Paragraph 79 addresses a very basic question of Catholic life: where and how does the Church—at all levels of membership--receive authority to teach the entire Church on matters of faith and morals? The paragraph spells out the details of the process: that God's revelation--and the authority to proclaim it--has been revealed for all time in Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit this power has been passed along to the apostles and their successors for all time. This inheritance of divine authority throughout time is not only mystical but quite tangible. If you visit your diocesan website and look up your present bishop's biography, you will probably see that at the time of his episcopal consecration he was named bishop of two locations: the first being a city or region believed to date its Christian origins to an apostle or apostolic times, and then to your own diocese (the two assignments occur simultaneously.) Orlando Catholics would be surprised to learn that Bishop John Noonan is the Titular Bishop of Bonusta, a town outside of Carthage in North Africa, of which no trace exists today.
The idea or comprehension of apostolic succession is, as you might imagine, very ancient. St. Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles (1: 15-26) written around 80 A.D., describes the process in the case of the deceased Judas. In the interim between the Ascension and Pentecost, in Luke’s depiction, the eleven Apostles felt an urgency to replace the brother (Judas) who had betrayed Jesus. They determined that the two best candidates were Justus and Matthias. Given Luke’s timetable, it was critical that the twelfth be reinstated prior to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the time-honored Israelite tradition, the final determination was made through what we would call a game of chance, possibly either dice or short sticks. The thinking behind this method is that the direct intervention of God would choose the winner. As Christianity progressed into Gentile lands, a variety of religious/consultative selection processes came into play.
One of the notable features of the early Church is its collegiality, i.e., collective decision-making in matters of faith and morals. But Luke and Paul describe in the Scriptures an early “Council of Jerusalem” in which Paul made a compelling argument against the necessity of male concerts to Christianity to undergo the initiation rites into Judaism first, specifically circumcision. Once the custom of strong urban bishops was well established in the second century, regions and clusters of bishops could work in harmony in solidifying matters of faith, worship, and morals. Eventually this development would lead to world-wide councils (“ecumenical” councils, from the Greek oikoumenē, the “inhabited earth.”)
Interestingly, para. 79 speaks of the Spirit as continuing (present tense) its presence and activity in the Church, conversing with “the Spouse of his beloved Son,” i.e. the Church, the Bride of Christ. Para. 77 had emphasized the bishops as the agents of handing on the Tradition of Faith, and one might interpret today’s paragraph as implying that only bishops get invited into the bed chamber. But here we see reference to the Spirit’s animating work in the Church without qualifiers. It is the Spirit that “leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”
The history of the Church is witness to an ongoing tension about the determination of who speaks authoritatively for the Spirit in any particular moment. In 1870 the answer for most, if not all Catholics, would have been simple enough: the sitting pope, in virtue of the newly defined doctrine of papal infallibility declared at the Council Vatican I in 1870. (One of the two bishops who voted against infallibility was Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas.) But even as the Church fathers convened to consider papal infallibility, scholars in Western Europe were revisiting the theology of the Church’s sacraments, and in particular the sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.
The reformed rite of the initiation sacraments, in theology drawn from Vatican II teachings, includes two critical points related to the Apostolic Tradition and the handing on of the Faith. In the first instance, the candidates receiving these sacraments are identified within the official texts as priests, prophets, and kings. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is said to be poured out in abundance upon those entering the Body of Christ. Unless the language of liturgy is reduced to flowery rhetoric, some genuine action has taken place whereby the Spirit has and continues to converse with the newly anointed “Spouse of the Beloved Son,” as para. 79 puts it.
Moreover, the initiation sacraments clearly identify the Catholic Christian as workers in the vineyard of Christ’s mission. Often the “work” of the vineyard is interpreted in a tangible charitable sense: the corporal works of mercy, pastoral ministry to the sick, the alien, the homeless, which is certainly true. But notably absent in pastoral discussion is the work of wisdom: to think, to read, to write, to meditate, to address the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church not simply in a passive way—though humility at the feet of saints is always a wise posture—but in an expansive way, bringing new vision to contemporary problems, new visions of ministry to the changing demographics of Catholicism, etc.
I am struck by this thought very often when I teach or engage in church ministries. Last weekend I taught a course on Church history, and on the evaluations several students thanked me for “showing the role the saints played in the bigger picture of things.” I am often saddened that even the most professionally successful Catholics have never received or researched “the bigger picture of things.” Is it possible our minimalist approach to catechetics—particularly adults—impedes the Spirit’s ongoing work of enlightening the Church? There is no restraining God’s Spirit.