Apostolic Succession and the Bishop of Rome: A Case for Roman Catholicism


In a post a few weeks ago, I presented a historical argument in defense of apostolic succession. Basically, apostolic succession is the view that Christ handed his own divinely validated authority on to his apostles, who likewise handed the same authority on to further successors.

In that post, I presented apostolic succession as a solution to the “problem of revelation.” The problem, in short, is how to ground our trust in the authority of divine revelation. Christians believe that we have access to truths which are in principle unknowable by reason alone, and which are only capable of being known through divine revelation. But how can we know whether something actually is divine revelation? For example, most Christians believe Scripture contains divine revelation. Why? One possible answer might be that Scripture claims to contain divine revelation and what Scripture claims is true. In that case, we would need some justification for believing in the truth of Scripture independent of its status as possible divine revelation. In other words, we cannot trust Scripture’s claim to be divine revelation on the basis of it being divine revelation. We must have some other ground for trusting Scripture’s claim.

Apostolic authority is, as I’ve suggested, a compelling solution. Essentially the argument for such goes something like this:

  1. Jesus rose from the dead, which constituted divine validation of his authority
  2. Jesus appointed apostles and passed on his own authority to them
  3. Those apostles later appointed successors, likewise bestowing their authority upon them.
  4. Therefore, the apostles and their successors had the authority to preach divinely revealed truths

How does this help solve the problem of revelation? Because the first three premises, as I argued in the previous post, can be reasonably established on historical grounds, apart from the authoritative status of Scripture. Hence apostolic succession is able to ground trust in things such as the canon of Scripture, which could not otherwise be known to us.

But, even after accepting the reality of apostolic succession, several other problems may arise. Chief among these is the historical fact that several distinct branches of the Church lay claim to apostolic succession (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, some branches of Protestantism such as Anglicanism). If these branches had merely geographical or liturgical variances, but maintained doctrinal unity, there would not be much of an issue. But the fact is, these various branches can teach radically different and opposing doctrines, often on matters of upmost importance.

It is clear, then, that merely possessing a valid claim of apostolic succession cannot be an absolute determining factor in grounding trust in authority (that is, even assuming all who claim such actually have such, which is a whole other matter). There must be some further means of determination.

In this post, I would like to present an argument for precisely such a means: namely, communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first and supreme of all bishops. My argument will be threefold: first, from theological fittingness; second, from the biblical witness; third, from historicity.

The Theological Argument

The argument from fittingness comes from Saint Thomas Aquinas. The argument begins by noting the general nature of sacraments. A sacrament is “the sign of a sacred thing inasmuch as it sanctifies men” [1], a “spiritual grace conferred in the mystery of visible things” [2]. The principal sacraments, of course, which are accepted by most Christians, are baptism and the Eucharist (Communion). The source of the sacraments is Our Lord himself, who, in taking flesh, became a visible, physical sign of the spiritual, divine reality. All sacraments, thus, are images of Christ’s own Incarnation and participations in His divine life.

The sacraments are necessitated by human nature. Because human beings consist by nature of both a physical body and a spiritual soul, they are able to grasp spiritual truths, but do so primarily through the medium of physical, sensible realities. Since man is made for communion with God, God has provided a means for him to begin such communion in this life, according to man’s own mode of knowledge. This is what a sacrament is: a physical “sign of things sacred insofar as it sanctifies man” [3].

As we have said already, it is Christ himself who is the principal agent of the sacraments. It was he who instituted them, and it is he who is the source of their efficacy. But since Christ has withdrawn his bodily presence from earth, it was necessary that he appoint ministers to serve as visible agents of the dispensation of the sacraments. These are the apostles and their successors, who act as visible signs of Christ’s own agency in administering the sacraments.

Saint Thomas writes:

 “But a minister is compared to his lord as an instrument to its principal agent, for, as an instrument is moved by the agent for making something, so the minister is moved by his lord’s command to accomplish something. Of course, the instrument must be proportionate to the agent. Hence, the ministers of Christ must be in conformity with Him. But Christ, as the Lord, by His very own authority and power wrought our salvation, in that He was God and man: so far as He was man, in order to suffer for our redemption; and, so far as He was God, to make His suffering salutary for us. Therefore, the ministers of Christ must not only be men, but must participate somehow in His divinity through some spiritual power, for an instrument shares in the power of its principal agent” [4].

