Councils: Christian Councils

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Since the beginning of Christian history, designated leaders of Christian communities have from time to time gathered to make authoritative decisions on common teaching and practice. Such gatherings are usually called councils or synods (from the Greek sunodos, "a coming together"). Although these two terms are sometimes used synonymously, especially in Greek-Christian literature, synod normally designates the gathering of representatives from a local church or a single denomination, as distinct from council, which usually means a meeting at which representation is intended to be universal. Although only seven such meetings, all held in Greek cities in Asia Minor between the fourth and eighth centuries, are recognized by most Christian churches today as worldwide, or "ecumenical," councils (from the Greek oikoumenē, "the inhabited world") and as classically authoritative in their articulation of Christian faith and church order, the conciliar pattern of decision making has remained a constant feature in the life of most churches. The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, has traditionally regarded fourteen later councils, most of them Western gatherings held under papal auspices, as also ecumenical and normative. Christian councils have varied greatly in size, procedure, composition, and the way in which they have been convoked and ratified. The only criterion for determining their authority and importance is the practical norm of "reception": that a council's decisions are subsequently accepted by a church or a group of churches as valid and binding.

Councils in the Early Church

Precedents for early Christian conciliar practice lay in the Jewish Sanhedrin, or national council of priests and elders, which regulated the religious affairs, as well as some secular matters, of postexilic Israel until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce, and in the collegial bodies of priests and leading citizens that ruled most local cults in the Hellenistic and Roman world. The first recorded gathering of Christian leaders to rule in a doctrinal and disciplinary dispute was the "council" of apostles and elders held in 48 or 49 ce and described in Acts of the Apostles 15:629. That council decided not to require full observance of the Mosaic law from Gentile converts. As the Christian church established itself in other regions of the Greco-Roman world, special meetings of the bishops in a particular province or region were occasionally called to deal with disputed issues, such as the prophetic Montanist movement (Asia Minor, c. 170), the date of the celebration of Easter (Asia Minor, Palestine, Gaul, and Rome, c. 190), the readmission to Christian communion of those who had "lapsed" in persecution (Rome, c. 230250; Carthage, c. 240250), or the scandalous behavior of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch (Antioch, 264268).

During the late second and third centuries, episcopal synods probably met regularly in most regions, although the evidence is fragmentary. As the end of the illegal status of the Christian churches drew near, however, their leaders became bolder in organizing such meetings. A synod of Spanish bishops held in Elvira, near Granada, some time in the first decade of the fourth century enacted eighty-one canons on church discipline that remained widely influential, particularly on the indissolubility of marriage and clerical celibacy. Another local synod, at Arles in southern Gaul (August 314), called to consider the response of Catholics to the schismatic Donatist church in Africa, ruled against rebaptizing Donatists who wished to enter the Catholic Church.

Early Ecumenical Councils

The first attempt to gather a body of bishops representing the whole Christian world was the council called by the emperor Constantine I at Nicaea, in northwest Asia Minor, in the summer of 325 (June 18August 25). The Council of Nicaea is still recognized as the first ecumenical Christian council and as the model for later authoritative gatherings. With the style and procedure of the Roman senate likely in mind, Constantine commissioned the 318 bishops who had assembled near his residence in Nicaea, including several representatives from the Latin church of the West, to settle the controversy raised by Arius's denial of the eternity and full divinity of Jesus. In asserting that Jesus, as Son of God, is "begotten, not made" and "of the same substance as the Father," the council's creedal formula laid the groundwork for the classical development of Christian trinitarian theology in the half century that followed. The Nicene council also excommunicated Arius and his followers, determined a unified way of reckoning the date of Easter, and issued twenty disciplinary decrees or canons, mainly regulating the appointment and jurisdiction of bishops. Although the emperor's influence was strongly felt at Nicaea, it was the bishops themselvesunder the leadership of Constantine's adviser, Bishop Hosius of Cordova, and of the young Alexandrian priest Athanasiuswho formulated common theological and practical decisions. The bishops of the whole Christian world were now publicly recognized as the senate of the church.

