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In the Creed, what does it means when we say that the Church is “apostolic”?

BpCozzens4The Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles, who were chosen by Christ himself, and at whose head he placed Peter. The entire community of Christians received the Apostles’ proclamation of the Gospel, and so the Church in her entirety is called “apostolic.” Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church as a whole remains and will always remain faithful to the teaching of the Apostles. This is called the indefectibility of the Church, because she will never fall away from the Gospel.

To further ensure the Church’s fidelity to the Gospel, Christ has willed that the Apostles be succeeded by the bishops. The Apostles acted together as a body, with Peter at their head, in their leadership of the Church. Thus they are called by the Church a “college.” The college of bishops has succeeded the college of the Apostles, and it is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who has succeeded the role of Peter as head of the college. Thus they are called by the Church a “college,” and their essential unity as one body is understood as the principle of collegiality.

Each bishop works in his particular diocese in a priestly shepherding and teaching role. He possesses the fullness of the priesthood and so is the principal celebrant of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, by which the Church grows in holiness and union with Christ. He is also the chief shepherd of the diocese and so is responsible for compassionate and loving governance of the people entrusted to him. And he is the chief teacher of his diocese, responsible for authentic proclamation of the Gospel.

The teaching office of the college of bishops is called the “Magisterium.” When all the bishops throughout the world, together with the Pope, in the fulfillment of their teaching office, proclaim a doctrine that has been divinely revealed, it must be accepted with the obedience of faith by the whole People of God. “The Church, through its magisterium, has been entrusted with the task of authoritatively interpreting what is contained in revelation, so that ‘all that is proposed for belief, as being divinely revealed, is drawn from the one deposit of faith’ (DV, no. 10). In some cases, these doctrines have been explicitly defined; in others, they are universally considered to be an essential and irreformable element of the one Catholic faith” (USCCB, The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop [1992]).

However, at certain times, the bishops gather in an Ecumenical Council with the Pope, and they teach and proclaim a doctrine that must be accepted with faith because it is divinely revealed. The bishops of the world defined and proclaimed a divinely revealed doctrine at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). This was when they taught that under certain conditions the Pope himself can proclaim a doctrine that is divinely revealed and must be believed by all. This is known as the dogma of papal infallibility.

The entire Church as a body is infallible because the Holy Spirit ensures that she will not err in matters of faith and morals. But this infallibility is exercised in a special way by the Pope and the bishops when together they teach what has been divinely revealed either in the ordinary way of their day-to-day teaching or the extraordinary way of an Ecumenical Council or the Pope himself.

The Pope and bishops also together teach truths that flow from Divine Revelation or that are closely related to it. Sometimes they teach these truths as being definitive, which means they must be firmly accepted and held. Sometimes they teach in a less than definitive way, which requires a religious submission of will and mind.

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.