The Rebiba Bottleneck

Jimmy Akin has this podcast dealing with some fascinating questions about the integrity of the apostolic succession. The most interesting and momentous sections pertain to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba (†1577), through whom, because of a quirk of history, more than 90% of today’s episcopate trace their succession.

The nub of the “Rebiba bottleneck” is this: Pope Benedict XIII personally consecrated an extremely large fraction of European bishops, who in turn consecrated so great a fraction of their successors that their line “drove out” most other lines of succession, so to speak. So what? Well, Benedict‘s principal consecrator was Paluzzo Cardinal Paluzzi Altieri Degli Albertoni, whose principal consecrator was Ulderico Cardinal Carpegna, whose principal consectator was Luigi Cardinal Caetani, whose principal consecrator was Ludovico Cardinal Ludovisi, whose principal consecrator was Archbishop Galeazzo Sanvitale, whose principal consecrator was Girolamo Cardinal Bernerio, whose principal consecrator was Giulio Antonio Cardinal Santorio, whose principal consecrator was Card. Rebiba. And we’ve lost the records identifying Rebiba’s principal consecrator.

The question of authority is absolutely central to Christianity. See, e.g., J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958); MP: “Why I am a Catholic” in a few brushstrokes (June 1, 2012); Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition (forthcoming 2012). It is a determinative proposition. And the question of apostolic succession is, in turn, absolutely central to the question of authority. The Rebiba bottleneck is thus disquieting: How do we know, a skeptic might ask, that today’s episcopate are valid successors of the apostles if we don’t know who consecrated Rebiba?

Jimmy’s comments are enlightening, and I commend them to the reader. I would add a couple of points.

First: If the Catholic proposition is correct (if it isn’t, we have bigger problems than inside baseball), then the episcopacy is a constituent part of the Church, and God would not allow it to fail.

Second, on a more practical level, there is simply no serious reason to believe that the “Rebiba bottleneck” is anything more than disquieting. As we must trust the content of the faith, so we must also trust the history that we know over the history we don’t. We must avoid adopting that kind of extremist skepticism that selectively rejects ab initio whatever cannot be documented according to the standards of modern history. By 1541, the Catholic Church had been consecrating bishops for fifteen centuries; she has continued to consecrate bishops for five more centuries. To believe that the Rebiba botleneck threatens the integrity of the episcopal succession, one must believe that Rebiba’s consecration was invalid (or never happened), which is to say that one must believe that the Church fouled up a routine and solemn part of her core activities. That is an extraordinary proposition, and it demands proof—not simply an inference rooted in mindlessly extreme skepticism that rejects whatever cannot be affirmatively proven.

Moreover, it would have to have been an extraordinary wreck. As the podcast notes, the Church has (so far as we can tell) always consecrated bishops with a principal consecrator and co-consecrators. Card. Santorio was consecrated by Rebiba and bishops Annibale Caracciolo and Giacomo de Giacomelli; neither was consecrated by Rebiba, so unless both of them were invalidly consecrated, too, by sheer coincidence, Santorio was validly-consecrated, and thus his lineage remains intact. Likewise, move another step up the chain. Card. Bernerio was consecrated by Santorio and Bishop Giulio Masetti and Ottaviano Cardinal Paravicini (whose principal consecrator was St. Charles Cardinal Borromeo); we don’t have documentation follow their succession back too far, either, but we know that Rebiba wasn’t involved, so were their lines also compromised? Such claims are simply not credible.

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