After more than fifty years of sharp controversy over the reception and interpretation of the Nicene formula, a period that saw the proliferation of local synods and the production of many new creeds, the emperor Theodosius I convoked a meeting of some 150 Greek-speaking bishops at Constantinople in 381 (MayJuly) for what later was recognized as the second ecumenical council (Constantinople I). In addition to confirming Nicaea's insistence on the full divinity of Jesus as Son, this council condemned those who denied that the Holy Spirit is a distinct individual within the trinitarian mystery of God. An expanded version of the Nicene Creed, probably professed by the patriarch-elect Nectarius during the council before his installation in the see of Constantinople, was taken by the Council of Chalcedon (451) to be the official creed of the whole gathering and is still used as the standard profession of faith in many Christian liturgies (the "Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed"). This council also enacted four disciplinary canons, including one that accorded second place in ecclesiastical honor, after that of "old Rome," to the new imperial capital, Constantinople. That provision was to become a cause of contention between the Eastern and Western churches.

As a result of a bitter dispute between Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, over the proper way of conceiving the relationship of the divine and human aspects of Jesus, the emperor Theodosius II summoned a meeting of bishops at Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, in the summer of 431, to resolve the issue, and more particularly to judge the propriety of calling Mary "Mother of God" (theotokos ), as Cyril insisted on doing. Representatives of the opposing groups could not agree to meet, and the would-be council ended abortively in mutual excommunication. Later (April 433) Cyril came to an agreement with the more moderate of Nestorius's supporters to excommunicate Nestorius and to accept the title theotokos as valid, but also to recognize that in Jesus two distinct naturesthe human and the divineare united without confusion in a single individual. On the basis of this agreement, the meeting of Cyril's party at Ephesus in 431 later came to be regarded as the third ecumenical council, and the dossier assembled there by Cyril's supporters was used as a classical anthology of christological documents.

The fullest articulation of the early church's understanding of the person of Christ was made at a council held at Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Constantinople, in the fall of 451 (OctoberNovember). In response to continuing controversy over whether the humanity of Jesus constituted a distinct and operative reality or "nature" after the incarnation of the Word, the emperor Marcian convoked this meeting of over 350 bishops (including three legates from Pope Leo I and two North African bishops) and forced it to formulate a doctrinal statement on Christ that accommodated a variety of theological traditions. The chief inspiration of the document, however, was the balanced "two-nature" Christology articulated by Leo in his letter to Bishop Flavian of Constantinople in 449. The council also enacted twenty-eight disciplinary canons, the last of which confirmed the second rank of the see of Constantinople and awarded it jurisdictional primacy in Asia Minor and northeastern Greece. This meeting, regarded as the fourth ecumenical council, is the first for which we possess detailed minutes as well as final documents.

Chalcedon's formulation of the Christian understanding of Christ proved to be only a new beginning for controversy. After more than a century of recriminations, especially in the East, the emperor Justinian I convoked another meeting at Constantinople (Constantinople II) in the year 553 (May 5June 2) and persuaded the 168 bishops present to reformulate the Christology of Chalcedon in terms that more clearly emphasized the centrality of Jesus' divine identity. They also condemned the speculative theology of Origen (third century) and his followers, as well as that of the chief opponents of Cyril of Alexandria from the previous century. The Roman bishop, Vigilius I, was present in Constantinople during the council but refused to attend, suspectingalong with most Western bishopsthat it was being forced to weaken the stated faith of Chalcedon in the interests of political unity. In February 554, however, he agreed to accept the decisions of Constantinople II, a step that resulted in decades of controversy in Italy and Africa. This synod has generally been accepted since then as the fifth ecumenical council.

In the century that followed, Greek theologians continued to look for ways of reconciling the monophysites, Christians who had broken from the official church after Chalcedon by emphasizing the dynamic unity of the two-natured Christ as a divine person. One such attempt, favored by several seventh-century Byzantine patriarchs and emperors, was the ascription to Christ of a single divine will and "activity," or range of behavior. Led by the exiled Greek monk Maximos the Confessor, a local Roman synod of October 649 rejected this new Christology as a subtle weakening of the integral affirmation of Jesus' humanity. This condemnation was confirmed by a small gathering of mainly Eastern bishops in the rotunda of the imperial palace in Constantinople between November 7, 680, and September 16, 681, a synod subsequently recognized as the sixth ecumenical council (Constantinople III).

