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What the Catholic Church Is Not, in Four Words

November 19, 2021


In my discernment that ultimately led to coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, one of my biggest challenges was figuring out just what the Church is. For years as a Protestant, every Sunday I rattled off the same formula that Catholics do: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” I ultimately found some clarity in Lumen Gentium about what these four marks of the Church mean. And I heartily commend paragraphs 811-870 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with Bishop Barron’s chapter “The Church” in his recent book Light from Light.

But you may find you need to approach the issue a little differently.  

Ecclesiology—that is, the study of the Church—is a particularly slippery subject for unchurched people, as well as for Protestants of most varieties that know little else than a blend of congregationalism and private judgment. In my own case, I needed to wrestle with what the Church is not as much as with what the Church is. As a help to non-Catholics discerning life in the Church, as well as to Catholics looking to go deeper, I offer here four negative characteristics—a binary for each true mark of the Church—to help clarify misperceptions.

The Catholic Church is not:

  1. A denomination (contrast with “one”). It came as a shock to me when I finally realized that the Catholic Church is not divided, nor is it an idea that lies purely beyond this world. There is no real or true Church hiding in antiquity or waiting to be discovered at the end of centuries of theological disagreements. As St. John Henry Newman said in various ways, the Catholic Church of today, tomorrow, and forever is the same Catholic Church of every century past, born on the day of Pentecost. Catholics do believe, however, that non-Catholic Christians relate to the Catholic Church in various degrees of separation. The Eastern Orthodox Churches possess real sacraments and real bonds of communion with us, leading Pope St. John Paul II to say in Ut Unum Sint, “The Church must breathe with her two lungs!” Anglicans and other Protestants maintain partial communion with the one Church by virtue of our common baptism, and Catholics should pray that all disciples of Christ will continue to hear the call to full unity in the ministry of the great bridge-builder (Pontifex Maximus), the pope.
  2. A club (contrast with “holy”). Even devout Catholics sometimes fall into the trap of speaking the world’s language of non-dogmatic humanitarianism, or to speak of our faith as a preference among other options. The Catholic Church is not just a place to organize good works among like-minded people, but the place where the fullest expression of heavenly charity is found on earth. Catholic social teaching is, therefore, not just the unique, comprehensive system Catholics apply to difficult issues, but rather the description of a life and a world governed by the Beatitudes. Bishop Barron has spoken of the need for Catholics to take the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness” seriously by expecting even lay people to live lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Lord does not call us together in the Church for personal fulfillment that costs a percentage of our disposable income and an hour of our weekend. If, therefore, we don’t feel as if we entirely belong in the Catholic Church, that’s okay! Would the Body of Christ be a divine institution if it conformed to our expectations? Would there be any point to the Church if it was not able to sanctify everyone in it as well as call the world outside it to radical repentance and renewal?
  3. An ideology (contrast with “catholic”). Did you know that the word “Catholicism” is not in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Life with Christ cannot be just another -ism, even if it’s the best one. The Church does not just prescribe a set of religious observances; rather, our religion accords with the natural law and the revelation of God in Christ. Catholics live in the one reality that the Church’s dogma happens to describe. As Henri De Lubac said in the opening paragraph of his book Catholicism, “The unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, a supernatural unity, supposes a previous natural unity, the unity of the human race.” C.S. Lewis, not himself a Catholic, expressed this well in his book The Screwtape Letters when he described how the notion of “Christianity and . . .” is a tool of the Enemy. The word catholic comes from the Greek “kata holos,” which does not mean “universal,” but rather, “pertaining to the entirety.” Being Catholic is the whole enchilada—everything: whole minds, whole hearts, whole individuals, whole communities, the whole world.
  4. A feeling (contrast with “apostolic”). Christianity is embodied and public. Our faith can never be relegated to a private sphere, because followers of Jesus proclaim him as Lord in place of Caesars and presidents. Our Lord chose his Apostles to proclaim his reign and make new citizens of his kingdom, not to pass on esoteric wisdom or provide spiritual experiences to those who are into that sort of thing. Jesus commanded Baptism and teaching, empowering specific people and using every bit of their blood, sweat, and tears before they anointed their successors on down to the present. As Fulton Sheen notes, “An electric wire that is fifteen hundred or two thousand miles away from a dynamo cannot communicate current. Any authority to act in Christ’s name must needs be given by Christ himself and then passed on through the centuries by those who immediately received it.” To be Catholic is to recognize in the pope and all the other bishops of the Church the unique authority given to St. Peter and the biblical Apostles that still binds and looses today.

The next time you profess the Nicene Creed, think about the depth of the words pertaining to the Church. And then maybe help the non-Christians and non-Catholics in your life think about what we actually believe.

Photo of Christ the King Parish, Dallas, Texas.