the call to put an end to the quarrels and dissensions which had arisen over the doctrine of the heresiarch Arius. In condemning Arianism by promulgating that Jesus Christ is God and consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, the Council stopped short in its Creed authored by Bishop Ossius of Cordova,[ii] who was the president of the Council, to speak specifically of the life of Church.

It wouldn’t be until A.D. 381 when 150 bishops of the East gathered in Constantinople that the Church would affirm the findings of the aforementioned Council of Nicaea,[iii] and take in the findings of Epiphanius of Salamis in his Ancoratus, written in A.D. 374 and the Baptismal Creed of Jerusalem (circa. A.D. 362), and declare in its Creed:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and of earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Only-begotten of the Father before all the ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of the same substance as the Father; through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and took flesh of the Holy Spirit and of Mary the Virgin and was made man. He was crucified for us in the time of Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried; and rose up on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there will be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who is proceeding from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who spoke through the prophets. In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church; we confess one baptism for the remission of sins; and we await the resurrection of the dead and a life of the age to come. Amen.”

It is in this new (latter) section of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, beginning with ‘And in the Holy Spirit’, that the Catholic Church first offers an ecclesiology and begins to speak of her temporal dimensions and of her transcendent reality; that is, where she calls herself One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. It is through these four marks (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) that the Church has traditionally (theologically and historically) sought to demonstrate how she fully embodies all that Christ Jesus intended when He gave her life on earth.

  1. The Thesis of this Paper

A span of nearly 2,000 years have passed since Christ Jesus established the Church through His Apostles, [iv] and over 1,600 years have passed since the Church first spoke of herself and defined her dimensions and transcendent reality.

I will present in this paper the idea that through the sacred Tradition; that is, the ongoing life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we can speculate that there are Seven Historical Marks of Church that belongs to the Kingdom of God.

By calling these marks ‘historical’ I do not mean to say that they are not also theological, as evidence to support the four traditional marks can be found in both history and in Divine revelation, but, rather, only to categorize them through the lenses by which they are found. That is, it by only looking at the Catholic Church down through the centuries can we find room to apply the tools of speculative theology and explore the idea that she has more characteristics (marks) than we once knew.

Finally, a distinction needs to be made between two economies of the People of God. This paper has as its starting point not the Church that is the Body of Christ being recovered/redeemed (i.e. at the Fall of Adam and Eve), but, rather, the preeminent Body of Christ in whom all things were created through and for and holds all things together.[v]

  1. The First Historical Mark: ‘There was never a Time when the Church did not exist’

There remains to be fewer greater errors in regards to man’s historical understanding of the Church than when he posits that Church emerged only after the Death of Jesus of Nazareth. To argue such a position is to first deny that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ; for if the Church is the body and fullness of Christ,[vi] and there was never a time when the Son of God did not exist, then it, therefore, follows that there was never a time when his Church did not exist; and if there were never a time when the Church of Christ did not exist, then it, therefore, follows that this Church has been the deposit of God’s promissory covenants from the beginning.

In regards to this first mark St. Clement of Alexandria in his Stromateis or Miscellanies (202 C.E.) would certainly agree where he writes:

“From what has been said, then, it seems clear to me that the True Church, that which is really ancient, is one; and in it are enrolled those who, in accord with a design, are just. . . .[vii] We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin and in eminence the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith which results from the familiar covenants, – or rather, from the one covenant in different times, by the will of the one God and through the one Lord, – those already chosen, those predestined by God who knew before the foundation of the world that they would be just.”

The section of the Nicene Constantinople Creed concerning the Church that begins with “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who is proceeding from the Father,” affirms that while the Church is not God, she is uniquely inseparable from in her nature as bride, in her call to gather His people, in her construct as His house, and in her necessity to forgive. While we cannot speak of the Church as being of the same substance of God, that she is mystically joined with the “Spirit of Truth”[viii] and has as her head He who called Himself “The Truth”[ix], we can, therefore, speak of her as being “the pillar and firmament of truth.”[x] That this Church is established on the Divine truth also means that she exists by accordance of the first things of God’s essence, which is His holiness and love. Out of holy love and truth does God do all things, so too does His Church proceed.