Ten years later, the emperor Justinian II summoned another gathering of bishops in the same rotunda to discuss disciplinary issues and formulate practical canons that would supplement the authoritative theological decisions of Constantinople II and III. Hence its customary titles, the "Quinisext" (fifth-and-sixth) synod or the synod "in the rotunda" (Gr., en trullō), also known as the Trullan Synod. The membership of this meeting was also entirely Greek, and a number of its canons explicitly rejected Western practices. Although this gathering is not regarded as ecumenical, its legislation became one of the main sources of Orthodox canon law and was also frequently cited by Western medieval canonists.

The main theological controversy in the eighth- and ninth-century Eastern church was no longer directly over the person of Christ, but over the related issue of the legitimacy of using and venerating images in the context of worshiping a transcendent God. In 726, Emperor Leo III began the policy of removing and destroying the images in churches (iconoclasm), and his successor, Constantine V, convoked a synod of 338 bishops in Constantinople in 754 to ratify this practice, excommunicating those who defended the use of images, including the theologian and monk John of Damascus. In 787 (September 24October 7), however, the empress Irene convoked another synod at Nicaea (Nicaea II), attended by some 350 Greek bishops and two papal representatives. This synod reversed the decision of the year 754 and affirmed the legitimacy of venerating images and of asking for the intercession of the saints, while insisting also that worship, in the strict sense, is due to God alone. A resurgence of iconoclastic influence in the early ninth century delayed full acceptance of this council's decrees in the East, while the rivalry of the emperor Charlemagne and the poor Latin translation of the acts of Nicaea II that reached his court led to resistance in the West and even to condemnation of the council's decisions at a synod of 350 bishops at Frankfurt in June 794. However, Nicaea II was recognized as the seventh ecumenical council at the Council of Constantinople (869870), a recognition that was endorsed for the West by Pope John VIII in 880. It is the last of the ancient councils recognized as authoritative by virtually all Christian churches.

Medieval Councils

After the death of Theophilus, the last iconoclastic emperor, in 842, controversy in mid-ninth-century Constantinople over the manner of reinstating the veneration of images led to the forced abdication of the patriarch Ignatius in 858 and to the appointment of the learned civil servant Photios, a layman, as his successor. A local synod of 861, attended by two representatives of Pope Nicholas I, confirmed Photios's elevation and declared that the election of Ignatius had been uncanonical; the pope, however, was persuaded by Ignatius's followers to break communion with Photios two years later. Tension between Rome and Constantinople grew, both over the role of the pope as a source of legitimation and a court of appeal for Eastern bishops and over competing missionary activities of the two churches in Bulgaria. A synod summoned by the Greek emperor Michael in 867 condemned Roman incursions in the East, as well as the Roman church's introduction of the word filioque into the creed; it asked the Frankish emperor Louis II to depose Pope Nicholas. Another council in Constantinople, summoned by the new Greek emperor, Basil I, in 869870, deposed Photios in an effort to win the pope's support, but Photios became patriarch again after Ignatius's death in 877 and was recognized by the pope in a council of reunion held in Constantinople in 879880. This last meeting annulled the decisions of the council of 869870, but Western canonists in the twelfth century included the earlier gathering among the ecumenical councils, as Constantinople IV, because its twenty-second canon, forbidding the appointment of bishops by laypeople, provided a precedent for their own case against lay investiture. None of the Photian councils is recognized as ecumenical by other churches.

After the synod of 879880, Eastern and Western bishops ceased to meet over common concerns for almost four centuries. Local and regional synods, however, continued to play an important role in civil and ecclesiastical life. In Constantinople, the "residentiary synod" (Gr., sunodos endēmousa ) of the patriarch functioned as the administrative cabinet of the Byzantine communion. Synods in North Africa in the early fifth century (especially at Carthage in 418) and in southern Gaul in the early sixth century (especially at Orange in 529) made important formulations of the Western church's doctrine of grace. And provincial synods, attended by both bishops and secular lords, became an increasingly important instrument of government in the Frankish kingdoms of the sixth and seventh centuries. In Visigothic Spain, eighteen synods were held at Toledo between 589 and 702, dealing with both church and civil discipline and with the doctrinal issue of later Arianism. The Celtic and Roman traditions of church order in Britain were unified by the Synod of Whitby in Northumbria in 664. For the Carolingian empire, national synods were an important instrument for fostering political and doctrinal unity.

