Some people think that the notion of a Catholic Church with a centralized authority established in Rome and a hierarchy of bishops that governs the Church were inventions of the Middle Ages. Untrue. St. Irenaeus, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, taught these things in the 2nd century A.D. Let’s take a look.
First, a quick bio on St. Irenaeus. He was born in about 125 AD. Some of his friends and mentors had personally known the Apostles. One of his teachers, St. Polycarp, was evangelized by St. John himself, “the disciple that Jesus loved”. So St. Irenaeus’ formation was of the utmost quality and proximity to the Apostles. He eventually became a bishop and is counted alongside the Fathers of the Church. He was martyred near 203 AD, but not before he wrote some important works, including a classic called Against Heresies in about 180 AD that addressed some of the great errors of his day. In that sense, he’s one of the first Catholic apologists.
In Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus makes an important statement about the importance of apostolic succession and the primacy of the Church in Rome. Let’s look at two paragraphs. The English translation is a bit convoluted so you’ll have to pay particular attention as you read.
Apostolic Succession and the Importance of Bishops
In paragraph 1 of Book 3, Chapter 3, Irenaeus writes the following:
1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. (Source)
Key points to note:
- The portion in red explains that Apostolic succession is very important and represents an unbroken chain from the Apostles onward. In other words, every priest and bishop can theoretically trace his “ministerial genealogy” all the way back to one of the 12 Apostles. Nobody can designate himself as a priest or bishop; you need to be designated and ordained by the Church.
- The excerpt in blue is an effort to discredit individuals who came forth with “new teachings” that did not originate from the Apostles. These individuals were to be given no credibility. Notice also how the Apostles had “delivered their own place of government” to their successors, therefore confirming an authoritative hierarchy (hence the word “government”) in which the successor bishops were to assume the same pre-eminence and authority within the Church as the Apostles had before them.
- The excerpt in green points to a crucial reality that remains as true today as it was back then. If bishops do their job, great things happen. But if they fail to assume their responsibilities, we experience “the direst calamity”. Lord help us.
The Primacy of the Church of Rome
The very next paragraph of Against Heresies starts off with a reference to Apostolic succession and then transitions to an important teaching about the Church of Rome:
2. 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, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Source)
Key points to note:
- The section in red explains that St. Irenaeus doesn’t want to start listing all the bishops and their “lineage” back to the 12 Apostles, but he condemns those who deny such a lineage. His reference to “unauthorized meetings” possibly refers to gatherings of Christians under the leadership of a pastor/preacher who wasn’t ordained by the Church and is therefore not part of Apostolic succession. Such a person would have no authority within the Church. He also identifies the Church of Rome as being “very great”, a point which he expands upon in the next sentence. He calls it “very ancient”, which might sound a bit amusing coming from a guy writing around 180 AD, but he’s pointing out that it was founded by Peter and Paul at the very beginning of the Church. He also calls it “universally known”, which implies two things: first, it would appear that it was common knowledge among Christians at the time that the Church of Rome was important and recognized by all; second, since the word “catholic” actually means “universal”, he is essentially calling this the Catholic Church.
- The excerpt in green is the money quote. Each word is heavy in meaning. It’s a matter of necessity that every Church (i.e. every parish and diocese without exception) should agree with the Church of Rome. Why? Because it has pre-eminent authority. This applies to the faithful everywhere (no exceptions) because the traditions handed down from the Apostles have been preserved continuously, with no ad lib or inventions.
This excerpt is extremely clear and leaves no wiggle room for those who would like to convince themselves that the Church of Rome is a recent invention not intended by Christ and the Apostles. It speaks of authority and the imperative of assent with Rome, with no room for dissent.
So when you see the Church today, organized in dioceses led by individual bishops, all of whom are submitted to Rome, rest assured that this has been the structure of the Church since its embryonic stage. We didn’t make this up folks. It was designed this way by Christ and the Twelve. Be confident, then, when discussing this matter with neophytes, doubters or dissenters, that your Faith in the Church is established on solid and reliable foundations.