Apostolic succession is vital to authentic Christianity

Father John A. Kiley

The National Catholic (the word is used loosely) Reporter recently praised the church in the Netherlands for its innovative response to the vocation crisis.

According to the Reporter, the Dutch Church mused that because the Eucharist is the essence of the Christian community, that community therefore has a right to the Eucharist. And if the Catholic hierarchy fails to bestow that right from above, local communities can claim it from below: “Where two or three gather in my name,” they can share Scripture, break bread, pass the cup, enjoy the Real Presence, take Holy Communion, and employ the freedom of the Holy Spirit to give charisms — “with or without official permission.”

The Dutch are seeing the future with courage, the Reporter thrills, and are welcoming it as a Eucharistic people. Thus America can learn from the Dutch about how to be “church from below, with or without permission from above.”

“Church from below” is, of course, an apt description of Protestantism. The very names of some Protestant communities indicate their confidence in being bottom-up organizations. Congregationalists (now the United Church of Christ) view their authority as arising from the congregation not through any hierarchy. Presbyterians understand their assemblies to be directed by church elders (presbyters in Greek), the senior members of the community. Baptists derive their faculties from the common sacrament of Baptism which places all believers on a level playing field. Unitarians proudly stand apart from any hint of an ordained hierarchy.

The distance that the Protestant churches place between themselves and any ordained priesthood or episcopacy is understandable if one remembers that the Reformation was basically a rebellion against the excesses of the Roman Catholic priesthood. A poorly educated clergy, superstitious rites, financial immoderation, and the politicization of religion understandably soured many people against the ordained clergy. But, no matter how justifiable their gripes, the reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater and intrinsically altered the face of Christianity.

Protestant Christianity is fundamentally priestless Christianity — and they want it that way. Protestant ministers are essentially presiders. The gathered community does the action which the minister facilitates. No matter how talented, adept or charismatic he (or she) might be, a minister’s mandate comes directly from the people.

The Roman Catholic as well as the Eastern Orthodox understanding of authority in the authentic Christian community is radically different. Catholicism is definitely a top-down religion. Catholicism understands itself to be an apostolic religion, not only meaning the preservation of the authentic deposit of faith received from the Apostles but equally in the sense of an unbroken transfer of authority from Christ through the Apostles to each successive generation of deacons, priests and bishops.

The Apostolic succession, as this tradition is properly termed, is vital to authentic Christianity chiefly because it links the believing community to the historical man Jesus Christ, to his remembered words, to his significant actions, to his enlightened decisions, to his salvific death and resurrection. Any American today can sadly witness how far afield some of our Christian brothers and sisters have ventured (and how far some of our Catholic brothers and sisters would like to venture) from the standards that defined the original Christian community.

In the religious world today, doctrinal precision and moral uprightness are often determined more by the trends of the times than by the will of Christ.

The Dutch (Catholic) church’s attempt to re-define the Eucharist, the American Episcopal Church’s flirtation with same-sex behavior, the river boat ordination of women by questionable prelates, the toleration of abortion by many Christian communities, the displacement of Scripture in church services by works of literature (however worthy), a disregard for marriage as the locus of sexual activity — each of these phenomena displays a fall from traditional Christian ways. And they have all arisen within the Christian community (both Catholic and Protestant) because the trends of the times have been heeded more than the Words of Christ. Bottom-up fashionability has replaced top-down legitimacy in the manual of Christian conduct. The weather-vane has supplanted the Cross as the guide to Christian behavior. The apostolic succession, sensing firmly the will of Christ rather than the ways of the world, is the Church’s re-assuring guarantee of perennial authenticity and enduring fidelity.