This “spiritual power” by which the ministers dispense the sacraments as instruments of Christ’s agency is that authority granted unto the apostles and passed from them to their successors. In distributing the sacraments, these ministers stand in the place of Christ himself as his instruments.

Aquinas goes on to write:

One must not say, of course, that power of this sort was given by Christ to His disciples in such a way as not to flow on through them to others; it was given “for building up the Church,” in the Apostle’s phrase. So long, then, must this power be perpetuated as it is necessary to build up the Church. But this is necessary from the death of the disciples of Christ to the very end of the world. Therefore, the spiritual power was given to the disciples of Christ so as to pass on from them to others” [5].

The sacraments are necessary for the life of the Church, since the sacraments are the means by which the Church is united to Christ in grace. But God intends the life of the Church to continue until the very end of the world. As such, both the sacraments and their administers must continue also.

This brings us again to the conclusion of our previous post, that the successors of the apostles possess the very authority of Christ. The primary successors are the bishops, but, as Aquinas goes on to note, their authority can also be delegated to priests and deacons. But once again we arrive at our initial problem: since the successors of the apostles have split into various branches, how can we determine which maintains the actual, full authority of Christ?

It is here that we can begin to make the specific case for the fittingness of communion with the Bishop of Rome. Saint Thomas lays out four distinct arguments for this case: the argument from visible unity, the argument from doctrinal unity, the argument from natural fittingness, and the argument from exemplarity.

The first is as follows:

Although people are set apart according to differing dioceses and states, yet, as the Church is one, so must the Christian people be one. Therefore, as for the specific congregation of one Church one bishop is called for who is the head of that Church; so for the entire Christian people there must be one who is head of the entire Church” [6].

Christians are dispersed throughout the entire globe; yet, since Christ is one and the Church is united to Christ as his body, the Church must also be one. As in a single congregation the pastor is the head and principle of unity, and as in a single geographical region a bishop is head and principle of unity, so for the whole Church there ought to be a single head and principle of unity, to whom all Christians, all clergy, and all other bishops must be submitted.

The next argument is from the need for doctrinal unity:

The unity of the Church requires that all the faithful agree as to the faith. But about matters of faith it happens that questions arise. A diversity of pronouncements, of course, would divide the Church, if it were not preserved in unity by the pronouncement of one. Therefore, the unity of the Church demands that there be one who is at the head of the entire Church. But, manifestly, in its necessities Christ has not failed the Church which He loved and for which He shed His blood . . .  Therefore, one must not doubt that by Christ’s ordering there is one who is at the head of the entire Church” [7].

As we said in the previous post, the purpose of the Church is to proclaim and live the message of Christ’s kingdom, which requires knowledge of the divinely revealed truths contained in the content of that message. The Church cannot effectively proclaim and live Christ’s Gospel if it is not one, if it is divided and in disagreement about matters of significant truths pertaining to the Gospel. This is precisely our original problem: what do we do about the fact that the successors of the apostles have broken into various branches, which branches have fairly important differences in crucial matters of faith? The answer, as Aquinas suggests here, is that there is a single head of the Church who can make final determinations on questions of faith, and to whom the rest of the Church must be united and in submission. Without such a head, the unity of the Church — and thus the unity of the Faith itself — becomes effectively impossible.

The third argument is the one least likely to be found convincing to our modern, democratic principles. It is an argument very similar to that which Aquinas makes in defense of political monarchy in his work On Kingship. In short it contends that a single governing principle of a multitude is more naturally fitting than other forms of governing:

No one should doubt, furthermore, that the government of the Church has been established in the best way . . . But the best government of a multitude is rule by one, and this is clear from the purpose of government, which is peace; for peace and the unity of his subjects are the purpose of the one who rules, and one is a better constituted cause of unity than many. Clearly, then, the government of the Church has been so disposed that one is at the head of the entire Church” [8].

