Church

Why is the Catholic Church the one, true church?

First, it is worth asking: what do Christians mean when they say the one, true church?

An image of The Triumph of the Church by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze

The Triumph of the Church by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze

Broadly, we mean those who believe in the Holy Trinity–God the Father; Jesus, the Son of God; and the Holy Spirit–and the tenets that Jesus taught during His Ministry. However we have to be careful because there are groups of people who consider themselves Christians, but who have added their own interpretations and ideas that go far beyond anything Jesus taught.

So, “The Church” encompasses those who follow Jesus original teachings (to various degrees), but is that what Jesus meant? To answer that question, it is necessary to examine the Sciptures.

In Matthew’s Gospel (16:18) Jesus says to Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.” Later in Matthew 28:20, Jesus assures His followers He would remain with them “always, to the end of the age.” Likewise, in John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be with the Church forever (14:16).

There are numerous scriptural passages that involve the Lord establishing “a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.” (For example, see the Book of Daniel (2:44), Isaiah (9:7) and the Gospel of Matthew (13:24).)

For those reasons, we can be sure that the Church Jesus founded—the one, true Church—has never fallen and has stood continuously from Saint Peter’s day until today and will remain present “to all generations, for ever and ever” (as St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians 3:21).

This means that the Church’s teachings have survived intact because they were given to her by Christ Himself Who said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (see Matthew 24:35 and the Prophet Isaiah 40:8).

In his First Letter to Timothy (3:15), Saint Paul goes so far as to call the Church “the pillar and bulwark of truth.” Because His Church has been professing the same doctrine for nearly 2,000 years, there is an uninterrupted historical trail linking the original community of Jesus’ disciples to its contemporary self. So, it must be possible to trace the teachings of one of the contemporary Christian bodies back through time to the days of the Apostles.

Apostolic Succession

Of all of today’s multiple and diverse Christian communities, only the Catholic Church is able to substantiate her claims of authenticity through Apostolic Succession, or the unbroken line of bishops that has faithfully carried the Apostles’ teachings from the first century to this day. This truth is supported by the body of Christianity’s ancient historical writings—the writings of the Early Church Fathers–which begin with letters composed by men who learned the Faith directly from the Apostles. These writings are readily available online or at any good library or bookstore.

Non-Catholics often deny the need for an authoritative, teaching Church, and generally looks to the Bible as its solitary source of truth, believing the Bible to be self-interpretive.

Ironically, that idea is refuted by Scripture, itself. See Saint Peter’s Second Letter (1:20-21).

Moreover, it is undermined by the fact that there are multitude of “Bible-only” sects that fundamentally disagree about what the Bible teaches! If one’s private interpretation of Christ’s teachings is fallible (and being the interpretation of a human, it would be) then historical Church writings are invaluable to gain insight into the way that the Apostles and their successors interpreted Sacred Scripture and lived out the Faith.

An Image of the Life of Saint Stephen: Ordination and Giving of Alms by Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli

Life of Saint Stephen: Ordination and Giving of Alms by Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli

These writings of these Early Church Fathers firmly illustrate the Catholic Church’s teaching continuity, which has been maintained despite human error and sin, persecution, and cultural pressures that would have caused an ordinary institution to abandon its core principles long ago. Remarking upon the continuity of the Catholic Church (and specifically of the Church of Rome) in the second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons called her “the greatest and most ancient Church known to all” in Against Heresies 3:3:2.

Note that a variety of theories have been concocted over the years on the part of the Church’s opponents to attempt to explain her origin—or explain it away one might say. The most common such theory alleges Catholicism came into being in the fourth century, around the time the Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This theory holds that a large portion of the Christian Church eventually became corrupted by pagan influences due to a huge influx of converts. Of course, the insurmountable obstacle to this theory is the presence of Catholic doctrine in the ecclesiastical writings that predate Constantine, and the historical writings of the Early Church Fathers demonstrate this in a powerful way.

An image of Life of Saint Stephen: Expulsion and Stoning by Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli

Life of Saint Stephen: Expulsion and Stoning by Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli

The overt Catholicity of Christianity’s ancient writers is irrefutable.

Consider, for example, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who died around the year 107. Ignatius was a pupil of the Apostles Peter and John and used the Church’s Eucharistic teaching to combat heretics who denied the Incarnation.

He has the distinction of being the earliest writer on record to use the term “catholic” as a proper name for the Church. “Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there,” he wrote; “just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

Coincidentally, Antioch, Ignatius’ bishopric, happens also to be the place where the followers of Christ were first called “Christians” (see the Acts of the Apostles 11:26).

An image of the Adoration of the Holy Trinity by Albrecht Durer

Adoration of the Holy Trinity by Albrecht Durer

The earliest written usage of the word “Trinity” comes from Antioch, too. Appearing in a letter of another bishop, Saint Theophilus, in about 181 (see To Autolycus 2:15), Saint Irenaeus wrote, “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could He rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be His Body, and affirm that the mixture in the cup is His ?” (see Heresies 4:33:2).1

So, how can others reconcile their disdain for the Church of Rome with Ignatius’ acknowledgement of her preeminence? He called her “the Church which holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans …;” and went on to say, “You have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force” (Romans, Address; 3:1).

Irenaeus listed the bishops of Rome down to his time, commenting, “In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us” (see Heresies 3:3:3).

Some may be dismayed by Ignatius’ mention of Marian doctrine in the same breath as the Crucifixion? “The virginity of Mary,” he wrote, “her giving birth, and also the death of the Lord, were hidden from the prince of this world:—three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God” (see Ephesians 19:1).

Likewise, he writes, “Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. … Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary” (see Heresies 3:22:4).

Today, what would Catholics and non-Catholics call a person who regarded the Eucharist as the Flesh of Christ, praised the Church of Rome for her teaching superiority, and venerated the mystery of Mary’s virginity?

Why should one conclude anything differently about a man and his like-minded contemporaries who said and did the same things nineteen centuries ago?

  1.  Irenaeus’ teacher was Saint Polycarp, who was also a disciple of John’s.