The Visible Unity of the Church II – more on what it means for the Church to be “visibly” one


In the previous part, we discussed the Church’s claim to be ‘one’, which in part refers to her unicity, in that our Lord Jesus Christ founded one Church rather than many. But we went further than is usually explained, presenting the Church’s teaching on her unity of faith and charity, and particularly the united external profession of faith.

We showed that the Church teaches that Christ’s prayer (“That they all may be one” John 17.21) was the efficacious cause of a unity of faith and charity which is an essential and indefectible property of her nature, and not a mere aspiration for some possible future unity.[2] We showed that the Church herself teaches that this unity of profession is a “motive of credibility” for her claim to be the true religion of Christ, and crucial for her nature as a visible society.

We concluded by stating that the current state of things – wherein those who claim to be Catholics (and are recognised as such) are professing contrary things – this at least appears to contradict these teachings.

The purpose of this part is to establish further the Church’s teaching on her unity of faith through solid authorities. We will use a selection of English-language manuals from the inter-conciliar period as witnesses to the “state of the question” immediately before the confusion of Vatican II. We have already explained elsewhere the value of these texts, which were in use right up until Vatican II. They will show that our interpretation of magisterial documents is accurate, in context, and that we are truly presenting the Church’s teaching.

The Church’s teaching and theology are more certain than our interpretations of facts. But against a fact, there can be no argument: and at first glance here, facts and theology appear to be irreconcilable. After establishing that our understanding of theology is correct, then the next logical step is to re-examine our understanding of the facts, even if the facts themselves remain certain.

The Visible Unity of the Church

Part I The visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and problems faced today.
Part II Further authorities establishing beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.
Part III Hypothesis reconciling the teaching of the Church with apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

Version française:
Première partie

Originally published by LifeSiteNews as What does it mean for the Catholic Church to be visibly one?[1] Reprinted with permission. Photo: St Peter’s Square (Source) In August 2022, I made several updates to clarify that the visible unity here pertains to those things which are taught as divinely revealed to be believed as such, and that it is possible for greater or lesser degrees of unity when it comes to doctrinal points taught at a lower degree.

But before we can look for a solution, we must be clear that there is a problem. Once we have established these points, only then can we consider how to reconcile Church’s teaching with the reality around us. This must not be done by finding legal loopholes to get a ‘not guilty’ plea, as if we are in a court of law. Rather, in the famous maxim attributed to Sherlock Holmes:

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

This article is building on the previous part. They should be read together for our full case, as we have tried to avoid repeating quotes and authorities in both parts.

The unity of the profession of faith

In his encyclical Satis cognitum on the unity of the Church, Leo XIII teaches: “in regard to those who constitute [the Church], and to things which lead to these spiritual gifts, it is external and necessarily visible.”[3] He refers to the Apostle’s mission “to teach by visible and audible signs”, and that “Faith cometh by hearing”, through the preaching of the apostles. He concludes:

Faith itself – that is assent given to the first and supreme truth – though residing essentially in the intellect, must be manifested by outward profession – “For with the heart we believe unto justice, but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Rom. x., 10)[4]

And what is to be professed? Vatican I teaches that:

“All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed.[5]

These sources do not teach that the object of profession is just limited to those truths solemnly defined by the extraordinary magisterium, but rather that it also includes those things taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium as being revealed, and therefore “of faith” (de fide).

Wilhelm and Scannell teach, as do many others, that “it must be a union of belief not simply in so-called fundamental doctrines, but in all revealed truths”.[6] This does not mean that all Catholics are perfectly united on everything that is taught, including matters which are not “de fide” – rather, it means primarily that there is a visible unity in professing what is taught as to be believed as divinely revealed; and it means secondarily that even those who are mistaken or ignorant give no conclusive sign of having rejected the authority of the magisterium teaching these things.

How were these teachings understood by theologians?

Salaverri defines the terms regarding unity:

Unity is the property by which something is undivided in itself and divided from everything else. Therefore unity excludes the inner division of the thing and does not allow it to be a part of some other whole thing.

Social unity, which we are considering, is the working together of several persons for an end, under a supreme social power.

