Using Donald Trump To Explain Papal Succession

To any American Catholic reading this: No, I don’t think that if Trump fails to win the US Presidency this September, he should consider signing up for the next Papal Conclave in Vatican City. (Not that he would qualify, anyway. Too many wives.)

Like all of you, I promise, I shudder at the thought of a Pope Donald Trump I. No doubt, he would give Adrian VI a run for his money.

Compared to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump differs in three major ways: he is a man, he is from New York, and he was never part of the political establishment. I find the last two points more important than the first. (Sorry, American feminists!)

America and Rome

The American political system, as it currently stands, permits any citizen of good legal and financial standing to run, regardless of which state the citizen comes from, and regardless of the citizen’s background. It is up to the voters to decide whether the citizen’s background is an automatic disqualification.

Just because Thomas Jefferson was from Virginia, doesn’t mean that Barrack Obama and Donald Trump had to be Virginian as well.

What does this have to do with Pope Francis and the Papal Conclave?

It is the norm for conservative Catholic apologists and historians to get into arguments over secular historians, liberal Christians and atheists over the Catholic concept of Apostolic Succession.

An typical objection to Catholic apologists goes like this: “How can you say Clement of Alexandria was Bishop of Rome from 86–98 AD, when he was clearly in Alexandria from 91–96 AD?” (Dates and names are for illustration only.) And the apologists will respond with some excuse about illness, or about logistical difficulties, or something else which does not stand up to sustained scrutiny.

There is a better solution to this, and it is found in the Bible. Since it is in the Bible, It fits even the Protestants’ Sola Scriptura doctrine.

In the Book of Acts, Saint Matthias is elected as a successor of the Apostle Judas Iscariot, who is traditionally believed to have hanged himself after the Crucifixion. When Protestants and Catholic dissidents use this account, they tend to use it to illustrate the Sensus Fidelium as against Papal Primacy and Supremacy. But this section is actually a better argument for Apostolic Succession. Since well … Not-yet-a-saint Matthias is being elected to replace an Apostle.

And what is the criterion for Apostolic succession as per this section? Nothing much really, except that one must have great zeal for the faith. To be a successor, one does not need to hail from a certain city — Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria or otherwise; neither does one — more controversially for apologists — seem to need to be a priest. Matthias is merely described as a disciple of Jesus who knew him from the time John the Baptist was alive.

So now, the point of Analogy with Donald Trump.

Saint Matthias was for all intents and purposes, a lay person. He obviously hadn’t been selected by Christ as an Apostle, and we don’t actually know where he came from. In other words, Saint Matthias was originally a lay Christian. Like Saint Matthias, Donald Trump is also a lay American, in the sense that he does not belong to the American political establishment, unlike Hillary Clinton.

This actually suggests, controversially, that it is possible for a lay person to become denoted as an Apostolic Successor. That is, one need not be a priest in order to be an apostolic successor. This, though, does not necessarily imply that women can be ordained priests. More importantly, it means any Christian from any part of the world could be appointed as an Apostolic Successor in a Conclave or any other selection process.

The Apostolic Office Is A Set Of Functions

Being an Apostle is an office within the Church, as separate from the physical people who were the 12 Apostles. Yes, these people had certain special gifts like speaking in tongues that were not passed down to successors. (Since they couldn’t have preached in Aramaic to Romans, Greeks and Ethiopians.) But what was necessary for the continuation of the Church was the succession of their Offices, not their charismatic gifts.

The Apostolic Offices are defined in terms of functions: Priestly functions, Prophetic functions and Kingly functions. Priestly functions refer to the functions of performing the Mass and other sacraments like baptism. Kingly functions include administrative functions like ordaining priests and managing finance and logistics. Prophetic functions — which would require a whole essay to explain them — include pastoral functions and magisterial functions.

Thus, anybody who takes on any combination of these functions can be deemed an Apostolic Successor. Furthermore, since these are functions, and not territories, the successor can hand over one of these functions to someone else, while preserving others.

Apostolic Succession is Non-Linear

This makes apostolic succession more complicated than is normally assumed. And in fact, it makes it more complicated than US presidential succession. At least, a US President is always required to move to Washington DC. Based on doctrine alone, an Apostolic Successor is not required to move anywhere since the Apostles were given a global commission by Christ himself. Hence, a successor of Saint Peter could carry out his mission from anywhere in the world. That includes — nowadays — while on a flight from one place to another.

In short, an Apostle could bequeath the Apostolic Magisterium to one Christian, the Priestly function to another, and the Episcopal function to a third. To make things more complicated, succession is not necessarily a bequest; that is, it is not necessary that the holder must have first been martyred or expired of old age. In other words, this scenario might have played out in regards to Saint Peter’s succession:-

  1. Saint Peter founds a Christian community somewhere in Iraq. Since he founds the community there, he has the Apostolic functions of Magisterium, Episcopacy and Priesthood. When he leaves that community, he assigns the Apostolic functions of Episcopacy and Priesthood to someone, but conserves the Apostolic function of Magisterium for himself.

