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The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox | From The Hidden Stream: Mysteries of the Christian Faith

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When we have come to the conclusion that our Lord founded a Church, we have still to ask a further question, Which Church? That need not surprise or scandalize us; it's the good things in the world, not the bad things, that produce a crop of imitations--people imitate Keats, they don't imitate Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

This good wine that Christ has given us-it is only natural, in an imperfect world, that there should be some confusion about the labels. In order to keep our heads, when we start out to look for the true Church, we remember that in the Credo at Mass it is qualified by four distinguishing marks, "I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." Those four marks must be present in the body we are looking for. And this is worth observing; we must be content if we find that they are there at all, we must not expect, necessarily, to find them in an eminent degree. That is a common experience when you are dealing with definitions. The usual definition of Man is that he is a reasoning animal; he is Homo Sapiens. And that is true, you see, even of lunatics; they reason, in fact they often reason with great acuteness, like the mad don who thought the don underneath was trying to shoot him through the floor, and consequently always sat on the table until at last he grew to believe that he was a tea-pot. At the same time, when you reflect on this definition of man, and realize that sapience is his characteristic quality, it makes you examine your conscience a bit, and wonder whether, having matriculated at a University, you ought not to trying to become a little more sapient. And so it is, as I shall try to point out, with these four marks of the Church. They show us what it is, and at the same time they encourage us, our small way, to try and make it rather more so.

To prove that the Church is, and is meant to be, visibly one, is pretty easy going. You've only to read St Paul epistles to be struck by the enormous importance which attaches to the unity of the Church. It's quite true that will talk about the church at Corinth, say, and the church Thessalonica, but never with the smallest suggestion that they are two separate entities. No, it's just like talking about the air at Brighton and the air at Blackpool; the Church, for St Paul, is the atmosphere in which a Christian moves and has his being; even when some half-dozen slaves in some rich person's household had been converted to Christianity, St Paul used to speak of the Church in So-and-so's household. And heavens, how he is always going on and on at those early Christians, even then, about unity; telling them to be built up into one another, to grow up into a single body, and so on. For St Paul, the Church is at once something wholly united, and something wholly unique. The Bride of Christ, how could there be more than one Bride of Christ? The building of which Christ is the cornerstone; what more compact idea could you get of Christian fellowship? The Body of which Christ is the Head; how could there be more than one such Body, or how, outside the unity of that Body, can a man have a right to think of himself as united to Christ?

Of course, you may object that St Paul perhaps wasn't thinking of what we mean by the Church; he was thinking of the invisible Church, as it has sometimes been called-not a society of people distinguishable here and now by possessing a common faith and a common organization, but simply an ideal concept, the sum total of those souls whose names will, at last, be found written in the book of life. Only, you see, that won't do, because our Lord himself doesn't think of the Church in that way. The kingdom of heaven (which was his name for it is like a mixed crop, part of it wheat, part of it cockle, only to be separated at the final judgement; it is like a net cast into the sea, which brings up fish for the dinner-table and fish which are of no use to anybody, not to be separated till the net is brought in to land. The Church, then, as Christ himself envisaged it is a visible Church, rogues and honest men mixed; not all members of the Church are bound for heaven by any means.

And if you look round, today, for a visible Church which is visibly one, there is hardly any competition, is there? I mean, Christians who belong to other denominations don't even claim, as a rule, that their denomination is the Church. Church unity is something which existed in the early ages, which will, it is to be hoped, come into existence again later on; it doesn't exist here and now. Anybody who has reached the point of looking round to find a single, visible fellowship of human beings which claims to be the one Church of Christ, has got to become a Catholic or give up his search in despair.

At the same time, if you get arguing with non-Catholics about the unity of the Church, you will find they have a complaint to make about it. Isn't yours (they ask) rather a nominal kind of unity? Why did the German Catholics allow Hitler to invade Catholic Poland? Why do the Catholic Italians persecute the Catholic Jugo-Slavs? And so on--you know the kind of thing. Well, here we have to go back to the principle I was laying down just now; we said unity, not perfect unity. There have been times at which Pope and Antipope reigned side by side, dividing the sympathies of Europe. But even then, there was only one Church. Part of Christendom followed the true Pope; part of it in good faith, materially but not formally in schism, followed the Antipope. A man suffering from schizophrenia is still homo sapiens. A Church united in doctrine and in ecclesiastical theory is still one Church, although its energies are being dissipated in schism.

Meanwhile--this is the other side of the picture--we Catholics ought to be a jolly sight more careful than we are about unity. It's quite true we have got a central executive in Rome which can, at a pinch, dispose of any controversy; but that is such an awfully bad reason for spending our whole time running controversies among ourselves, nation against nation, one religious order against another, one set or clique of lay people against another, the whole time. I've never yet been able to understand what it is that leads Catholics to savage one another so fiercely, the moment there is any difference of opinion. That is something we can do something about.

