"It is plain that if the Church is to be an available guide to poor as well as rich, unlearned as well as learned, its notes and tokens must be very simple, obvious, and intelligible. They must not depend on education or be brought out by abstruse reasoning, but must at once affect the imagination and interest the feelings. They must bear with them a sort of internal evidence which supersedes further discussion and makes the truth self-evident."
—John Henry Cardinal Newman, Essays, I, note 4
Outside of the Catholic Church we find in the bosom of Christianity two great religious divisions claiming to be the true religion of Christ: heresy and schism. Heresy is a Christian sect which rejects one part of the Christian dogma formerly universally admitted and retains another part. Schism is the separating of a religious body from the central government formerly universally acknowledged and the constituting itself a special center and separate government.
We shall set forth the distinct marks or "notes" by which the true Church may be recognized among the various Christian communions and show that the Catholic Church possesses all these notes. . . . We call notes of the Church sensible and permanent characters proper to her by means of which the true Church may be readily and unerringly recognized by all men. . . .
All the notes of the Church are real properties and positive characters; yet we divide them according to their demonstrative value into positive and negative notes. The negative notes (if they can be called notes) are those the absence of which proves efficaciously that a society is not the Church of Christ but the presence of which does not itself prove the true Church. Let us cite for example certain notes generally mentioned by Protestants: perfect integrity of doctrine, loyalty of preachers, legitimate use of the sacraments, just and peaceful means of propagation. These characters are doubtless indispensable to the true Church; but while they may exist, at least in theory, for a time in a dissenting sect, they are as difficult to recognize as the Church itself. The positive notes have quite a different value; they belong exclusively to the true Church of Christ. Once we prove their existence in a religious society we are authorized to conclude that this society is the true Church.
Apologists differ in their enumeration of negative as well as positive notes. We shall speak only of the four positive notes generally admitted, and enumerated in the Creed of Nicea or Constantinople: unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity.
The Church is one in doctrine. Throughout the whole world we find the children of the Church chanting and professing the same creed, accepting the same precepts, the same sacrifice, the same sacraments. And if we go back to apostolic times we find the same identity of doctrine.
The Church moreover possesses a principle which necessarily sustains unity of belief: she professes as an essential dogma that all must accept every doctrine which she proclaims to be of faith, under pain, if they persist in error, of being ejected from her bosom.
It can never be proved that the Church of Rome has ever ceased to teach a single dogma contained in the apostolic writings, or that she has ever admitted a point of doctrine contrary to these writings. Never has she defined a truth without previously demonstrating that the apostles taught it either in writing or by word of mouth. The Council of Nicea, for example, did not create the dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ when, in refutation of the Arian heresy, it defined the consubstantiality of the Word, any more than the Council of Trent created the dogma of transubstantiation when it defined the Eucharist, in refutation of the Protestant doctrine of the Eucharist. On the contrary, it was only because these dogmas were always believed in the Church that the Councils could define them.
Thus in our own day the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin and the infallibility of the Roman pontiff have been declared articles of the Catholic faith. But they are not new articles added to its doctrine, they are simply ulterior developments of the doctrine revealed by Jesus Christ, and taught from the beginning of the Church; they are truths implicitly contained in the deposit of revelation, which were brought forward more prominently to confound the adversaries of the ancient faith and preserve the people from a pernicious error.
If dogma is immutable, like truth tself, this immutability does not exclude progress. Progress in the Church is only the development of principles laid down by Jesus Christ. Thus, for example, the Church has declared or defined in three successive Councils that there are in Jesus Christ one person, two natures, and two wills. These three definitions are only logical developments of one and the same truth, which under its primitive, its revealed form was known and taught at all times: Jesus Christ is at the same time true God and true man. . . .
The Church of Rome is one in her ministry; there is nothing more palpable or more readily recognized. Unity of faith, which we have just demonstrated, is maintained in the Church by a unique, invariable, and perfectly known ministry. The gentle but firm action of this ministry has its source at Rome, the center of government, whence it is conveyed by means of bishops and subordinate pastors to all parts of the world until it reaches the humblest members of the Church. The simple faithful are united to their immediate pastors, the latter are united to their bishops, the bishops are united with the pope, from which they hold their faculties. Thus is the most complicated multiplicity reduced to the most marvelous unity. Here again is a principle which sustains this unity: He who refuses to submit to the authority of the lawful pastors of the Church is excluded from her bosom.
History testifies that this unity, which we admire at the present day, has remained unbroken through all the Christian centuries. Disciplinary laws may vary with circumstances, for they are not a divine but an ecclesiastical institution. The authority which has established them has a right to abolish or modify them; in fact it must needs vary them according to the exigencies of the times. But the hierarchy, the ministry for the governing and the teaching of the faithful, is a divine institution. It comes from Jesus Christ, and consequently never varies. Let us observe in passing that the worship and ceremonial also may, for analogous reasons, undergo certain modifications in rites or accessory ceremonies, but it remains in all places and at all times the same in everything essential established by Christ.
Objection: At the period of the great schism of the West, from 1378 to 1417, there were two Popes reigning at the same time, Urban VI at Rome [and] Clement VII at Avignon. Among Christian nations some gave their allegiance to Urban, others to Clement. Did not this destroy for nearly half a century the Church’s unity of ministry or government?
Reply: It is true that during this time the material union of government was disturbed in the Church, but formal or essential unity never ceased to exist. There were not two legitimate popes anymore than there are at the present day; but various circumstances made it difficult to discern dearly the veritable supreme head of the Church and caused a deplorable division. The situation, which Catholics acknowledged was contrary to the will of God, was a source of great grief to them. Both sides sought the truth and never desisted until every doubt was dissipated, and the entire Church acknowledged Martin V, elected in 1417 by the Council of Constance.
Hence this schism, which is easily explained by an error in a question of facts, in no way weakens our thesis; it proves, on the contrary, the profound spirit of unity which animated the members of the entire Church. No one admitted the simultaneous existence of two lawful heads; all were convinced that there was, and that there could be, but one; but who this one head was remained for a time doubtful. Evidently one part of Christianity erred in their choice; hut they erred in good faith, and the obedience of both sides was conscientiously given.
The Church is holy in her final end, which is the sanctification and the salvation of the faithful. She is holy in the means she employs; in her dogmas which are attacked only because of their sublimity and because many of them transcend, as to their essence, the limit of human reason; in her moral teaching, to which even her adversaries pay homage, which proscribes all vices, inculcates all virtues, and culminates in the perfection of the evangelical counsels; in her sacraments, fruitful sources of grace and holiness; in her worship, the most spiritual which ever existed, the purest and freest from immoral or superstitious practices. She is holy, finally, in the members who faithfully follow her precepts; only those who refuse to conform to her teaching, and thus incur her condemnation, fail to witness to her sanctity.
It would be difficult to enumerate the legions of holy children which the Church has borne. Without mentioning Christian heroes of the first ages, where shall we find outside the Church any that can be compared to men like St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Teresa, and innumerable others? In addition to these saints of all ages placed upon her altars, who professed no other faith than that of the Church of Rome and whom she alone can claim, she has nourished in her bosom innumerable souls of no less solid virtue, whose sanctity, though hidden from the eyes of the world, equaled that of the canonized saints. And in our own day, in the midst of the corruption of the world, as many good works and deeds of virtue are performed under the influence of the same quickening spirit as in the preceding centuries. God has been pleased to proclaim at all times the eminent sanctity of the heroes of the Church by the most striking miracles—miracles which can be attributed only to divine intervention and which are confirmed by such irrefutable testimony that to question them is to annihilate history and refuse the testimony of reason.
For many centuries the examination of miracles has been reserved to the pope. We find in the capitularies of Charlemagne a prohibition against publishing any miracle before the sovereign pontiff has pronounced upon it. It is well known how carefully and severely miracles in cases of canonization are tested by the Congregation of Rites under the guidance of the supreme pontiff. And yet how many miracles have been authentically proved in the last centuries! For example, those of St. Francis Xavier, St. John de Cupertino, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales. The severe and learned Pope Benedict XIV, in the appendix to his great work on the canonization of the saints, relates the most striking miracles, among others those of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, St. Pius V, St. Andrew of Avellino, St. Felix of Cantalicio, St. Catharine of Bologna, etc. The work of the Bollandists, that gigantic monument to the glory of the saints, gives abundant proof of the continuity of this divine testimony in favor of the Catholic Church. We have already stated above the reason why miracles are not as numerous in the present day as in the first ages of the Church. We must bear in mind, moreover, that the miracles of the early ages, being supported by incontestable testimony, are quite as conclusive for us. They proclaim today, as they did then, the holiness of the Church in favor of which they were wrought; they demonstrate that God gives the most manifest approval to the virtues practiced in her bosom. Finally, the Church’s remarkable preservation and the marvelous results which she continually produces in the world are true miracles and become more and more striking as her age increases.
Our own century has not lacked the testimony of divine miracles. The most exacting critic has only to read the life of the venerable Cure of Ars and writers on Lourdes to recognize that the power of God still abides with his true children.
The Church of Rome is Catholic at all times and in all places: This is so manifest that she alone has always been designated by this glorious title, and no dissenting communion has ever dared to assume it. As early as the time of St. Augustine, the name Catholic designated exclusively the members of the Church of Rome, and at all times we have proclaimed Christian our name, Catholic our surname.
After she took possession of the world through the eight thousand men of every tongue and every nation converted by St. Peter, the Church never ceased to spread and to win new subjects. This we have already seen from our reflections on the rapid propagation of the Gospel throughout the world. At the end of the first century the Church had gone beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, and since that time her ascendancy over barbarism continually increased, recovering in one country what she lost in another, and ever finding reproduced in some part of the world the marvelous fruitfulness of her youth.
This marvelous universality is as strikingly manifested at the present day. Let us pass in review the most distant countries, the most obscure islands of the ocean, and we shall find Catholics everywhere, and we shall find not only that the Catholic Church is spread throughout all countries of the earth, but that she far exceeds in numbers each of the other Christian societies.
The doctrine of the Church goes back to the time of the apostles. Her doctrine of today is the same as that of the apostles. In speaking of the unity of doctrine in the Church we demonstrated a complete identity between the oldest creeds or professions of faith, the writings and decisions of the first ages and those of our time.
Protestants claim, it is true, that after the first centuries the Church of Rome created new dogmas; for example, that of the real presence, purgatory, and the invocation of the saints. We have replied to this objection. Moreover, such a statement is worthless unless proved. It is necessary to show when and how these dogmas were introduced into the Church; this our opponents have never done, and for a good reason. Meanwhile what is stated without proof the Church has a right to deny without proof, for she is in possession. She does not, however, lack proof: She has history to testify how zealously in the first ages popes and bishops opposed all doctrinal innovations. Hence they would have offered the same opposition to the introduction of the important dogmas contested by Protestants. They did not do so, for ecclesiastical history, so watchful in matters of this kind, is silent on this point. Perhaps it will be said that all the members of the Church, pastors and flocks in all parts of the world, agreed to admit without protest such numerous and grave innovations. In the first place, this hypothesis is absurd; in the second, the heretics of that period would not have failed to make themselves heard. Condemned as innovators by the Church, they would have seized the opportunity to reproach her with her own innovations.
In the language of theology tradition is the attestation of a fact, a dogma, a custom, not formally contained in the Holy Scriptures. If the attestation, made first by word of mouth, has been afterward consigned to the works of the Fathers or other historic documents which witness to their existence, it is called written tradition; otherwise it is oral tradition. Tradition of which we treat here, and which has its very source in the apostles themselves, is properly called apostolic tradition. But inasmuch as in matters of faith and morals they can have taught only what they received from the very mouth of Jesus Christ or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is also called with reason divine tradition.
Taken in this last sense the name tradition is applied by theologians sometimes to a collection of truths and precepts communicated first verbally by the apostles (thus we say the deposit of apostolic tradition); sometimes to the fact itself of the uninterrupted transmission of these truths or precept (thus we say such a point of dogma or morals is established by tradition); sometimes, finally, in a complex manner, to these same truths and precepts as transmitted from age to age, from the apostles to us: This is the sense in which we employ it here.
Among the truths attested by tradition alone, and which are not explicitly taught in Holy Scripture, let us cite as examples the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and the validity of baptism administered by heretics with the requisite form and matter.
There are three principal organs of tradition, that is, three means by which we may go back without fear of error to the apostolic source: They are the universal and constant belief of the Church, the sacred liturgy, and the ancient historic monuments, particularly the writings of the Fathers.
We shall not dwell any further on tradition, though it is of very great importance for the knowledge of revealed truth; here we have to establish the foundations of faith and to furnish proofs of the divine origin of the Church. Now to attain this end tradition, from a theological point of view as an infallible source of doctrine, does not offer many advantages. When we have recourse to it, it will be as to a historic testimony of incontestable value.
All history testifies to the fact that the sovereign pontiffs have come down in uninterrupted succession from Peter. The popes have always proclaimed themselves before the world the successors of the chief of the apostles and the inheritors of his supreme authority. The churches in subjection to the Church at Rome and forming one with her show a like series of lawful pastors who hold their mission from the apostolic see.
Objection: The legitimate succession of Roman pontiffs was interrupted several times by schisms and by the long sojourn of the popes at Avignon.
Reply: These facts in no way interrupt the legitimate succession of the supreme heads of the Catholic Church. During the schisms there was always but one legitimate pope, even though his authority may have been contested in good or bad faith by a part of the Church. If a province revolts against a prince, does he cease to be the lawful sovereign of this province which rightly or mistakenly disputes his authority? The sojourn of the popes at Avignon did not prevent their being bishops of Rome and, as such, heads of the entire Church. A prince who lives outside the capital of his government does not forfeit the sovereignty of his country.
The Catholic Church possesses, then, all the notes of the true Church; and as only one church was founded by Christ, this church must be the Church of Rome, whose mission is to lead man to eternal salvation.