Outside of temporal space and time we have always been a people who God has been gathering and has gathered unto Himself.   He told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appoint you.” Therefore, we limit ourselves when we only think of God’s gathering within the narrow confines of time and space. If we only think of the communion of God’s people existing within temporal space, then we also have to deny the existence of a Church Suffering and a Church Triumphant.

If this is not a historical mark of the Catholic Church then it means that there was a time when the Son of God was not, and there was time when God did not bind himself to his human creations. To the contrary, the Church was always present in the heart of God, and at particular moment in temporal space of time and history became visible to man at the moment of his (man’s) creation. In this sense, we can define with surety that the Church consists of those who are in union with the God who said, “’I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?   He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”[xi]   For, God has always made a way for men and women to be in union with Him and has never left them to fend for themselves, but, rather, has ceaselessly offered help to lead them into true relationship with Him by gathering them into Himself (i.e. His body/His communion).

  1. The Second Historical Mark: The Church came to be Uniquely Visible in Abraham

If there was never a time when the Church of Christ did not exist, then it would certainly be reasonable for someone to ask, ‘Then, when was it that that Church became uniquely visible if the Body of Christ had not yet been made visible?’ I answer question by saying that the second historical mark of the Church is that it came to exist in a unique way through the divine election of Abraham and those who were related to him through his blood and through his household.[xii]

As St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in his Stromateis or Miscellanies, the cooperative covenants that God had established and deposited within the bosom of the Church from the beginning were not with the singular individual Abraham, but, rather, with the entire community (“To your descendants . . .”);[xiii] that is, the gathering (ecclesia) of the Universal Church of Christ.

Indeed, God’s Covenants are always with the whole community, whom He gathers together into His one Body, and this is why He called for the whole household (including infants) to be circumcised.[xiv] Later He would call whole households to be baptized.[xv] In this first visible expression of the Church of Christ there was deposited within her a broad implication with first promissory covenant. That broad implication was that YHWH promised to perpetuate the Davidic Kingdom forever.[xvi]

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the validity of this second historical mark in the following manner:

“God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity. So also “it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.” So from the beginning of Salvation history He has chosen men not just as individuals but as members of a certain community. Revealing His mind to them, God called these chosen ones “His People” (Ex. 3:7-12), and, furthermore, made a covenant with them on Sinai (Cf. Ex. 24:1-8).”[xvii]

If this is not a historical mark of the Catholic Church then it means that she does not belong to the covenant; that she is somehow outside of God’s perpetual promise to gather His people unto Himself, and that her sacraments are nothing but mere signs; offering no efficacious graces. To the contrary, the Kingdom of God has always had a mechanism, sign, and clear dimensions of the gathering, and in this age of the covenant that mechanism, sign, and dimension is the Catholic Church and her sacraments.

  1. The Third Historical Mark: The Church came to Exist in the New Covenant in a Fulfilled way Amongst those who related to Abraham through Faith

It would then be asked, ‘If there were never a time when the Church of Christ did not exist, and that Church came to be uniquely visible to the people of God, then how was it people not belonging to the blood and household of Abraham came to belong to it?’

I answer that question by noting that the third historical mark of the Catholic Church is that it came to exist in a fulfilled way amongst those who are related to Abraham through faith in the New Covenant established through the Blood of Christ, the (Davidic) King, who established the new and fulfilled priesthood in the Church. [xviii]

Whereas we cooperated with God in the old covenant through circumcision, we now cooperate with God in the new covenant through the Sacrament of Baptism, which heals us through the Blood of Christ, configures us to the Body of Christ (through the Holy Spirit), and gathers us into the household of God.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the benefit of this third historical mark in the following manner:

“All men are called to belong to the new People of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled. In the beginning, God made human nature one and decreed that all his children, scattered as they were, would finally be gathered together as one (Cf. Jn. 11:52).   It was for this purpose that God sent his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things (cf. Heb. 1:2), that he might be teacher, king and priest of all, the head of the new and universal people of the sons of God. For this too God sent the Spirit of his Son as Lord and Life-giver. He it is who brings together the whole Church and each and every one of those who believe, and who is the well spring of their unity and the teaching of the Apostles and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers (Cf. Acts 2:42).”[xix]

While God’s motives for gathering His people did not change, His means did. If the Kingdom of God could be described as a circle a grace, with Christ Jesus being that point or tree of life at the center of the circle, it would be as if God cut a hole on the outside of that circle and filled its space with a gathering tent.   Whereas, this tent was initially filled with the circumcised who never progressed out of the tent and towards the center of the circle, in the New Covenant the nature of the tent changed.   The tent itself became a sacrament that was filled with the baptized that would exit it and proceed towards the center of the circle, while frequently returning to the tent to receive those graces she has to offer them.