But I mustn't go on about that; we must consider the second mark, the holiness of the Church. Here we are in a somewhat more embarrassing position when we start arguing with our friends outside the Church; they're so apt to expect rather too much, aren't they? The usual explanation the books give of this second mark is that "holiness" in the Church is proved partly by the continuance of miracles within her fold, and partly by the existence of the religious orders, with their special cult of perfection. The Church (we are told) has her ups and downs, her bad patches here and there, but we've still got Lourdes and we've still got Carmel. I've no quarrel with that explanation, but I think you can put the thing rather more simply in this way--Christians of any other denomination, if they describe that denomination as "holy" at all (which they very seldom do), are referring in fact to the individual holiness of its members. Whereas when we talk about the Holy Catholic Church we aren't thinking, precisely, of the holiness of its members. We think of the Church as sanctifying its members, rather than being sanctified by its members. Sanctity--what a hard thing it is to define! There is a kind of bouquet of mystery about Catholic ceremonial, there is a kind of familiarity about the attitude of Catholics towards death and what lies beyond death, there is a patient acceptance of little oddnesses and inconveniences about the practice of religion, which you don't find outside the Church itself, except perhaps among certain High Church people who have been at pains to imitate what is to us a natural attitude. That's all very vague, and I haven't time to analyze it more particularly; but I think the reason why atheists usually say, "If I was anything, I'd be a Catholic", is that there is a something about her; and that something is really her sanctity, a quality which belongs to the institution as such, not to you and me.

And that something is not affected, really, by all the mud-slinging which starts, among the more embittered kind of Protestants, the moment the sanctity of the Church is mentioned. Immoral popes and worldly bishops, and priests in odd parts of the world who aren't any better than they should be, and the massacre of St Bartholomew and a dozen other incidents which recall to us the dictum "Happy is the nation which has no history"--well, yes. All that we can admit, and regret, and refuse to extenuate, and still say, "Yes, I know, but I'd sooner be a Catholic than anything else, because I'm not much of a chap really, and somehow being a Catholic means feeling that you get something out of it, whereas being any other kind of Christian means feeling that you've got to put something into it." All that's true, and it's fine. But, mark you, the real reason why Catholic propaganda doesn't go down better than it does, is our individual unholiness. I don't so much mean the way Catholics are always appearing in the police-courts and so on; there's a lot to be said about that, and it's not all to our discredit. No, I mean rather our terrible second-rateness, our determination to get to heaven as cheaply as possible, the mechanical way in which we accept our religious duties, our habit of thinking about every problem of conduct in terms of sin and of hell, when we ought to be thinking much more about generosity in our treatment of God. "Nor knowest thou what argument thy life to thy neighbour's creed hath lent"--it isn't logic, but that's the real mark of the Church the world is looking out for, all the time.

And then, the Catholicity of the Church--there we feel on surer ground again. It's so obvious, on the one hand, that our Lord meant his Church to be an assembly of all the nations, in contradistinction to the old church of the Jews, which was simply the assembly of one nation; it doesn't need proving. And it's so obvious, on the other hand, that the Church which is in communion with Rome is a world-wide Church, does transcend merely local prejudices and merely local ways of thinking; that to be a Catholic does obliterate, instead of emphasizing, the sense of strangeness which you and I have when we meet a foreigner. Say what you will, the other Christianities are so hall-marked with their place of origin, reflect so perfectly a German, or an English, or an American outlook; even their virtues are so much the characteristic virtues of a particular and rather modern culture, that you can't think of their missionary influence, splendid as it often is, as a Catholicizing influence. Whatever else they dislike about us, men admire, and envy, our international ubiquity.

But don't let's forget that our critics have something to say on the other side. They complain that our Catholic culture, though on the face of it it is world-wide, is dominated by the influence of a particular group of nations. In the Middle Ages, Catholicism was at least pan-European. But now, if you lump together the Latin races, with Ireland and Poland, you can say roughly that these dominate Catholic culture; everywhere else the Church is represented by minorities. And there is a temper, they tell us, about Catholics which is just the opposite, somehow, of what we mean by the word Catholic. There's a jealous, a rather timorous attitude about Catholics which makes them look with suspicion on all ideas which haven't sprung from their own minds; there's a rather offensive tone of "Here's tae us, and wha's like us?" about a good deal of their literature; they're all, somehow, rather shut in. If the Church is Catholic in her geographical extension, is she really Catholic in the field of ideas?

Well, you'd want at least a whole conference to deal properly with that charge. There can be a lot of danger in the infiltration of ideas--the very word infiltration gives you, nowadays, the picture of sinister little men creeping through a jungle. I always remember the last of Dr Caird's famous lay sermons when I was at Balliol, and the terrific impressiveness, only possible to a Scot, with which he enunciated the words, "Remember, the man who shuts himself in shuts others out." I thought at the time, and still think, that that was a sort of parody of the Oxford Hegelian manner. Because, after all, what on earth do you mean by shutting yourself in, except that you are shutting other people out? But let us take his point, and let us admit for the sake of argument, at any rate, that the circle of the Church's ideas has been rather narrow, that its culture has been too much a specifically Latin culture, ever since the Reformation. That, if it is true, is not altogether our fault; ever since the Reformation, as Ward used to say, we have been in a state of siege; we have lived under a kind of martial law. If the Northern-European point of view is not sufficiently represented in the Church's councils, that is because the nations of Northern Europe, four hundred years ago, cut themselves off from the Church. It may be that as time goes on our Catholic culture--I do not say our Catholic faith, I only say our Catholic culture--will be further enriched by absorbing the thought of other nations; not necessarily European nations; we may have something to learn from Asia as well. But the point about the Church is that she has the power to assimilate, to digest, fresh ideas, instead of merely gulping them down; all her history makes us sure of that. And in that power of assimilation, she is Catholic.

Have we, as individual Catholics, a lesson to learn, here too? I hesitate to draw the moral, because as I say there are two sides to this question. And it may be urged that in England, and especially in Oxford, we Catholics are in danger of exchanging our ideas too much with the outside world, rather than too little. Let me only say this, for the benefit of anybody here who may need the warning; don't fall into the temptation of crabbing everything that's not Catholic.

Catholic and Apostolic--that is a kind of concealed paradox. This Church which is to be a world-Church, must therefore, you would think, have a breadth of outlook which enables it to enter into the mind of each nation, and interpret it to itself, is nevertheless Apostolic; it is committed to the doctrine handed down, centuries ago, by a set of working men in an obscure province of the Roman Empire. The notion of apostolicity is the faithful handing on of a message. Apostello, to send out, that is a key word of the New Testament; it occurs about 130 times in the course of it, quite apart from the frequent use of the word "apostle". As the Father hath sent me, even so I send you--that is the start of the whole thing. In the Old Testament, you find the prophets coming forward in obedience to an inward vocation from God. In the New Testament, it is not enough to be called; you must be sent; St Paul himself, a called man if ever there was one, was sent by the Church at Antioch when he began his travels. And that sending has been going on continuously through the ages; the Church has always had her own hierarchy of commissioned officials, following one another in unbroken succession. The other denominations may claim that their ministers are called; but who sent them? Always, if you examine their line of succession, there is a flaw in the title-deeds; a human agent has stepped in and interrupted, by his interference, the unbroken succession of sent men to whom our Lord made his promises.

Have our critics found a come-back, here too? Do they accuse us of not being apostolic enough? Well, they haven't the courage to say that we don't try to impress other people with our ideas; if anything, their complaint is rather the opposite. But they have managed to put us in our place, by slightly altering the meaning of the word "apostolic". A funny thing (they say) that you should boast of direct descent from a set of Galilean peasants, when you have your sailing orders given you by a man dressed in very expensive clothes, who talks to you down a golden telephone from one of the few really magnificent palaces left in the world. What bank balances your religious houses have! Is that apostolic? How consistently clerical influence in politics tells in favor of the right, rather than the left; is that apostolic? Well, as I say, they have taken a certain amount of liberty with the word. The word they really want is not so much apostolic as apostoloid. But we mustn't quarrel with them over niceties of language. I don't think we need waste much time in discussing clerical incomes. In some parts of the world, it may be the clergy do themselves too well; in others, they are miserably poor. In England, I think we strike a fair mean; we don't live too well, considering that we are bachelors. There is more substance, I should say, in the accusation that a clerical party in politics is usually a party of the right. There is a terrible lot to be said about that on both sides, and I have allowed myself exactly no time for dealing with it. Let me only say this; that it is a good rule in life not to show the weaknesses which people expect you to show--it makes them take more notice. We are suspected, we Catholics, of having too little sympathy for the poor, for the under-dog. It is important, I think, for Catholics, whatever their views, not to justify that impression, sometimes by living too luxuriously, sometimes by thinking too explosively.

One, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic; those have always been the marks of the true Church; always will be, whatever we do or don't do about it. But, if you and I are to be true samples by which the quality of our Church can be judged, we have to be lovers of unity, generous in our dealings with God, generous in our attitude towards men who do not agree with us, and, in such measure as circumstances and opportunities allow, apostoloid.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
The Mind of Knox | David Rooney
The School of Ronald Knox | An Interview with David Rooney
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester and it appeared that he, being both spiritually perceptive and intellectually gifted, would also have a successful life as an Anglican prelate. But while in school in the early 1900s Knox began a long struggle between his love for the Church of England and his growing attraction to the Catholic Church. He converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-nine, became a priest, and wrote numerous books on spiritual and literary topics, including The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes, The Hidden Stream: The Mysteries of the Christian Faith, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, and many more. For more on the life and work of Monsignor Knox, especially his apologetic endeavors, see Ronald Knox as Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed, by Fr. Milton Walsh, an expert on Knox. Also, visit Knox's IgnatiusInsight.com author page for further info.

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