A Review of Figuring Out the Church: Her Marks, and Her Masters

Mar 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is a guest post by Nick Trosclair. Nick received a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2006 and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Raised an evangelical Christian, he taught the Classics of Western Literature and Scripture at an Assembly of God secondary school for four years. He and his wife and children were received into full communion with the Catholic Church on Easter, 2009. He currently teaches Latin and Theology and is serving as Dean of Humanities at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Figuring Out The Church

Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., a dogmatic theologian and John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at Oxford University, has written an introductory book of ecclesiology (the study of the nature of the Church) titled Figuring Out the Church: Her Marks, Her Masters (Ignatius Press, 2013). Although a short introduction — only 179 pages — the book is a formidable, yet accessible, work of theology. It is divided into two parts, four chapters for each part capped off with a concluding chapter. In the First Part, Fr. Nichols unpacks the meaning of the Church’s four distinguishing marks — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic— providing fresh arguments, analogies, and images that the average, informed Christian will find both intelligible and persuasive. The Second Part of the book is a more nuanced study of the distinguishing marks seen through the eyes of four important 20th century ecclesiologists: Henri de Lubac, Jean-Marie Tillard, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Charles Journet.

Following the Nicean Symbol or Creed, we must believe that the Church is a mystery of the Christian Faith, not merely a natural society. And as a mystery, her depth cannot be justly studied only from one angle. Instead, states Fr. Nichols, the ecclesial marks should be studied from several different angles. One, holy, catholic, apostolic should be studied as constitutive of the Church’s essence (ontologically studied), studied as signs of the true Church (apologetically studied), studied as light for all other doctrines of the faith (pedagogically studied), and studied as consummated in the Heavenly Jerusalem (eschatologically studied). Keeping these in mind is important, because Fr. Nichols utilizes them throughout his work.1

The Unity of the Church

The Church is one. The structure of the Creed, Fr. Nichols observes, communicates the ontological priority of unity over multiplicity. We must avoid the temptation of reducing the unity of the Church merely to an association of local churches that become one through a common interest. She is supernaturally one. The very structure of the Creed dictates that the Church flows from the Father’s eternal plan to unite all men to Himself. This plan flows from the unity of the Divine Nature (I believe in One God, One Church). The Church is a sign of that union of redemption, indeed, she is the sacrament that signifies and causes humanity’s union with the One God. The Second Vatican Council confirms:

By her relation to Christ, the Church constitutes a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind, just as she is an instrument for the realization of such union and unity.2

The Church, as a true sign, manifests this unity in her essential, visible activities. According to the book of Acts and the Church Fathers, she manifests her inner nature in her doctrinal, liturgical, and societal dimensions (Acts 2:42). If she were not visibly one in her teaching, in her worship, and in her authority, then she would not signify the unity of redemption intended by the Father; she would cease to be a sign and, therefore, would cease to be efficacious in the plan of redemption.

Continuing his investigation of the structure of the Creed, Fr. Nichols discusses the Trinitarian origins of ecclesial unity, a theme he deepens in his explication of the remaining three marks. The Holy Spirit is the principle of unity both in the Trinity and in the Church. The activity of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity as the bond of unity between the Father and the Son is similar to the bond of unity He is in the faithful and in the humanity of Christ. He is the One who “unites the Church, rendering her holy, catholic, and apostolic.”3 He is the one Person found in Christ and in his followers. “The Holy Spirit is one Person in many persons, namely, in Christ and ourselves.”4 He is the same Person in Jesus Christ and in His members, thus, making Jesus Christ and the Church una quaedam persona, as though they were one and the same person. Fr. Nichols summarizes:

The Father’s predisposing plan is to render a world created and saved a unity in the human species precisely by sending the Holy Spirit to be one single Person in the Word incarnate and ourselves. We — Christ and each other in the Church — form una mystica persona, one mystical person.5

We can see this kind of union anticipated in the Old Testament understanding of corporate personality. Just as the descendents of Adam or Abraham were in some way one with them, so too, and in a more intimate union through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, the Church is one with Jesus Christ. Indeed, in Christ the faithful are one mystical person in which human persons are united to God.

The Holiness of the Church

Fr. Nichols begins his study of the second mark of the Church through the lens of apologetics — holiness as a motive of credibility for the true Church of Jesus Christ. There is a reason why the Roman Catholic Church is maligned by every ideological position — “all know where they must strike.”6 Her principles of holiness and the holiness of her members are a threat to the god of this world.

