There are four main points from this passage which support Apostolic Succession and the Catholic method of making decisions based on Apostolic authority. The first point is that the apostles are gathered together leading the whole church, and Peter is at the head of the assembly. First of all, we know that the whole assembly of disciples is gathered because Peter addresses them as “brothers and sisters”. Clearly there were more people there than just the eleven Apostles.
This first principle therefore, is that Apostolic Authority is exercised in the Catholic Church through consultation with the whole people of God, but with the clear leadership of the Apostles with Peter at their head. This is neither an absolute monarchy, nor is it democracy. Instead it is a consultative balance of both “monarchical” authority of Peter, but exercised with the college of Apostles and in consultation and listening to the whole people of God. So it is today, that the bishops, who are the successors to the Apostles, rule the church with the successor of Peter at their head–but they do so out of service and love and with consultation for the whole flock of God.
The second “leg” of authority is Scripture. When faced with the decision on what to do about Judas’ death Peter references Scripture. His decision and thinking is bathed in Scripture and comes from Scripture and is within the context not only of Scripture, but of the whole history of salvation. This decision comes from his conviction that Scripture is inspired by God. It is God’s word, and so it determines and guides the decision. Notice too, that he does not rely on one proof text, but quotes various Scriptures.
However, the Scripture is interpreted by Peter within the context of the Sacred Tradition of the Jews. This is the third leg of the throne of Apostolic Authority. The choice is ultimately determined by casting lots, and this was an ancient Jewish tradition for making the final decision. The “urim and thummim” were an ancient Hebrew method of making choices by casting lots.
The fourth leg of authority for Catholics is shown in that Peter finally turned to prayer. The individual inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the guidance that comes through prayer enlivens and makes dynamic the whole process of decision making.
We can see this same process at work in the decision making of the Catholic Church today. The Apostolic Church, led by the successor of Peter and in consultation with the whole church, meditates on Scripture and the whole Sacred Tradition. Then through prayer and inspiration of the Holy Spirit the way forward is determined.
These “four legs” might be understood as the “four legs of the chair of Peter”–and you know, a four legged throne is far sturdier (and more splendid) than a three legged stool.
EXTRA READING: Believing and Belonging is a longer apologetics article on Apostolic Succession; Biblical Support for the Authority of the Pope is a digital download–an extensive article on Papal authority.Benedict XVI on the need for Apostolic Authority is here. A short post Lots of Little Churchesshows what happens without Apostolic Authority.