English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms:

Apostolic See,
Apostolic Succession

The term see (from Latin sedes, seat or throne) refers to the rank, office, or authority of a bishop. The Apostolic See or the Holy See is the authority, jurisdiction and functions associated with a quite particular bishop: the Bishop of Rome, the papacy. "Apostolic" here refers to the Doctrine of Apostolic Succession, according to which (1) Christ appointed Peter to be the supreme authority within the Church on earth after Christ's own withdrawal into Heaven, and (2) Peter's authority extended to conferring itself in turn upon his successor (as bishop of Rome), (3) in an unbroken line into the present. Any living pope is, on this account, the Vicar of Christ. It is this succession of authority that, in Catholic doctrine, enables the Church to locate Christ's Word  to determine which would-be Biblical texts are to be regarded as canonical rather than spurious or merely human, and what is to be understood as the meaning to be read out of those texts. This special competence to establish and interpret scripture is the basis of the claim that the authority of the popes is prior even to the authority of Scripture.

The extent and limits of the popes' power was at stake in the medieval disputes over conciliarism, the position according to which Councils of the Church, or Councils and Pope together, constituted the supreme authority in matters of theological doctrine and canon law. As a practical matter, the extent of the popes' authority was continually at stake in the papal monarchy's long struggle with the secular monarchies of Europe, during the middle ages. (See WH, 3rd Ed., 213-14 and 245-46.)  Legally, the controversy focused on the implications of the famous Donation of Constantine, according to which the Roman emperor Constantine (d. 337) had ceded his temporal (i.e., secular) authority in the western part of the empire to the Bishop of Rome.  This, it was argued, gave the Pope autority to rule over (and hence to depose) feudal monarchs in Europe.  But during the early Italian Renaissance, the Humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) used methods of textual criticism to prove that the document (which had first been discovered in the 8th Century) was a forgery, since the particular characteristics of Latin which it exhibited did not exist during the era of its supposed author.  (See WH, 3rd Ed., 279.)

The Protestants during the 16th-century Reformation rejected the doctrine of Apostolic Succession entirely.

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      This page last updated 31 January 1999.