Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Debate over Role of 'Bishop' in Apostolic Succession Is a Church-Dividing Issue

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Debate over Role of 'Bishop' in Apostolic Succession Is a Church-Dividing Issue

Article excerpt

To say that the church is "apostolic" means that it continues to be faithful to the word, worship, witness and service of the. apostles.

The church preaches the same Gospel. It celebrates the same sacraments. It is the sign and instrument of God'ssaving presence in our midst. And it carries on the ministry of the apostles on behalf of the poor and those in need.

But it is one thing to affirm the connection between the present-day church and the church of the apostles. It is quite another to explain the basis of that connection. In what sense is the church of today in "apostolic succession" with the church of the first century of the Christian era?

Before all else, we must reject the simplistic, mechanistic notion of apostolic succession, what some have derisively referred to as the passing-the-baton theory.

This understanding of apostolic succession, which many Catholics continue to believe, assumes that each validly ordained Catholic bishop can trace his episcopal consecration in an unbroken line back to one of the original apostles or to the apostles collectively.

Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan, my former professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and currently professor at Boston College, offers two reasons for opposing such a view.

First, the apostles were not bishops in the present-day meaning of the word. They were missionaries and founders of local churches. There is no evidence, nor is there likely ever to be any evidence, that any of the apostles took up permanent residence in a particular church, or diocese, as its bishop.

Second, although some local churches had pastoral leaders who were called bishops (see the Acts of the Apostles 20:17-35, especially verse 28), it remains unclear whether these "bishops" were actually appointed or ordained by the apostle Paul or by any other apostle.

"The New Testament," Fr. Sullivan writes, "offers no support for a theory of apostolic succession that supposes the apostles appointed or ordained a bishop for each of the churches they founded."

Nor does the Didache ("The Teaching"), an ancient book of basic instructions for Christians, contain any "suggestion that such pastoral officers would derive their authority in any way from a founding apostle."

Pope St. Clement's letter to the Corinthians, known as 1 Clement, written 30 years after St. …

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