Catholic Trivia: Who is Scipione Rebiba?

Catholic Trivia: Who is Scipione Rebiba?

Here’s a free Catholic trivia question for you, phrased several different ways you can ask your friends:

  1. Who is Scipione Rebiba?
  2. Which bishop can you find in the apostolic lineage of more than 5000 of the bishops alive today, including the pope?
  3. Who is the earliest bishop more than 90% of today’s bishops can definitively identify in their lineage?

If you’ve never used Catholic-Hierarchy, you’ve been missing out. I use it frequently when I want to find out where a bishop is from. On its many pages, you’ll find the Syllabus of Heirs – as I call it – the long list of bishops and their apostolic lineages, that is, the line of bishops, each one ordained by the last, all the way back to the apostles. Get familiar enough with the site and you’ll begin to notice one name that haunts the pages like a ghost: Scipione Cardinal Rebiba.

Scipione Cardinal Rebiba is the last traceable bishop in the lines of many of the world’s bishops, and there he appears on the bottom of almost all the apostolic lineages Catholic-Hierarchy catalogs, a reminder of days when record-keeping was not as important as it is considered today.

You might ask, “what are the implications of this sudden stop in the apostolic lineage?” Because it is unknown who ordained our mystery man to the the episcopate, it is conceivable, at least to conspiracy theorists, that his ordination could have been invalid, thus invalidating the ordinations of all his episcopal descendants – those 90% or over 5000 I mentioned earlier, including the pope. That’s a mighty hefty concern!

In order to evaluate it properly, we need to consult some resources. Normally, I try not to put much stock in Wikipedia, but due to the Wikipedia Paradox (below), I will dispense with my normative rules.

Wikipedia ParadoxOn Wikipedia, you should trust what you normally expect to be wrong, or, scientifically stated, the presumable veracity of any Wikipedia article is inversely proportional to the familiarity of the topic to the general public. This is due to the fact that obscure articles, by escaping the interest of the dubious know-it-all misinformers of wiki media, and gaining the interest only of those who devote their lives to such topics, are likely to be true.

Who is Scipione Rebiba and does his lack of apparent roots pose a problem?

According to Wikipedia, Scipione Cardinal Rebiba (1504-1577) was a Sicilian Cardinal who ordained into the episcopate a line of bishops ultimately leading to the Dominican Father Pietro Francesco Orsini. Orsini later became Pope Benedict XIII, who personally ordained 139 bishops for Europe and the Americas. Consequently, quite a few current bishops stem from that group, back to Orsini, and through him, to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba.

As Wikipedia reports, there is a common belief (I guess common now refers to something held by “some theology nerds living in the parish basement”) that Cardinal Rebiba was ordained by the man who would become Paul IV. Paul IV, likewise, has an uncertain lineage. This is unfortunate, as it will probably not satisfy the conspiracy-prone. [Note: Mr. Crouchback, in the comments below, makes a good point: although history does not record the co-consecrators in these ordinations, they were almost certainly present as a reinforcement of the validity of Orders. The Church has long had the practice of requiring multiple bishops to ordain each new bishop, to safeguard against conspiracy theories like this one. Pope Marcellus II, just before Paul IV, had two co-consecrators.] Nevertheless, even if the lineage is not certain, there is no foundation for the idea that apostolic lineage is false. Apostolic lineage was discussed very early in the Church (in the New Testament and among the Early Church Fathers), and must be true. The specific lineage, however, simply wasn’t always well-documented. Still, we have every reason to believe that Cardinal Rebiba knew his consecrator, and knew him to be an heir of the apostles, and so on down the line of bishops. People – Catholic people, at least – just don’t go around getting “ordained” by non-bishops. Additionally, there’s always the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, would not allow the Church to suffer from 500 years of invalid bishops. No, Cardinal Rebiba’s ordination was valid, simply because common sense – and faith – tells us so.

That’s enough heady stuff for today. While the potential implications of the bottle-necking of the apostolic lineage around Cardinal Rebiba is certainly interesting, there is another question to answer:

Who are the bishops that don’t have Cardinal Rebiba in their lineage?

That was a little tricky to find. In fact, it became a late night scavenger hunt. At first, I searched Catholic-Hierarchy for “Bishop, -Rebiba,” but the results included lots of deceased bishops. Then I searched for “Bishop, -Rebiba, -died” and found a few, including:

  1. Wilhelmus Joannes (Guillaume Jean) Demarteau, Bishop Emeritus of Banjarmasin, Indonesia
  2. Spiridon Mattar, Melkite Bishop Emeritus of São Paulo

Scrolling through the pages, though, it looked like the trail was going cold. Are there any living, non-retired bishops who don’t have Cardinal Rebiba in their lineage?

I refined my search: “Bishop, -Rebiba, -died, -resigned”

Here’s a summary of my results: “Melkite…Maronite…Chaldean…”

Okay, are there any living, non-retired Roman Rite Bishops who don’t have Cardinal Rebiba in their lineage?

Finally, I found one! As Fr. Z would say, Huzzah!

Antony Selvanayagam, Bishop of Penang, Malaysia! We have a winner! Would the people of the Diocese of Penang please step forward to claim their prize?

Wow, what an exciting bunch of Catholic nerd research! More than 90%, or over 5000 bishops, today can trace their apostolic lineage back to Cardinal Rebiba through Pope Benedict XIII. I can’t begin to imagine why Pope Benedict XIII chose to ordain so many bishops personally. Perhaps it was part of attempted reforms. Perhaps it was a way of giving a special mandate to the many bishops whose countries would shortly be evanglizing the New World. The exact reason evades us, but one thing is certain: this action has ensured for the foreseeable future that the vast majority of bishops can trace their lines back to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba. Cool, huh?

