Marks of the Church
MARKS OF THE CHURCH
The problem of the scientific demonstration of the Catholic Church—or, concretely, the verification of the claims of the Catholic communion to be in total conformity with the intentions of Christ, founder of the Church—was raised, in principle, as soon as the schisms that the Apostle had announced appeared among the followers of Our Lord. Arguments and signs were proposed haphazardly according to circumstances. It was only in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Western Christianity was torn asunder, that the treatise De ecclesia was truly constituted and with it the three classical viae that should lead to Catholicism and that later received the names via notarum, via historica, via empirica [see C. Walter, Tentamen historicum circa notas verae ecclesiae (Würzburg 1792); G. Thils, Les Notes de l'église dans l'apologétique catholique depuis la réforme (Gembloux, Belgium 1937)].
Name, Number, Grouping. These marks were almost indiscriminately called notae, argumenta, signa, proprietates, conditiones, caracteres, insignia, criteria, praerogativae (Thils, 2–8). The names, however, became more precise in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, when apologetics in two stages was introduced— De vera religione for unbelievers and then De ecclesia for separated Christians—the term sign was generally reserved for the first treatise, whereas for the De ecclesia, the term notes, or marks, was preferred. On the other hand, the term property was reserved, preferably, for essential qualities such as visibility, infallibility, and indefectibility.
The number of these marks has varied. The apologists of the 16th century proposed 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, and even 100. In this varying number four groups can be discerned: the scriptural group, composed of the marks mentioned in the inspired writings—indefectibility, infallibility, visibility, holiness, unity, and miracles; the Augustinian group, taken from an enumeration by St. Augustine—perfect wisdom, general accord in faith, miracles, pastoral succession, and even the name Catholic (C. epist. fund. 4; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 25.1:196); the Lerinian group—namely, universality, antiquity, and universal accord—which was inspired by the quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus of Vincent of Lerins (Commonit. 2; Enchiridion patristicum, 2168); and, last, the creedal group, taken from the ninth article of the Creed of Constantinople— unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Since the 17th century the marks have been stabilized in this group to form the four marks of the Church (Thils, 97–120).
Marks as Proof. The argument based on the marks can be summarized as follows. Christ endowed His Church with certain features that should permit it to be recognized among all Christian communions. But these characteristics are to be found in the Roman Catholic Church; therefore, it is the true Church. The major premise of this reasoning has never varied, although the manner—dogmatic or rational—of understanding it has at times caused some confusion. On the contrary, the minor premise has been presented by turns under three forms:(1) positive and absolute, when the polemicist affirms without restrictions that the Catholic Church, and it alone, possesses the characteristics or marks of the true Church; (2) negative and also absolute, when one limits himself to denying them to non-Roman communions; and (3) comparative, when, more circumspectly, the apologists declare that the marks are verified in the Catholic Church in a superior manner, that is, more perfectly than in other Christian communions.
Recognizing the type of argumentation used in the via notarum is of great importance to its understanding. One can emphasize the four marks—unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity—as an argument from Scripture or the Fathers, thus giving it a dogmatic value. One can also emphasize these same four marks for their intrinsic value, for the probative force they have either from their very nature or as evidencing a moral miracle; in this case, the argumentation belongs to the rational type. The preparation of a dogmatic argument differs considerably from the preparation of a rational argument, even when the matter of the argument is the same.
In the case here the following evolution is evident. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the argumentation of the polemicists belonged to the dogmatic type. In the 18th century, because of the rationalist spirit and of even unbelief in many spheres, the argumentation became rational. Catholic unity, it was said in the 18th century, natura sua, in itself, by its intrinsic value, is an argument for the true Church. At the end of the 19th century, after Vatican Council I and the constitution Dei Filius ("Quin etiam ecclesia per se ipsa, ob suam … magnum quoddam et perpetuum est motivum credibilitatis"—H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 3013), it was argued as follows: Catholic unity, as a moral miracle, shows where the true Church is. There are always the four marks, but the argumentation is different; it belongs to the rational type, to the via empirica, and no longer to the dogmatic, to the former via notarum. The material is the same; the marks, therefore, are not called into question, but the method and type of argumentation has changed.
Marks as Dynamic. In the second half of the 20th century the most important advance in understanding the marks of the Church was to emphasize the marks as those signs of the apostolic witness which, imperfectly realized as they are in any given moment of history, provide the Church with a starting place as it makes its way through time towards full eschatological realization in Christ. Thus, theologians put much stronger emphasis on the need to become more catholic (i. e., universal) rather than on the de facto universality of the Church measured by some numerical or statistical calculus. In that reading of catholicity, the emphasis is not on the present of universality of the Church but in its as yet unfilled task "which speaks all tongues, which lovingly understands and accepts all tongues and thus overcomes the divisiveness of Babel" (Ad gentes, n. 4). Likewise, in a similar fashion, the Church strives for that greater unity which Christ demands of the Church, just as it seeks to be ever more faithful to the apostolic witness on which is based while pursuing that holiness which will be fully realized only in the eschaton. Needless to say, the notion of unity pertains not only to the inner life of the Roman Catholic Church but to the wider communion of all Christian churches.
Marks as Realizable. The emphasis on the marks of the Church as realizable rather than as fully realized does not mean that the Church as it now exists is devoid of the characteristics of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. The creedal affirmations in the liturgy both announce what the Church is and what it hopes to be. Recent ecclesiologists have focused on the marks in the local church where the Church is historically realized in the concrete. It is only in the lived experience of the worshiping community that the abstract notion of unity or holiness becomes experienced and valued. In that sense the marks of the Church exist in a dialectical fashion touching both the local and universal Church. It must be underscored, then, that the local church must, like the universal Church, be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
When in the creed we affirm our belief that the Church is one holy, catholic, and apostolic we are implicitly affirming three things: a belief that we hold about the nature of both the local worshipping community and the Great Church; an aspiration of what we would like the Church to be; and an act of faith that the spirit dwells within the Church and can make such an aspiration a reality.
See Also: unity of faith; miracle, moral; miracle, moral (the church); miracles (theology of); church, articles on.
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