For a while I was very seriously considering becoming Roman Catholic. Then I decided against it. I have in the meantime managed to clarify to myself a number of reasons why I do not think Roman Catholicism is true. In previous posts (here and here), I have raised five issues. Here I will provide a brief summary of yet another reason. I discuss all of these points in greater detail in my forthcoming volume titled Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics.
6. Apostolic Succession Roman Catholic theology understands the bishops to be the successors of the apostles. The more precise understanding of the bishop was specified in Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium, documents issued by the Second Vatican Council. For example, the bishops are said to “preside in the place of God” over the flock (LG 20). The right to the authoritative interpretation of the word of God belongs only to them (DV 10). And they are even enabled by the Holy Spirit to perform their task of “sustain[ing] the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest” of the Church and “act[ing] in His person” (LG 21).
Most importantly of all for present purposes, the bishops form a kind of “closed” circle. Not everyone is a bishop, nor can just anyone become a bishop, whether by declaring himself such or by being announced such by other non-bishops. The first bishops were made such by the apostles. And other persons can only become bishops by being validly consecrated to the episcopate through the sacrament of holy orders. There is consequently a kind of qualitative difference between bishop and non-bishop in Roman Catholicism. A person can only be “lifted up” to the episcopate by someone who is already a bishop: “[I]t pertains to the bishops to admit newly elected members into the Episcopal body by means of the sacrament of Orders” (LG 21). This means that, in principle, no one is a true bishop who cannot trace his consecration backwards by means of other bishops to an apostle.
My problem with this idea is that it is nowhere to be found in the earliest sources of the Church. There is not a single sentence in the New Testament, nor in the Didache, nor in 1 Clement, nor in Irenaeus, nor in Tertullian (for example) to the effect that a person can only be made a bishop by another bishop. First Clement 44 says that bishops and deacons can have been appointed by the apostles or else by “other eminent men”. And Didache 15:1-2 calls the churches to appoint for themselves bishops and deacons, which implies of course that they do not already have them. These documents therefore present a picture according to which the apostles might have first appointed bishops in various churches while later the churches were left to care for themselves.
When Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.3) and Tertullian (Prescription against the Heresies 32) mention the succession of bishops in the apostolic churches, they never specify that this person was made bishop by that person or anything of the sort. They only say that in some church first this person was bishop, then that, then that, and so on. Their point is that the apostolicity of the doctrine of the catholic churches can be shown by the fact that you can name who was a teacher in that church going back to an apostle. There was a reliable succession of teachers all teaching the same thing. The succession is a matter of the succession of doctrine. But they never argue against the heretics that they do not have a bishop who can trace his consecration back to an apostle by means of other duly consecrated bishops. At best they only argue that the heretics cannot similarly produce such a succession of teachers. (Although whether this was actually true is another matter altogether, of course.)
Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics 32 even argues that the churches being founded in his day, “although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine.” Notice what Tertullian says. It is enough to have the apostolic doctrine in order to be considered apostolic on a par with the apostle-founded churches. Notice also what Tertullian does not say. He does not say that the churches being founded in his day are apostolic because they are under the care of a bishop who can trace his ordination back to an apostle by means of other bishops. He only argues that they are apostolic because they have the apostolic doctrine. But if a “consecrational” chain back to the apostles is what Tertullian understood by “apostolic succession,” then this would have been the place to mention it.
Why don’t Irenaeus and Tertullian ever mention anything about the catholic bishops being able to trace their consecration back to an apostle by means of other bishops? Why don’t they argue like this? There are two possibilities. Either (1) this was not in fact possible because not every bishop was only ever made such by other bishops, or else (2) this possibility of consecration-tracking was theologically insignificant to them. In either case, however, they clearly did not understand the “apostolic succession” in the way of Roman Catholicism. They don’t reason or argue the way that a Roman Catholic would on this matter. They do not see the episcopate as a “closed” circle, and they also think that “apostolic succession” is a matter of the transmission of apostolic doctrine more than anything else.