Another resource: please check out Charles Bransom’s great work, upon which Catholic-Hierarchy is based.


  1. Aren’t two, additional co-consecrators needed for a licit (rather than just valid) consecration? It is my understanding that this is an ancient (and generally adhered to) requirement. May be this is accounted for in the conspiracy theories, but it seems like this would muddle things up a bit for them (e.g., did all the bishops that had Rebiba as their principal consecrator also only have Rebiba-line bishops as their co-consecrators? Seems unlikely).

    • You bring up a good point. I considered that when preparing this post, but I’m not familiar enough with the historical antiquity of the rule of co-consecrators for licitness. I did find that the co-consecrators that long ago were not always well-documented, either. Definitely interesting, although I agree with your assessment. It would be unlikely at the time that anyone Rebiba consecrated didn’t have co-consecrators. With those in place, his episcopal ordinations are certainly valid beyond a doubt.

    • I’ve amended my post with an acknowledgement of your contribution. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Actually perhaps not…..until Pius XII, co-consecrators in the Roman rite as found in the Pontificale were merely ceremonial (at least, when viewed through the theology of the descendants of the scholastics)as they did not recite the Prayer of Ordination/Consecration, or many of the other prayers of the rite that certain theologians at one time or the other held to be necessary.

    • The tradition of having three bishops goes back to one of the early councils (I think Constantinople 381 but I can’t remember precisely). It was implemented then precisely to avoid the idea of “the conspiracy theorists” of the XXI century. (People back then wondered the same things.) The idea was to ensure apostolic succession, so it would have to have sacramental effects if the primary consecrator was not a legitimate bishop.

      In other words, nice fact but apostolic succession is safe.

  2. Question: why does the episcopal lineage stop at Cardinal Rebiba when using the Catholic-Hierarchy website? Should we be able to trace each bishop back further, say… back to one of the Apostles?

    • Poor record-keeping or else records were destroyed. Nevertheless, we know that Rebiba was validly ordained, as I argued in the article. This is a standard problem in genealogy. You can have the complete chain on either side of the missing link, but that missing link still is a pain.

  3. Benedict XIII was only Pope for a bit less than six years, but was a bishop for nearly 50 years before he was elected Pope. Many of the consecrations took place before he was elected Pope.

    • Yes, I thought I had said that, but I’ve just gone back to make it more clear. Thanks.

  4. I performed this little exercise a while back.

    It was quite a search figure out who wasn’t descended from him.

    Even more fun is finding Catholic bishops who are descended from valid non-Catholic bishops.

    • That sounds intriguing. Got one for us?

    • David, thanks for the new source, and thanks for all the great research you’ve compiled on the topic! I hope you’re getting a few new visitors from here. :-)

    • My thanks to David for his kind words for my website. David has done a phenomenal job in creating and maintaining his site. It’s a magnificent site.

      There are very few non-Rebiban bishops alive – just over 200, three-quarters or so belonging to the lines of various Eastern Catholic Churches. Fifty-three bishops belong to non-Rebiban Roman rite lines and those bishops are noted on my website.

      There are also a few Roman rite bishops found in the Chaldean amd Maronite lines. These bishops, too, are listed on my site.

      I hope visitors will find the site interesting.



      • Charles, thanks for this great, interesting, and under-appreciated work! I hope both you and David get a sizeable bump in traffic from this.

  5. Also as an historical note the original sense of Apostolic Succession was not the Sacramental Succession (hands on head) but Jurisdictional Succession “in the Chair” (Peter, Linus, Cletus…Benedict XVI). What is usually not recognized is that for the full exercise of Episcopal Orders BOTH are needed. For example… Catholic and Orthodox Bishops are in full Apostolic Succession because there is both Sacramental and Jurisdictional Succession. Anglican Bishops possess the Succession “in the Chair” (i.e the Archbishop of Canterbury is the successor of Augustine of Canterbury and Thomas Becket, etc) but lack Sacramental Succession. SSPX Bishops have the opposite problem they possess Sacramental Succession but they lack jurisdictional succession and so lack the teaching authority of Bishops

  6. I have been working on a little pet project, which is to create a so-called ‘family tree’ of all the world’s living bishops, which at least keeps me entertained, and the Rebiba tree is huge. And although the trees I am building are not complete yet, there are some other interesting trends. Many living French bishops, for example, trace their lineage back to a Guillaume Cardinal d’Estouteville, who consecrated Pope Sixtus IV.

    Another fun fact is that a number of Roman rite bishops, in the Caribbean and Africa, trace their succession back to Maronite bishops.


  1. Catholic trivia: Which bishop can you find in the apostolic lineage of more than... - Christian Forums - [...] to notice one name that haunts the pages like a ghost: Scipione Cardinal Rebiba. Continued- Catholic…
  2. WEDNESDAY MORNING EDITION | - [...] 90% of the World’s Bishops can Trace Their Lineage to One Bishop – Micah Murphy, T&C [...]
  3. Today’s Catholic must-reads: 21/03/12 | - [...] humorous exterior Cardinal Dolan is “a man of formidable intelligence“.And Micah Murphy reveals which bishop can be found in…
  4. Today’s Catholic must-reads: 21/03/12 | - [...] Micah Murphy reveals which bishop can be found in the apostolic lineage of more than 5,000 of bishops alive…