Fr. Aidan Nichols
Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

Her principles of holiness are those teachings, institutions, and disciplines that “maximize the potential” for holiness.7 Even though some of these principles may be found in other communions, their full integration can be found only in the Catholic Church. In fact, “certain principles integral to the constitution of these non-Catholic traditions specifically in their separateness have a tendency to discourage the full flowering of sanctity.”8 For example, the doctrine of sola fide can obstruct the road to holiness, while the Church’s understanding of justification and her corresponding understanding of purgation maximize the Christian participation in the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Similarly, her numerous religious orders allow for a particular kind of holiness whereby some may live out a higher calling about which Jesus and St. Paul spoke. A life of poverty, chastity, and obedience is a live option in the Catholic Church. This apologetic approach is difficult to argue, Fr. Nichols admits, given the fact that holiness can be found in other Christian communities. However, when inspected holistically and manifested in the lives of the saints, one may perceive that the Church provides a space for maximum holiness, a holiness that is fragmented by those in schism with the successor of Peter.

Much more interesting is his return to the ontological approach of the mark of holiness. How is the Church indefectibly holy, while many of her members are sinners? To answer this question, Fr. Nichols deepens his earlier discussion of the mystical person of the Church through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. This mystical person is the corporate personality of the Church who is distinguished, though not separate, from her members.

Fr. Nichols provides a fascinating comparison between the corporate personality of the Church and the created grace found in the righteous. In an act of uncreated graciousness, God causes created grace in an individual man whereby that righteous man’s personality participates in the life of God. Similarly, shifting to the community of the redeemed, the uncreated Person of the Holy Spirit causes a created personality that subsists in the Church’s members. Just as the uncreated graciousness of God produces created grace, so the Uncreated Person of the Holy Spirit produces the created corporate personality that is the Church. It is for this reason that Tradition is justified in referring to her as “she.” She is more than an aggregate of justified sinners; she is indefectibly one and holy while her members are one and holy only in so far as they participate in her personality. She truly is the bride who is without spot or wrinkle in her personality despite the sins of her members. Fr. Nichols explains:

The sins the Church’s members commit after aggregation to her unity are not committed by them qua members of the Church: not (that is) qua persons who are one person with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Such sins are, rather, committed by us qua those who are not yet unitively aggregated to her in fullness.9

The Church as a created personality explains why many of the Church Fathers referred to her as a casta meretrix, “a chaste harlot.”10 As Catholic sinners we are not acting as participants in her personality, even though our membership may not be terminated. However, when we repent we are acting in the person of the Church. Her holiness is a “repentant holiness,” a repentant holiness that allows the chaste mother to do penance for her promiscuous children.11

The Catholicity of the Church

In our attempt to find the Church’s source in the Godhead, we have seen that we can speak about the unity of God and the holiness of God, but it may be strange to speak about the “catholicity of God.”

But the catholicity of God is expressed in Scripture regarding both the Godhead and the Incarnation in particular. St. Paul repeatedly speaks about the “fullness of divinity” in his teaching on the Incarnation. Indeed, Fr. Nichols calls the Incarnation “the primordial catholic event,” for in this event Christ takes up every level of being — He fills all things. Fr. Nichols writes:

In the Incarnation, the way the divine unity coincides with the maximal differentiation of the Persons in their distinction is echoed in a new way in the unity of Christ, who not only in his divine nature expresses the interrelation with himself of Father and Spirit, but also in his divine Person holds within himself the divine and human natures that are his. And with that human nature of his there is necessarily bound up all the levels of created being that contribute to that nature — chemical, vegetable, sentient, rational. The Word incarnate has, then, a catholicity all its own.12

The Church as the mystical person of Jesus Christ participates in His catholicity. She is the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” where the integrity of the knowledge of Christ resides (Ephesians 4:13). Of course, St. Paul goes further to specify that all the different gifts and offices of the Church in their diversity serve that unity of knowledge of Christ. She is Catholic in her being and in her activity.

Recalling the famous debate between two curial cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper, Fr. Nichols stresses, just as he did with the mark of unity, that the Church’s catholicity is prior to her local manifestations. Her mark of catholicity was essential to her at Pentecost. “It is the Church thus founded that replicates herself with an infinite variety of nuance in a multitude of places and times.”13 He offers three brief arguments in support.

First, baptism has always been understood as incorporation into the whole Church, not only into a local community. This is also clearly deduced from the fact that baptism may be administered where there is no stable local community. Second, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is “essentially ordered toward the salvific good of the entire Church in whose name it is always offered.”14 And lastly, the ecumenical decisions of the Church are manifested in global councils whereby all the local churches participate in catholic fullness. Each local church participates in the catholicity of the Catholic Church.