It was only in the time of the "Gregorian reform," however, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that the popes, as part of their program of strengthening the power and independence of the ordained clergy in ruling the church, thought again of convoking councils with a more than regional representation. Gregory VII, in his canonical summary known as Dictates of the Pope, insisted that only the bishop of Rome has the right to convoke an ecumenical councila principle preserved ever since by Western canon law. Corresponding to his vision of the papacy as the active center of a universal and politically independent church, Gregory and his successors began to invite bishops and abbots from other parts of Europe to participate in Roman synods and also took the lead in mobilizing European forces to regain the Christian holy places in Palestine from Muslim occupation.

Three twelfth-century Roman synodsthe Lateran councils of 1123, 1139, and 1179demonstrated the concern of the popes of this period to assert the independence of the hierarchy from lay control by enacting a variety of measures that insured the moral and social integrity of the clergy. The council of 1179 also condemned the emerging Catharist or Albigensian heresy (a Western form of Gnosticism), regulated the activities of monastic and military orders, and established the lasting rule that a pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority of the senior Roman clergy, who were known as "cardinals." These three Lateran synods, increasingly international in membership and deliberately modeled on the councils of the early church, were and are regarded as ecumenical councils by the Roman Catholic Church. Far more important, however, was the Fourth Lateran Council, convoked in 1215 (November 1130) by Innocent III. Innocent invited not only all bishops and heads of religious orders from the Western church, but also bishops of the Armenian, Maronite, and Greek churches. Only Latin bishops attended, however, and the council's seventy canons included a strong assertion of papal primacy and a complaint against the Greek church for rebaptizing Latin converts. The meetingrecognized in the West as the twelfth ecumenical councilnot only continued the disciplinary reforms of its three predecessors but also issued doctrinal statements on the Trinity and the sacraments (introducing the word transubstantiation into official church vocabulary), forbade secret marriages, and instituted the requirement of annual confession for adult Catholics.

Continued conflict between the popes and the Hohenstaufen emperors led Innocent IV to convoke a council of some 150 bishops at Lyons in June and July 1245. Besides calling for renewed efforts to reconquer the holy places, this synod excommunicated the German emperor Frederick II, absolving his subjects from the moral duty of obeying him. Western canonists regard this synod as the thirteenth ecumenical council. Gregory X summoned a second council at Lyons in the summer of 1274 (May 5July 17), in the hope of restoring communion between the Eastern and Western churches, a bond broken by mutual anathemas in 1054. The Greek emperor, Michael VIII Palaeologus, who had recaptured Constantinople from Latin occupiers in 1261, accepted the invitation to attend, hoping to prevent further Western attacks on his capital. Delegates of the Mongol khan also attended, as did some two hundred bishops and the nonvoting representatives of most Western rulers. Thomas Aquinas, invited to participate as a theological expert, died en route to Lyons. The Greek delegation participated in the papal Eucharist on June 29, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and agreed to a formal reunion of the churches on July 6, raising no objection to the traditionally disputed Western doctrines of the procession of the Holy Spirit, purgatory, and papal primacy, or to the new Western understanding of seven sacraments. The council is regarded in the West as the fourteenth ecumenical council. In 1283, however, a synod in Constantinople repudiated the union and deposed the patriarch, John Beccus, who had agreed to it at Lyons. Michael Palaeologus who had never succeeded in winning Greek support for the council, was excommunicated by Pope Martin IV in 1281, and his own church even denied him a Christian burial on his death in 1282.

In the face of the increasing attempts of Philip IV ("the Fair") of France to control the church. Clement Vthe first pope to reside at Avignonsummoned a council to meet in the independent French town of Vienne in 13111312 (October 16May 6). Eager to acquire the wealth of the Knights Templars, Philip had exerted strong pressure on the pope, even before the council, to suppress the military order on allegations of venality, heresy, and immoral practices. The council found no grounds to support these charges, but Clement suppressed the Templars by a bull of March 1312. The council also discussed plans for a new crusade, issued regulations for the growing number of new religious orders, and condemned the strict interpretation of the poverty of Jesus being advanced by the Spiritual Franciscans. Attended by 132 bishops and 38 abbots, all from western Europe, the Council of Vienne was the first to prepare documents in subcommissions and to delegate a standing committee to finish drafting documents still incomplete at the council's dissolution. Western canonists consider it the fifteenth ecumenical council.

