Part III of a series. Read Part II.
Last week, we made it halfway through the four marks of the Catholic Church — the marks that reflect Her Founder is Jesus Christ, God Himself. Now we'll finish with the final two marks: (1) "catholic" and (2) "apostolic."
Catholic means "universal." That is to say, the Church is for all men of all times in all places. Because our Church alone is universal in time, doctrine and extent, she has existed in perfect continuity from the time of Christ and will last until His Second Coming. She alone teaches all His gospel while administering all His divine means of salvation. She is not confined to any particular region or nation but is widespread among all the nations of the world. The word catholic doesn't denote a quality. One can't be Anglo or liberal catholic; one cannot be more or less catholic. One is either catholic or not.
Eastern Orthodoxy isn't catholic in terms of time, as they've existed only since the 11th century with the Great Schism. The attribute "catholic" doesn't apply to Protestant sects because they date from the 16th (Lutherans and Anglicans), 17th (Baptists), 18th (Methodists) or the 19th centuries (Disciples of Christ/Church of Christ). These sects aren't catholic in faith because they've broken away from the center of unity — the Holy See of the Catholic Church — and deny many of Christ's laws and doctrines. They're not catholic in extent, as, from the beginning of their secession, they've identified themselves with some particular nation — Germany, Scandinavian countries, England, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, et cetera.
Mere profession of a creed doesn't render one catholic (many Christian denominations do indeed use the Apostles' Creed) because the different separatist sects read their own peculiar opinions into it. A smattering of different groups around the world does not a "catholic" church make. Catholicity, embodied by the Catholic Church, implies a divine unity of government, faith and worship.
The early Church Fathers, writing in the first four centuries, frequently announce the catholicity of the Church. They consistently tell us the Church is catholic because she is spread over the entire known world and teaches everywhere "universally and completely all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge" (St. Cyril, Catechesis, 18:23). Verify this for yourself by reading, online or at a good library, what was written by Irenaeus, Origen, Optatus and Augustine.
The Catholic Church is catholic in time because, while we can accurately fix the date of every heresy and schism, no one can assign any date to Her origin except the day of Pentecost. The Catholic Church is catholic in extent, transcending any one sect; in fact, she is greater than all of them put together. Mere numbers, of course, are not the essence of catholicity, but the Church's de facto numerical superiority points to Her de jure catholicity — Her universal divine commission to spread the One Faith among all nations.
For an institution to be apostolic, it must be able to trace its roots in unbroken succession back to the original Apostles. In fact, before giving His divine commission to the Apostles, Christ referenced His divine commission from His Father: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21).
The only Christian institution that can rightly claim an origin free of rupture with the past is the Catholic Church. The European Protestants broke with apostolic succession at the time of Martin Luther's revolt (1517–1520), and the English Protestants (1559) did likewise when King Henry VIII made Thomas Cranmer the first Protestant bishop of Canterbury. Since then, we've seen what amounts to religious entropy.
When early Catholics wished to proffer a most convincing argument for the legitimacy of the Church, they invariably appealed to Her apostolic origin. We find these Christians compiling lists of legitimate bishops, especially with regard to the Apostolic See of Rome. As early as the second century, we find the Syrian Hegesippus and the Greek Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons) maintaining that the source and standard of the Faith is the apostolic Tradition, handed down in an unbroken succession of bishops. Irenaeus writes:
But since it would be very long in such a volume as this to count up the successions [i.e., series of bishops] in all the churches [called "dioceses" today], we confound those who in any way, whether through self-pleasing or vainglory, or through blindness or evil opinion, gather together otherwise than they ought, by pointing out the tradition arrived from the Apostles of the greatest, most ancient and universally known Church, founded and established by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, and also the Faith declared to men, which, through the succession of bishops, comes down to our times" (Adversus Haereses, 3:3).
It's true that other churches make a claim to apostolicity, but their claims are always erroneous and sometimes even preposterous. For example, several members of the Church of Christ, when defending their "apostolic" origins, have stated to me their name proves their origin. What? That might work for someone who is incapable of logic and right reason, but most of us find that sort of argument ludicrous.
A book could be written on this topic alone; indeed, many books have been written on the topic of apostolicity. I urge you to study the topic, as the Catholic Church can veritably trace Her roots back to the Apostles and, thus, to Jesus Christ Himself.
Got questions? Address them to Joe@CantankerousCatholic.com.