Apostolic Succession: Orthodox vs Protestants

How are Holy Orders passed on and how was Apostolic Succession retained by the Orthodox and not by the Protestants?


I believe (though someone may have to correct me) that it works something like this:

Apostolic succession is conferred through Holy Orders: The Apostles ordained bishops, who ordained bishops, who ordained bishops, who ordained still more bishops, and so on down the line. Since Holy Orders is a sacrament, when validly administered it is “powered by God” and gives grace regardless of the worthiness of the minister (CCC 1128). Schism is merely a sin (a serious sin, but only a sin), so it doesn’t otherwise impede the effects of this sacrament. Therefore, bishops in schism can otherwise validly confer Holy Orders, keeping the line of succession alive. Orthodox bishops fit into this category: They validly received Holy Orders, and their personal state with God does not itself prevent them from passing those Orders on to someone else, so long as they properly administer the sacrament (and the Catholic Church teaches that they do).

However, if one denies that Holy Orders is a sacrament (and so stops administering it) or changes its form or matter so that it is no longer valid (for example, by using an unapproved liturgical rite to administer it), then the sacrament is no longer given, halting succession. I believe the Church doesn’t recognize Anglican orders for the latter reason (an invalid rite); apostolic succession otherwise died in Protestantism with the belief that the sacraments are limited to Baptism and the Eucharist (or that there are no sacraments at all).

Hope that helps.


Thank you for the response. So it has to do with recognition of the Sacraments? I know that a portion of the Reformation had to do with rejection of the office of the priesthood, so it would seem it was the rejection of the priesthood (Holy Orders) that they de facto relinquished their claim to Apostolic succession?

So it can also be lost by not using the proper form… you mention the Anglicans. Then, do the 20th century schismatic groups retain their claim to Apostolic Succession?


I can’t comment on particular schismatic groups specifically; the Vatican has the last word on whether their sacraments are valid. But in general, I would think that schism is not in itself enough to keep one from validly conferring the sacraments, including Holy Orders.

Otherwise: Part of the reason the sacraments, such as Reconciliation and the Eucharist, “work” is that they are administered by validly ordained priests, who have been given the gifts needed to act in the person of Christ. If you can’t, don’t, or won’t validly give Holy Orders, then you can no longer have priests with those gifts, and so your claim to the other sacraments is also lost. (And a sacrament is only valid if certain predetermined aspects are present – see the Summa, part 3, no. 60, article 5.)

Note that two of the seven sacraments – Baptism and Holy Matrimony – can be or are administered by non-priests, and as such the Church recognizes marriages and Trinitarian baptisms given outside of the Church.

I’ll note one other thing: Apostolic succession, insofar as it refers to valid sacraments, depends only on the ability to validly confer Holy Orders. Succession in the context of the ability to authoritatively teach is different – for that, the bishops in question must be in communion with Rome.

I suggest that you ask an eastern board this question as well.

OrthodoxChristianity.net is one such place, Byzcath.org is another.

Leaving the Anglicans aside as a special case, most Protestants simply didn’t have any bishops to begin with.

For example, Martin Luther was a priest, and I imagine that a number of his followers were priests as well. But since only bishops can validly ordain …

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