In the Greek church a series of local synods in Constantinople (c. 1340) took up the controversy between Gregory Palamas, a monk of Mount Athos, and the Calabrian monk Barlaam about the value of hesychastic prayer (contemplative prayer prepared for by repetition of a mantra) and the possibility of experiencing the presence of God in this life. A synod in July 1351 recognized as orthodox Palamas's doctrine that God's "energies" or activities, if not God's essence, can be experienced in a quasi-visual way by a soul purified through constant prayer, a teaching that has been of central importance for Orthodox monasticism ever since.

In the West, the years of the Avignon papacy (13081378) saw continued centralization of papal authority, as well as increasing opposition to papal rule by the German emperors, independent cities, and certain charismatic and millenarian groups within the church. With the beginning of the Great Western Schism in 1378, in which two rival popes claimed the church's obedience, support began to grow among canonists and theologians for a more corporate system of church government, by which the pope would be understood as an executive appointed by and held accountable to the whole church, represented in a carefully appointed general council. This "conciliarist" theory, first proposed in practical terms by William Durandus of Mende at the time of the Council of Vienne, was seen by a number of prominent theologians in the last decades of the fourteenth century as the only way to end the schism. In 1409, a council at Pisa attempted to put conciliarism into practice by deposing both rival popes and electing a new one (John XXIII). The result, however, was simply that three claimants now vied for the Roman see. In 1414, the emperor Sigismund allied with John XXIII to convoke another council at Constance to resolve the issue (November 5, 1414April 22, 1418). Following the representative system of the medieval universities, the voting members of the councilwho included over 325 bishops, 29 cardinals, more than 100 abbots, several princes, and several hundred doctors of theologydecided to divide into four blocks, or "nations," each of which would have one corporate vote in the council's final decisions. These "nations" were the Germans (including eastern Europeans), the French, the English (including the Irish and Scots), and the Italians; from July 1415 the cardinals at the council were allowed to vote as a fifth unit, and a Spanish "nation" was added in October 1416. Debate was conducted within the "nations," and the whole council was managed by a joint steering committee, in which each "nation," as well as the cardinals, was represented. The council's decree, Sacrosancta, enacted on April 6, 1415, declared that the gathering was a general council of the church and that it therefore had supreme authority of itself, despite the absence of John XXIII, who had fled two weeks earlier. The council then condemned the reformist teachings of English theologian John Wyclif (1330?1384) and his Bohemian disciple Jan Hus, the latter of whom was publicly burned in Constance on July 6, 1415. The decree Frequens (October 5, 1417) stipulated that another council was to meet five years after the dissolution of the gathering at Constance, followed by a third council seven years later and by subsequent councils at ten-year intervals. Having devised these limitations on papal power, the council appointed a joint conclave of cardinals and delegates from the "nations," who elected Martin V on November 11, 1417. After further measures for structural reform, the council adjourned in April 1418. Although Martin had previously rejected some aspects of conciliar theory (including the idea of appeal to a further council) and never formally endorsed Sacrosancta or Frequens, he did declare, at the closing session, that he would observe what the whole council had declared on matters of faith.

After an abortive attempt to summon a council at Pavia in 1423, in accordance with the decrees of Constance, Martin convoked another meeting at Basel in 1430. Eugenius IV, who succeeded Martin in March 1431, hoped once again to effect a reunion with the Greek church and believed that an Italian setting would be more appropriate for that purpose. As relations with the delegates at Basel grew more strained, Eugenius ordered the council transferred to Ferrara in September 1437, although most of the members refused to go and remained in Basel as a rival assembly until 1448. The Greek delegation arrived in Ferrara in March 1438, and after preliminary discussions the council was moved to Florence in January 1439, where the city had offered to underwrite its costs. Led by Bessarion, metropolitan of Nicaea, the Greek delegation recognized the legitimacy of the Latin doctrines of the procession of the Spirit, purgatory, and papal primacy without prejudice to the validity of the Greek tradition, which differed on these points. A decree of union between the churches was signed on July 6, 1439. Subsequent decrees of union were signed with the Armenian church (November 22, 1439) and with the Copts and Ethiopians (February 4, 1442). The date of closure of the council is uncertain. It is regarded by the Western church as the seventeenth ecumenical council. In Byzantium, however, strong opposition led by Mark Eugenikos, metropolitan of Ephesus, who had also been a delegate to the council, was voiced against the union. A synod in Constantinople in 1484 officially repudiated the Florentine decree in the name of the Greek church.

