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(LifeSiteNews) – No honest observer can doubt that today the Catholic Church is in crisis. 

Those who appear to hold the highest offices in the Church are promoting gravely sinful lifestyles and spreading doctrines that faithful Catholics recognize as incompatible with the faith. 

Heartbroken Catholics are asking: what is going on? How can this be explained? Have Christ’s promises to the Church failed? Is there a solution? What can be done? 

At present it may seem that there are few answers. Many voices are raised, and many different solutions are proposed. But how do we know which to follow, and how can we assess which voices are trustworthy? 

One thing is certain: the right answers to these questions will come from no other source than the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church as formulated by her infallible magisterium, and explained by the consensus of her faithful theologians, whose labor spans 20 centuries.   

In this new series LifeSiteNews will present five papers exploring issues of crucial importance for understanding this crisis and how to present it. We will learn about how the Church understands her own nature, and we will see how, despite everything, she remains the one visible ark of salvation.    

The paper below discusses the Church’s perpetual visibility and its relationship to the question “who is a member of the Catholic Church?” 

The Catholic Church is necessary for salvation  

The Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord for the salvation of mankind.  

The redemption of mankind was “personally wrought by Our Lord for all time” when “He offered Himself on the Cross for our redemption and therefore merited for us every grace.”1 However, “the merits of Christ’s suffering and death must be applied to individual souls through all the centuries.”2 

As Our Lord was not to remain personally present on the earth in his resurrected body, but rather to ascend into heaven, “the Church was established to perpetuate the work of Redemption by applying it to the souls of men. In a word, the Church was instituted to save all men.”3 

The Catholic Church is “the only means established by Christ to teach His doctrines, to inculcate His moral precepts, to administer the Sacraments, and to regulate and direct divine worship.”4 Therefore, “no one can practice the Christian religion otherwise than as Christ Himself has ordained; whoever would be His disciple and embrace His religion must submit to the authority of His Church, be taught and ruled by it, and receive through it all the means of salvation.”5 

The Catholic Church is necessary for salvation. This necessity is twofold; it is a necessity of precept and a necessity of means.6 Membership of the Church is a necessity of precept, because God has commanded it. Membership of the Church is a necessity of means, because only the Catholic Church has the means of salvation, namely true doctrine, true sacraments, and the apostolic hierarchy with the power to teach and sanctify.  

Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation:  

“It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic, Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter will perish in the flood.”7  

A necessary Church must be recognizable to all 

If the Church is necessary for salvation, and if her mission is the salvation of the whole human race, she must be easily recognizable by all people of good will. 

Aelred Graham O.S.B. expressed this doctrine well: 

“Just as all men of good will who came into contact with Our Lord were able to know him for what he was, the Son of the living God, so it must be equally possible for them to recognize his Church as a divine institution. For the claims of the Church upon the world’s attention are no less imperative than those of Christ himself. Indeed, it is the Church’s boast that she is, in her very constitution, ‘a perpetual motive of credibility and unassailable witness to her own divine mission.’ [Vatican Council I]. Whence it follows that she must be a society visible to all as an unmistakable concrete fact.”8 

 The imperative claims of the Church were made clear by Our Lord:  

“All authority in heaven and on earth, he said, has been given to me; you, therefore, must go out, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all the commandments which I have given you. And behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:18-20)


“Go out all over the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation; he who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who refuses belief will be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)  

If the means of salvation are to be found only in the Catholic Church – and if all who do not believe are to be condemned – then it must be reasonably easy for all men and women, in all places and at all times, to identify the Church. If this were not so Our Lord would have laid on our shoulders a burden too heavy to bear, yet he has assured us of the contrary:  

“At that time Jesus said openly, Father, who art Lord of heaven and earth, I give thee praise that thou hast hidden all this from the wise and the prudent, and revealed it to little children.  Be it so, Father, since this finds favor in thy sight…  

“Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened; I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon yourselves, and learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:25-30) 

Therefore, we may be assured that it is possible for all men and women of good will to recognize the true Church of Christ, without the need for any special abilities or circumstances on their part.  

How can the Church be recognized? 

In order to be recognizable, the true Church must have certain identifiable factors that are discernible by the senses of the average man or woman. Hence, we say that the Church is “visible.” 

Theologian Father E. Sylvester Berry explained:  

“Visibility primarily signifies the capability of being perceived by the sense of sight; then, by extension, it refers to the capability of being perceived by any of the five senses. Finally, it means the capability of an object being perceived or known by the intellect because of the sensible qualities adhering in that object.”9 

Visibility can be both material and formal. A thing is materially visible in those qualities which can be perceived directly by the senses. Thus, a man has skin, hair, a particular shape, a particular kind of voice, and so on. A thing is formally visible when it can be recognized as having a certain nature i.e. through the above sensible qualities one determines that the creature is a man. 

It follows that:  

“When we say that the Church of Christ is visible, we mean primarily, that it is a society of men with external rites and ceremonies and all the external machinery of government by which it can easily be recognized as a true society. But we further maintain that the Church of Christ also has certain marks by which it may be recognized as the one true Church founded by Christ when He commissioned the Apostles to convert all nations. In other words, we maintain that the Church of Christ is formally visible, not only as a society known as a Christian Church, but also as the one true Church of Christ.”10 

The First Vatican Council taught that: 

“[T]o enable us to fulfil the obligation to embrace the true faith and to persistently persevere in it, God has instituted the Church through his only-begotten Son, and has bestowed on it manifest marks of that institution, that it may be recognized by all men as the guardian and teacher of the revealed Word”.11 

 These marks are: 

  • Unity 
  • Sanctity 
  • Catholicity 
  • Apostolicity 

Hence, we refer to the true Church of Christ as “the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Church is necessarily One, that is, she is always united in faith, worship, and government. The Church is necessarily Holy, that is, she perpetually possesses the doctrine and sacraments that sanctify, and she brings forth heroic virtue in numerous souls in every age. The Church is necessarily Catholic, that is, she is ever dispersed across the world and is never restricted to any particular race or nation. The Church is necessarily Apostolic, that is, she is perpetually governed by bishops who have received both the power of orders and the power of jurisdiction in direct succession from the Apostles. 

The Church of Christ always possesses these marks and will never lose them. They are the perpetual means of recognizing her. Any organized body of men which claims to be the Catholic Church, but does not possess all four of these marks, can thereby be clearly identified as being a false Church. 

The visible nature of the Church is yet another evidence of God’s love and mercy: 

“Man is a sense-bound creature and the appeal of sense is continuous. Our Lord has taken our nature into consideration. The merely invisible we can accept on his authority. But he has given us a visible Church, with recognizable rules and laws and doctrines and means of sanctification, in which man is at home. We accept Our Lord’s gift to us with gratitude and strive to avail ourselves of its visible and invisible character. He has willed that as individuals we should be united to him by sanctifying grace, and that at the same time we should be united to one another with a unique collectivity, an unparalleled solidarity, which is the reality designated as the Mystical Body of Christ. And he has further willed that all the members of that Mystical Body should be members of the visible, organized hierarchical society to which he has given the power of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. The visible Church is to be the unique indefectible Church which is to last until the end of time, and in its unity to extend all over the world.”12  

However, the obvious nature of the marks does not lead to the conversion of all, as Berry states starkly:  

“those blinded by passion and prejudice can no more recognize the true Church than the Pharisees of old could recognize its Divine Founder. The man who closes his eyes cannot even see the sun in its noonday splendor.”13  

The relationship between visibility of the Church and membership of the Church 

In the sections above we have seen that the Catholic Church is a visible society that can be easily identified by all men and women of good will, through the marks of unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity. 

By these marks we can identify the Church, and her members. In order to know that we are receiving the true doctrine and the true sacraments which are necessary for our salvation we must be able to attain moral certainty as to where the Church is, and this means being able to recognize who is a member and who is not.   

A state of doubt on this question would not be compatible with Our Lord’s command that all enter the Church as an absolute requirement for salvation. We could hardly call the Church visible if her members could not be generally identified by the application of reasonable diligence.  

For this reason, the Church teaches us very clearly that the members of the Church are those who:  

  • are baptized 
  • publicly profess the Catholic faith 
  • and are in lawful union with the hierarchy of the Church (that is, are not separated by schism or excluded by sentence of major excommunication). 

This doctrine, which has been consistently taught by the Church through many centuries, received an authoritative formulation by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Mystici Corporis Christi:  

“Actually, only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. ‘For in one spirit’ says the Apostle, ‘were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.’ As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.”14

These three conditions of membership are in fact reflected in the definition of the visible Church, as in this formulation taken from a standard theological text: 

“The Church may be defined as follows: The society of men who, by their profession of the same faith, and by their partaking of the same sacraments, make up, under the rule of apostolic pastors and their head, the kingdom of Christ on earth.”15  

There is an intimate connection between the conditions of membership and the existence of the Church as a visible society: 

“It is due to the institution of Christ Himself that the Church is visible… Proof: 1. From the threefold bond which Christ Himself imposed. It was indicated above how Our Lord founded the Church by enjoining on His disciples the profession of the same faith, participation in the same rites, and obedience to the same authority. It is by these bonds that the Church is drawn into unity and held together; without them there simply is no Church of Christ. Now, since these bonds are external things which people can see, they necessarily make the Church an external, visible society. One can discern, using one’s external senses, which men profess the same doctrine, frequent the same sacraments, and obey the same rulers.”16  

Each and every human being who fulfills all three of these criteria – baptism, profession of the faith, lawful union with the hierarchy – is a member of the Catholic Church. Nobody else is. Neither the unbaptized, nor the public heretic, nor the public schismatic, can ever be considered a member of the visible body of Christ’s Church.   

In the next paper “Membership of the Church: Authority” the question of the relationship between membership and the submission due to ecclesiastical authority will be examined in more detail, in light of its profound importance for understanding the crisis facing the Church today. 

1  Rev E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, (Mount St Mary’s Seminary, 1955), p21.
2 Berry, Church of Christp21.
3 Berry, Church of Christ, p22.
4 Berry, Church of Christ, p22.
5 Berry, Church of Christ, p22-3.
6 Joachim Salaverri S.J., Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, (1956; translated by Kenneth Baker S.J., 2015), p441. 
7 Pope Pius IX, Singulari Quadem(1854).
8 Aelred Graham O.S.B, “The Church on Earth”, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, ed. Canon George Smith, (2nd edition, London, 1952), p701.
9 Berry, Church of Christ, p36.
10 Berry, Church of Christ, p37.
11 First Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith”, 24 April 1870.
12 Mgr Canon E. Myers, “The Mystical Body of Christ”,The Teaching of the Catholic Church, ed. Canon George Smith, (2nd edition, London, 1952), p662.
13 Berry, Church of Christ, p37.
14 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), No. 22.
15 Mgr G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Volume II: Christ’s Church, No. 2.
16 Van Noort, Christ’s Church, No. 12.