2. Then he travels to Rome. In Rome, as tradition holds, he is martyred. Because he happens to be in Rome at that time, Linus, the Bishop of Rome, takes over the Magisterial Function. So we now have two Apostolic Successors; one in Iraq and Linus in Rome.

3. Linus then travels to Syria. He appoints another successor to take over his role of Bishop of Rome. In Syria, he meets with Cletus, whom he deems to be a better choice to hold the Magisterial function. And so he hands the Magisterial role to Cletus, making Cletus a Petrine Successor, and relinquishes his own.

4. Linus returns to Rome and succeeds the Bishop of Rome as the Bishop of Rome. Linus retains his episcopal position in Rome, but has now given up the Petrine Succession.

5. Shortly afterwards, Cletus is martyred, and Clement of Alexandria is elected or appointed to take on the Petrine Magisterium.

6. Then Linus is martyred, and now Rome needs to elect a new leader. Owing to various contingencies, Clement is elected as the Bishop of Rome. So, he is now the Bishop of both Rome and Alexandria, and a successor to the Petrine Magisterium.

7. Then, Clement himself is martyred, and concurrently Rome manages to select a Bishop. The new Bishop of Rome takes on the Petrine Magisterium, whilst the new Bishop of Alexandria takes on the Magisterium of Saint Mark in Alexandria.

After going through all seven steps, you should be able to understand why the bishop succession lists for any of the Apostolic Sees might have many intersection points in the first 3 centuries of the Church’s existence.

Incidentally, Apostolic Sees are called Apostolic because their bishops hold Apostolic Magisterium, referred to by the term “Special Privileges” in Canon 7 of the Council of Nicaea. In addition, the See of Rome claims an Extraordinary Apostolic Magisterium for Saint Peter.

But that is a subject for another day.

The (Partial) Solution To The Great Schism

What is the significance of all this?

When people approach Apostolic Succession, we tend to approach it linearly. We think it is like the succession of the British throne, where the King or Queen picks one successor to carry out all functions. That concept is reinforced by how territorial the various Patriarchates are nowadays. As a result, Catholic and Orthodox theologians box in Apostolic Succession into Episcopal succession. Bishops are Apostolic Successors in that they hold Episcopal functions that the Apostles once held. However, Episcopal functions are the only set of functions among the three classes of Apostolic functions that are territorially-bound.

The Prophetic Magisterium and the Priestly function are not territorially-bound. The Prophetic Magisterium is not territorially bound because it is what implements the Universal Moral Law of the Church. Despite the existence of parishes, technically the Priestly function is not territorially-bound. A family in Sydney can ask a visiting priest from New York to bless their house without violating any doctrine of the Church. And there is a little-appreciated provision in Catholic canon law that permits as a last resort a Catholic seeking sacraments from an Orthodox Church.

The Episcopal function is bound by geography because it concerns the secular administration of the Church, and these are necessarily tied to geography.

Catholic Theologians talk past Orthodox Theologians because they fail to distinguish between Petrine Primacy and Roman Primacy. The key cause of the Schism was that the Byzantine Emperor succeeded in convincing the Eastern Churches to reduce Apostolic Succession to Episcopal Succession. That way, he could argue that the “centre” of the Church should move from Rome to Byzantium since now the episcopacy of Byzantium had more secular honour as the bishopric tending to a capital city.

Unfortunately, the See of Rome fell into the Emperor’s trap, and accented the significance of the City of Rome in Church history. Whereas, his argument should have been, “The relative honour of the Sees depends on the relative honour granted to the Apostles, and currently, as the Successor of the Apostle Peter, I hold the same primacy that Peter held over the other Apostles, thus my See should be recognized as the see with the higher honour than the See of Constantinople. However, if Constantinople were to acquire the Petrine Honour in the future, than Constantinople would naturally have a position over that of Rome.” The difference in this argument is that it stresses the individual succession of that particular bishop, and not the episcopal succession of the see in that particular issue.

Had it been argued that way, the Emperor would probably not have had a response and the Eastern Churches would not have felt villified by the Patriarch of The West. There might still have been a debate on Petrine Primacy, but, as a purely theological issue, it would not have generated a schism.

Thankfully, in the 21st century, we can revise our position and work toward the ultimate goal, a re-united Church, firm in doctrine and unwavering in charity.

With a united Church, we could appoint a new Apostle to Asia in China, preferably a Chinese person. For the Catholic Church, this would have the obvious advantage of ending the ridiculous nonsense of the Patriotic Church, because a Chinese Bishop could not be possibly be regarded as a foreign monarch the same way a European Bishop can.

Semper Fidelis! Habemus Papam!

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