Apostolicity of the Church

The Trinitarian source of apostolicity is clear. As the Son was sent by the Father and as the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son, so, too, the Apostles were sent by Jesus Christ. The economy of salvation is one of sending forth and of reception through faith. Apostolicity is that mark of the Church that preserves all that the Son handed over to the Apostles. This “Trinitarian matrix” or pattern of sending forth entails that the origin of the Church goes back to the Apostles in both her doctrines and sacred ministries.

The Church of Christ is apostolic because she is faithful to the teachings of the Apostles and their ministerial successors. But the ministerial succession is more fundamental because its final end is “to secure the entire confessional and liturgical structure of the Church as a whole.”15 Not only is apostolic doctrine preserved by her ministerial successors, but the whole sacramental structure is perpetuated in these sacred offices. Fr. Nichols writes:

The manner of Jesus’ final commissioning of the Twelve after the Resurrection shows that we are dealing with a ministry that is simultaneously one of evangelization and sacramental reconciliation with God: “Go therefore and make disciples” (evangelization); “baptizing them” and “forgive the sins” (sacramental reconciliation). This is more than simply assuring the continuance of the apostolic faith.16

But ministerial succession is not enough for the true mark of apostolicity. Besides, do not some of the ancient churches still perpetuate those sacred offices, yet remain separated from Peter? Apostolicity also includes faithfulness to the teachings of the apostles, i.e., Sacred Tradition. Fr. Nichols provides a helpful maxim that is worth memorizing: “The content of the succession is Tradition.”17 Still, this apostolic content cannot be ripped from the bosom of the sacred offices; the ministerial succession is the form of that doctrinal content, and thus this content cannot be preserved or located apart from the succession.

The Apostolic Church is that community that perpetuates the authority and sacramental participation of the original community that Christ founded. To ensure that the original apostolic form and content remains, the ministerial successors make present the first community whereby the gates of Hell cannot prevail. If she were to err in her teaching or fail to perpetuate the apostolic community, she would cease to be that Church which the ancient Creed identifies; she would cease to be apostolic. Fr. Nichols, citing two French theologians, explains the perpetuity of the apostolic community:

This apostolic succession is not a dynastic succession to disappeared apostles. It is, rather, the permanence of the apostles’ presence in the same ministry received by Christ. . . . the theme of the succession is only the historic trace [the signal, or give-away sign] of the eschatological status of the apostles in the Church.18

A Quartet of Ecclesiologists

In the second part of the book, Fr. Nichols looks at the theological works of four important twentieth century ecclesiologists. After providing a brief introduction to the historical significance of each theologian, he highlights the key ecclesial ideas of each theologian in their explication of the marks of the Church. The reader should not expect an exhaustive study. Instead, Fr. Nichols presents the central ecclesial principles of each theologian and the works that should be studied so that we might go deeper into ecclesiology. Fr. Nichols is an excellent guide for those who wish to study the more difficult works of Henri de Lubac, Jean Tillard, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and Charles Journet. I offer only a few highlights here.

Henri de Lubac

A patristic scholar and expert (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council, Henri de Lubac is an obvious candidate for Fr. Nichols’s quartet of twentieth century ecclesiologists. De Lubac continually refers to the Church as a “she” who perfects that social unity foreshadowed in the “she” of Israel. Her actions are specifically maternal, closely tied to the role of the Virgin. Recalling his previous point about the activity of the Holy Spirit producing the personality of the Church, which inheres in the faithful, Fr. Nichols defends de Lubac’s understanding that Mary is both the “seed” and “fullness” of that ecclesial personality. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin, so too, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the redeemed and produced the Church. Just as the Virgin is immaculate and gives birth to Christ, so the Church is without spot or wrinkle and produces the adopted sons of God. Indeed, the holiness of the Church is found first in the Virgin, a seed that grows in all of the faithful. Fr. Nichols writes of de Lubac:

In a striking comparison with patristic Christology, he speaks of a veritable “communication of idioms” taking place between our Lady and the Church. Just as the union of divinity and humanity in the single Person of Christ enables one to ascribe to him as God what, strictly speaking, belongs to his humanity, and to him as man what, strictly speaking, belongs to his divinity, so the unity between Mary and the Church is of such a kind that each can be described in terms that, strictly speaking, belong to the other. Here the social unity of the Church is thought of as pre-constituted in the grace given to Mary.19

I might add that because salvation is mediated through Mary (for she bore the Savior!), so, too, the Church is the corporate personality whereby we are saved. De Lubac’s insights here shed new light on Mary’s epithet “the Mediatrix of all graces,” a connection that Fr. Nichols does not fail to discuss throughout his second part.

