I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world,
and I am coming to You. Holy Father, protect them by Your name,
the name You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one.
John 17, 11
Since Apostolic time, the Church or the unblemished bride of Christ has understood herself to be catholic. By definition she means a visible society of baptized Christians from all around the world professing the same faith under the authority of the invisible head who is Christ and the authority of the visible head, the pope, and the world’s bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff.
The apostles themselves knew that their Lord and Master had established his Church to be visibly one and hierarchical for the unity of faith and consistent transmission of the deposit of faith from one generation of believers to the next without error under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16; 16:12-13). For instance, none of the apostles dared to question or challenge Peter’s authority to speak for the entire Church and resolve a disputed doctrinal issue such as whether baptized Gentiles ought to be circumcised like the Jews. Rather, they listened to what Peter had to say in silence and accepted his word as final for the Church to receive without objection (See Acts 15). The debate that went on at the council in Jerusalem may never have been resolved or accepted by everyone with a moral certainty of faith if it wasn’t believed that Peter had the universal primacy of authority to reach or ratify a final verdict for the whole Church to confidently accept in unity (cf. Mt 16:20).
The New Testament (Covenant) Church was catholic in every religious sense of the word. There are several key passages in Scripture that reflect how the Church perceived herself through the knowledge she received from the Holy Spirit in the sanctifying light of faith. First of all, Jesus says that a city (Jerusalem) “set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt 5:14). Our Lord is referring to his Church (the new Jerusalem that has come down from heaven) which is essentially a visible church and a unity of members who comprise his Mystical Body. The Church isn’t simply a pneumatic construct in which there is an invisible unity of spirit but a visible division that really makes no difference beyond the fundamental tenets of the Apostles’ Creed. Indeed, Jesus warns us that “a kingdom divided against itself is laid waste and cannot stand” (Mt 12:25; Mk 3:25; Lk 11:17). This scenario best describes the miserable state Protestantism finds itself in from the time of its inception in the sixteenth century, what with the myriads of autonomous and independent denominations that differ on many fine points of doctrine on faith and morals while appealing to the same Scriptures supposedly under the guidance of one and the same Holy Spirit.
Jesus clearly stated that he would build his “church” on Peter the rock and the apostles who are in communion with the Lord’s vicar. He said nothing about ‘churches’ (Mt 16:18). Unity of faith wisely requires a visible body under a visible head which in turn represents and is accountable to the invisible head who is Christ. A visible church cannot exist without a visible head who rules visibly by ‘binding and loosing’ so that the Church may be visibly united in faith and in that sense be truly catholic. Protestantism amounts to being nothing more than a divided religious movement consisting of countless churches with independent visible heads in some shape or form.
Jesus himself told the apostles there must be only “one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). This means one visible flock, one visible shepherd, and one invisible shepherd who is Christ in heaven. It’s obvious that Jesus intended his Church to be structured this way since he prayed that his followers may be perfectly one as he is one with the father (Jn 17:11, 21, 23). There is perfect oneness only in the one true Church founded by Christ which is the Catholic Church, despite the heresies, divisions, and schisms that have arisen throughout the ages because of rogue clerics and arrogant academicians who divorced themselves from Christ’s vision and rejected his institutions.
Surely, Our Lord foresaw all the turmoil that would historically arise in the Church, notably from the time of Arius in the early fourth century, when he said to his apostles, “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30). Only by listening to what Peter and the apostles say, and thereby their appointed successors in the episcopal office until Christ returns, can there be perfect unity in the one, visible, and hierarchical Church. Those who refuse to listen to and reject the ruling and teaching authority of the Universal Magisterium, in fact, refuse to listen to Christ and reject the authority that was given to him by his heavenly Father and then transferred to Peter and the Apostles (Lk 10:16).
Up to this time, Christian denominations are the creation of men and women who have presumed to be invested with the divine authority to teach and rule in the name of Christ totally indifferent to the institutions which Our Lord established on the concrete foundation of Peter and the Apostles. Denominationalism is anti-Christ. So is its negative counterpart: Non-denominationalism (essentially a sub-denomination in Protestantism) which ironically holds Christ never founded a single corporate religious entity (or entities) in the first place. This is a modern religious phenomenon that bears the characteristics of ancient Gnosticism.
In any event, the apostles and the faithful men whom they appointed to join and succeed them in the divine offices of the episcopacy and priesthood (presbyterium) kept Christ’s vision in their minds and hearts. The New Testament church was indeed the Catholic Church in mind and spirit. Paul exhorted the body of believers in Rome to live in harmony with one another (Rom 15:5). There can be no visibly unified body and one mind in faith as long as there are dissenters in the ranks who create divisions in opposition to the apostolic teaching authority. On the contrary, these false teachers must be avoided at all costs and shouldn’t be listened to (Rom 16: 17). For the Church to be truly catholic and remain catholic, Christians must be on guard against those who dispute Church teachings and create controversies by proposing their own misguided notions and misleading the flock with their confusing rhetoric (1 Tim 6:4). The Judaizers and Ebionites are clear examples. For the Church to be catholic, there must be a universal teaching authority of appeal which can trace its authority back to Christ. This was the case at the council in Jerusalem. Those who rejected the decisions of the council fell out of communion with the one true Church.
Paul fervently prayed like Jesus had that there be no dissensions and disagreements among Christians, and they might be of one mind and one spirit for the sake of perfect unity (1 Cor 1:10). After all, the Church is the visible ‘body’ of Christ, not Our Lord’s invisible spirit or soul (Eph 1:22-23; 5:23-32; Col 1:18, 24). Jesus has only one bride, not many brides who believe and think somewhat differently on fine points of doctrine and morals (Eph 5:25). Peter called for a unity of spirit which is what Catholicism is all about (1 Pt 3:8). But this is impossible if Christians are of different minds and hearts and indifferent to the established central teaching authority of the Church because of how they feel or what they might think. Such people do not belong to the Church and have dismembered themselves from the body even to the point of ex-communication or schism. God isn’t the author of confusion, but of peace and reconciliation (1 Cor 14:33). The Holy Spirit isn’t the source of countless denominations that keep popping up around the world and are divided. The prophet Daniel foresaw the creation of the Catholic Church whose divine author is Our Lord Jesus Christ. He envisioned a single body of people from all nations serving His kingdom on earth (Dan 7:14). The Church isn't a democracy with different political or religious parties but rather a kingdom and monarchical entity.
Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 110) was a follower or student of the apostle John. Perhaps the evangelist even ordained him. As an apostolic successor in the divine office, His Excellency reveals how the Church is intended to be visibly one and catholic in the biblical sense of the word. He says, “See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father… Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8:2). Catholicism amounts to respecting the visible episcopal authority and acknowledging the validity of the Blessed Sacrament only when it is celebrated and administered by one who can trace his priestly ordination back to the apostles themselves (with the laying on of hands) in a physical and associated line of succession (cf. Acts 6:6; 9:17-19; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14).
Irenaeus (A.D. 180), Bishop of present-day Lyons, France was a student of Polycarp who, according to early tradition, was also tutored in the faith by the apostle John. The key point of Irenaeus' theology was the unity and the goodness of God, in opposition to the Gnostics' theory of God: a plurality of divine emanations (Aeons) along with a distinction between the Monad and the Demiurge. There were many Gnostic sects of different shades of persuasion that arose in the second century. Gnostics believed they were Christian in their spirituality which they considered was more important than any particular religious affiliation. And they were Christians of truly diverse viewpoints. But what all these cults shared in common were belief systems for attaining secret knowledge or gnosis. Gnostic sects were in direct competition with the teachings of the nascent Catholic Church. These sects rejected the Apostolic teaching authority of the one true Church with respect to Christ's person in the incarnation.
In his contention with the Gnostics, notably Marcion, Irenaeus writes: “Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy presbyters…It behooves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures” (Against Heresies, 5:20). He refers to their leaders as “ these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom… while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world.” Irenaeus understood what the word catholic meant to the New Testament Church as opposed to the superficial pluralism of the Gnostic sects in his day: “But it has, on the other hand, been shown, that the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples…For in the Church, it is said, ‘God hath set apostles, prophets, teachers,’ and all the other means through which the Spirit works; of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church, but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behavior. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth" (Ibid., 1.10.3).
Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 254) testifies how the early Church understood herself to be Catholic by presenting his point of view: “Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if anyone is not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another" (To Florentius, Epistle 66/67). The Alexandrian priest Arius, however, broke with tradition and decided to interpret the Scriptures on his own personal authority, not unlike Marcion, and presumed to teach that the Son didn’t eternally co-exist with the Father nor was consubstantial with Him. But to be Catholic, one must obediently follow the dogmas of the Church in union with all the faithful. Arius never recanted and, unfortunately, brought the majority of the Eastern Church bishops on his side. As a result, the Church (or rather the Roman emperor) was compelled to convoke the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This is the decision reached by the bishops who attended the council: “But for those who say, ‘There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance’…these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”
Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 350) describes in Pauline fashion what it means for the Church to be catholic: “Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, ‘That thou mayest know how thou ought to behave thyself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.’” (Catechetical Lectures, 18:25). There is only one God, and one divine truth which the Church is in possession of by the presence of the Spirit of truth. The life of the Church has its source in the life of God whose Spirit ensures that the bride of Christ remains unblemished in her faith and guarantees that the truth is made known for all to accept without questioning the apostolic teaching authority that all began with Peter and the Apostles in communion with him, that the Church be visibly one in the faith and one body of believers.