It’s worth noting that this conclusion, that the Church has a single head who is its governing principle and source of unity, is accepted by all Christians. As Scripture explicitly states, Christ is the reigning head of the Church his body. What all Christians do not agree on, however, is whether the Church is further headed by a physical representative of Christ on earth. And it is here that we approach the final of the four arguments:

The militant Church, moreover, derives from the triumphant Church by exemplarity . . . But in the triumphant Church one presides, the one who presides over the entire universe—namely, God . . . Therefore, in the militant Church, also, there is one who presides over things universally . . . 

But let one say that the one head and one shepherd is Christ, who is one spouse of one Church; his answer does not suffice. For, clearly, Christ Himself perfects all the sacraments of the Church: it is He who baptizes; it is He who forgives sins; it is He, the true priest, who offered Himself on the altar of the cross, and by whose power His body is daily consecrated on the altar—nevertheless, because He was not going to be with all the faithful in bodily presence, He chose ministers to dispense the things just mentioned to the faithful, as was said above. By the same reasoning, then, when He was going to withdraw His bodily presence from the Church, He had to commit it to one who would in His place have the care of the universal Church” [9].

The Church on earth is an image and reflection of that in heaven. The Church in heaven is the perfected Church, the Church which has already completed its task; and as such it is the model for the Church on earth, towards which the latter must always strive. The Church in heaven, as we have already noted, has as its head God himself in Christ. The Church on earth, then, as image of the Church triumphant, ought likewise to have a head here on earth, to stand as visible representative of Christ in the role of shepherd of the universal Church.

Saint Thomas’ overall case can thus be summarized:

  1. Submission to a single earthly pastor is necessary for the unity of the Church
  2. Christ provides what is necessary for the Church
  3. Therefore, Christ has provided that the Church ought to be in submission to a single earthly pastor

Now, perhaps one might think that these arguments of Saint Thomas show such a conclusion to make sense, while still remaining not completely convinced of its absolute theological necessity. Given that the conclusion is at least plausible, how could we show that it is actually the case? To do so, we will once more need to make use of biblical and historical evidence.

The Biblical Argument

The Scriptural support for the supreme authority of a single pastor — namely, the Bishop of Rome (or Pope) — is quite strong. The chief text comes from Matthew 16: 13-19, which reads:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare′a Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli′jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” [10].

The scene is the famous “confession” wherein Peter proclaims the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus’ response to this confession is astounding. Jesus renames the disciple. His birth name, as is indicated earlier in the Gospel as well as in this very passage, was Simon. But at this crucial moment, Jesus gives to him the new name “Peter.” In doing so, Jesus is recalling a very ancient Hebrew tradition, harkening back to God himself renaming Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel. In each of these cases, the new name given has a specific meaning relative to the individual’s identity. In the case of Abram, God had just chosen him and made a covenant with him, included in which was the promise to give a multitude of descendents. It is then that God gives him the new name Abraham, which means “father of many.” Similarly, God commands Sarai to be renamed Sarah, which means “princess,” showing her new status of nobility as matriarch of future nations and kings. Later, God gives Jacob the name Israel, meaning “struggles with God,” after Jacob’s famous night of wrestling with the strange man who apparently turns out to be God himself.

The same is true for the new name given to Simon. Peter is the English for the Greek Petros, which was the word for rock. Jesus renames Simon “Rock,” and then immediately declares: “And on this rock I will build my church.” The meaning could not be any clearer. Simon Peter himself is to be the rock upon which Christ builds the Church.

There is a common objection often raised to this conclusion, which contends that the “rock” to which Jesus refers is not the person Peter, but Peter’s confession of faith. But even if this is the case, it is still true that Jesus personally identifies Peter with the confession of faith upon which the Church is built. If the confession is the rock, then by renaming Simon “Rock” Jesus is saying that the identity of the faith is so closely connected with the person of Peter that the exact same image must represent them both.

But the passage is not finished. Jesus also explains that this very confession of faith was divinely revealed specifically to Peter. Further, Jesus 1) gives to Peter the very keys to the kingdom of heaven, and 2) promises him that whatever he “binds” and “looses” on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. These details demand careful attention. As many have noted, “keys” are a symbol of authority. The one who has the keys to a city has authority over it; and here Peter is handed the keys to the kingdom of heaven itself [11]. In addition to this, Jesus is actually making a reference here to a specific biblical passage. In Isaiah 22, God removes Shebna as royal steward of Israel and passes the office to Eliakim. Verses 19-22 read:

I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eli’akim the son of Hilki’ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your belt on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. [12].

The royal steward in ancient Israel stood in the place of the king as his appointed representative, wielding the king’s authority. As we see in the last sentence of the above passage, the steward receives “the key of the house of David.” In other words, the very authority of the Davidic royal line. Notice how closely Jesus’s statement to Peter mirrors this sentence. God gives to Eliakim the “key of the house of David,” Jesus gives to Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” God says that Eliakim will open and shut, Jesus tells Peter that he will bind and loose. Jesus, as the Gospels explicitly tell us, is the descendent of David, the true and ultimate King of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah. And here, Jesus is quite clearly appointing Peter as his royal steward. As Jesus’ kingship is universal, so must be Peter’s stewardship. [13].

It’s important to note that the authority to “bind and loose” is also later given to the other apostles (in Matthew 18:18), but only after it had first been given to Peter. And the possession of the keys is never given to anyone other than Peter.

Throughout the New Testament, the preeminence of Peter among the apostles is strikingly evident. Every time all the twelve apostles are listed by name, Peter’s name is always listed first. Peter is often a spokesperson for all the apostles. After the resurrection, Jesus gives Peter a threefold command to “Feed my lambs . . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21: 16-17). This command is not given to any of the other apostles, and is significant because Jesus is effectively delegating to Peter the task of shepherding the flock, the very role which belongs to Jesus himself as ultimate shepherd. At Pentecost, it is Peter who stands up and gives the first sermon to the Church. Throughout Acts Peter is consistently portrayed as the leader of the early Church, and he is indicated to be such in several of the letters of St. Paul.

Now, some will readily admit that Peter was the head apostle and leader of the early Church, but deny that Peter’s office was passed on to any successors after his death. We have already established, however, the reality of apostolic succession in general. If the office of the apostles is passed to their successors, and if Peter holds a special office above the other apostles, it would make sense that the successors of Peter would likewise maintain that special office among the other apostolic successors.

If this is the case, we should expect to see some indication of it in the historical witness of the writings of the early Church fathers. And the truth is, we do. Overwhelmingly so.

The Historical Argument

St. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, where he, along with St. Paul, were both martyred by the emperor Nero in the 60s A.D. St. Peter’s office and authority, however, were passed on to the line of his successors. The early church took records of the names of each of these successors, and we can trace them, name by name, all the way to the successor alive today: Pope Francis. This is seen, for instance, in the second century writings of Saint Irenaeus. After explaining that the Church in Rome was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, he goes on to state:

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles” [14].

After going on to list several other names in the line, he concludes:

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth” [15].

Notice that it is the succession of the bishops of Rome specifically which is appealed to as evidence for the unity of the faith. Indeed, in this same text St. Irenaeus makes one of the most explicit early church affirmations of the authority of the Bishop of Rome:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority” [16].

In context, St. Irenaeus is responding to various heresies that have arisen amongst the Christian people. These heresies claimed to have the true faith; how, then, was one to determine which was the actual faith delivered to the world from Christ? Irenaeus gives a twofold answer: first, adhere to the successors of the apostles. Second, all the successors of the apostles must themselves adhere to the Church at Rome, which is “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church” and which has “preeminent authority.” Hence already in the second century we see that it is believed that “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with” the Church at Rome.

