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’s saving 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.
Father Francis Sullivan, SJ, 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, however, 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 v. 28), it remains unclear whether these “bishops” were actually appointed or ordained by the apostle Paul or by any other apostle.
“The New Testament,” Father 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” (From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church, Newman, 2001, p. 14).
Nor does the Didache (Greek, “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” (p.15).
Pope St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, known as “1 Clement,” written 30 years after St. Paul’s death, indicates that the church in Corinth was being led by a group of presbyters (priests), with no indication of a bishop.
Not even St. Ignatius of Antioch, who is a major source for our knowledge of the organization of the early church, suggests that “he saw his episcopal authority as derived from the mandate Christ gave to the apostles. … He never invoked the principle of apostolic succession to explain or justify the role and authority of bishops” (p. 15).
“One conclusion seems obvious,” Father Sullivan writes. “Neither the New Testament nor early Christian history offers support for a notion of apostolic succession as ‘an unbroken line of episcopal ordination from Christ through the apostles down through the centuries to the bishops of today'” (pp. 15-16).
But this is not to say that the doctrine of apostolic succession is without any theological or historical basis. It is just that this particular explanation of it is not valid.
Consequently, Catholic theologians today would insist that Vatican II’s declaration that apostolic succession is “by divine institution” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 20) should not be taken to mean that Christ explicitly determined the episcopal structures of the local churches, or dioceses.
Although almost all Christians would agree that apostolicity involves a succession in the faith of the apostles and a sharing in their mission to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth, many Protestant churches and ecclesial communities would not go beyond that.
On the other hand, Anglicans and the separated churches of the East would agree with the Catholic Church that duly ordained bishops are an essential component of the doctrine of apostolic succession, as is the Eucharist itself.
To be sure, considerable progress has been made since Vatican II in lessening the gap between Catholic and non-Catholic understandings of apostolic succession. Nevertheless, Father Sullivan points out, “apostolic succession in the episcopate remains a church-dividing issue” (p. 9).
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.