Here’s a free Catholic trivia question for you, phrased several different ways you can ask your friends:
- Who is Scipione Rebiba?
- Which bishop can you find in the apostolic lineage of more than 5000 of the bishops alive today, including the pope?
- 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.
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:
- Wilhelmus Joannes (Guillaume Jean) Demarteau, Bishop Emeritus of Banjarmasin, Indonesia
- 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.