If this is not a historical mark of the Catholic Church then it means that the Council of the Florence was in error when it declared that the Church is “the total locus of the Christian sacraments.”[xx] Following this comment from Florence, Henri De Lubac would draw from the Ambrosian missal to write, “and she [the Church] is herself the great sacrament that contains and vitalizes all the others.[xxi]

To the contrary, if it is true that we belong to Christ Jesus through baptism, and are, thereby, “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise [that is, covenant],”[xxii] then it, therefore, follows that the gathering of God’s people into His Kingdom is still occurring today has it always had, but now through the Sacraments of the Church. While we may not always know who God has gathering, the continuity of His gathering has been seamless throughout salvation history.

  1. The Fourth Historical Mark: The Church of Christ is One, Holy, Whole, Universal (Catholic), and Available to all People at all Times

If God is now engaged in work of a universal gathering, it then necessitates that His sacrament for gathering (the Church) must have also always been about the work of a universal gathering. Such a gathering would require the Church to be hypostatically one with God, consistently reflect the light of God in all that she proclaims to be fully true, be fullness of God’s grace (herself a visible sacrament), and consists of all peoples whom God sends to her (universal).

Benoit-Dominique de La Soujeole calls the traditional four marks (properties) essential, because “they are insuperable from the very being of the subject. If the Church ceased to be holy, for example, the whole Church as such was disappear.”[xxiii]

Indeed, the Church that has always existed and came to be uniquely visible with the covenant made with Abraham, and later through the Blood of Jesus, the Lord that gives evidence of the fourth historical mark of the Church of Christ, speaks of her hypostatic completeness. That is, like He who is her head and spouse, she too is one, holy, whole, universal (catholic), and available to all people at all times. [xxiv]

To be a member of the Church (the Body of Christ) is to be like the Church; for in the beginning we were made in her image and likeness,[xxv] for she was, is, and will be one with her spouse. The Church is fully the Body of Christ in that it is the household of those who are In Christ; it is His means (physical body on earth of which He is the head) to fulfill the mission of the Kingdom of God and it where He reigns in His Real Presence as King and gives Himself away to those who believe through the Holy Eucharist.

The Church has always taught one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God, and Father of all;[xxvi] meaning, that within it there are no doctrinal factions or divisions (only one teaching). She is first one, but inconsequence of her being one, she is holy, whole, universal (catholic), and available to all people at all times. She is the perpetual sign and instrument of divine solidarity.

That the Church is not God, but is one, affirms again her transcendental nature and her unique inseparability from the mystical Body of Christ, which the Nicene-Constantinople Creed signals in that part beginning, “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who is proceeding from the Father.”

  1. The Fifth Historical Mark:The Church of Christ is Indefectibly Apostolic

The question that should follow from the fourth mark is, ‘What are the permanent and visible means of transmission and gathering that this Church expresses if it is truly for all people at all times?’

This important question is answered by elucidating upon the fifth historical mark, which begins with the phrase, ‘The Church is Apostolic’;   meaning that it was established by the Twelve Apostles themselves as a visible organization and it has existed in perpetuity with their successors as Bishops, through Peterine succession, since the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not only Apostolic in its roots, but Christ Jesus prayed that it would always remain to be Apostolic through ordained Apostolic Succession.[xxvii] This grace was purposed, so that there would always be an authentic transmission of His doctorial teaching on earth. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”

In consequence that the Church of Christ is Apostolic within this fifth historical mark is also contained the phrase, ‘The Church is without error in regards to its doctorial teachings on faith and morals, because she only teaches what the Holy Spirit has deposited in her since the age of the Apostles.’ The true Church of Christ will never be compromised by the lie of popular culture or waiver on any part of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. This truth is not only evident in sacred Scripture, but also in sacred Tradition, which is the perpetual life, teachings, and history of the Church.