Age of Reformation

Conciliarism had died as a practical force in the Roman church with the end of the Council of Basel. The Renaissance papacy continued to grow in power and wealth, although throughout Europe the demand for "reform in head and members" continued to grow as well. Faced with the attempt of Louis XII of France to convoke the antipapal reform synod at Pisa in 1511, Julius II summoned a Roman council (the Fifth Lateran Council) on May 15, 512, which continued under his successor, Leo X, until March 16, 1517. Aside from a few decrees aimed at correcting financial abuse and encouraging popular preaching, this councilrecognized as ecumenical by the Western churchachieved little.

The wave of institutional and theological reform set in motion by Martin Luther in the 1520s brought new pressure to bear on the popes to convoke a council to deal seriously with "Protestant" issues. Paul III called a council at Mantua in 1537, for which Luther prepared the theses that were later accepted by German Protestants as a kind of manifesto and known as the Smalcaldic Articles. This meeting was transferred to Vicenza in the same year and then suspended in 1539. After several delays, it was reconvened at the Alpine town of Trent, in imperial territory, on December 13, 1545. Rejecting the conciliar structure agreed on at Constance and Basel, the Council of Trent allowed only cardinals, bishops, and heads of religious orders voice and vote in its full sessions. During its first period (December 1545March 1547), the council discussed the relation of scripture and tradition, the canon of scriptural books, the doctrines of original sin and justification, and various proposed reforms in church administration. Transferred to Bologna (papal territory) in 1547, to escape the plague, the council continued to discuss the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but Paul III agreed not to let it formulate final decisions until it could return to Trent, where Protestants could participate more freely. A second set of sessions was held in Trent from May 1, 1551, until April 28, 1552, in which documents on these topics were finished. After a ten-year hiatus due largely to continued warfare among the German principalities, Pius IV reconvoked the council on January 18, 1562, for a third and final period, during which documents were issued on the sacrificial character of the Mass, on Holy Orders and the education of the clergy, on the sacramental nature of marriage, and on purgatory, as well as numerous disciplinary decrees. The Council of Trent, recognized by Roman Catholics as a nineteenth ecumenical council, was closed on December 4, 1563. Its decrees laid the foundation for the doctrines and practice of the Roman church for the next four centuries.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an age of rapid, often violent change in religious and civil institutions throughout western Europe as well as a time of bitter theological controversy, also witnessed a number of gatherings within and between the new Protestant communities. At the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands (November 13, 1618May 9, 1619), representatives of the Reformed churches affirmed, against the theories of the Leiden professor Jacobus Arminius, a strict Calvinist doctrine of the predestination of both the saved and the damned, the total depravity of unredeemed humanity, and the limited scope of Jesus' atoning death. In 1643, the English Parliament commissioned a group of Calvinist divines to revise the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England along Puritan lines and to draw up a Puritan confession of faith for the British Isles. On December 4, 1646, this Westminster Assembly completed its document, known as the Westminster Confession. It comprised thirty-three articles, largely based on the teaching of Dort and the covenant theology of English Puritanism. Accepted by the Church of Scotland in 1647, it became the chief confessional document of Scottish Presbyterianism. Protestant theology also made its influence felt in the Eastern churches at this time. Synods at Constantinople in 1638 and 1641 condemned the writings of the Western-educated Byzantine patriarch Cyril I (d. 1638) for their Calvinist teaching, and this condemnation was repeated at Orthodox synods in Jassy (Iaşi, Romania) in 1642 and Bethlehem in 1672.

