Each of the two concepts which have been the subject
of our study, constitutes a sensitive point in the ecumenical
dialogue. The term catholic' has been used, especially in
recent centuries, to contrast certain Christian Churches2
with certain others, while the term apostolicity' has fathered
different interpretations which are deeply imprinted in the ecclesiologies
of the various confessions.
Today it seems we must and can resume the
study of these two concepts within the context of ecumenical research.
The purpose of this study should be to rethink the problem of
the interpretation of all four of the characteristics traditionally
attributed to the Church in the creed and to consider the unity
of the holy Church in a new light by making reflection on catholicity
and apostolicity a new way of approaching the problem.
Catholicity and apostolicity can be looked
at from fresh stand-points. The results of enquiries into the
mission of the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of the Church as
well as into the apostolic origin of the Church, the emphasis
on Christology and Pneumatology, reflection on the sending of
the apostles by the risen Lord and on the missionary vocation
of the people of God, and finally the Churches' search for common
witness and common serviceall these are so many spurs to
discover new approaches to the catholicity and apostolicity of
On the other hand, while some regard catholicity
and apostolicity exclusively as dimensions of the Church which
are already given in principle, others understand them rather
as a demand for universality and fullness, for service and sanctification,
which Christ the Savior of the world addresses in the Holy Spirit
to bis Church for the sake of the salvation of mankind.
But in order to find a fresh approach to the problem of ecclesial
unity, it seems today that, beyond a catholicity and an apostolicity
assumed by some as a principle and felt by others as a demand,
we have to ask ourselves, in accord with the standpoint of the
New Testament itself, in what way do catholicity and apostolicity
express the mystery of the communion (koinonia) given by Christ
to his Church? And in what way today does this gift continually
renewed by the presence of the Spirit, call all the Churches to
renewal and to mission? A new description of the concepts of catholicity
and apostolicity should derive its ìnspiration from the
strictly theological mystery of communion: the gift of God and
the conversion of men.
1. The Church is catholic in its being, because
it is constituted by the gift of the Trinitarian communion which
the incarnate Word makes to mankind; this communion is fullness
of the Word (cf. John 1:16) and because of this the Church is
his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all' (Eph.
The Church henceforth proves itself catholic in its action insofar
as it is in communion with Jesus Christ present and active in
its midst by the power of his Holy Spirit. Jesus the Christ is
the Saviour of each man in his personal totality, of all men and
of the whole creation. Sent into the world by the one God, he
announced the kingdom, gave his life for all on the Cross and
calls all to participate in his Resurrection. By him all things
are to be reconciled to God for he has made peace by the blood
of his Cross (cf. Col. 1:20). He is the Lord because he has been
given the name which is above every name' (Phil. 2:9). It
is he in whom the Father is revealed, he who is full of
grace and truth' (John 1:14), he in whom dwells the whole
fullness of deity' (Col 2:9). He is the Head who gathers all humanity
into his Body by the action of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:1-4).
The Church lives and achieves its catholicity
insofar as it exists through and in' Christ as his Body
and expresses at every moment, in every Christian and in every
step the whole truth of Jesus Christ to which the Holy Spirit
ceaselessly leads (John 16:13). It is the community of those men
and women who respond in faith to the calling of God the Father,
are one in love and are constantly open towards all their brother
This is the standpoint from which we see
catholicity. Trinitarian, Christocentric, Pneumatic, missionary
and demanding a concrete engagement in the service of mankind.
2. The Gospel promises the full achievement
of the unity of all in Christ only for the time of his return
in glory. Then the universal commuruon of men will be realized,
the final gathering of Israel and the nations (cf. Rom. 1:1).
For Christ prayed the Father for the unity of all those who should
believe in him (John 17:20 ff); this unity remains a goal which
is never reached on earth, but one towards which we must always
be moving, in order that the world might believe that God sent
him. The full unity which should unite all men with God in Christ
will only be attained at the end. While waiting for this future
gift, the Church must become aware of all which is provisional
in itself; it must have the courage to acknowledge what is lacking
in its catholicity, and make its life and action more and more
catholic'. Catholicity is thus an eschatological reality
as well, for on the one hand, it is still not fully achieved nor
fully manifested, but, above all, it already participates in the
fullness of the coming kingdom in its first fruits.
3. The Church in fact is founded on the Lord
Jesus Christ. Living by the real presence of its Lord and quickened
by the Holy Spirit, it announces and carries to fruition the coming
kingdom and is itself the first fruits of that kingdom. It is
thus, at the heart of mankind and for mankind, by faith in the
gift of God and by the action of the Holy Spirit, the sign which
manifests the presence of Christ, the promise and hope of the
fullness which dwells in him (cf. Col. 1:19; Eph. 3:1-11). In
a way which is imperfectin respect of the response of believersyet
nonetheless realaccording to the messianic gift of Pentecost,
it bears the mystery of the Christ in whom all things have been
summed up. This is why it is henceforth catholic.
4. Established on what it has received and
receives, pressing on towards the full achievement of the salvation
for which it hopes, the Church is called to realize its catholicity
day by day. Not only must it be open' in proclaiming that
it is without respect of persons, races, classes or culture, but
also habitable' by all, the home' of all because it
realizes in its structures and in its existence the whole variety
of the gifts of the Spirit, the whole diversity of mankind purchased
(redeemed) by Christ. It is sent to all the nations, to the very
ends of the earth; it is called to be present to all the situations
of man at each hour of history and to make itself all things to
all men in the name of the Lord. It has received, insofar as it
is catholic, power to express all the elements of the Gospel message
and ceaselessly seeks to grasp in faith and to proclaim in its
message and make fruitful in its life the infinite richness of
the mystery of Christ.
5. Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic
Church (cf. Ign., Smyrn. 8, 2). Thus the Lord makes himself present
there where in one place a community of believers, marked as his
and committed to him by baptism and gathered in his name, hears
his Word and receives it freely following the action of his Spirit,
celebrates the eucharistic meal, perseveres in the confession
of faith, in worship, in prayer and brotherly communion (cf. Acts
2:42). Thanks to the Lord who rules in it, the local community
assembled around Christ's ministers, in the communion of saints
from Abel, the just, down to the very latest of the elect and,
therefore, in union with the Church of all times and places, is
a real expression of the Catholic Church. Forming a universal
koinonia the local communities are called to support one another
and to act together for the glory of the Lord.
6. To the extent that the Church is mindful
of the gift of Christ, it will be attentive to everything which
can betray this gift. The gift of Christ can be betrayed in many
ways. The most usual form of betrayal is that which adulterates
the Gospel with false teaching. This is why the Church is catholic
when it is orthodox. But since the truth of the Gospel is not
merely speculative or something to be taught there are many ways
in which it can also be betrayed in the life of Christians. We
mention here four such ways.
The first lies in succumbing to the temptation
of power, whether it be by adopting the ways which belong properly
to political power, whether it be by conforming or submitting
to the powers of this world in such a way that the Church keeps
the poor at a distance and Christian brotherhood is restricted
to members of the same race, nation, culture or class. The second
would wish to justify the formation of sects or parties within
the Church. The third makes people become proud of their own confession
and despise others. The fourth, on the other hand, allowing itself
to be seduced by temporal ideologies which assail it, consists
in misusing the term catholic' and boasting of a tolerance
which results finally in the disappearance of Christian identity.
The catholicity of the Church cannot disown the Church's bond
with Jesus Christ, in whom alone is there salvation for all men
(Acts 4:12) and the forms of betrayal which we have mentioned
cannot be avoided except by an obedience which is constantly renewed
by the Lord, whose love makes his people capable of being open
to all human conditions and whose truth enables it to realize
its identity and its continuity throughout time, places and circumstances.
1. The Church is apostolic, according to
the unanimous tradition of the Churches, because it is built upon
the foundation of the apostles (Apoc. 21:14 and Eph. 2:20). Its
very existence is continuously and necessarily related to the
person of the apostles and to the work which they accomplished
once and for all and its action is identical with theirs. Nothing
in the being and action of the Church permits it to disregard
the mission given once and for all to the apostles by Christ in
the Holy Spirit, nor the work which they accomplished in planting
and building up the Church in the world.
2. But in calling the Church apostolic',
Christians affirm their dependence on the glorious company
of the apostles' as well as their solidarity with it, thanks to
the continuìng reality of the action of the Holy Spirit
which the apostles received. The apostles were the witnesses of
the Resurrection. They were commanded by the Lord to announce
the kingdom which dawns, with its judgment and its pardon. They
served it as fishermen and harvesters, sowers and builders, fathers
and teachers teaching the faithful. In many ways, by word and
by action, they witnessed to the presenee of the crucified and
victorious Lord and they called, gathered and founded the Churches
to witness and prepare for his coming. Their preaching is fixed
in the New Testament writings which for this reason are called
apostolic. The continuity of their witness and their action in
the Church from the beginning is the work of the Holy Spirit aind
makes the Church apostolic.
3. Both in Scripture and in tradition many
different senses of the word apostle' can be found. We must
willingìy accept this diversity which imposes new perspectives
on the theological consensus. It prevents theologians from putting
too much reliance on ready-made notions and attributing to verbal
formulae an esclusive and definitive character. Much more than
by asking the letter of Scripture to give us a stereotype portrait
of the apostle, it is by faithfully assuming the tasks entrusted
by the Lord to his apostles that the apostolicity of the Church
is made worthy of credence.
4. The Church is apostolic because it is
sent, constituted by the gift of the mission which the Father
entrusted to his Son, which Jesus Christ accomplished once for
all and which the Holy Spirit completes in the last times (cf.
John 20:21 f.). Sent by the Father, Jesus Christ gave to men the
mystery of the kingdom (Mark 4:11), he called them to conversion,
he pardoned sinners, he healed the sick and the possessed, he
preached the Gospel to the poor, he participated in the death
of men by his passion in order to make them participate in his
life in his Resurrection. He called men to his Church and charged
them to continue his mission. To his Church he gave authority
(exousia) in the Holy Spirit to accomplish this mission and entrusted
to certain men the exercise of this authority within the community.
It is therefore in virtue of its participation in the mission
of Christ in the mission of disciples that the Church is apostolic.
For the Holy Spirit manifests this mission, realizes it and communicates
it in a community consecrated and sent' like Christ (cf.
John 17:18 f.).
5. Apostolicity includes an intimate and
essential link with the final accomplishment of God's saving plan.
By the announcement which the apostles made of the kingdom of
God and by the role which they played in the advent of these new
times (Matt. 10:1-15; 19:28; Luke 22 :30; Rev. 21:14) each generation
is linked to the gathering of nations and races in the Holy City.
By transmitting to men the promise of this accomplishment, even
more by giving them the first fruits of the blessings of the kingdom,
the apostles by the power of the Spirit shed at Pentecost, awakened
a lively hope of the approach of the renewal of all things. This
time of waiting for the return of the Lord is also for the Church
the time of mission, for the dynamic presence of the Spirit, pledge
of this living hope, makes the Church apostolic.
6. Apostolicity also binds the Church of
the present with all the previous generations of the people of
God. The New Testament presents the apostles as having part in
the accomplishment of promises made by God to Abraham (cf. Heb.
12:1) and to the twelve tribes (cf. Matt. 19:28). By this sole
function of the twelve, the Church inherits a place in the life
of Israel from the beginning. The truly apostolic Church will
also be catholic, necessarily, in time as in space. Its memory
embraces all the past which is constantly actualized in the Word
and sacraments; and its hope already embraces all the future of
which it carries in frail vessels the incorruptible pledge (cf.
2 Cor. 4:7).
7. When Christians profess apostolicity,
they also draw attention to the permanent responsibility of the
Church to transmit the living testimony of the apostles. This
is the role of ministries in the various forms they have taken
since the beginnings of the Church. Like the ministry of the apostles,
the ministries of the Church are given and maintained by the power
of the Holy Spirit. There has been a great diversity of forms
in the ministries accomplished in the Spirit and made effective
by his power, and Christians are far from being agreed in the
way they evaluate them. But they believe that the Church is apostolic
because it continues faithfully, by the grace of God, the mission,
the preaching and the ministry which it has received from the
apostles. For many Churches, this is the fundamental significance
of the apostolic succession. Thus, from this fidelity there results
a much broader view of the apostolic succession than that which
confines itself to legal categories. New possibilities here take
shape in the direction of a consensus between the Churches.
8. It is in fact in respect of various conceptions
of the ministry that the contemporary Churches discover some of
their most serious divisions. However, even in this domain, significant
agreements can be found. Three examples of this are:
(a) The conviction that, in the life of the
Church, the apostolic preaching transmitted by Scripture and Tradition,
the apostolic ministry, and life in accordance with the Gospel
are inseparable. All three are essential to its apostolicity.
(b) The conviction that in spite of many
changes in the course of history in the conceptions and functions
of ministry, these changes are not all necessarily prejudicial
to the continuity of the Church with its apostolic origins. It
must constantly affirm its responsibility in the continuation
of the original mission of the apostles, within the unfolding
design of God and in changing situations. It is by a greater fidelity
to this mission that it will eventually be able to renew in a
spirit of penitence its conception of its ministry.
(c) The conviction that one of the principal
objects of the ministry is the accomplishment of the missionary
vocation of the Church in submission to the Holy Spirit and in
the expectation of the Lord.
9. From very earliest times the various conceptions
of apostolicity have often expressed differences which were not
only legitimate but also fruitful; sometimes, on the other hand,
they were sources of division in the Church. Ecumenical discussions
in the ordinary way uncover these variations. It will suffice
to mention here the discussions on the relative importance of
unbroken succession in the episcopal office, fidelity to the teaching
of Scripture, the safeguarding of the Church's doctrine, the exercise
of a charismatic power, the continuity of the apostolic faith.
While mentioning these controversies (always more subtle and complex
than their mere listing suggests) it should be remembered that
from the beginning an important aspect of the apostolic vocation
was the effort made to maintain unity (even between the apostles
themselves) by overcoming their differences. The ecumenical labor
of today is a sign that the Churches are pledged to go thoroughly
into this aspect of apostolicity.