Seeing as how Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized this weekend, I thought it most appropriate to address the issue of Apostolic Succession. A few days ago, in fact, I had a discussion on this topic with my oldest sister. She does not believe in infallibility for any member of the hierarchy. My sister, of course, makes the common mistake of confusing infallibility (inability to teach error under certain conditions) with impeccability (sinlessness). I have addressed this issue in other posts, so we won’t cover infallibility or impeccability much here. I believe, however, that my sister’s confusion is relevant to the discussion of Apostolic Succession.
As Catholics, we believe Jesus established the hierarchy; gave it his authority; has promised to protect it from error; and will preserve the hierarchy’s existence until His return. What does all this mean? It means that, under certain conditions, the hierarchy is protected error; it has the authority of Christ; and the most basic offices of the hierarchy (pope and bishop) must continue until the Parousia. Apostolic Succession, therefore, is absolutely essential to the Church’s survival. If the hierarchy were to cease to exist, then Jesus was either mistaken, or He was a liar.
There are those Christians who would have us believe that Apostolic Succession is nonsense. They say there is no biblical precedent for Apostolic Succession. Is this true?
In Matthew 28:20 Jesus promises to be with the Church until the end of the world. This means that the Church itself must continue until then. Even more, the offices established by Christ (pope and bishops) must also continue until the end. The Church and its Teachings must remain the same until the end. Hence, no matter how morally depraved an individual bishop or pope may be, his authority remains; and he still may be infallible under certain circumstances.
We are now in the year 2014, and Jesus has not yet returned. Furthermore, the Apostles (the original bishops) are dead. In order for the Church to continue as it was established by Christ, there must be successors to the Apostles. This is what Apostolic Succession is all about. Any Christian can surely appreciate that. Yet, is there an example of Apostolic Succession from Scripture?
We can see an example of Apostolic Succession if we turn to Acts 2. Verses 15-26 show how Judas Iscariot was replaced. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus when he accepted 30 pieces of silver to turn Jesus over to the Sanhedrin. He could have retained his authority as an Apostle if Judas had repented of his sin. Instead, Judas despaired and committed suicide.
The Apostles understood the significance, not only of Jesus having picked twelve apostles, but of replacing one who was no longer among their number. In fact, in Acts 2, St. Peter actually quotes the Old Testament to defend replacing Judas! Hence, the Prince of the Apostles himself understood the significance of Apostolic Succession. Even more, he and the other Apostles put it into practice!
It is my personal belief that if the Apostles believed in Apostolic Succession, practiced it, and understood it as part of their duty given them by Jesus, then we ought to hold to it ourselves. What better time-other than a conclave-to discuss and defend Apostolic Succession, than during the week of the very first time the Catholic Church will canonize two popes at once? Apostolic Succession has always been of great importance to the Catholic Church. It is a divinely instituted practice, and it is one promised to continue until Our Lord returns.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity