When Protestants and Catholics discuss the role of authority, sooner or later, it is inevitable that the Catholic will point to the teaching of “Apostolic Succession.” This seems to be their “ace in the hole” argument and the “ultimate proof” for all their debates on authority. It is important to note that it is a foundational teaching for Catholics. They point to this to prove the Catholic Church’s claim of being the One True Church. From the highest Catholic theologian to the lowest amateur Catholic apologist, they all seem to hold tightly to this doctrine, and they are quick to point to it.
But what is Apostolic Succession, exactly? It is the belief that the present pope can be traced all the way back (in an unbroken line of successors) to the apostle Peter (whom they claim is the first pope). Here are some official Catholic statements concerning Apostolic Succession. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (online), under “Apostolicity”:
“…the Church is one moral body, possessing the mission entrusted by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, and transmitted through them and their lawful successors in an unbroken chain to the present representatives of Christ upon earth. This authoritative transmission of power in the Church constitutes Apostolic succession.” [Emphasis added]
“…Apostolic succession as an uninterrupted substitution of persons in the place of the Apostles…” (Ibid.) [Emphasis added]
“Hence in tracing the mission of the Church back to the Apostles, no lacuna [i.e., gap, blank space, or missing part] can be allowed, no new mission can arise; but the mission conferred by Christ must pass from generation to generation through an uninterrupted lawful succession.” (Ibid.) [Emphasis added]
“If any break in the Apostolic succession had ever occurred, it could be easily shown, for no fact of such importance could happen in the history of the world without attracting universal notice.” (Ibid.) [Emphasis added]
And according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #77:
“In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.” (referencing “Dei Verbum,” a document of the Second Vatican Council) [Emphasis added]
Is it Really Unbroken?
So, to briefly recap, the Catholic Church claims that an “unbroken,” “uninterrupted” and “continuous” lawful chain exists in the successors of Peter (popes), with “no breaks” and “no lacunas” (gaps) in this line of succession. But can they prove this claim of a continuous and unbroken line of Peter’s successors? When challenged, the Catholic Church proudly displays a list of the whole line of popes to prove their claim. But it is interesting that there have been several different lists of popes over the years.
Here is an example of an official list of the popes from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:
But if one looks closely at this particular list, he can see that there are several gaps when no popes were reigning. For example, during the years of 259, 305, 306, 307, 639, 1242, 1269, 1270, 1293, 1315, and 1416, we see vacancies in the papal throne. This cannot be considered an “uninterrupted substitution of persons,” nor is this an “unbroken chain,” as claimed. There are indeed lacunas / gaps in this official list of popes. Don’t just take our word for it, but click on the link just above and see for yourselves.
And lest anyone think that this list was produced by some unknown amateur Catholic apologist, the encyclopedia article containing this list has the official Catholic seals of approval - the nihil obstat (“nothing hinders”) and the imprimatur (“let it be printed”). We have also seen other lists with slightly different dating, but these have gaps, as well.
How Catholics Deal with it
So, why don’t Catholics seem to be aware of these embarrassing gaps? Don’t these gaps serve to refute the Catholic version of Apostolic Succession and demonstrate that their claim is false? Indeed it does. So, how do Catholics respond to this “gap” argument? Let’s go over some of their objections…
It’s Just a “Vacancy”
Objection #1 - Some Catholics will admit that these gaps exist. By the way, they are officially called “interregnums” (i.e., a pause; interruption; gap; absence). And some Catholics will say that these interregnums are not really a big deal. They will claim that there must be some “down” time between the death of one pope and the election of the next. They’ll say it is just a vacancy, not an actual break in succession.
But what size “vacancy” is acceptable in this case? A few days? A week? A month? Perhaps even a month would be an acceptable amount of time to tolerate the election process, but if there is no limit on the length of an interregnum, then it is open-ended. And if it is open-ended, then there can never be an occasion of a “broken” succession. There would be no real way to tell when it’s “broken” or not. In other words, their claim is unfalsifiable (not able to be tested in order to verify or refute). You see, these Catholics are simply playing word games and trying to justify all of the actual gaps that are found in these lists. They are trying to exempt themselves from the obvious.
With no standard to limit the time of these “vacancies,” they can simply brush off any challenges about breaks or gaps. So, according to their reasoning, any apparent gap is never really a gap at all. Very convenient, but very dishonest.
Furthermore, if these “vacancies” are really no big deal, then where do you draw the line? Why not have only one documentable pope every 50 or 100 years, since, according to this argument, it doesn’t seem to matter anyway? After all, it would be “just another interregnum,” right? Could they be just as proud of such a list? Would they still be able to brag about their Apostolic Succession? Without putting definite limits on interregnums, their claim to an “unbroken succession” is meaningless. When you take it to its logical conclusion, this objection fails.
As Long as the “Office” Remains
Objection #2 – Some will say that as long as the office (of pope) has not been destroyed, it is an “unbroken” chain and it doesn’t matter if no pope is in office. To them, Apostolic Succession simply means that there is always an office existing.
But the use of the word “chain” doesn’t refer to the office itself, but it must refer to the men (the individual “links”) within that succession. Else, why would they describe it as a “chain” in the first place? So, the continuation of Apostolic Succession is about the individual successors just as much as it is the office. And what good is an office if no one is in it, if no one is there to fill it? Whether pope, king, president, or senator, it certainly does matter if someone is in the office. An office is useless if there is no one there functioning and fulfilling its demands. So, this objection also fails.
