Why belong to a church? The simple answer is because God has said you must. He became man and personally established an organized, visible Church to teach, rule, and make us holy with his authority. He did this because he was the way, the truth, and the life.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence or two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector. Truly, I say to you, Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:15-18). Therefore the Church is a body that can be appealed to and has the duty to cut off from membership those who are obstinately disobedient.
Christ called his apostles as his own special companions, to be always with him. He concentrated on their formation and conferred special powers on them to teach, rule, and make people holy. By making Peter head of the apostles he gave him central authority in the Church: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep, feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). He gave to Peter individually the authority he had given to the apostles as a body: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
In the Acts of the Apostles we find the Church as a clear-cut organization. It has officials, such as Matthias and Timothy, who were consecrated by the laying-on of hands–deacons, priests, and bishops. “If a man cannot rule his own household, how is he to rule the Church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:5). When the apostles met in council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Church was already a fully-constituted society intent on converting the world. It had disciplinary rules, officials, ceremonies, sacraments, and official teaching.
That same Church must be in the world today because Christ said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commended you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The Catholic Church alone of Christian bodies today corresponds exactly to the religion established by Jesus Christ. We can outline the argument this way:
1. The Catholic Church was founded by Christ personally. All other churches disappear as you go back through history. The Pentecostal churches, for examples, are nineteenth-century offshoots of the Holiness churches, which were offshoots of the Methodist Church, which was an offshoot of the Anglican Church, which was a sixteenth-century offshoot of the Catholic Church.
Christ said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). There are many claimants to the honor of being Christ’s Church, but only the Catholic Church claims to have been built on Peter, the chief of the apostles and the first bishop of Rome. No other church claims to have been built on Peter, which means no other church can be the one Christ established.
2.The Catholic Church has existed continuously, without essential change, since the time of Christ. This is a fact of history. The same authority summoned the first general councils as summoned Vatican II. (No one really disputes this.) All the saints of every age were members of the Catholic Church, honoring the pope as Christ’s visible representative on earth, worshiping God through the Mass and seven sacraments, and all believing the same teaching. Examine the findings of any two general councils in Christendom and you will find absolute agreement among them.
3. The Catholic Church is universal, in accordance with Christ’s command to go to all the world and teach all the nations. It was first called “Catholic” by Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred about the year 107. From Ignatius’s usage, the term seems to have been in vogue for some time, which means the Church was called the Catholic Church even while some witnesses to Christ’s life still lived.
For nineteen centuries the Church has united men who differ on almost everything. It has satisfied all their legitimate religious.aspirations, has overcome differences of color, race, and nation, has shown that its constitution can be adapted to any political regime (except one that is professedly anti-Christian), and has appealed to men of every age and ability. Today there are nearly one billion Catholics in the world. The word “Catholic” means that the Church believes, teaches, and professes the whole of divine revelation and is meant for all men of all times and places.
4. The Catholic Church demands that all its members admit the same doctrine. This is required by Christ. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Christ prayed that his Church always would remain united. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:20-24). This prayer of Christ could not go unheard. In it he appeals to his unity with his Father. He wants the Church to be united in the same way, and he wants that unity to be evidence of its divine foundation.
For nineteen centuries the Catholic Church has had unity in matters of belief, the use of the sacraments, and official worship as the principal means of grace and discipline and obedience under one supreme authority, the pope, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth. This unity, which is internal to the Church and implies that the Church never contradicts itself, exists even though some individual members of the Church dissent or are disobedient.
5. The Catholic Church exercises divine authority over its subjects, since Christ said that if a man would not hear the Church he would be as the heathen. The Catholic Church always has spoken with authority. The Church has direct authority over its members in spiritual matters (faith, morals, worship, discipline) and indirect authority over them in temporal matters connected with the spiritual. This power is principally vested in the pope and the college of bishops united with him, but is also exercised in various ways by such other agents as delegated officials and religious superiors.
Authority in the Church is service to the community of the People of God. Unity and universality would be impossible without authority. In Christ’s final commission to the Church, quoted above, the word “therefore” is important. Because Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, he sends out his apostles with like authority.
Paul speaks of God the Father as having made his Son, Jesus Christ, “head over all the Church, which is his body, and the fullness of him” (Eph. 1:22-23). This means the Church continues and completes Christ’s work.
When Christ was born, God the Son became flesh. The visible and invisible worlds were united, the human and the divine. The Church Christ founded is both visible and invisible. It is invisible in that its members live by the invisible life of divine grace, but it is a society of men and women and is therefore external and visible. Its members are united together in a way that can be seen. They are subject to an authority that can be seen, but through the sacraments they receive a new life, a sharing in God’s life, which cannot be seen.
Christ was not merely a sublime moral teacher. He taught men the truth and showed us that way of life, but he also founded a permanent organization to continue his work on earth. He gave that organization authority to teach in his name and to carry the grace which he merited to all men throughout the world until the end of time. That organization is the Catholic Church. Its head is Jesus Christ, who is represented on earth by the pope, who is the successor of Peter.
Before Christ came, men had caught only glimpses and shadows of God’s revelation through the prophets of the Old Testament. Christ is God. He founded a Church as a living voice to continue his task of proclaiming God’s revelation, of telling men the truths needed for salvation.
Christ did not found a number of different churches teaching men different things. He founded one Church as a way of salvation. As God he could not do anything imperfect. The Church must be the perfect way of salvation. It cannot lead men into error. So unity always has been a mark of the Church. “One body and one Spirit, as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5). A Church without unity cannot be the true Church of Christ.
Christ taught a doctrine of holiness. His Church must be a holy Church, teaching a holy doctrine, offering to men the means of being holy. The true fruits of the Church are the saints of every century. The fact that many Catholics are weak and sinful reminds us that Christ came to call not the just but sinners to repentance.
Christ made his Church Catholic or universal in time and in extent: in time, because he promised to be with it until the end of the world; in extent, because he sent his apostles to all nations. Great empires and kingdoms have come and gone, but the Church remains. It is the only universal society which has survived for two millennia. This combination of unity and universality is a moral miracle. It has no purely natural explanation and must be the fulfillment of Christ’s promise.