The Church

What is meant by the “Church” ? Here we look at how the Catholic church sees itself, especially in relation to the other Churches within Christendom.
We also discuss the “Seven Precepts” of the church.

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cross What is the church ?

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome - Interior

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome – Interior

Note: The English word ‘Church’ derives from the Greek word kyriakon, meaning ‘Belonging to the Lord’. The biblical term for Church in the New Testament is ekklesia, meaning ‘Those who are called-out’.

In the Nicene creed we come across the phrase, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. We shall examine these four “marks of the true church” as they are known, as the Catholic Church sees them:

  1. The Church is One.The Catholic church believes it is the one true church, founded by Christ himself in 33 A.D., with the Pope as the visible head of the church on earth. (Recall the phrase ‘Vicar of Christ’, which we discussed in the Papacy section). Although externally the Christian church is divided along denominational lines, the unity of the Church is not lost. To quote again from Unitatis redintegratio :

    “…it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church…”

  2. The Church is Holy.

    “The Church is holy: the Most Holy God is her author; Christ, her bridegroom, gave himself up to make her holy; the Spirit of holiness gives her life…”

    Paragraph 867, CCC.

  3. The Church is Catholic.

    “The Church is catholic in a double sense:”

    “First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church. In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him the fullness of the means of salvation which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession….”

    “Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race..”

    Paragraphs 830-1, CCC.

  4. The Church is Apostolic.

    “The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways:

    – she was and remains built on the foundation of the Apostles, the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;
    – with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the good deposit, the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;
    – she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor.”

    Paragraph 857, CCC.

cross The Nicene Creed


Here is the full text of the Nicene creed which contains the four marks of the church. The creed is used in each Catholic Mass as a profession of faith.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

cross Organisation of the Catholic church


The Catholic church functions as one church, but is made up of 23 different churches, all in full communion with each other, but most importantly, all acknowledging the Pope as the supreme head of the church on Earth. The Western or “Latin” church is by far the largest of these churches, with well over 90% of all Catholics belonging to it. The Eastern Catholic churches have their own distinct liturgy and worship patterns and differences in disciplines such as a married priesthood for some of them.

The full list of Eastern Catholic Churches, locations in which they are found and estimated numbers is as follows:

  • Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church : Albania (3,845).
  • Armenian Catholic Church : Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Ukraine, France, Greece, Latin America, Argentina, Romania, United States, Canada, Eastern Europe (593,459).
  • Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church : Bulgaria (10,000).
  • Chaldean Catholic Church : Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, United States (490,371).
  • Coptic Catholic Church : Egypt (163,630).
  • Ethiopian Catholic Church : Ethopia, Eritrea (229,547).
  • Eparchy of Krizevci : Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro (58,915).
  • Greek Byzantine Catholic Church : Greece, Turkey (2,525).
  • Hungarian Greek Catholic Church : Hungary (290,000).
  • Italo-Albanian Catholic Church : Italy (61,847).
  • Maronite Church : Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Argentina, Brazil, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico (3,290,539).
  • Melkite Greek Catholic Church : Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Jerusalem, Brazil, United States, Canada, Mexico, Iraq, Egypt and Sudan, Kuwait, Australia, Venezuela, Argentina (1,614,604).
  • Romanian Greek-Catholic Church : Romania, United States (707,452).
  • Ruthenian Byzantine Church : United States, Ukraine, Czech Republic (646,243).
  • Slovak Byzantine Catholic Church : Slovak Republic, Canada (239,394).
  • Syriac Catholic Church : Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United States and Canada, Venezuela (158,818).
  • Syro-Malabar Church : India, United States (3,828,591).
  • Syro-Malankara Catholic Church : India, United States (420,081).
  • Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church : Ukraine, Poland, United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Scandinavia, France, Brazil, Argentina (5,350,735).
  • Other jurisdictions (147,600)

Source: CNEWA, 2010


Distribution of Catholic Population, 2010. Source:


The Catholic Church is built around the Pope and a college of Bishops. Some Bishops can attain the special rank of Cardinal and act as advisers to the Pope. The ‘College of Cardinals’ has, amongst other functions, the task of electing a new Pope in what is known as a conclave.


The Pope and his Bishops are seen as the successors of the apostles, with a divine mandate to guide all Catholics into the truth (John 17:3). This instruction of divine truth is carried out by the magisterium (Latin: ‘teacher’) of the church.

The Magisterium has different levels which are shown below.

Teacher:Level of magisterium:Degree of certitude:Assent required:
1. Pope ex cathedra Extraordinary (and universal) Infallible on matters of faith and moralsFull assent of faith
2. Bishops, in union with Pope, defining doctrine at General Council Extraordinary (and universal teaching of the Church) Infallible on matters of faith and moralsFull assent of faith
3. Bishops proposing definitively, dispersed, but in unison, in union with PopeOrdinary and universal teaching of the ChurchInfallible
4. Pope Ordinary Authoritative but non-infallible Religious submission of intellect and will
5. Bishops in communion with the Pope Ordinary Authoritative but non-infallible Religious submission of intellect and will
6. Theologians Magisterium cathedrae magistralis (according to Thomas Aquinas)Neither authoritative nor infallible Legitimate disagreements and dialectic (according to the long tradition of Quaestiones Disputatae)
7. PriestsNo magisterial authority

Source: Wikipedia

The church indicates that there is one source of divine revelation, but in two different parts:

  1. Sacred Scripture – The word of God in the Bible*
  2. Sacred Tradition – The word ‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin traditio, literally to ‘hand down’. Tradition (with a capital ‘T’) is not simply a way of doing things, it is that which has been handed down from the Apostles, with the authority of Christ himself.

* The Bible as used in the Catholic Church includes what the Church calls the ‘Deuterocanonical’ books, otherwise known as the Apocrypha (Greek:’Hidden things’). These are a series of books not included in the original Hebrew canon of the Old Testament but regarded as canonical by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. A summary of these books is given on the main Bible page.

To distinguish between true and false tradition, the maxim of St. Vincent of Lerins (d. c.450) is used: “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”

“In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

Paragraph 77, CCC.

Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium form what is called the ‘Three Legged Stool’ – a basis for Faith. Furthermore, according to the CCC, paragraph 82: “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

“…that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

1 Timothy 3:15 (DRB).

Following Vatican II, there are been a renewed emphasis within the church on bible study, not only by the clergy, but also by ordinary Catholics:

“The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)

Apart from doctrine, the church also has a mandate for a system of moral law. Thus the church makes pronouncements on issues such as abortion and divorce as part of the magisterial function that it possesses.

“The Church, ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’, has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth. To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”

Paragraph 2032, CCC.

The Catholic view on such issues as Abortion and Divorce is discussed on the Moral Issues page.

cross The Church Councils


At various points during its history, the church has held meetings of all its bishops to discuss matters of church doctrine and practice. The Catholic church recognises 21 such ecumenical councils, seven of which were held prior to the East-West schism of 1054 and are also recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Oriental Orthodox only accept the first three councils, following their rejection of the Chalcedonian creed.

These councils are:

  1. Nicea I (325) – Upheld the view that Christ was of one essence with the Father (thus repudiating Arianism) and adopted the first form of the Nicene creed.
  2. Constantinople I (381) – Revised the Nicene creed to the form now in use.
  3. Ephesus (431) – Affirmed Mary as Theotokos i.e. ‘Mother of God’, thus repudiating Nestorianism.
  4. Chalcedon (451) – Affirmed the doctrine of two natures in one person (the ‘hypostatic union’) in Christ and thus rejected the Monophysite doctrine of Eutyches.
  5. Constantinople II (553) – Affirmed the teachings of the previous councils.
  6. Constantinople III (680-1) – Repudiated the Monothelite heresy by stating the view that Christ has two wills – one human, the other divine.
  7. Nicea II (787) – Restored the veneration of icons following the iconclastic controversy.
  8. Constantinople IV (869-870) – Upheld the condemnation of Photius, patriach of Constantinople. Also confirmed the ranking of the Patriachates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
  9. Lateran I (1123-24) – Ended the issue of lay investiture i.e. lay rulers deciding on church appointments.
  10. Lateran II (1139) – Met to deal with the schism that had resulted from the election of Anacletus II (known as a Antipope). All actions made by him as Pope were declared invalid.
  11. Lateran III (1179) – Decreed that election of a pope was to be carried out by Cardinals.
  12. Lateran IV (1215) – Explained the dogma of transubstantiation, proclaimed Papal primacy.
  13. Lyons I (1245) – Met to discuss the Five wounds of the church :(1) the bad conduct of prelates and faithful; (2) the danger posed by the Saracens; (3) the Greek Schism; (4) the cruelties of the Tatars in Hungary; (5) the separation from the church of Emperor Frederick.
  14. Lyons II (1274) – Met to attempt reunion between Catholic and Orthodox churches.
  15. Vienne I (1311-12) – Following Philip IV, condemned the Knights Templar.
  16. Constance (1414-18) – Healed the schism over rival claimants to the papacy and conciliarism.
  17. Basel, Ferrara and Florence (1431-45) – Attempted again to effect reunion with the Orthodox churches.
  18. Lateran V (1512-17) – Attempted reform of the church.
  19. Trent (1545-63) – Responded to the Protestant reformation by clarifying doctrine. Issued a catechism and promulgated a new missal for celebration of the Mass.
  20. Vatican I (1869-70) – Proclaimed the dogma of Papal infallibility.
  21. Vatican II (1962-65) – Reformed the church: Mass in the vernacular, non-Catholic christians viewed as separated bretheren, mutual anathemas between Catholic and Orthodox churches lifted.

cross How does the Catholic church view other Christian churches ?


We mentioned above that one of the four marks of the church is unity. The Catholic church regards itself as the one true church, with an objective of gathering back all Christians into it. In Unitatis redintegratio, other Christians are viewed as ‘Separated Brethren’.

“…Catholics, in their ecumenical work, must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles…”

The Catechism indicates that through a common Baptism and belief in Christ, other Christians enter into communion with the Catholic church. In the case of the Orthodox church, the communion is seen as very deep.

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. Those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”

Paragraph 838, CCC.

With regard to Protestantism, Unitatis Redintegratio, while recognising the significant differences that remain, emphasises the unity found in Christ:

“Our thoughts turn first to those Christians who make open confession of Jesus Christ as God and Lord and as the sole Mediator between God and men, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are aware indeed that there exist considerable divergences from the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning Christ Himself, the Word of God made flesh, the work of redemption, and consequently, concerning the mystery and ministry of the Church, and the role of Mary in the plan of salvation. But we rejoice to see that our separated brethren look to Christ as the source and center of Church unity. Their longing for union with Christ inspires them to seek an ever closer unity, and also to bear witness to their faith among the peoples of the earth.”

“The goal of full unity may seem distant indeed, it remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way. I find a source of encouragement in the plea of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism that we should advance in our relationship and cooperation by placing no obstacle to the ways of divine providence and by not prejudicing future promptings of the Holy Spirit (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 24). Our progress towards full communion will not be the fruit of human actions alone, but a free gift of God. The Holy Spirit gives us the strength not to grow disheartened and he invites us to trust fully in the power of his works.”

Pope Francis to the Archbishop of Canterbury
Monday, 16 June 2014.

The Catholic church also participates in the activities of the World Council of Churches, though at present it does not have full membership of that body.

“…though we believe they [non-Catholic Christian churches] suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation.”

– Dominus Iesus, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI, signed by Saint John Paul II, 2000.

cross What is the position of the Catholic church on non-Christian religions ?


In 1965, at the Vatican II council, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Nostra Aetate, (Latin: ‘In our time’). This addresses the issue of non-Christian religions, with specific references to Islam and Judaism. Part of the encyclical emphasises the necessity of respect and kindness toward those who are not Christians. The full text is available at the Vatican web site.

“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8)…

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion…”

The Catechism indicates the possibility of salvation for those who sincerely seek God, but through no fault of their own, have not been made aware of Christian belief.

“…Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation…”

Paragraph 847, CCC.

cross Precepts of the Church


All Catholics are expected to obey what is known as the Seven Precepts of the Church. These are regarded as the minimum requirements of a person who would be regarded as a practising Catholic.

  1. To attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and resting from servile works.
  2. To observe the days of abstinence and fasting.
  3. To confess sins to a priest, at least once a year.
  4. To receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist at least once a year during Easter Season.
  5. To contribute to the support of the Church.
  6. To obey the laws of the Church concerning Matrimony.
  7. To participate in the Church’s mission of Evangelisation of Souls
    (The Missionary Spirit of the Church).

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) developed the idea of ‘Thinking with the church’ (Sentire Cum Ecclesia) in his Spiritual Exercises :

“Always to be ready to obey with mind and heart, setting aside all judgement of one’s own, the true spouse of Jesus Christ, our holy mother, our infallible and orthodox mistress, the Catholic Church, whose authority is exercised over us by the hierarchy.”

Ignatius of Loyola, Rules for Thinking with the Church

cross Wise words:

“Christ is the head of the body, the Church. He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, in everything he [is] preeminent, especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things.”

(Paragraph 792, CCC)

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