It’s the Bishops that Matter
Objection #3 – To other Catholics, an unbroken line of successors refers to bishops, as well, not necessarily just to popes. They’ll say apostolic succession means an unbroken succession of valid bishops. And even if there is no pope, the valid bishops are there in place, causing this apostolic line to be unbroken.
But think about this. When asked to demonstrate or prove this “unbroken succession,” Catholics will immediately point to their list of popes. But why point to this list if it’s really all about bishops instead?
Continuing with Objection #3, if it is all about the bishops (instead of just the popes), then why bother with a list of popes at all? Why not make an unbroken list of all the bishops, instead, to prove their case? But the problem with this is that they can’t even trace the POPES all the way back with accuracy, much less the lesser-known multitude of individual bishops!
And furthermore, without an official list of those bishop-successors, almost anyone else could make the same claim – that they, too, have an “unbroken” historical connection to others who have laid hands on, and ordained, their own successors all the way back to the same apostles.
Are You “Valid”?
Concluding this “bishop” objection, how do we know that every one of these bishops were “validly ordained” (according to Catholic standards) in the first place? It is possible that they could be unauthorized bishops. Ordaining a priest or bishop is a Catholic sacrament (“holy orders”), and in order for any sacrament to “work,” or be “valid,” the ordaining priest / bishop must have the correct intention (CCC #1466) and the recipient must also have the correct intention (CCC #1319 and #1491). Otherwise, the ordination is invalid. But how could anyone ever know the true intention of either the ordaining bishop or the receiving priest? Without knowing the heart, or intention, of either one, it is very possible that an invalid pope could be created, if he is ordained by invalid bishops. We just can’t know for sure. So, for all these reasons, their “bishop” objection also fails the test.
Another problem with the Catholic concept of Apostolic Succession is that sources from the early church were not always plentiful. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), which also contains the Catholic seals of approval, states:
“…the scarcity of documents leaves much that is obscure about the early development of the episcopate…” (Volume 1, page 696)
And even more damaging, that same encyclopedia also states:
“But it must be frankly admitted that bias or deficiencies in the sources make it impossible to determine in certain cases whether the claimants were popes or antipopes.” (Volume I, page 632)
Let’s Be Honest
You know, we could respect the Catholic Church more on this topic if they told us, “The list of popes we have is not complete, but we’ve got a pretty good idea who they were and when they served in this long line from Peter onward…” – instead of boasting of an “unbroken” and “uninterrupted” lawful chain of successors. Why proudly display this seemingly “full” list? Are they hoping that no one notices those gaps? But if these nagging gaps do exist (and they do), then don’t call it an “unbroken line,” call it a “mostly intact” line, but don’t lie about it just to maintain an inflated image of “Mother Church.”
A Lesson from the Pharisees
Stop and think – one of the reasons that Jesus and John the baptist rebuked the Pharisees is because they trusted in some kind of lineage back to Abraham (Matthew 3:9; John 8:37,39,56). It is very possible that they did have an actual unbroken historical lineage back to Abraham. But Jesus was not impressed with that (John 8:44). And their historical line didn’t make them the “true church” of their day. Just as Catholics do today, the Pharisees were trusting in their historical line in vain.
The Catholic Church does not have what they claim to have. But even if they did have a perfectly unbroken and legitimate historical line of successors all the way back to the apostles, the truth is not discovered that way… it is discovered by handing down the true TEACHINGS of the apostles, not just depending on a physical, historical succession of people in the church hierarchy.
Consider the issue of Judas Iscariot. He was an apostle, directly chosen by Jesus, Himself – yet, he defected and did not pass on the faith of Jesus Christ. Because of Judas, there was already a failure in the “historical lineage-from-the-hierarchy” type system to maintain the truth. Before the original twelve apostles could even HAVE their first successor, there were already issues. Sometimes, even those we may trust will fail to faithfully pass on the correct teachings. And the fact that even an apostle could defect destroys the Catholic Church’s concept of Apostolic Succession through historical lineage. Even if all the “right people” may be there in this line, this will not guarantee truth coming through them.
Now, we Protestants do believe in apostolic succession, just not the Catholic version of it. True apostolic succession is simply taking the inspired teachings of the apostles and passing these truths down to the next generation. That’s it. Nothing complicated about that, and no lists to worry about.
But in the end, these lists hold no weight anyway, since the cold, hard truth is that the office of “pope” is unscriptural to start with. There never was a BIBLICAL office by that name or that function. Catholics will claim that their type of Apostolic Succession is biblical, since the Bible does speak of laying hands on one's successor (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6), but dead popes can’t lay hands on their successors. The papal process of "laying on of hands" is not the one identified in Scripture. So, for many reasons, this foundational Catholic teaching crumbles upon its own weight.
We pray that Catholics can come to see the truth of this. Hopefully, these nagging, ever-present, and embarrassing gaps in the lists of popes will convince many (Catholics, Protestants, and others) of the deceitfulness of the Catholic Church’s claims.
This particular article has dealt with the “unbroken line of successors” aspect of Catholic Apostolic Succession. For more details on the “lawfulness” aspect of this teaching, see here: