by Michael Davies


Reference has already been made to the fact that the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Æternus of the First Vatican Council described the Church as "the house of the living God" (Domus Dei viventis). In this house nothing can be authorized for the universal Church that is intrinsically prejudicial to the faith or practice of the Christian life.

What is the basis for our belief that the divine constitution of the Church is indefectible? The First Vatican Council taught in Pastor Æternus that the Church is built on a rock and will continue to stand until the end of time (ad finem saeculorum usque firma stabit). This means that she must continue to stand without essential change until the end of time. We know with absolute certainty that the Church will remain as Christ constituted her ad finem saeculorum. This has been guaranteed by Our Lord Who gave His powers to His Apostles in perpetuity, told them to preach His doctrine in its entirety, and promised to be with them until the end of the world.

Those who refused to accept the teaching of the Apostles would be condemned: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark 16: 16).

In his work De symbolo apostolorum (The Apostles Creed), St. Thomas Aquinas lists four characteristics of the Church which distinguish her from all rival bodies. She is One, Holy, Catholic, and she is also "strong and firm" (fortis et firma). "Haec autem Ecclesia sancta habet quatuor conditiones, quia est una, quia est sancta, quia est catholica id est universalis, et quia est fortis et firma." St. Thomas presented these four characteristics as integral to her divine constitution, and by the term fortis et firma he taught that she is apostolic and indefectible. The Church cannot fail because Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which she is built, and she has the Apostles as a secondary foundation. The word "apostle" means a messenger or ambassador, but in biblical terms it came to be accepted primarily as denoting an authentic witness of the resurrection (Acts 1: 22).

Our Lord has given His formal guarantee that the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church (et portae inferi non prævalebunt adversus eam (Mt. 16: 18). In particular, Peter, among all the Apostles, was the rock upon which the Church was built (tu es Petrus, et super haec petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam­Mt. 16: 18). Peter and his successors were guaranteed a supernatural assistance which would ensure that the faith of the universal Church could never fail,Ego autem rogavi pro te,"But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Luke 22: 32).

The word for "Peter" and "rock" in the original Aramaic is the same,Cephas. It is Peter who is the rock of the Church. Christ teaches plainly that the Church will be the Society of those who acknowledge Him, and that this Church will be built on Peter. The Church is the house of the living God,Domus Dei viventis,and Peter is to be to the Church what the foundation is to a house. He is to be the principle of unity, of stability, of increase. Our Lord established His Church as a society subordinated to a single supreme head, and so it follows from the very nature of the case that this office is perpetual.

The First Vatican Council had intended to promulgate a Constitution on the Church, but there was not enough time available to complete its work. The Constitution did not proceed further than its first draft, and is hence not part of the official teaching of the Church. But as it had been carefully prepared by theologians and presented to the Fathers of the Council it maybe said to represent the mind of the Magisterium at that time. Its theological value is further attested by the conformity evident between it and later papal pronouncements on the nature of the Church. It summarized the indefectibility of the Church as follows:

© 1997 Michael Davies.

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Last modified 27th October, 1997, by David Joyce.