Diocese & Apostolic Succession

Apostolic succession was a concept created in the 2nd century, and solidified by the 4th century (see "Apostles to Bishops" by Francis Sullivan). Scholars reject the idea that the apostles laid hands on successors. The post-apostolic era was governed by groups of leaders, and this later solidified into the concept of bishops ruling a geographic territory that mirrors secular political divisions (diocese was a Roman Imperial geographic division).

Since at least the Council of Nicaea in 325 (see Canon IV regarding election & consecration), the Church recognized that there should be one leader (a bishop) over a given geographic area (a diocese). The transition of power in the Catholic Church basically goes like this:

  • When a bishop dies, there is an election to appoint a new bishop. In modern times, the Pope appoints a new bishop (Roman Catholic), with local clergy recommending priests that should be considered. In ancient times, it was more democratic with either people or local bishops electing a new bishop.
  • At least three other nearby bishops should be present to consecrate this new bishop. To consecrate someone, a bishop lays hands on their head and says (simplifying here), “I make you a bishop, with the power to do all things a bishop does.”
  • A bishop is then assigned to this local geographic area, and has power over the diocese. The bishop was to reside in this diocese until their death, and not meddle in other dioceses. There was always supposed to be one bishop for one geographic area, with no overlap. The bishop is ultimately in charge of everything in that geographic area, from making new priests, to changes in the liturgy, to consecration of altars & oils. In ancient times the diocese may be a small area, or today it can span huge amounts of land where there are fewer people. A bishop in ancient times was more like a priest today in terms of how many people they oversaw.

Schisms created by wandering bishops is a problem that went back to the earliest centuries of the church. Bishops disagreeing and refusing to meet each other is also an ancient problem. Nicaea Canon IV was an attempt to give order to elections & consecrations. The church had always recognized a bishop should be consecrated by at least three other bishops, and should be assigned to a given geographical area. However, throughout church history exceptions would be made, and these exceptions came to be exploited by bishops who wanted to create their own churches.

One exception was that the church recognized a consecration could be done by 1 bishop, not 3. This would be seen as irregular, but still valid. The purpose of requiring 3 bishops is to avoid a lone bishop from going rogue and consecrating whoever, which is exactly what’s happened with traditional Catholics. All Traditional Catholics derive their orders from either Daniel Q. Brown (American Old Catholic), Archbishop Thuc (Vietnamese bishop), Archbishop Marcel Lafebvre (French Bishop), or Bishop Alfredo-Mendez Gonzalez (American bishop). None of these bishops were working together however. The first Brown consecration was in 1971, Thuc consecrations were in 1981, the Lafebvre consecrations in 1988, and Gonzalez consecration in 1993. So this could be noted as a late Cold War phenomenon, with fear that Vatican II was just a Freemasonic plot. One they got started, the consecrations began to multiply. All of these were traveling bishops, flying and driving worldwide, and all were against Modernism, Communism, and Freemasonry.

The church had always recognized a bishop can’t be consecrated “at large” without having a church in a given geographic area. Traditional Catholics have ignored this, with everyone just accepting wandering bishops. These detached bishops who are consecrated “at large” have been a problem since the earliest days of the church, and people seem not to have a problem with it. The issue here is it allows con artists to just travel the world doing whatever they want, and not having any checks on their power. You can argue about whether you think this is good or bad, but the Catholic Church had recognized long ago that they wanted some kind of structure to this, but this structure has really started to fall apart in more modern times. Today there are overlapping territories of all these churches, so in the US today, there might be many bishops that claim a given territory (Catholic, Traditional Catholic, Coptic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc.). This problem is far larger than the Tridentine Latin Rite Church.

Of course everyone has a justification of why they can ignore norms, generally saying, “you are a heretic and we are the true church” which is an argument used for the last 2000 years.