The Modern Era

The Roman Catholic Church showed little interest in large-scale conciliar gatherings during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A regional synod held in Pistoia in Tuscany in September 1786, under the leadership of Bishop Scipione Ricci, demanded a variety of administrative and pastoral reforms in the church but was rejected by Roman authorities as antipapal and Jansenist in inspiration. Eighty-five propositions taken from its documents were condemned by Pius VII on August 28, 1794. As the spirit of political revolution and scientific positivism swept through European culture in the mid-nineteenth century, however, Catholic interest in a general council that would confront these attacks on religious tradition and give confident expression to the church's teaching again grew. Pius IX appointed a commission to prepare for such a council in 1865 and opened it solemnlyas the First Vatican Councilon December 8, 1869. The 774 bishops who attended from around the world discussed prepared drafts on faith and revelation, authority in the church, reform of the Curia Romana, and other subjects. On April 24, 1870, the constitution Dei filius was approved. It affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason and the necessity of supernatural revelation (contained both in scripture and in the church's oral tradition) for a full knowledge of God. After prolonged debate on the opportuneness of a conciliar statement on papal primacy and infallibility, a constitution on the church, Pastor aeternus, was approved on July 18, declaring the "immediate, universal jurisdiction" of the pope over all Christians and affirming that when he acts solemnly as spokesman for the universal church in doctrinal matters, the pope "possesses that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wanted his Church to be endowed in articulating its teaching of faith and morality." Because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the French troops that had been protecting the Papal State were withdrawn that same summer, and on September 20 Piedmontese troops occupied Rome. With most of the delegates gone, Pius IX suspended the council on October 20, 1870, despite the unfinished state of its agenda. Although a number of subsequent interpretations of Pastor aeternus, recognized approvingly by Pius IX himself, stressed that papal infallibility, as the council had envisaged it, was simply a special, highly restricted exercise of the assurance of faith in which the whole church believed itself to share, the effect of the council's decrees was to widen the gulf between the Roman church and the other churches, as well as to emphasize Catholicism's critical attitude toward secular values. Vatican I is recognized in the Roman Catholic Church as the twentieth ecumenical council.

By contrast with much of previous Christian history, the conciliar principle has come to be used increasingly as a means for fostering unity between Christian groups and mutual understanding between Christians and nonbelievers. The modern ecumenical movement began, on the institutional level, with the World Missionary Conference, a meeting of Protestant missionary groups, at Edinburgh in 1910. Two other cooperative bodies within ProtestantismLife and Work, founded in 1925 to foster common social and political action, and Faith and Order, established in 1927 to discuss doctrinal and liturgical issuesagreed in 1938 to form a World Council of Churches. Delayed by World War II, the constitutive assembly of the council was held in Amsterdam in 1948; the International Missionary Council joined it in 1961. Not a jurisdictional or legislative body, the World Council seeks to facilitate common action and dialogue in faith among all Christian churches with ten thousand members or more and to be an intermediate step toward a more formal Christian unity.

Although it is not yet a full member of the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church took its own decisive step toward Christian unity in the documents and reforms of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962December 8, 1965), which it recognizes as the twenty-first ecumenical council. Conceived by John XXIII in January of 1959 as a way of leading the Catholic Church toward spiritual renewal, toward greater cooperation with other Christian churches and other religions, and toward a more open attitude to contemporary culture, the council was attended by between 2,100 and 2,400 bishops and heads of religious orders from within the Roman communion, as well as by invited observers from other Christian churches and religious bodies. Vatican II produced sixteen documents on a wide range of pastoral, institutional, and theological issues. Affirming the ancient principle of the collegial responsibility of bishops for the governance of the whole church, in union with the pope, the Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium ) opened new possibilities for conciliar government in the Catholic tradition, a step that has led to the regular convening of a worldwide synod of bishops in the years since the council. Vatican II's call for liturgical reform, its stress on the centrality of the scriptures to Christian doctrine and practice, and its recognition of the validity of modern methods of biblical criticism have lessened some of the centuries-old differences between Protestants and Catholics and have given a model for practical reform to other churches. The council's declaration on religious freedom (Dignitatis humanae ), as well as its decrees on ecumenism, on the Eastern churches, and on relations with Jews and other non-Christians, have greatly altered official Catholic attitudes toward people of other faiths. Its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes ) expressed, in addition, a positive, welcoming attitude toward the potentialities and aspirations of modern society that invites Roman Catholics to move beyond the defensiveness of the nineteenth century. Although much clearly remains to be accomplished, the revolution in Roman Catholic thought and practice since Vatican II and the continued growth of both the World Council and of individual dialogues between churches, suggest that Christian councils may in the future both become genuinely ecumenical once again and lead to the unity in plurality that is essential to the Christian ideal of community.

See Also

Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Ecumenical Movement; Iconoclasm; Sanhedrin; Trent, Council of; Vatican Councils, articles on Vatican I, Vatican II.


A convenient one-volume edition of the decrees of the twenty-one councils recognized as ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church, in their Latin or Greek original, is Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, 3d ed., edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and others (Bologna, 1972). The most complete collection of Christian synodal and conciliar documents is the Sacrorum conciliorum nova, et amplissima collectio, begun in 1759 by the Italian canonist Giovanni Domenico Mansi and continued through Vatican I by Louis Petit and Jean-Baptiste Martin, 57 vols. (17591798; reprint in 53 vols., Paris, 19011927); the text is often defective, however, and modern critical editions exist of the documents of most major councils.

