What if the gates of hell did prevail against it?

A theological hypothetical for all those armchair ecclesiologists in the audience: what if literally every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishop suddenly died before they were able to ordain any new bishops? How would apostolic succession be preserved or “retconned”? Would Anglican orders suddenly turn out to be “good enough”? Would priests be upgraded to bishops? Is there already a contingency plan hidden in the depths of the Vatican?

10 thoughts on “What if the gates of hell did prevail against it?

  1. I’m sure there’s some Rahnerian concept that could get the job done. Like really wanting to be a bishop or something.

  2. Go to Sweden where the Lutheran bishops are part of the apostolic succession. Can’t remember the specific history.

  3. You would probably see the metropolitan bishoprics (the major archdiocese in the Roman Catholic Church) appoint new bishops who would become cardinals and they would have emergency meetings Rome and Athens. Though the hypothetical in question is rather remote, as I understand the system of apostolic succession, there remains the means of continuing to communion of the Church Catholic via this kind of system. What would matter most, particularly for the Roman Church, would be the appointing of a temporary prelate from Rome and then the consultation of (newly elected cardinals.) I suspect, though woefully unfamiliar, that the Eastern Church would have a similar system. Frankly, its how the churches from Pentecost to about 330 operated. There was no formal system of hierarchy nor authoritative apostolic succession.

    To make a mess of the system, you’d really have to kill off every bishop, priest, and deacon. Then we could have a really, really good HBO miniseries. (I am a Protestant ecclesiologist, so our mileage my vary here.)

  4. But Cardinals are made by the Pope, not by being from a metropolitan diocese, no? You could maybe get a General Council to exercise the papal authority, but someone would have to call it and people would have to attend, both problematic in the absence of bishops. You would still have prominent priests and of course the superiors of the various orders.

    It would seem to me that one course would be the election of a Bishop of Rome by the chapter of St John Lateran (or the Roman people), who would then declare that either the Anglican or some available eastern tradition is good enough, receive the episcopal succession from there, and then exercise papal infallibility to declare he was legitimate, and dare anyone to quibble.

    If you couldn’t make new bishops, perhaps the orders of monks & friars would assume governance roles?

  5. I do think you’re underestimating how hierarchical the Roman Catholic Church is. Each diocese usually tries to have a bishop and one or more auxiliary bishops. This isn’t due to succession issues so much as there being too much work for one bishop. My diocese has a bishop, two auxiliary bishops, as well as a retired ex-bishop from China, who has some weird title like auxiliary bishop of outreach to Chinese-speaking people or something. The religious orders also have local hierarchy – there’s not just a leadership of each religious order in their headquarters in Rome, but also an extensive hierarchy in each region. Some diocese are broken up into deaneries, and sometimes the deaneries have their own leadership figures.

    If you posit a scenario where all the bishops are wiped out, there are still lots of figures like the archpriests of the Roman basilicas, Provincial Fathers, abbots and priors of monasteries, monsignors, etc. Historically, the archpriests of the Roman basilicas had a lot of sway in distant times, so that might be one place to start (the archpriests are now typically also Cardinals, but they themselves have assistants). There is also the huge Rome Curia, wherein most of the department heads are Cardinals, but most of the staff of course aren’t – for example, one would presume Cardinal Parolin (the current Vatican Secretary of State) could be replaced, at least temporarily, by his current Undersecretary, who is simply a priest.

    You might simply declare that the Undersecretaries of each major department of the Roman Curia has now become a Cardinal. It would be true that the last Pope had approved each of these priest’s appointment to that office. They would then form a College of Cardinals and elect a new pontiff.

    Even if you killed off every priest and deacon, there are still the brothers in various religious communities. Some of these, like the guys heading up the Brothers of Christian Schools or Xaverian Brothers, head up reasonably important enterprises.

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