Around this same time in the second century, a dispute arose concerning the proper day of celebrating Easter. The churches of Asia Minor held to a tradition that differed from that of the rest of the world. As a result, the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Victor, decided to excommunicate all the churches of Asia Minor. Other bishops disagreed with this decision, and St. Irenaeus ended up mediating between the two parties in order to convince Pope Victor to change his mind. What’s significant is that none of the other bishops or parties questioned Pope Victor’s authority to unilaterally make the decision of excommunicating an entire region of churches. Everyone seems to have just taken it for granted that the Bishop of Rome did indeed have such a power. Their appeal to Pope Victor was thus not a questioning of his authority but of the prudential judgement of the decision.

More evidence from early Church fathers abounds. In the third century, Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.” And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained; ” John 20:21 yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” Song of Songs 6:9 Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God? ” Ephesians 4:4

And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree — when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated” [17].

Here Saint Cyprian makes clear that the Church on earth must have a visible unity, which unity is achieved by communion with Peter the rock and foundation, and with his successors. Saint Cyprian indicates that all the apostles are equal insofar as they are apostles, but Peter specifically is “the origin of that unity” which binds them. Peter is “the one” from whom the unity of the Church has its beginning. Notice towards the end of the second paragraph, Cyprian remarks of the Church that “her head is one, her source one.” Here this is used in reference to God as the ultimate head of the Church. But this fits exactly with what we established earlier about the fittingness of the office of Pope: God is the ultimate head/source of unity of the Church, but the Bishop of Rome is his visible representative on earth. Thus Saint Cyprian can say both that it is God who is the source of the Church’s unity, and that it is the chair of Peter which is the “origin” of the Church’s unity.

Elsewhere he makes a similar remark:

“After such things as these, moreover, they still dare — a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics— to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access” [18].

Here he calls the Church at Rome the “throne of Peter” and states that it is the “chief Church whence priestly unity takes its source.” The word translated “chief” here is elsewhere translated “principal,” and is a word which denotes a position of leading/governing. The Church of Rome governs the entire Church.

In the fourth century, Saint Optatus wrote a work against the Donatist schism which had arisen. Schism differs from heresy in that the latter is a holding to false doctrine while the former is a split from the visible Church. Saint Augustine writes on this:

“We believe also in The Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic . For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe. Wherefore neither do the heretics belong to the Church catholic” [19].

The Donatist schism took place in Carthage when there was dispute over the consecration of a bishop. The “Donatists” as they would be called, claimed that the bishop of Carthage had been invalidly consecrated, and so they set up their own bishop. This, obviously would cause some significant confusion. Both groups claimed to have a valid bishop and hence authority of the faith; but which was right? Who could be believed? Saint Optatus wrote the following to answer this question and provide a response to the Donatist challenge:

“It is now our business to show . . . which is the One Church, called by Christ His Dove and His Bride. The Church, then, is One, and her holiness is not measured by the pride of individuals, but is derived from the Sacraments . . . . The Church cannot be amongst all the heretics and schismatics . . . You, [Donatists], have said that she is with you alone . . . . Where in that case will be the application of the Catholic Name, since on this very account was the Church called Catholic, because she is in accordance with reason, and is scattered all over the world?” [20].

Here St. Optatus contends that the true Church must have a visible unity, that it cannot be made up invisibly of “all” the different sects and schisms but must have an actual unity. Since the Donatists and the Catholics were not in communion and hence did not have visible unity, they could not both be the Church. Optatus goes on to explain how the Donatists are confined to a small geographical location, while the Catholic Church covers the entire globe, and yet still maintains its visible unity. How is it possible for the Church to be separated by countries and continents, and to consist of many different bishops, and yet still have a visible unity? He writes:

“We have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world. We must now mention its Adornments, and see where are its five Endowments . . .  amongst which the Cathedra is the first; and since the second Endowment, which is the ‘Angelus,’ cannot be added unless a Bishop has sat on the Cathedra, we must see who was the first to sit on the Cathedra, and where he sat . . . . You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim — each for himself — separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner” [21].

St. Optatus goes on to list, individually by name, each of the Bishops of Rome who succeeded Peter, up unto the Pope current at that time. The line of Peter, he says, has progressed

“to Siricius, who to-day is our colleague, with whom ‘the whole world,’ through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion . . . . How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter?” [22].