In the Church a threefold social unity is distinguished: of faith, government and worship, “of minds, wills and things to do,” as Leo XIII says in the Encyclical “Satis cognitum D3305.

Unity of faith is the agreement of minds in the same profession of faith, under the supreme Magisterium of the Church.[7]

He then goes on to prove that this unity is a necessary property of the Church, using similar arguments to which we have referred throughout Part I.

Van Noort argues that Christ willed the Church to have a unity of external profession of the faith, in which “all the members of the Church hold and make profession of the same doctrine as it is presented for belief by the Church’s teaching office”.[8] He argues that a merely internal faith is not sufficient to constitute the Church as a visible society: the Church is visibly united in faith, and this is only possible through an external profession. This does not mean that there can be no disputes in the Church about religious matters (let alone political or other matters) – but it “definitely requires that everyone hold each and every doctrine clearly and distinctly presented for belief by the Church’s teaching office.”[9] This will be either explicitly, or at least implicitly “by acknowledging the authority of the Church which teaches them”.[10]

Like Berry, mentioned in the previous part, Van Noort bases this thesis on Christ’s words to his apostles, giving them authority to teach all nations, and requiring that all men profess the same faith preached by these apostles and their successors.[11] Like Berry, he also shows that the early fathers held that the Church was united in their profession of the Faith, and that anyone outside of this unity was a heretic.[12]

This is confirmed by Pius XI, whose encyclical Mortalium animos was written against the following idea:

For they are of the opinion that the unity of faith and government, which is a note of the one true Church of Christ, has hardly up to the present time existed, and does not to-day exist. They consider that this unity may indeed be desired and that it may even be one day attained through the instrumentality of wills directed to a common end, but that meanwhile it can only be regarded as mere ideal.[13]

Pope Pius XI

These are a brief selection of a wider body of authorities that show that this unity of faith definitely refers, among other things, to an external profession of what is taught; and that this is a key way in which the Church is rendered visible. Without this external unity of faith, the visibility of the Church disappears.

Unity as a mark of the Church and motive for credibility

Further, as discussed before, this external unity of profession was acknowledged by the whole world, and was so remarkable that it served as a proof of the Church’s claims. This was taught at Vatican I:

The Church herself, by reason of […] her catholic unity and her unconquerable stability is a kind of great and perpetual motive of credibility and an incontrovertible evidence of her own divine mission.[14]

Vatican I

In his book on fundamental theology, Mgr Fenton writes:

When we say, however, that the Church is a manifest social miracle by reason of its catholic unity, we affirm that an organization so constituted is manifestly beyond the natural competence of creatures to form and to continue.[15]

Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton

Parente, in his Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, holds that this unity (including the unity of external profession) “arises spontaneously from [the Church’s] nature and end” and thereby show her to be visibly the Church of Christ.[16]

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Like many writers, Salaverri holds that Vatican I was defining infallibly when it taught that Christ had “endowed his institution with clear notes to the end that she might be recognised [i.e. are visible] by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word.”[17] By “recognised”, this is understood to mean that the notes are what make the Church “distinctly visible” (ie recognisable as what she is, the true Church of Christ).[18] Salaverri held that it is Catholic doctrine that the four properties of the Creed are such notes.[19] He states that these four notes are necessary and visible properties of the Church, including the unity of external profession:

Unity pertains to the Roman Catholic Church

In the Roman Catholic Church all the faithful of the whole world de facto are subordinate to and obey the one supreme power of the Holy Roman See in the doctrine of the faith, in government and worship, and they do so perfectly and manifestly

In these various texts, unity is treated as negative note or mark of the Church: there may be false religions which are, for a time, totally united, but when one finds an organisation lacking this unity, “by that very fact it is known that it is not the true Church of Christ.”[20] Berry compares it to a shape that lacks four sides: by that lack, we know that it is not a square.[21]

In showing how singular the Church’s unity of faith is, Tanquerey points to all of the “obstacles that oppose [it]”, namely human determination to hold one’s own opinions, the “obscurity” of dogmatic truths, and the Church’s exacting moral standards.[22] But like the other authors, he just takes for granted that this remarkable unity is an essential quality, universal across time and space; and that it is a mark of the Church, and evidence that “that God is assisting the Roman Church in a special way.”[23]


