Apostolic Succession: A Minimalist Proposal
I would like to move the recent discussion concerning apostolic succession from the “What Difference Does the Vowel Make?” thread to this one (hey, it’s nearing 500 comments and counting). In the interest of narrowing the focus, I would suggest that there are two related questions that need to be asked: (1) What historical circumstances need to have occurred in order to substantiate apostolic succession?, and (2) What historical circumstances need to have occured in order to invalidate apostolic succession? And keep in mind that we’re only talking about its historical truth or falsehood, not about its theological significance, if there is any.
My contention is that Protestants and Catholics (perhaps unwittingly) have differing standards here, which means that appeals to historical evidence often fail to hit the proper targets.
Speaking for the Catholic side, I would suggest that most of the data adduced by Protestants from secondary sources — data that is being used to delegitimize apostolic succession — actually only beats up a straw man by attempting to poke holes in aspects of a position that we do not actually insist upon.
For example, let’s say the Protestant cites a scholar who attempts to show that the lists of Roman bishops are not completely exhaustive. In the Protestant’s mind he has falsified the Catholic claim, while in the Catholic’s mind his claim is untouched. The reason for this is that the absence of a name in an ancient list does not in any sense mean that there was no Roman bishop during that time, and in fact, it probably just means that the one compiling the list did not remember or did not have access to that particular bishop’s name. If you were to corner a U.S. History prof and ask him to rattle off the names of all our presidents from Washington to Obama, and if he missed a couple, that does not alter the number of presidents we have actually had, nor does it entail that there was a gap in the succession and a corresponding illegitimacy of all the presidents after it.
For another example, the degree of ecclesiological awareness that the early Roman bishops had about their own office, or the level of detail their writings demonstrate regarding the extent of their jurisdiction, is beside the point when it comes to the Catholic claims about the papacy. It is quite possible that no bishop thought of his episcopate as extending beyond the walls of his own particular congregation until divisions arose that were not merely intra-congregational, but between one congregation, or one bishop, and another. Insisting upon the criterion that unless a bishop of Rome wrote a treatise outlining a fully-developed doctrine of the papacy then therefore the papacy is a corruption, is to insist upon something that the Church does not even demand. Such an expectation is as silly as saying that unless Jesus of Nazareth could have given a Christologically erudite account of his own divine identity and mission when he was four, then therefore his subsequent claims were late, and thence illegitimate, developments. No, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then there’s no reason why the same could not be true of his mystical Body and its own self-awareness.
What, then, needs to have occurred in antiquity for the bare historical claim of apostolic succession to be established?
My suggestion is rather minimal: all that needs to have taken place is that from the time of St. Peter until the papacy of Francis, there has always been a leader of the Roman church with full ministerial powers. It doesn’t matter if he used the title of “Pope,” it doesn’t matter if he had a full understanding of the extent of his own authority, and it doesn’t matter if he worked closely with, or more independently from, the other ecclesiastical leaders within his region.
And what set of historical circumstances need to have transpired to delegitimize apostolic succession?
Given what I suggest above, such an invalidation would only have occurred if, say, a bishop of Rome died and not only was there no immediately chosen successor, but even the validly ordained body of men with the authority to appoint one decided, for some unknown reason, not to. And after this gap in the line of succession had lasted long enough for all the Church’s bishops to die, some self-appointed man came along who successfully re-established the entire Christian Church by illicitly assuming authority he did not have, and then passing that pseudo-authority along to others (whose heirs are all the current Catholic bishops today) in what turned out to be perhaps the most elaborate hoax ever foisted upon the people of this planet, one that somehow escaped the notice of any historian then or since, as well as duped both the people of its own generation as well as billions of others since.
If my answers to the two questions posed above reflect faithfully the Catholic position, then of the two sets of historical circumstances outlined, which is more plausible and likely to have transpired?