The most complete history of the Christian councils is still Karl-Joseph von Hefele and Josef Hergenröther's Concilienge-schichte, 10 vols. (Freiburg, 18551890), especially in its expanded French translation, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, 11 vols., by Henri Leclerq and others (Paris, 19071952); the first part of the German original, dealing with the seven ecumenical councils of the early church, has also been translated into English by William R. Clark as A History of the Christian Councils, 5 vols. (Edinburgh, 18711896). An excellent recent series of monographs on all the councils up to Vatican I, edited by Gervais Dumeige, is "Histoire des conciles oecumeniques" (Paris, 19621973). Outstanding studies of individual councils include: on Constantinople I, Adolf Martin Ritter's Das Konzil von Konstantinopel und sein Symbol (Göttingen, 1965); on Chalcedon, Robert V. Sellers's The Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey (London, 1953); on Constance, Louise R. Loomis, John H. Mundy, and Kennerly M. Woody's The Council of Constance: The Unification of the Church (New York, 1961), a translation of the main diaries and documents of the council, with thorough introduction; on Florence, Joseph Gill's The Council of Florence (Cambridge, 1959); on Trent, Hubert Jedin's Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, 4 vols. (Freiburg, 19491975), a monumental work of scholarship, of which the first two volumes have been translated into English by Ernest Graf as A History of the Council of Trent (London, 19571961), and Remigius Bäumer's Concilium Tridentinum (Darmstadt, 1979), a useful collection of historical essays; on Vatican I, Theodor Granderath and Konrad Kirch's Geschichte des Vatikanischen Konzils, 3 vols. (Freiburg, 19031906); on Vatican II, Giovanni Caprile's Il Concilio Vaticano II, 5 vols. (Rome, 19661969), the best general history of the council to date, Henri Fesquet's The Drama of Vatican II (New York, 1967), a lively diary of the council, Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal, edited by John H. Miller (Notre Dame, 1966), a useful symposium by representatives of different faiths, and Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, edited by Herbert Vorgrimler, 5 vols. (New York, 19681969).

Good brief histories of Christian councils include Edward I. Watkin's The Church in Council (London and New York, 1960), Francis Dvornik's The Ecumenical Councils (New York, 1961), and Philip Hughes's The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils (New York, 1961). A useful collection of essays on the history and theology of councils, by Protestant scholars, is Hans-Jochen Margull's The Councils of the Church (Philadelphia, 1966). No comprehensive history of local synods exists, but there is a full bibliographical survey of publications on individual meetings: Jakub T. Sawicki's Bibliographia synodorum particularium (Vatican City, 1967).

On the history of the theory of councils, the most thorough surveys are those of Hermann-Josef Sieben, Die Konzilsidee der alten Kirche (Paderborn, 1979), Die Konzilsidee des lateinischen Mittelalters (Paderborn, 1983), and Traktate und Theorien zum Konzil: Vom Beginn des grossen Schismas bis zum Vorabend der Reformation, 13781521 (Frankfurt, 1983). The classic study of the origins of conciliarism is Brian Tierney's Foundations of Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, 1955); an excellent recent work on conciliarism in the period before Constance is Giuseppe Alberigo's Chiesa conciliare: Identità e significato del conciliarismo (Brescia, 1981).

New Sources

Albergio, Giuseppe, ed. History of Vatican II. 5 vols. English version edited by Joseph A. Komonchak. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1995.

Coppa, Frank J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vatican and Papacy. Westport, Conn., 1999.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Northern Africa. Oxford and New York, 1952; reprint, 2000.

Latourelle, René, ed. Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives: Twenty-Five Years Later. 3 vols. New York, 198889.

L'Huillier, Peter. The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils. Crestwood, N.Y., 1996.

Pottmeyer, Hermann Josef. Towards a Papacy in Common: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I and II. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. New York, 1998.

Stevenson, James, and W. H. C. Frend, eds. Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church, a.d. 337461. Rev. ed. London, 1989.

Stump, Phillip M. The Reforms of the Council of Constance, 14141418. Leiden and New York, 1994.

Torrance, Iain R. Christology after Chalcedon: Severus of Antioch and Sergious the Monophysite. Norwich, U.K., 1988.

Brian E. Daley (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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