The Four Causes of Holy Mother Church

“The School of Athens” (detail showing Aristotle with the elder Plato) by Raphael

“The School of Athens” (detail showing Aristotle with the elder Plato) by Raphael


“In the Nicene Creed we profess the four Marks of the Church which are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These four marks are intrinsically intertwined. These are those things by which we can distinguish the true Church from a false one provided all four are properly fulfilled by the true nature and essence of the One True Church built upon the rock of Peter. We can discern the true from the false by a proper discernment of the causes of a thing. Since God is the perfect cause, His Church will have all four causes which are proper to a thing and it can be demonstrated that Aristotle’s four causes line up with and better explain the four Marks of the Church.” (Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg)


The simplicity, unity, and beauty of Holy Mother Church is stunning when seen properly through the lens of Faith. In the various ways of knowing, that of science, philosophy and revelation, we are afforded unique insights into the divine genius of creation. But in these dark times of skepticism resting on the shifting sands of relativism, for those without the eyes to see and the ears to hear, all that is said and seen of the Body of Christ seems but an irrational fairy tale. It is as the Apostle said in first Corinthians, “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” All truth belongs to God, scientific, philosophical and theological, no matter what the “wise” or the “strong” men say.

Revelation accompanied by the spiritual gift of understanding discloses that all properly understood empirical science is in perfect accord with the created order. Just so, all properly elucidated philosophy is in harmonious concert with the Mind of God. The Catholic Faith is the One True Church. Roman Catholicism is the complete truth revealed by the Logos in the fullness of time. The Roman Catholic Faith is the only religion to possess the four marks of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. It is with magnificent precision that these four marks are confirmed and elucidated by the philosophical four causes articulated by Aristotle, the man St. Thomas called “the Philosopher” and whom Dante Alighieri referred to as “the teacher of those who know.”

The Four Causes

To begin to answer the question, “why is there something instead of nothing?” Aristotle set out to determine causality from four different points of reference. The idea was to give a rational account of the constant change among natural beings from potentiality to realization, all issuing forth from the uncaused cause, the prime mover, God Himself. Aristotle explains the “why something is?” from four different perspectives of explanatory factors we call causes.

In a short description of the four causes, like the one that will follow, the danger of scientific reduction is unavoidable. We live in times when the nature, purpose, and function of language, have been steadily declining. Aristotle’s four explanatory factors are best understood in the field of metaphysics, not by simple word to item correspondence we see almost exclusively in our schools. For an example, if we examine the Material Cause, in metaphysical terms we are talking less about physical material and more of an explanation of potentiality of a substance concerning its accidents, its essence concerning being, or a faculty concerning its actions. Because of the complex nature of the subject, it is worth a visit to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and then to St. Thomas Aquinas for a deeper examination of the four causes in order to more deeply understand their explanatory power. But still, here briefly I recount:

The material cause explains “that from which, as a constituent, an object comes into being.” A simple example would be that the material cause of a table is wood. The formal cause is revealed by the question “what is it?” The formal cause expresses the essential nature of a thing and signifies the archetype from which it comes. There are two types of formal causes, the exemplary and the formal cause. In the case of the table, the exemplary cause is the idea in the head of the carpenter, the formal cause is the table itself after it is built. The efficient cause answers the question, “by what means is it?” It is “what makes of what is made and what changes of what is changed.” In the case of the table, the efficient cause is the carpenter himself who made the table. The final cause answers the question of the purpose or end of a thing and for what sake. The final cause of a table is to set it for a meal or some such occasion where it holds up as a gathering place by which to arrange and share things.

Aristotle’s four causes are the ultimate rational account of causality and they line up in accord with and elucidate the four marks of the Church. This will serve as one example of countless that demonstrate how the enduring and truthful discoveries in the sciences and in philosophy confirm and support Christ’s revelatory Truth.

The Four Marks of the Church

In the Nicene Creed we profess the four Marks of the Church which are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These four marks are intrinsically intertwined. These are those things by which we can distinguish the true Church from a false one provided all four are properly fulfilled by the true nature and essence of the One True Church built upon the rock of Peter. We can discern the true from the false by a proper discernment of the causes of a thing. Since God is the perfect cause, His Church will have all four causes which are proper to a thing and it can be demonstrated that Aristotle’s four causes line up with and better explain the four Marks of the Church.

The Material Cause of the Church is One. The Church is made of all peoples, cultures and languages. The people are the material cause of the Church, but though we are “called out” (ecclesia) we are not the only cause but only one of four to be understood in its proper relation to the other three.  The catechism explains this material cause is one for three reasons: 1. Because its source is the Holy Trinity, three divine persons in perfect unity. 2. Because Christ came to unify all of mankind by the Holy Cross. And 3. Because of the Church’s soul, the Holy Spirit who lives in every faithful human soul and unites us into a communion of believers. Another key to the material cause of Holy Mother Church is that it is visible. We celebrate the sacraments and share the same Catholic beliefs the world over, thus the material cause of oneness can be seen across the entire globe, not completely unlike the wood of the table.

The Formal Cause is the catholicity of the Church. Catholic means universal and brings to mind Christ’s command to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The formal cause, that which gives Holy Mother Church Her shape is Her universality. The body of souls making up the catholic nature of the Church is its form here on earth and is connected with the souls in heaven by the communion of the Saints.  The formal cause of catholic embodies all truth, goodness and beauty universally in God’s creation.

The primary efficient Cause of the Church is God, but the secondary efficient cause is apostolicity. God indeed has made the Church. However, the Church is increased and grown by the participation of the Apostles and their successors. The apostles evangelize and grow the Body of Christ. Think of Pentecost where 3000 new souls were added to the Body of Christ by the primary efficient cause of the Holy Spirit and the secondary efficient cause of the Apostles evangelizing. They were given the power to loose and bind by Christ Himself and by conferring Holy Orders, the apostolicity of the Church continues to make the Church and will until the end of time.

The Final Cause is holy. The reason God made the Church, the purpose and end of the Church is for the final cause of Holiness which is fully manifested in salvation. St. Thomas explained our end in beatitude, which is the epitome of holiness, as follows; “to possess God in full in the beatific vision is to have our powers fully realized, fully perfected, and to find them at rest, in perfect happiness for all eternity.” Christ Himself is the source of all holiness and the final cause of Holy Mother Church. He is the “way, the truth and the life” by which we gain our final end of salvation by the fulfillment of the final cause of holiness.

Be Prepared to Give a Defense

The beginning of the Modern Era saw a revolt against Aristotelian philosophy as a result of the attack on universals precipitated by William of Occam in the 14th century.  We now live in a world that has one by one eliminated the four causes from philosophical considerations. The final cause was the first to go indicating that there is no creator. Shortly after we eliminated the formal cause because “what a thing is” is no longer objective and has become malleable by subjection to the arts of applied science. The material cause is disputed on the grounds of skepticism leaving all that remains, the efficient cause. In a world reduced to scientific knowing, with the 5 senses held up as the “arbiters of truth,” we fancy ourselves the creators, the efficient cause, of all that surrounds us.

It should be no surprise that religions in the modern era suffer from our errors in philosophy. Many modern religions have only three or less of these causes as well, but there is no other faith besides the Roman Catholic Church that has all four marks elucidated by the four causes. The Roman Catholic Church is the One True Faith by Her unity, catholicity, apostolicity and She remains the best and surest holy means of salvation. One in possession of an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the revelatory truths of Holy Mother Church is better prepared to do as the first Pope would advise us in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” Aristotle’s four causes elucidate the four marks of the Church giving philosophical weight to the truthful claims of Holy Mother Church.


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