Within the framework of the four traditional marks of the Catholic Church, La Soujeole remarks that the reason why indefectibility should not be counted as a distinct property is because it “qualifies them all. The Church is indefectibly one, indefectibly holy, indefectibly catholic, and indefectibly apostolic.”[xxviii] The reason I am breaking out the indefectibility in the Seven Historical Marks is because we are looking back through history and examining not just the her nature and who she is, but also what she is; that is what happens when her apostles and ministers leave the tent.

If the Catholic Church is not indefectibly apostolic, then it, therefore, follows that she is not indefectible in any of the other three traditional marks, and is was precisely the argument of Martin Luther and all those who have followed him in saying that the Catholic Church must not be who she says she is (one, holy, and catholic), because she has erred in teaching. Therefore, it is beneficial for the purposes of apologetics to break this mark to strength the fourth mark.

  1. The Sixth Historical Mark: The Church of Christ is at the Perpetual Service of the Kingdom of God

In terms of ordering these marks, I could have noted this one first, but it has been placed here so that it can be better understood in light of the five previous and preceding the last (seventh).

Indeed, the sole purpose of the existence of the Church of Christ is to fulfill the mission of the Kingdom of God on earth, which is to gather all of God’s creatures so that He might reconcile them to Himself. The Church accomplishes this awesome task through the performance of her three duties: (1) To proclaim the word of God; (2) To celebrate the Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance and/or Reconciliation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick); and (3) To perform works of Charity.

The bright cord that binds and looses the many ministries and efforts of the Church to accomplish the mission given to her is called ‘the Peterine Ministry’. This ministry was established by Christ Jesus Himself and given to St. Peter and his successors to perform three duties based on the two confession Peter made about Christ Jesus and one that Jesus made about Peter, which are: (1) to be guided by the truth of God the Father, to obey the commands of God the Son, and to listen for and act upon the promptings of the Holy Spirit;[xxix] (2) to be the servant, slave, and friend of all creatures of God;[xxx] and (3) to be the rock of strength, unity, and support for the global Christian community.[xxxi]

As the vessel of God’s will on Earth, the Church is the undying communion of the living God with all the angels and saints in Heaven (Church Triumphant), souls in Purgatory (Church Suffering), and on Earth who join in at every moment to know, love, and serve/trust the Holy Trinity (Church Militant).

In contrast, a church that is not at the service of the Kingdom of God is a church in service to itself, and a church that does not have a Peterine Ministry is a church that is not anchored in Christ Jesus, the true rock.

  1. The Seventh Historical Mark: The more the Church of Christ Reflects the Light of Her Spouse, the More the World Hates Her

Because wicked people prefer darkness over the light they will always persecute the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.[xxxii] It is absolutely true that the seventh and final historical mark of the Catholic Church is that the more she reflects the light of her spouse, the more the world hates her. The more she proclaims Christ crucified the more the world comes to know how much she the one it hates.

There has never been a point of time in the history of the world when the wicked were not trying to destroy the community of God’s people. The only new thing in the New Covenant in this regard is that in the analogy of creation being a chessboard we can say that God castled and gave the enemy a visible target for his onslaught. Christ the King, Mary the Queen, and the Church triumphant, suffering, and militant will ultimately have victory, but until that day comes this seventh mark will never go away. It would be easier for the moon to stop reflecting the light of the sun than the Church to stop reflecting that which the wicked hate. Hate, because the light she reflects burns and convicts the truest part of their being.

Looking back through history we can affirm that from its very beginning the Church that eventually began to call itself ‘Catholic’ was always persecuted.   Even after the years following Constantine’s and Licinius’s Edict of Milan, and during the reign of Charlemagne, the Church spread throughout the known world had enemies who sought to weaken and destroy it by any means necessary. Inasmuch as separated churches may face local or regional persecution, only the Universal Church has endured and continues to endure a universal persecution.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen spoke of the necessity of this seventh mark when he said:

“If I were not a Catholic and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, he must still be hated as he was when he was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world.

Look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior as they sneered at our Lord because he came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil as our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of devils. Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible as Pilate rejected Christ because he called himself the Truth. Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as our Lord was rejected by men.

Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions its members love as they love Christ and respect its voice as the very voice of its founder, and the suspicion will grow that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ himself. But only that which is divine can be infinitely hated and infinitely loved. Therefore the Church is divine.”[xxxiii]

  1. Conclusion

These are the seven identifying historical marks of the Church that is within and in service to the Kingdom of God. While these marks specifically apply to institutional Church mystery, they may also apply in some nuanced degrees the people and the individual persons that are also part of the Mystical Body of Christ.

The reason why we are now able to look back throughout history and affirm that only the Catholic Church has lived up to each one of these marks during her entire existence is simply because our Lord prayed that she would.[xxxiv]


[i] The exact number of bishops in attendance at Nicaea is unknown to the early sources. Authors citing numbers in the 200’s seem to be referring to an approximate of bishops present on the preliminary sessions of the Council on May 20th, 325, while those citing the number of 318 bishops present seem to be referring to the number that had arrived by the conclusion of the last session. SEE: Laux John. Church History: A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day. Tan books, 1989. 109. Print.

[ii] Jurgens, William A. The Faith of the Early Fathers: Volume 1. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. 1970. 280. Print.

[iii] By virtue of no bishops of the West being invited to this council so that the mutual mistrust between East and West would be further enflamed, it is clear that the intent of this council was not to be ecumenical. The first time that the aforementioned Council of Constantinople would be appeal to as being an ecumenical would be at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Later Pope Gregory the Great accepted the First Council of Constantinople as being ecumenical in its dogmatic aspects, while still rejecting its canons. Cf. Ibid. pp. 397-398.

[iv] The Church as defined by sacred Scripture – a general assembled gathering (ecclesia) – (Dt. 9:10, 18:16); established by Jesus the Christ to last forever – (Mt. 16:18); is Catholic – (Rev. 7:9-10); for general/local areas – (Acts 5:11; 1 Cor. 1:2, 16:1); a physical building – (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 11:18, 14:19, 28 34-35); a universal community of believers – (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:16); the mystical body of the Christ – (1 Cor. 12:1-31; Rom. 12:4-8); decisions of the Church are binding – (Mt. 18:47; Acts 15:28-29); the Church that Jesus established is necessary for Salvation – (Eph. 1:22-23); household of God and pillar and foundation of truth – (1 Tim. 3:15); CCC 830-835.

[v] Cf. Col. 1:15-20.

[vi] Cf. Eph. 1:22-23.

[vii] Here (. . .), Clement attributes the book of Hebrews to St. Paul.

[viii] John 16:13.

[ix] John 14:6.

[x] 1 Tim. 3:15.

[xi] Mt. 22:32.

[xii] Dt. 9:10, 18:16, 23:1ff, 2 Esdr. 13:1; Num. 20:4.

[xiii] Cf. Gen. 15:12-21.

[xiv] Cf. Gen. 17:13.

[xv] Cf. Acts 16:15.

[xvi] Cf. 2 Sam. 7:13-17.

[xvii] Gaudium Et Spes 32, Pastoral’ Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II.

[xviii] Cf. Heb. 7:12.

[xix]Lumen Gentium 13, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican II.

[xx]Decretum pro Jacobitis, 1441-42.

[xxi] De Lubac, Henri. The Splendor of the Church. Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 1956. 202. Print.

[xxii] Gal. 3:29.

[xxiii] de La Soujeole, Benoit-Dominique. Introduction to the Mystery of the Church. The Catholic University of American Press. Washington D.C. 2014. 515. Print.

[xxiv] Cf. Rev. 7:9-10.

[xxv] Cf. Gen. 1:26.

[xxvi] Cf. Eph. 4:5-6.

[xxvii] The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Apostolic Succession as: The handing on of apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands, as a permanent office in the Church (Cf. CCC 77, 861).

[xxviii] de La Soujeole, Benoit-Dominique. Introduction to the Mystery of the Church. The Catholic University of American Press. Washington D.C. 2014. 625. Print.

[xxix] Cf. Mt. 16:13-20.

[xxx] Cf. Jn. 21:15-19.

[xxxi] Cf. Lk. 22:31-34.

[xxxii] Cf. John 3:19-21.

[xxxiii] Rumble, Dr. M.S.C. Radio Replies Volume 1. Tan Books. Charlotte, North Carolina. Preface, ix. Print.

[xxxiv] Cf. Mt. 16:18.


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