Indefectibility is beyond the scope of this study, but we have already touched on it and so must clarify. It does not just mean that an organisation called the Catholic Church will continue to exist forever, or that it will arrive intact at the end of time after periods of disappearance. Rather it means, as Salaverri teaches, that

The Church as it was instituted by Christ, and in it particularly the Hierarchy and the Primacy, from the will of Christ are perpetual.[24]

This thesis is established by reference to Vatican I and Satis cognitum. It means, among other things, that the Church will always retain her essential constitution and properties, including the unity we are describing. She will always be ‘numerically one’, in the sense that she cannot cease temporarily to exist and then come back into existence – which is what would happen if she were to temporarily lose an essential property, even if it was later regained.[25] Indeed, we do not need a solemn definition to know something cannot lose an essential property (like a square losing its four-sidedness) without ceasing to be what it is – or that something that is recreated after ceasing to be is not numerically same thing that was there before. The visibility of the Church cannot be crassly reduced to the level of something like a football club, or any other merely human grouping: just so, her indefectibility cannot be crassly reduced to mere continuing existence.

Rather, the Church is formally visible as united in faith and charity, distinctly visible as the true Church of Christ, and indefectibly and perpetually so. [26] Any solution to this problem of disunity must be reconcilable with this.

Article continues below.

Monthly Gifts

Submission to the Magisterium

Some try to escape the force of the problem by reducing this external unity of faith to a submission to the Church’s authority, as if anyone who claims that they are thus submissive is therefore professing the same faith (and “Who are you to judge?” they ask). While there may be many cases where it is unknowable whether a given person has departed from this unity, this does not stop us from being able to recognise certain cases (such as when the person clearly knows what they are doing – see the text from Cardinal de Lugo in Part I). This submission means more than just claiming to be subject to the magisterium: it is a real disposition towards an authority, and a mere claim to be its ‘subject’ does not resolve the problem of this disunity.

Hunter writes that this unity is related to the readiness “to submit, at once and implicitly, with interior assent, as soon as the voice of the Church is heard.”[27] But this is not reducing the external unity of faith to that of a claim to be subject to the magisterium. Some people who claim to be subject demonstrate by other means that they are not submissive to this authority.

This is also made clear by Berry, who teaches that the submission to the magisterium must be real. He is quoted as a proof-text for showing that the profession of faith “resolves itself” into this submission, but his reasoning for this just proves the point that we are making. This is illustrated (with our numbers) below:

Consequently no one can be a member of any society unless he submits to its authority according to his ability. Furthermore, in regard to the Church, [1] there must be a unity in the external profession of the true faith, [2] which Christ committed to the teaching authority of the Church [i.e. the faith that has been committed to the teaching authority]. [3] Therefore, the profession of faith necessary for membership in the Church practically resolves itself into submission to her teaching authority.[28]

Fr E. Sylvester Berry

To paraphrase: The faith has been given to the Church to teach, and thereby cause the united external profession; allowing for exceptional cases, those people who are submissive to this teaching authority will therefore be united in the profession of what it teaches.

Constant exercise of the magisterium

This does not refer to pronouncements once or twice a century. In his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, Pius XII teaches that:

In the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord and one Baptism, so there can be only one Faith. And so if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in one Body such as this, and cannot be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.[29]

Pope Pius XII

The authorities cited do not teach that the object of profession is limited to those truths solemnly defined by the extraordinary magisterium. As mentioned, we are to profess also those things taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium as being revealed.

Hunter affirms that this unity of faith is the result of the exercise of the “constant exercise” of authority.[30] While an extraordinary definition by a pope would indeed be such an exercise, he does not specify that it must be at such a high level of authority: in fact, he says that this “constant exercise” of the Church:

… is not confined to the comparatively rare occasions when a Council is assembled, or an ex-cathedral [sic] Decree is issued: but questions on matters which come within the scope of the Infallible authority of the Church are constantly submitted to the tribunals of the Court of Rome; and the decisions given, though not themselves ex-cathedral, are certain with infallible certainty, at least when they are accepted by the Church at large. (See n. 327)

That note 327 clarifies that ‘the Church at large’, refers to the exercise of the universal ordinary magisterium – namely the bishops of the world united to the Pope. It is not a reference to a woolly interpretation of the ‘sensus fidelium’, which today seems to have more in common with the notion of ‘vital immanence’ (condemned by St Pius X in Pascendi Dominici gregis) than what is found in the Church’s theology.

Wilhelm and Scannell make the same point: “This unity of faith is secured by the teaching authority of the bishops, presided over by their infallible visible head, the bishop of Rome. It is a unity of faith in the whole of revelation, and not in certain parts of it.”[31]

Van Noort also makes the same point:

2. The Church’s preaching is a rule of faith which is nicely accommodated to people’s needs. For (a) it is an easy rule […] What could be easier than to give ear to a magisterium that is always at hand and always preaching? […] (c) It is a living rule, in accordance with which it is possible in any age to explain the meaning of doctrines and to put an end to controversies.[32]

As a corollary to these points: in the previous point I discussed the “tertiary sense” of the visible unity of faith – namely a more or less perfect unity on those doctrinal points which have not been taught definitively or as divinely revealed (e.g. those things taught authoritatively but not definitively in encyclicals). This tertiary sense is not the focus here – but it is worth noting that the degree of disunity even on these points at our present time is unprecedented.

This wider issue of the rule of faith is outside the scope of this article – especially whether it is possible for the Church to apparently go silent, and simply stop demanding “complete and unqualified acceptance and profession of all her teachings.”[33]

But needless to say, it is possible for people to hypocritically claim that they are subject or submissive to the magisterium, and sometimes such claims are manifestly merely verbal and unreal. Glossing over this undermines the visibility of the Church and contradicts the dogma that the Church is one. And this brings us back to the key point: that this unity must be visible and external.

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What Unity of Faith doesn’t mean

We have already mentioned that this does not mean that Catholics will be united about things outside of the rule of faith – such as certain political systems and so on. It is about the unity of faith. Returning to this “tertiary sense”, this does not exclude debate – even fierce debate – about unsettled theological questions (for example about the interaction of grace and free will). A diminution of unity on such matters may also lead, practically speaking, to a diminution of visibility, whilst coexisting with perfect unity and visibility of the faith itself.

This united profession of the faith also does not exclude some people losing the faith internally, whilst continuing to profess the same faith outwardly. The “common opinion” is that such secret heretics – even if formal and pertinacious – are still members of the Church, until their heresy becomes manifest.[34]

Further, as discussed in Part I, these writers are not describing a visible unity of submission coexisting with a visible disunity of profession. The external fact, which was so strikingly obvious that it served as a proof of the Church’s claims, was the visible unity in the faith as professed, not that every Catholic was able to say a set of words claiming to be subject to the pope and the magisterium. As mentioned in Part I, a united verbal submission (even if not merely verbal) would not be striking or impressive. It is just not what the thesis means.

In fact, if all Catholics were truly submissive to the magisterium, and yet massive disunity of belief and profession still arose, then far from being impressive, this would suggest that the teaching office of the Church was quite defective. On the contrary: the magisterium is not merely a criterion for this united profession but is also its efficient cause. In other words, a united magisterium causes a united profession of faith (even if there remain a few here and there who profess the wrong thing in good faith). In short, the overwhelming picture is of a Church where everyone professes the same faith, and has done so for two millennia.


In this article we have established that:

  • The Church is necessarily united in her profession of faith;
  • This constitutes a mark or note necessary to identify the true Church of Christ;
  • The Church cannot lose this unity;
  • It is so strikingly universal across space and time that it is a motive of credibility for the Church’s claims;
  • While this external profession is caused by submission to the magisterium, it is not reducible to it such that some merely verbal formula would suffice; and that
  • Even if this verbal submission did suffice, it would not constitute a striking mark establishing the Church’s credibility.
  • All of this is because the Catholic Church is, of her nature, united in faith.

Reading these texts in the early twenty-first century is challenging. It is difficult to imagine a world in which the Catholic Church, united in the profession of the faith, was such an evident fact that it could be the starting point for various other theses. But nonetheless, this is clearly what the Church and her theologians taught.

In addition to the magisterial texts, we have already established elsewhere that we cannot just dismiss these theologians as mistaken. These are translations of seminary textbooks, authorized by local ordinaries, in use just before the crisis began. They are witnesses to the faith: and as Mgr Fenton claimed, some are (“in a certain sense”) the exercise of the ordinary magisterium. To the extent that they are unanimous, they are also of extremely high authority. Having established this in detail, we now need to consider its implications for the current state of things.

Originally published by LifeSiteNews as What does it mean for the Catholic Church to be visibly one?[1] Reprinted with permission.

In August 2022, I made several updates to clarify that the visible unity here pertains to those things which are taught as divinely revealed to be believed as such, and that it is possible for greater or lesser degrees of unity when it comes to doctrinal points taught at a lower degree.

The Visible Unity of the Church

Part I The visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and problems faced today.
Part II Further authorities establishing beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.
Part III Hypothesis reconciling the teaching of the Church with apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

Version française:
Première partie

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[1] 12 April 2021

[2] Satis cognitum 6,, Mortalium animos 7.

[3] Satis cognitum 6,

[4] Ibid 3.

[5] Vatican I. Translation of this text by John Daly.

[6] Wilhelm and Scannell, Manual of Catholic Theology based Scheeben’s Dogmatik Vol II – reprinted in 2017 by Os Justi Press. 348

[7] Joachim Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, in Sacrae Theologia Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015. 1154.

[8] G. Van Noort Dogmatic Theology Vol. II: Christ’s Church, The Newman Press, Westminster Maryland 1959, p 126.

[9] Van Noort 128

[10] Van Noort 128

[11] Van Noort 127.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mortalium Animos 7.

[14] Vatican I, Chapter 3 on Faith.

[15] Mgr Joseph C. Fenton, We Stand with Christ, published as Laying the Foundations, Emmaus Road Press, Steubenville Ohio 2016. Ch. 18 Pt. 10

[16] Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee 1951, p 292.

[17] Vatican I Ch 3 on Faith 10.

[18] Salaverri 1218.

[19] Salaverri 296.

[20] Salaverri 493. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 147. See also: 1212: “b) Negative, that is, having a negative function, it is that by which, when it is discovered to be lacking in a Christian society, by that very fact it is known that it is not the true Church of Christ.” And also 1218: “A proof from the Notes by way of exclusion is reduced to this: These four Notes cannot be lacking in the true Church. But they are not lacking in the Roman Catholic Church, while they are lacking in all the other Christian societies. Therefore only the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. This is a proof which proceeds from the definition of a negative Note, which is in the major proposition, but it is equivalent to a demonstration from the positive Notes for the Roman Catholic Church, because all other Christian societies are excluded.” Cf. also Berry 152: “If we take unity of faith, worship, and government, regardless of truth or legitimacy, we have only a negative mark. Any Church lacking unity in these things cannot be the true Church of Christ […] Unity, considered in itself, is merely a negative mark, yet it has always had the force of a positive mark due to the fact that unity in any form has always been found in one church alone.” Cf. Also Sylvester Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Vol I 3rd edition, Benzinger Bros 1894, p 316. Van Noort II 159. Fenton 18.10

[21] Berry 147.

[22] Adolphe Tanquerey, Manual of Dogmatic Theology, Desclee, New York 1959, Vol I. p 135.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Salaverri Thesis Ch III A.1. Th. 7 .

[25] Salaverri 303-5, Berry 59-60, and St Pius X Lamentabili 1907 (Denzinger 2053)

[26] Salaverri 1123.

[27] Hunter 327

[28] Berry 221.

[29] Mystici Corporis Christi 22,

[30] Hunter 327.

[31] Wilhelm and Scannell, 348.

[32] Van Noort 122.

[33] Berry 160

[34] Salaverri 1052.

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