In short, St. Optatus is arguing that even with valid orders, a church is not the Church unless it is in communion with the Bishop of Rome, who descends from Peter himself. The unity of the whole Church, throughout the whole world, is preserved “in this one Cathedra” (Cathedra means seat or chair, as in a seat of authority). He denounces that other apostles could have established separate cathedras from which their successors continued as bishops. No, there is one Cathedra upon which the whole Church is founded, and that is the Cathedra of Peter and Rome. This means, of course, that bishops, even validly ordained bishops, must be always in unity with the Bishop of Rome. If not, they are necessarily schismatics.

Saint Jerome, also in the fourth century, wrote:

My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built!  This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails . . . . He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist” [23].

This passage comes from a letter which St. Jerome wrote to the current Pope, asking for clarification on certain issues. He affirms that the Pope is indeed “the successor of the fisherman” (i.e. Peter), and then states that just as he follows no one other than Christ, he communicates with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. The English translation here does not quite do justice to precisely what Jerome is saying. The Latin which is translated “communicates with” is actually communione consocior [24], which means literally to join/share/unite in communion. In other words, St. Jerome is saying that he does not join in communion with anyone other than he who sits on the chair of Peter. Any church that is not in communion with the Bishop of Rome, is not in communion with the true Church. Jerome equates communion with the Bishop of Rome with following Christ. Further, it is this Church alone, the Church in communion with Rome, wherein salvation can be found, for it alone is the “Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it will perish.”

One of the issues about which Jerome seeks response from Rome was that three different bishops were currently claiming to be the valid bishop of Antioch, and were vying for Jerome’s support. Jerome, in distress, turns to Pope Damasus to decide the question:

“Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, “woven from the top throughout,” since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ, and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover “the sealed fountain” and “the garden inclosed,” I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter” [25].

In another letter concerning the same topic, he writes further:

The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. The influence of the monks is of long standing, and it is directed against me. I meantime keep crying: “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus all profess to cleave to you, and I could believe the assertion if it were made by one of them only. As it is, either two of them or else all three are guilty of falsehood. Therefore I implore your blessedness, by our Lord’s cross and passion, those necessary glories of our faith, as you hold an apostolic office, to give an apostolic decision. Only tell me by letter with whom I am to communicate in Syria” [26].

Here we see very explicitly that, for Jerome, the real bishop can only be the one who is actually in communion with Rome. The true Church consists of those bishops who cling to the chair of Peter.

The Ecumenical Church Council of Ephesus met in 431 A.D. Pope Coelestine sent several legates in his place. They arrived after the start of the Council. The following is a quote from one of these legates:

Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince (ἔξαρχος) and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation (θεμέλιος) of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Cœlestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most humane and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith” [27]. 

St. Peter is here called the prince and head of the apostles and the pillar and foundation of the Church; and, moreover, he is said to “live and judge” even today in his successors.

In the fifth century, Pope Leo I writes:

The connection of the whole body makes all alike healthy, all alike beautiful: and this connection requires the unanimity indeed of the whole body, but it especially demands harmony among the priests. And though they have a common dignity, yet they have not uniform rank; inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honourable estate, there was a certain distinction of power, and while the election of them all was equal, yet it was given to one to take the lead of the rest. From which model has arisen a distinction between bishops also, and by an important ordinance it has been provided that every one should not claim everything for himself: but that there should be in each province one whose opinion should have the priority among the brethren: and again that certain whose appointment is in the greater cities should undertake a fuller responsibility, through whom the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head” [28].

Here St. Leo explains that the Church is a unified body, and its unity consists especially in the harmony of the clergy. While the priests enjoy an equality of status qua priests, they are not all equal in authority. There is a hierarchy, which stems from the hierarchy of the apostles, among whom “it was given to one to take the lead of the rest.” It is from this very model, he says, that the hierarchy of bishops today takes its source. A bishop reigns over a certain province, and the bishops of “greater cities” have more authority. Altogether the authority of the hierarchy of bishops is tasked with the “care of the universal Church” insofar as it “converges towards Peter’s one seat,” from which “nothing anywhere should be separated.” All the bishops must be in unity with the Bishop of Rome.

