As Catholics, we oftentimes talk about the four “marks” of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (CCC 811). These marks are deeply rooted both in Sacred Scripture, as well as the Church’s rich Tradition. They’re so crucial to the Christian faith, in fact, that we profess them each and every Sunday in the Nicene Creed:
…I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…
Sadly, many Catholics (including myself) fail to profess these truths with their words and their lives. And although all of these “marks” are essential, one in particular is easy to ignore: apostolic.
As I’ve met more and more Catholics, I’m reminded of the fact that the Church is made up of billions of people, each one with their own unique thoughts and opinions. And, more often than not, many of these thoughts and opinions don’t quite line up with the teachings of the Church. Don’t get me wrong—faith is a journey, and not everyone winds up at the same place at the same time. But when we openly oppose the teaching of our priests, our bishops, and our Holy Father, we are denying the apostolicity (among other things) of the Church.
In this light, it’s important for us to understand what it means for the Church to be apostolic:
1) The Church’s teachings find their authority in Christ
In St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus “appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14 NABRE). Later, Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Again, after his resurrection, Christ appears to the apostles and says to them: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). Clearly, Christ has given his apostles great authority—not just over preaching and teaching, but also over the forgiveness of our sins.
2) These teachings are passed from one generation to the next
After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles meet to select a successor to Judas. St. Peter stands and prays: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24-25). The apostles, by the will of God, pass their authority to a new apostle—St. Matthias. Similarly, we see St. Paul exhorting St. Timothy to continue this chain of apostolic succession: “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Tim 2:2). St. Irenaus, writing in the second century, summarizes this well:
It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times. . . (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3)
When we read from Scripture and our Church Fathers, it’s plain to see that Christ intended for his authority to be consistently passed from one generation of apostles to the next—all the way up to the present day.
3) The authority of the bishops = the authority of Christ
This sentiment has been repeated countless times by our earliest bishops and Church Fathers. Here are but a few examples:
Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account… (Hebrews 13:17)
Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, Chapter 8)
Therefore it is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the Church,—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 4, Ch. 26)
It’s important to note here that the Church doesn’t teach the infallibility of individual bishops (apart from the entire College). As Christ’s chosen apostles, however, each bishop ought to be awarded the deference and obedience that accompanies his station.
With all these exhortations from Scripture and Tradition, we ought to re-examine our views on the Church’s apostolicity. Do we believe that the Church’s teachings come from Christ? Do we believe that our modern-day bishops are teaching with apostolic authority? Are we thinking or acting in rebellion to Christ’s apostles?
Perhaps you or I discover that we aren’t quite in accordance with our bishop. What are we to do? The Church, in her infinite wisdom, offers us this simple guidance in Lumen Gentium:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. (25)
Holy Mother Church doesn’t disparage our legitimate fears and feelings. She merely asks for our trust. If we trust her to administer the medicine of immortality each week in the Eucharist, perhaps we ought to trust the teaching of her apostles.
Next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter, may we faithfully and fervently pronounce:
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.