Jean Tillard

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters are familiar with the dimension of ecclesiology developed by Jean Tillard, for it is close to their own vision of the Church, a Eucharistic ecclesiology. In constant dialogue with Eastern Orthodox theologians, most notably John Zizioulas, Tillard spent most of his career presenting an ecclesiology that shed new light on the nature of the Church for Catholic theologians while attracting Orthodox theologians to consider more deeply the role of the successor of Peter. Catholic ecclesiologists should be eager to study his work, as he was a contributor to John Paul II’s ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint.
Tillard developed the notion that the Church is built and sustained by the Holy Eucharist. Being the very Body of Christ, this Sacrament is the New Passover of the New Covenant whereby man is united to the One who redeems, making the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Eucharistia facit Ecclesiam — The Eucharist makes the Church. His sacramental Body (the Eucharist) brings forth the koinonia of his Mystical Body (the Church) in each local community. The multiplication of local churches does not compromise her unity, just as many Eucharistic celebrations do not divide Christ. Tillard’s emphasis on the Eucharist enabled him to discuss each ecclesial mark within the local community where all partake of the definitive Pasch. Indeed, for Tillard, the Catholic Church, thanks to the Eucharist, fully subsists in each local community where koinonia and salvation are always present.20

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

After providing a helpful introduction to the works and theological themes of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Fr. Nichols notes that Balthasar’s overall ecclesiological approach is Christological. The Church is the New Eve who is taken from the pierced side of the “sleeping” Adam on the Cross — born of water and blood. It is also at the foot of the cross that the Mother of God continues her Fiat in the face of the sufferings of her Son, for the Church and Mary are both feminine in their bridal consent. This image is ever before the mind of Balthasar as he studies the nature of the Church. This is the image we should keep in our minds as we study his “constellation ecclesiology.”

According to Balthasar, the Church not only perpetuates the Incarnation but also perpetuates what Christ founded in Mary and his Apostles. Wherever Christ is, so will his Mother and his Apostles be. He focuses on the perpetuity of three archetypes: Peter, John, and Mary. The Church’s unity and stability depend upon the Petrine principle that is perpetuated in the Church’s successors, i.e., her hierarchical structure. But the Petrine principle without John’s loving gaze of the Master would deprive the Church of her mission. Through the Johannine principle, we may even find a mediator between Peter and the Master (Fr. Nichols cites St. Bridgett of Sweden and St. Catherine Sienna’s rebukes of the Avignon popes as examples). The mystic love of John is forever submitting to and revitalizing the authority of Peter.21 Even so, the office holders should channel both the Petrine and Johannine principles if they are to live up to their vocation.

The Marian principle is most central; Mary is the heart of the Church. Fr. Nichols makes clear that this is “not Mariology pathologically inflated suffering from gigantism, invading ecclesiology’s space,” for in relation to the distinct Persons of the Holy Trinity, Mary and the Church are both “Bride and Mother.”22 The Marian principle, so the Church Fathers testify, is the Church’s “spousal-maternal presence,” for the Church continues Mary’s Fiat bringing forth the children of God throughout the ages. The feminine role of Mary within the Church embraces both the Petrine and Johannine principles of Balthasar’s “constellation,” ensuring the Church’s overall feminine character and immaculate heart.23 Mary is the internal unity of the Church, while Peter is her external unity. Fr. Nichols does not fail to tease out the implications of his constellation ecclesiology and provides a sure guide to this aspect of Balthasar’s ecclesiology.

Charles Journet

The Swiss ecclesiologist Charles Journet is the most traditional theologian of the quartet. Closely associated with the French Thomist revival (He was a friend and mentor of the great Thomist Jacques Maritain), Journet provides a scholastic approach to the four marks of the Church in his The Church and the Word Incarnate. Following the scholastic method, he investigates the meaning of the Church through the four Aristotelian causes, emphasizing that we only know the essence of a being through its causes.

