A New Apologetical Study of The Church

" One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic "

By Kenneth D. Whitehead
Ignatius Press (334 pp.; $14.95) 1/800-651-1531


In this excellent work of Apologetics well known Catholic author Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and a Director of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, has turned his attention to demonstrating convincingly that the Church described in the pages of the New Testament and by historians of the "Early Church" is identical with the Catholic Church of today. He writes:

The visible body that today bears the name 'the Catholic Church' is the same Church that Christ established to perpetuate in the world His words and His works - and His own Divine Life - and to bring salvation and sanctification to mankind. Despite superficial differences in certain appearances -and just as an adult differs from a child in some appearances but still remains the same person- the world-wide Catholic Church today remains the Church that was founded upon Peter and the other Apostles in the first century in the Near East. The early Church was-always-nothing else but the Catholic Church... The early Church has not disappeared - She exists now!
(page 12)

With meticulous care he examines the historical evidence provided in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (and in the writings of the post-New Testament writers) regarding the nature of the Church Christ established. By the year 100 AD that "early Church" (founded on the Apostles) was clearly a visible and organized group of believers led by bishops, priests, and deacons. It was not only hierarchical in structure but it, moreover, taught a definite Creed and whose worship was characterized by specific liturgical and sacramental rites. "There was nothing in the least vague or ill-defined about what kind of organized, visible, hierarchical community the early Church was from the very beginning" (page 32).

Our author's research reinforces the classic refutation by Catholic theologians of the basic pretensions of Protestantism:

  1. that the Church established by Christ is not to be identified with any visible society or institution in this world;
  2. and the hierarchical, liturgical, sacramental, and doctrinal characteristics easily seen as existing in the 'early Church" represented "corruptions" of Christ's teachings.

To the contrary, the historical evidence contained in the writings of such witnesses as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (not to mention the later Fathers of the Church) amply illustrate that the "early Church" never consisted of "independent, self-selected, and self-governing congregations" but rather constituted a communion of local churches linked together in one single Body of Christ by an apostolic succession of Bishops joined to their leader and head, the Bishop of Rome.

In his very important Chapter 4 dealing with "The Primacy of Rome in the Early Church," Mr. Whitehead thoroughly investigates the import of patristic and Conciliar testimony found in the first centuries and which reveals the undeniable preeminence of the Bishop of Rome in the hierarchical structure of the Church. This Primacy of the Successor of Peter entailed the exercise of a real universal authority over Bishops in both East and West.

That authority would be inexplicable without reference to Christ's having founded a Church in which His Chief Apostle would have a primacy of jurisdiction in order to safeguard the visible Unity of the Church. Thus, the history of the Church in the first five centuries already presents a vivid and unmistakable portrait of the Church that "resembles in all essentials the Catholic Church of today." The historical record is also convincing in showing the doctrinal continuity and organic institutional identity of the present Catholic Church with the Church that was professed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD to be "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic." Our author writes that Vatican II simply echoed the tradition of 20 centuries when it declared:

This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, which Our Saviour, after His resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care (Jn.21:17), commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule it (cf. Matt. 28:18, etc.), and which He raised up for all ages as the 'pillar and mainstay of the truth' (I Tim. 3:15).
(Lumen Gentium, 8)

This reviewer would add that "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" similarly echoes that same tradition when it declares that Christ has bestowed His visible Church with certain attributes or properties: "It is Christ, who through the Holy Spirit, makes His Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and it is He who calls her to realize each of these qualities" (CCC, #811). It needs to be pointed out, however, that such properties or attributes of the Church as oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are primarily hidden and invisible qualities which manifest the Mysterious Presence of its Lord in His Body (the Church) which, as an absolutely unique work of the God-man, is more than a purely human institution. As the CCC again observes "only faith can recognize that the Church possesses these properties from Her divine source" (#812). It is when these invisible properties and attributes of the visible Church Christ founded also manifest themselves as "visible marks or notes" that they serve to distinguish in every age the one true Church from any other Christian body.

As the CCC observes:

"[These properties'] historical manifestations are signs that also speak to human reason. As the First Vatican Council noted, the Church itself, with Her marvellous propagation, eminent holiness, and inexhaustible fruitfulness in everything good, Her Catholic unity and invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable witness of Her divine mission"

It should be apparent that with regards to visible marks of the Church, it is the One Church founded by Christ as an organized society in this world that is simultaneously Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. As the CCC further observes, these four characteristics "are inseparably linked with each other" (CCC #811).

Any recourse by Catholic apologists to the visible marks of the Church obviously presupposes the visibility of the Church as a unique and distinct society of believers. There is no question, moreover, that the traditional four marks of the Church must be present in the true Church and that they serve to identify the true Church from any other Christian body.

Mr. Whitehead makes excellent use of the "Via Historica" which Catholic theologians have relied on to demonstrate the identity of the present Catholic Church with the "primitive Church." However, his treatment of the four marks or notes of the Church (the "Via Notarum") needs further refinement. It is not necessary, as some Catholic apologists do, to attempt to utilize the four marks of the Church against any Protestant claimant by engaging in a scholarly comparison of the Catholic Church with that Protestant ecclesial community. These four marks, properly understood, were rather intended to show that "the Church 'MUST BE A VISIBLY EXISTING SOCIETY' perpetuated in its concrete identity across the centuries".

Since the Church is one single perduring visible society of believers, each and every Protestant community or confession is consequently absolutely excluded from being the "true Church." This results from the fact that Protestants do not believe that Christ founded His Church as a single visible society at all, and do not accept that it is indefectible in its doctrine and hierarchical structure. For them "the true Church" is an invisible body made up of the elect, the predestined, or those in sanctifying grace. One may recall the repeated affirmations of the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, and sincerely regret that it does not at present exist." The truth is that any claim by a Protestant body (or by Protestants in general) to be the "true Church" is invalidated by the irrational denial of the Church's perpetual visibility and is further nullified by the historical fact that no Protestant community with its doctrinal negations even existed before the 16th century.

That there is some difficulty in the application of the "Via Notae" to the Eastern Orthodox churches has been acknowledged by leading Catholic theologians. In fact, treatment of the four traditional notes in most ecclesiology texts vis-a-vis the separated Byzantine Greco-Slav churches has been inadequate. Unlike Protestants, Eastern Orthodox writers agree (with Catholics) that the Church was indeed founded by Christ as one visible body, but, interestingly, claim the four marks of the Church for their own episcopal communion of 16 autocephalous and self-governing churches. They argue - and not without some plausibility - that the Eastern Orthodox communion can claim a certain oneness in faith, holiness of life, catholicity in doctrine, and apostolic continuity with the ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The failure of the First Council of Constantinople to define officially the exact meaning of "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic" has allowed Orthodox polemicists to attempt to define the four marks of the Church in their own way. Use of the four marks of the Church (if their meaning remain arbitrary or indeterminate) will not convince the ordinary Eastern Orthodox dissident of the Catholic claim to constitute the true Church.

Ordinary folk are not capable of scholarly historical research or ransacking the writings of the Fathers or comparing Catholic with Orthodox saints, or puzzling over the sometimes confusing scholastic distinctions and divisions concerning the marks made by Catholic theologians. Yet there remains common ground. Both Catholics and Orthodox agree that finding the true Church of Jesus Christ must be intrinsically easy. There must be a less difficult way to determine which of these two communions of Bishops claiming totality of fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition of the Fathers, is, in fact, identical with the early Church.

The "Via Notae" can indeed be made efficacious with regards to Eastern Orthodoxy by showing with the aid of the Fathers of the Church that the Catholic Church alone possesses - in their fullness - all four distinguishing visible marks of Unity, Holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity. But there is a simpler method by which to convince Eastern Orthodox of the truth of the Catholic Church. The historical material collected by Mr., Whitehead evidencing the Primacy of the Roman Church in the Universal Church amply shows that the visible marks of Unity, Catholicity, and Apostolicity of the Church are, in fact, intrinsically linked to that Roman Primacy and cannot be separated from their connection with the supremacy of the Successor of Peter as visible head and Primate of the entire Episcopate. In other words, even were Eastern Orthodox to contest with some intellectual agility the specific definition of the marks of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity used to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, there yet remains an infallible criterion to identify the "one Body of Christ" from any communion possessing an apostolic succession of validly ordained Bishops (whether Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite, Iconoclast, in our day the Eastern Orthodox).

That easily-seen criterion (and visible mark) of the true Church which can satisfy the intellectual demands of the most erudite and the most simple is communion with the See of Rome (that "supreme Apostolic throne" acclaimed by the ancients as "head of all the churches of God"). The conclusion is inescapable: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is easily discoverable as that group of Bishops who are in communion with the visible head of the Church, the Successor of Peter. The Visible Unity of the Church (its Oneness) is made manifest by the Catholic Episcopate's adherence to the Roman Church, their visible head and center of unity. It is this possession of an indestructible visible center of unity in the Papacy which results, moreover, in the Catholic Church's remaining the "undivided Church" commissioned in every age to "teach all nations".

In dealing with the faithful of the Eastern Orthodox and other separated Eastern churches, it is, therefore, employment of the method known as the "Via Primatus" which proves to be best calculated to demonstrate to them where the true Church of Jesus Christ is. Simply put, the true Church is identified by its adherence to its visible head. The Roman Primacy as founded by Christ in Peter and continued in his successors, the Bishops of Rome, serves as a visible mark that all and sundry can discern. Pope Pius XII was acutely perceptive when he declared in his magnificent encyclical "Mystici Corporis" that:

"Those who would remove the visible head of the Church and break the bonds of visible unity, obscure and deform the Mystical body of the Bridegroom, so that it cannot be seen or recognized by men who seek the port of eternal salvation".

The words of St. Ambrose are as true today as ever: "Where Peter is, there is the Church." Should the Byzantine Greco-Slav dissidents balk at the manner in which the four traditional marks are read and used by Catholic theologians and yet admit their own difficulty in applying them to their own communion, they are left with no visible mark whatsoever that can plainly and easily identify their hierarchical communion as the "true Church." Their claims of total fidelity to the teaching of the first seven Ecumenical Councils or to the exclusive preservation of the orthodox "deposit of faith" cannot be easily tested by most people and do not constitute visible marks at all. What is needed to settle the ecclesiological conflict between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is an indisputable visible mark which will assure an easy and infallible means of discovering the true hierarchical Church of Jesus Christ. This visible mark of the Church is provided by the Roman Primacy that is an essential aspect of the Church's visible structure.

Some final comments: though our author refers fittingly (page 257) to Pope Damasus' Synod of 382 AD, it is unfortunate that he did not give the full text of the Synod's powerful testimony to the Roman Primacy. It seems excessive to state baldly that Origen "specifically argued against the use of Matt. 16:18-19 to justify the Roman primacy" (page 166) or to declare "Cyprian/s theory [was] that the pope did not enjoy full primacy in the Church" (page 193). Mr. Whitehead is not alone in believing that Tertullian's reference to a "Pontifex Maximus" (page 163) was a sarcastic reference to Pope Callistus (217-222 AD) but such eminent scholars as G. Esser, Karl Adam, G. Bardy, and P.Galtier think Tertullian had in mind Agrippinus, the Bishop of Carthage.

In Appendix I to his excellent study, Mr. Whitehead argues correctly that Catholics should beware of using the term "Roman Catholic" as the proper name for the Church, "because of its dubious origins in Anglican circles." Today some continue to suggest that there are also other kinds of Catholics (Anglican and Greek) and that the "Roman Catholic Church" is but part of some larger "Catholic Church." Various Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and contemporary dissenters obstinately refuse to identify the Catholic Church in communion with Rome as the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church" of the Creed. As he emphasizes, "the proper name of the Church is 'the Catholic Church"'. There is ONE – and ONLY ONE – social entity in this world that is everywhere acknowledged by friends and enemies to legitimately bear the name of "Catholic" and that is the world-wide Church united to the Apostolic See of Rome.

Mr. Whitehead's latest work in Apologetics will be welcomed by every priest and layman seeking a splendidly reasoned volume defending the "Catholic Faith that comes to us from the Apostles."

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage