“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” says the Creed.
Roy Blount, Jr. tells the joke about the Southerner who was asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” The Southerner replies, “Believe in it? I have seen it done!”
Some people might feel equal bemusement about the clause in the Creed professing “belief” in the Church. What’s to believe in? There it is, big as life! The first three parts of the Creed speak about the unseen realities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the Church is not unseen: it’s extremely visible and tangible, perhaps a bit too tangible what with all the warts. And yet the Creed insists that the Church is revealed. What’s going on?
The Church is, says St. Paul, a mystery:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8-10)
Jesus chose to commend his revelation entirely to the Church: the Scripture, the sacraments, the common life, the way in which these things are to be understood—the whole deal was commended into the hands of the Church in such a way that we cannot get at him without invariably having to unite with the Church as well. Baptism into Christ isn’t just baptism into the head, but the body as well. Paul knew this profoundly, having been confronted by the Risen Christ who demanded of him, not “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers” but “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It is not too much to say that Paul’s entire ministry consisted of unpacking the implications of those seven words and discovering the meaning of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
The oneness of the Church is a Trinitarian, not a monolithic, oneness. It consists, not in being assimilated by the Borg and made a parrot for a completely uniform life of exactly the same tastes, opinions, thoughts and feelings, but of becoming part of a community of fully human persons all sharing in the life of the Community of Persons that is the Blessed Trinity, who is One. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Church, which is the Body of the Lord Christ, is to be one in the same way.
It is worth noting that the writing of the New Testament was occasioned by stuff like pride, factionalism, sexual license, getting drunk at Mass, and various other things one does not associate with the term “holy.” Paul’s moral exhortation to the Corinthians is essentially what the Catholic exhortation has ever been: “Become what you are!” The curious thing about the Church is that, since it is the mystical Body of Christ, it exists before it has any members, since the soul of the Church is not you or me, but the Holy Spirit. It is he, not we, who makes it holy. Without him, we’re just a bunch of schleps sitting in a room on Sunday morning.
And we are schleps with nothing earthly in common. Look at the people in line for Communion at your average parish: young, old, rich, poor, every color and culture imaginable, every language, nation, people, tongue and tribe comes to the altar. This is by divine design. Catholics, said Chesterton, agree about everything. It is only everything else they disagree about. That’s because the Church takes ’em all. The members of the Church are “many”—not only quantitatively, but qualitatively as well. And the Church is immeasurably richer for it: a wild party, made one body in Christ. That’s catholicity.
That wildly catholic body is also apostolic, simultaneously rooted in tradition and reaching out to bring in new members. The Church cannot make up new revelation as she pleases. She must guard faithfully what has been entrusted to her by the Apostles. With their death, all public revelation ended till the Second Coming. So the Church is bound, by her nature, to be apostolic. But to be apostolic is not merely to be conservative. It is also to be creative, because the Christ whom the Apostles proclaim is creative and we are to be like him. But “creativity” is not a synonym for “novelty” any more than “orthodox” is a synonym for “conservative.” The truly orthodox are, like St. Thomas or John Paul II or Pasteur, profoundly creative minds. That is why the apostolic faith is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living nor the thrill-seeking faithlessness of the living dead.