The Church is a “sacramentally empowered community.” This aptly summarizes the efficient, formal, and final causes of the Church as explicated by Journet. She is a corporate person who acts in her sacramental capacity to sanctify her members and to offer a perfect gift of love and worship to God (formal cause). The sacramental characters of holy orders, confirmation, and baptism empower the Church to be that kind of priestly community that is able to offer the perfect sacrifice in love (efficient and final causes). Journet explains:

Just as Christ himself had been consecrated Priest by the Father in view of the [Paschal] sacrifice, so the three sacramental characters will consecrate the faithful, permitting them to participate, under diverse titles, in the grand Liturgy of which Christ is both the Priest and the Victim. Thanks to these sacramental characters, the Church with her priests and laity is totally priestly, totally engaged in the celebration of the mysterious worship that was consummated once for all on the Cross. It is true that all is perfected in love, not in worship, but Christian worship is the place of passage through which the double current of love mounts from earth up to heaven and from heaven down to earth.24

Journet shows that the apostolicity of the Church rests in the sacramental character of Holy Orders because Holy Orders is that direct sacramental lifeline ensuring that the Church is a priestly community. She is one, holy, and catholic only because she is apostolically and, therefore, historically bound to her Lord who founded her in space and time. Her apostolicity makes evident that she is pure gift, serving as the most evident witness of her divine origin. But like his Swiss compatriot Balthasar, Charles Journet sees the Church as most fundamentally Marian. Mary is the primal Church, the first recipient of the graces of Jesus Christ, which makes the Church the locus of salvation. In this context Journet locates the co-redemption of Mary and, to a lesser degree, all Christians:

In Mary the Church becomes co-redemptory [sic] namely, of all men, whether they know it or not. . . The redemptive mediation of Christ carries the universal co-redemption of the Virgin, who in turn carries the Church and the particular co-redemptive mediations of Christians, for there are some souls that carry others, as a planet its moons.25

Nick Trosclair
Nick Trosclair


We love the Church because Jesus Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5:25-27). Fr. Nichols’s introduction is not only a call to intellectual study, but, like all worthy intellectual endeavors, a call to loving contemplation. The more we contemplate the origin, nature, and end of the Church, the more we will love the Church. The aspiring theologian will find solid food in these pages that will strengthen both his studies and his faith.

  1. Figuring Out the Church: Her Marks, and Her Masters, 11-12. []
  2. Ibid., 15, drawn from Lumen Gentium, 1. []
  3. Ibid,., 26. []
  4. Ibid., 27. []
  5. Ibid., 29. []
  6. Ibid., 41. []
  7. Ibid., 42. []
  8. Ibid., 46. []
  9. Ibid., 51. []
  10. Ibid., 51. Nichols cites Origen of Alexandria and St. Hilary of Poiters. []
  11. For more on holiness as a mark of the Church see “The Holiness of the Church.” []
  12. Ibid., 62. []
  13. Ibid., 69. []
  14. Ibid., 70. See the section titled “Proof of Sacrificial Priesthood” for patristic evidence concerning the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. []
  15. Ibid., 80. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Ibid., 83. []
  18. Ibid., 87. []
  19. Ibid., 98. []
  20. A nuanced correction of Tillard’s local communion may be found in the CDF’s “On Certain Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion.” []
  21. Figuring Out the Church, 147-148. As patristic witnesses to this relationship of love and office, we might point to the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Cyprian of Carthage who defend the inseparability of the love of the faithful and the authority of the bishop. []
  22. Ibid., 149. []
  23. Balthasar warned that the decline of Marian devotion (in the 1970’s) would have ecclesiological consequences, “a soulless and ugly image of the Church.” Ibid., 151. []
  24. Ibid., 161. []
  25. Ibid., 175. []
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  1. Hello Nick,

    This morning I skimmed your article before I left for work and was excited to read it all as soon as I got the chance. Thank you for this excellent synopsis. I will add the book to the top of my wish list!
    btw, do you have a blog, and do you go by “Catholic Nick”?


  2. Susan,

    I’ve been wondering as well — who is Catholic Nick??


  3. I am pretty sure they are two separate people. As I recall, Catholic Nick is a cradle Catholic, and has been active in Catholic apologetics since well before Mr. Trosclair’s reception into the Church in 2009.


  4. Thanks Fred!

    I have a friend who said that he debated a person called Catholic Nick pretty frequently, but since he never shared the blog with me, I was unable to see their debates. My friend……well exfriend since my conversion, is a very smart young man and so I was curious to see their back and forth.

    Would like to hear about your journey if you are a convert too :)


  5. Hi Susan,

    Wonderful! Aidan Nichols is a great theologian and writer.

    I am not “Catholic Nick,” but I do recommend his blog.

    Nick T.

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