Elsewhere St. Leo writes:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, instituted the observance of the Divine religion which He wished by the grace of God to shed its brightness upon all nations and all peoples in such a way that the Truth, which before was confined to the announcements of the Law and the Prophets, might through the Apostles’ trumpet blast go out for the salvation of all men . . . . But this mysterious function the Lord wished to be indeed the concern of all the apostles, but in such a way that He has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the Apostles : and from him as from the Head wishes His gifts to flow to all the body: so that any one who dares to secede from Peter’s solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery” [29].

Anyone who “secedes” from the unity of Peter and his successors “has no part” in Christ’s salvation.

These are just a few of many examples which illustrate, I think, that the early Church very ardently believed that apostolic succession alone, while certainly of great importance, is not enough to guarantee possession of the true Faith. Rather, those who would unite themselves to the true Church must also be in communion and submission with the Bishop of Rome, who sits on the chair of St. Peter and wields his authority as visible representative of Christ on earth. There is, today, only one Church in which this is true: the Roman Catholic Church.

To conclude, we shall once again return to the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas:

By this, of course, we exclude the presumptuous error of some who attempt to withdraw themselves from the obedience and the rule of Peter by not recognizing in his successor, the Roman Pontiff, the pastor of the universal Church” [30].



[1]. signum rei sacrae inquantum est sanctificans homines”. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Q. 60, Art. 2. My own translation. Latin accessed here: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/TP/TP060.html#TPQ60OUTP1

[2]. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book Four, Chapter 74.1. Translated by Charles J. O’Neil. New York: Hanover House, 1955-57. Edited, with English, especially Scriptural references, updated by Joseph Kenny, O.P. Accessed online: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles.htm

[3]. See [1].

[4]. Aquinas. SCG IV, 74.2

[5]. Ibid. 74.3

[6]. Ibid. 76.2

[7]. Ibid. 76.3

[8]. Ibid. 76.4

[9]. Ibid. 76.5-76.7

[10]. All Scriptural references from: The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[11]. Peter and the Papacy. Catholic Answers. https://www.catholic.com/tract/peter-and-the-papacy

[12]. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[13]. Jeffrey L. Morrow. PAPACY IN SCRIPTURE IV: ISRAEL’S ROYAL STEWARD. Caritas et Veritas. WordPress. 9 Dec. 2009. http://caritasetveritas.com/2009/12/papacy-in-scripture-iv-israels-royal-steward/

See also: Layton, Scott C. “The Steward in Ancient Israel: A Study of Hebrew (‘Ăšer) ‘Al-Habbayit in Its near Eastern Setting.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 109, no. 4, 1990, pp. 633–649. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267367.

[14]. Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Book III, Chapter 3.3. Source: Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm&gt;.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid. Chapter 3.2.

[17]. Cyprian of Carthage. Treatise 1: On the Unity of the Church. 4-5. Source: Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm&gt;.

[18]. Cyprian of Carthage. Epistle 54. 14. Source: Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050654.htm&gt;.

[19]. Augustine. Of Faith and the Creed. 10.21. Source: Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1304.htm&gt;.

[20]. Optatus. The work of St. Optatus, bishop of Milevis, against the Donatists, with appendix. 2.1. Accessed online here: https://archive.org/details/theworkofstoptat00philuoft

[21]. Ibid. 2.2

[22]. Ibid. 2.3

[23]. Jerome. Letter 15. 2. Source: Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001015.htm&gt;.

[24]. Latin accessed here: http://www.patrologia-lib.ru/patrolog/hieronym/epist/epist01.htm

[25]. Jerome. Letter 15. 1.

[26]. Jerome. Letter 16. 2.

[27]. Council of Ephesus. Session III. Source: Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3810.htm&gt;.

[28]. Leo the Great. Letter 14. 12. Source: Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3604014.htm&gt;.

[29]. Leo the Great. Letter 10. 1. Source: Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3604010.htm&gt;.

[30]. Thomas Aquinas. SCG IV, 76.9

Other sources used:

















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