Apostolic Succession and Papacy
in the Roman Catholic Church


By George Desnoyers



            What can be said about the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus appointed apostles to be the Church’s original leaders following his ascension, that Jesus appointed Peter to be the leader of the apostles and the Church’s first pope, that Catholic popes are successors to Peter, and that every Roman Catholic priest has been ordained by a bishop who is in a direct line to a successor to the apostles?




            First, the bishops in the early church were elected by the people living in the district.  The Didache (15:1) tells us that bishops were chosen when the community to be served laid hands on the person it had elected.  Sometimes the people chose a brand new Christian to serve as bishop.  Sometimes they chose a person who had just been traveling through the district.  Sometimes they chose a married man.  In effect, a person’s being chosen by the people to serve as bishop was that person’s ordination to the office of bishop.  Rome had nothing to do with it.


            Ordinarily a call to serve as bishop was not resisted, but such did happen occasionally.  When Ambrose (who had not even been baptized) at first resisted his call to serve as bishop of Milan, the people did not appeal to the Bishop of Rome to get Ambrose to serve.  They appealed to civil authorities.  The Bishop of Rome was not involved at all.


            In the first few centuries the Bishops of Rome did not appoint the bishops of other sees, and were powerless to remove those bishops.  In 335 A.D., when Bishop Athanasius was removed from his see at Alexandria (on account of a supposed heresy), it was not the papacy that removed him, but the emperor Constantine.  The Bishops of Rome did not begin to usurp the power to appoint and remove bishops until after the fourth century.  And when the church did finally usurp the power, it did not take it away from the people.  It took the power away from civil authorities who had earlier taken the power away from the people.  There is absolutely no doubt that the bishops of the early church were appointed by the people living in the respective sees, or by civil authorities, or by a combination of the two.


            Second, there is not a shred of evidence showing that the original apostles systematically ordained people to succeed them (apostolic succession).  The only place where Scripture indicates the apostles were involved in an ordination is in Acts 6:6 where seven men were ordained to wait on the Hellenic Christians who were complaining about not being served adequately.  In that case, scholars are not sure who laid hands on the seven - the apostles, or the people.  More importantly, however, Acts 6:6 is a poor argument for apostolic succession because verses 2-4 plainly indicate that the seven were being ordained, not to do the identical work that the apostles were doing, but something different.  The only other argument that could be made for an apostle ordaining others to serve involves Paul (see, e.g., Acts 14:21-23).  However, Paul was not one of the original twelve, and there is absolutely no suggestion in Scripture that he was appointing people to serve as successors to the twelve.


            Not only did the twelve original apostles not routinely ordain others to serve, and not only did they not appoint successors (only Judas was replaced; most likely to maintain the symbolic number of twelve – see Lk 22:30, Mt. 19:28, and Rev. 21:14), but they were not even ordained to serve as priests themselves.  Nowhere does Scripture say that Jesus laid hands on the twelve and ordained them to the priesthood.  Israel already had priests and teachers of religion.  And, from the comments of Jesus regarding them, it is ludicrous to think that Jesus wanted to make more of them.  In fact, in the early decades of the church there was no distinction made between clergy and laity.  Thus ordinations in the earliest decades were carried out with a primary focus on the services to be performed, and without regard for indelible marks, entitlements, and privileges of “office” that would separate clergy from laity.


            Third, the tradition that Peter served as bishop in Rome did not develop until the third century.  Nothing is seen about Peter being the Bishop of Rome in the New Testament, 1 Clement, or the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch.  It is inconceivable that Peter could have served as Bishop of Rome (I believe in some lists the RCC says he served about 25 years) without it being documented in those early writings.


            In six out of seven letters, it is a primary concern of Ignatius to rally people to support their bishops.  Being artful in persuasion, it is not possible that he would omit mention of Peter’s service as bishop if Peter had indeed served.  Ignatius wrote in the first decade of the second century, and is the first person we know of to distinguish between bishops and elders (sometimes in the early church the role of the apostles was seen as present in the elders rather than in the bishops).  But he describes the office of bishop as a new and embattled office, one requiring defense, and one that it is not yet established at Rome.


            And there is more evidence, from Clement of Rome who is said by the RCC to have become pope in 91 A.D.  After that time, Clement wrote an unsolicited letter of advice (1 Clement) to the church at Corinth.  But, in his letter, he does not write as the Bishop of Rome or make any appeal based on the superiority of Rome.  Also, he makes no distinction between presbyters and bishops, using the words interchangeably and always referring to them in the plural.  Clement seems to indicate that the church at this time was organized under a group of bishops or presbyters, and not by a single bishop.  This structure seems to be confirmed by The Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome during the early second century.  That work refers to Clement, not as a ruling bishop, but as only one of a number of elders (one whose specific responsibility was to write “to the foreign cities” - hence the letter to Corinth).


            Finally, let’s consider the present state of things.  Throughout the long tenure of John Paul II, he has rigidly applied a number of litmus tests in appointing bishops.  Only one other pope is known to have acted similarly in regard to appointing bishops. 


            John Paul has appointed many bishops who were very unpopular choices in their respective dioceses.  In one case, the "Guests at [Wolfgang] Haas's episcopal consecration, including the prince and princess of Liechtenstein, had to step over the bodies of protesters to make their way into the cathedral." (The Next Pope, Peter and Margaret Hebbleth Waite, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000, page 106)  What an image!  The appointment proved to be disastrous, and the steps taken by the Vatican to save face were comical.  The diocese was split in two parts, and Haas was given a new diocese only one twenty-seventh the size of his original one.  But Haas’ new diocese was declared an archdiocese so that his move could be presented as a promotion!


            The damage done long ago by the church’s usurpation of the people’s right to select their bishop was bad enough.  But the present pope’s appointment of only ultra-conservative bishops has caused millions of moderate Catholics to withdraw their allegiance from the Church, and millions more are on the verge of doing so.  For those who are hoping for the death of the present institution in order that a better one might flourish, maybe they should pray along with Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, "Long may he [John Paul II] live." (The Next Pope, page 102)