Q — The Catholic Church claims succession from Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. However, even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the Liber Pontificalis, or Book of the Popes, was only compiled about 500 AD and the earlier portion contains a number of errors. Therefore, what evidence is there that an unbroken succession from Peter exists in the Catholic Church?

A — There was a popular 20th century English philosopher, C. E. M. Joad (1891-1953), who used to take part in a BBC production called “The Brains Trust,” in Britain in the 1940s-1950s. People were invited to submit questions and the panel of guests would attempt to respond. Invariably, Joad would begin his response to a question with the words “It all depends on what you mean.” I want to make Joad’s words my own as I attempt to begin my answer to this question.

First a brief word about the Liber Pontificalis. This is the Latin title for a book of papal biographies from St. Peter until the 15th century. Since we know so very little about the earliest bishops of Rome, modern scholars, Catholic and otherwise, recognize errors and discrepancies in the text.

Second, so much depends on what is meant by “The Catholic Church claims succession from Peter, the first Bishop of Rome.” Actually, the church claims succession, strictly speaking, not from St. Peter but from the mission and mandate given by our Blessed Lord to the Twelve, with Peter as their leader. This mission and mandate of the Twelve devolved to the episkopoi/bishops of the later first century and onwards from there to the present day.

Third, “the unbroken succession” speaks to the Catholic tradition, in place from the very beginning but more clearly articulated as time went on, that the Bishop of Rome was the “one who presided in love” over the communion of the church. I would maintain that that tradition is so strong, so unbroken if you will, as to be virtually incontrovertible from a theological point of view, even if every historical “jot and tittle” cannot be comprehensively verified.