Councils, General (Ecumenical), History of

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The precedent generally cited for Church councils was the assembly of the Apostles in Jerusalem c. a.d. 52 (Acts 15.28). Although it was not a representative gathering of leaders from all over the Church, it did discuss a doctrinal issue of lasting significance for Christians, namely, that Gentile converts were not bound to observe all the prescriptions of the Old Testament. Inspired by the example of the Apostles, bishops of different provinces used to gather during the first centuries in order to reach decisions on theological and disciplinary matters that required clarification or had disturbed the consciences of the faithful. The logical places for such meetings were the capitals (metropoleis ) of the Roman provinces. The meetings were customarily convened by the bishops of the capitals.

Because of the adoption by the primitive Church of the system of accommodation to the political organization of the empire, the bishops of these cities gained a kind of superiority over the bishops of the provinces and were called metropolitans. Such assemblies are known to have taken place in the 2nd century against the errors of montanism and during the easter controversy. During the 3rd century conferences of bishops of different provinces took place regularly every year. A certain importance was ascribed to such gatherings in Carthage (c. 220), in Synnada and Iconium (c. 230), and in Antioch (264, 269). In the 4th century the assemblies of Carthage and Elvira (between 300 and 306), Arles and Ancyra (314), Alexandria (320), and Neocaesarea deserve special mention.

Early Conciliar Practice. cyprian of Carthage supplies the most exhaustive information on the methods of organizing such assemblies. His letters show clearly that such gatherings modeled themselves on the rules of procedure for sessions of the Roman Senate. The presiding bishop assumed the role of the emperor or of his representative in the Senate. He used the same words for the convocation of the council as were used in the imperial summons for the convening of the Senate; and the conduct of debate, the interrogations of bishops, and their responses also imitated the procedure of the Senate.

The conciliar or synodal practice was already fully developed in the Church before the conversion of con stantine i. As a sincere convert he accepted the adaptation of Hellenistic political philosophy to the Christian creed, regarding himself as the representative of God on earth, who had been given by God supreme power in things material and spiritual. In the eyes of the first Christian political philosophers, the Christian emperor was a representative of the Eternal King, Jesus Christ, and his foremost duty was to lead men to God.

Constantine took his duties in religious matters very seriously, as he showed during the schism provoked by the African Donatists (see donatism). Invited by the bishops to intervene in their disputes, he followed first the Roman judicial procedure, appointing five bishops from Gaul, including the bishop of Rome, as judges. Pope Miltiades, however, following the current Church practice, transformed the court into a council (313). Constantine adopted this method; and when the Donatists repudiated the decision of the Roman synod presided over by the pope, the emperor summoned another council at Arles (314). He also regarded an episcopal conciliar decision as final and confirmed the decision of the Council of Arles against the Donatists.

The acceptance of a Christianized Hellenistic political philosophy by Constantine explains also his intervention against arius, who denied the divine nature of the Second Person of the Trinity. Because the agitation of the Arians had spread and some other religious problems claimed attention, Constantine, mindful of his duty to promote the true worship of God and peace within the Church, decided to convoke a council of bishops from the whole empire, and so the first ecumenical council gathered in 325 in nicaea.

The report of eusebius of caesarea shows that the senatorial procedure, already in use in local councils, was followed also in Nicaea. The emperor convoked the bishops, giving them the senatorial privilege of the full use of the official stage post. Furthermore, he himself presided over sessions of the council, explained the reasons for its convocation and the subjects that the bishops should discuss, and directed the individual interrogation of the bishops. Instead of the statue of Victory, which stood in front of the imperial tribune in the Roman Senate, the Bible was placed between the bishops and the emperor. The prelates declared (about 300) that the term homoou sios, which was proposed by the emperor after private discussions with bishops, best explained the Catholic doctrine that the Son was of the same nature as the Father. Clerical discipline was regulated in 20 canons; the celebration of Easter Sunday was fixed; and it was approved that Church organization should follow the civil division of the empire.

Although he played a prominent role in the council, the emperor had no right to vote. Voting was the privilege of senators in the Senate and of bishops in the council. Moreover, the place of the most important senator, the princeps senatus, was given in the councils to the representatives of the first bishop, the pope. Providentially this adaptation of senatorial procedure to ecumenical councils preserved the autonomy of the bishops in doctrinal matters and guaranteed to the Roman see the first and most important place in conciliar proceedings. This custom was observed in the convocation and direction of the ecumenical councils, especially from the third council on.

Eastern Ecumenical Councils. This section lists the first ecumenical councils of the Church and indicates briefly the main points about them.

Nicaea, held from May 20 or June 19 to c. Aug. 25, 325, was convoked by Emperor Constantine I, under Pope Sylvester I. The nicene creed was composed, defining the divine nature of the Son.

constantinople i was convoked by Emperor Theodosius I (379395) against the heresy of Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople. Pope Damasus I (366384) was not represented because the council was intended to be a synod of the Eastern Church. The meetings took place between May and July of 381. Because it defined the divine nature of the Holy Spirit and made an addition to the Nicene Creed, it obtained ecumenical status; and this was recognized by the Council of Chalcedon (451). The third of the four canons voted by the Fathers gave the bishop of Constantinople precedence over all Eastern bishops.

The Council of ephesus was convoked by Emperor theodosius ii (408450) against Nestorius. cyril of alexandria represented Pope celestine i (422432). In five meetings from June 22 to July 17, 431, the 153 fathers defined the divine motherhood of the Virgin Mary and voted six canons.

The Council of chalcedon was convoked by Emperor marcian (450457), under Pope Leo I (440461). In 17 sessions from Oct. 8 to Nov. 1, 451, the 600 bishops condemned the Robber Council of Ephesus (449), which was dominated by the Monophysite Patriarch dioscorus of Alexandria; defined the person of Christ as having two natures, divine and human; and voted eight canons.

That of Constantinople II was convoked by Emperor justinian i (527565), under Pope vigilius i (537555). During the eight sessions from May 5 to June 2, 553, the 165 fathers condemned the "Three Chapters" of the Nestorians.

constantinople iii was convoked by Emperor con stantine iv (668685), under Popes agatho (678681) and leo ii (682683), for the condemnation of mono thelitism. The council is also called Trullanum because the 170 fathers held the 16 sessions, from Nov. 7, 680, to Sept. 16, 681, in the Cupola hall (Trullos) of the imperial palace. They defined the doctrine of two wills in the person of Christ and condemned Pope honorius together with the promoters of Monothelitism. The synod of 692, called Synodus Quinisexta, convoked by Emperor justinian ii (685695), is regarded by the Orthodox churches as the continuation of the sixth Ecumenical Council. The fathers voted 102 disciplinary canons, mostly concerning the Eastern Church.

nicaea ii was convoked (787) by Empress irene (797802), under Pope adrian i (772795). The 338 fathers defined the legitimacy of the cult of images of the saints and voted 20 canons.

These seven great councils are regarded as ecumenical by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The so-called eighth Ecumenical Council was convoked by Emperor basil i (867886) with the consent of Pope adrian ii (867872) in order to condemn the Patriarch photius. In six sessions from Oct. 5, 869, to Feb. 28, 870, the 102 fathers condemned Photius and approved 27 canons. Another synod, which the Orthodox called the Council of Union and was convoked by the same emperor, declared the previous council invalid during seven sessions from November of 879 to March 13, 880, and rehabilitated Photius. Pope john viii (872882) accepted the decisions of this synod. Neither the first nor the second council is regarded by the Orthodox as ecumenical because neither of them made any dogmatic decisions. In the Western Church the Council of 869870 was first called ecumenical by the canonists of Gregory VII at the end of the 11th century.

Western Ecumenical Councils. The practice of convoking ecumenical councils of the Western Church developed from the local synods that the popes convoked in Rome in order to make important decisions. Often, especially under Gregory VII and during the so-called in vestiture struggle, bishops from outside Italy attended these synods. When Rome was occupied by the antipope Clement III, urban ii held synods in Piacenza and Clermont (1095).

10th to 14th Centuries. The first synod to acquire an ecumenical character in the later tradition was the Council convoked by callistus ii (111924) in the Lateran from March 18 to April 6, 1123. It confirmed the Concordat of Worms, concluded in 1122, which marked the end of the first phase of the investiture struggle. More than 300 fathers assisted at the council and voted 25 canons. The Acts of the synod are not preserved. Western canonists call it the ninth Ecumenical Council.

The schisms provoked by the antipope Anacletus prompted Pope innocent ii (113043) to convoke a "general council" at the Lateran in April 1139. In three sessions the fathers, who numbered between 877 and 1,000, anathematized Anacletus and his adherents and voted 30 canons. It is counted as the 10th Ecumenical Council.

The Third Lateran Council was assembled by alex ander iii (115981) in 1179 in order to confirm the peace treaty with the Emperor frederick barbarossa concluded in Venice in 1177. In the three sessions from March 5 to 19, 27 canons were voted. The most important was that requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the cardinals for the valid election of a pope. Another canon stipulated that no persons should be consecrated as bishop before reaching 30 years of age. In the West this is counted as the 11th Ecumenical Council.

innocent iii (11981216) convoked the Fourth lat eran council (12th Ecumenical Council) in 1215. In three sessions from November 11 to 30 the fathers voted 70 canons, condemned the cathari, defined the doctrine of transubstantiation, and obliged Catholics to go to confession and take Holy Communion at least once every year.

The First Council of lyons, which is counted as the 13th Ecumenical Council, was convoked by innocent iv (124354) in 1245. In three sessions from June 28 to July 17, the fathers voted 22 canons and confirmed the deposition of the Holy Roman Emperor frederick ii.

The Second Council of lyons was convoked by gregory x (127176). In six sessions from May 7 to July 17, the fathers voted 31 canons and confirmed union with the Greeks, but the union did not last. It was decided that a new crusade should be organized, and regulations for a conclave for the papal election were approved. It is counted in the West as the 14th Ecumenical Council.

Pope clement v (130514) assembled in 1311 the Council of vienne, the 15th Ecumenical Council according to Western canonists. The fathers, 132 in number, held three sessions from Oct. 16, 1311, to May 6, 1312, confirmed the abolition of the Order of templars, intervened in the quarrel of the Franciscans concerning the vow of poverty, and voted some decrees on Church reform.

The 15th to the 20th Century. The Council of con stance, called the 16th Ecumenical Council in the West, was convoked to end the schism in the Western Church. Forty-five sessions were held from Nov. 5, 1414, to April 22, 1418. The fathers accepted the abdication of the Roman Pope gregory xii and deposed John XXIII, who had been elected by the council, and benedict xiii, the pope residing in Avignon. The conclave organized by the council elected martin v (Nov. 11, 1417) as pope. The heretical doctrines of John wyclif were rejected, and his follower John hus, who refused to recant the heresies of which he was accused, was condemned as an obstinate heretic and died at the stake on July 6, 1415. The council also confirmed the decree proclaiming the superiority of a general council over the pope and asked that councils be held at fixed intervals.

The Council of basel-Ferrara-Florence (17th Ecumenical Council) was convoked by Pope eugene iv (143147) in order to secure union with the Greeks. It held 25 sessions from July 1431 to May 4, 1437, in Basel, was transferred to Ferrara on Sept. 18, 1437, and from there to Florence in January 1439. The union with the Greeks was confirmed in Florence on July 6, 1439; with the Armenians on Nov. 22, 1439; and with the Jacobites on Feb. 4, 1442. On April 25, 1442, the council was transferred to Rome.

The Fifth lateran council (18th Ecumenical Council) was held during the reign of Popes Julian II (150313) and Leo X (151321). The fathers held 12 meetings from May 3, 1512, to March 16, 1517. They condemned the schismatic synod of Pisa (151112) and voted some canons for the purpose of the reform of the Church.

The most important Western ecumenical council, the 19th Ecumenical Council, was the Council of trent, convoked by Pope paul iii (153449) on May 22, 1542, for the condemnation of errors spread by the Protestants and for the reform of the Church. The first eight sessions were held in Trent from Dec. 13, 1545, to spring 1547. The 9th, 10th, and 11th sessions took place in Bologna in 1548. Under Pope julius iii (155055) the fathers met in Trent and held from the 12th to the 16th sessions there. The council continued its deliberations in Trent (17th session to the 25th and last session) under Pope pius iv (155965) in 1562 and 1563. The fathers voted dogmatic decisions concerning the authority of Holy Writ and tradition, original sin and justification, the seven Sacraments and the Mass, and the cult of the saints. Many decrees on Church reform were promulgated.

vatican council i, convoked by Pope pius ix (184678), held four sessions from Dec. 8, 1869, to July 7, 1870, and was adjourned on Oct. 20, 1870. It defined doctrine on the faith and the Constitution of the Church, and on papal primacy and infallibility. This is held in the West to be the 20th Ecumenical Council.

vatican council ii was convoked by Pope john xxiii (195863) and opened in St. Peter's basilica on Oct. 11, 1962. The first session dealt with liturgical problems, especially the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy. For the first time representatives of other churches, as well as laymen, attended the sessions as observers. The session closed on Dec. 8, 1962. Reassembled by Pope paul vi (196378) the second session (Sept. 29, 1963, to Dec. 4, 1963) promulgated decrees on the liturgy and communications media. The third session opened on Sept. 14, 1964. On the closing day, Nov. 21, 1964, the fathers promulgated the Constitution on the Church and the decrees on ecumenism and the Eastern Rite Churches. The fourth and final session opened on Sept. 14, 1965. On October 28, Pope Paul VI promulgated the decrees on the bishops and on Christian education, on religious life and priestly training, and the declaration of relations to non-Christian religions. On November 18 the decrees of the Constitution on Divine Revelation, and on the apostolate of the laity were promulgated. The council adjourned on Dec. 8, 1965, after the promulgation of the declaration on religious liberty, the decrees on the missions and on priestly life and ministry, and the document on the Church in the modern world.

The number of ecumenical councils21 according to Western canon lawis not based on any official declaration of Church authority. Gregory I ordained that the first four ecumenical councils deserved the same respect as the Four Gospels. Gratian (Dict. 16.8) counted eight ecumenical councils, although there is some confusion in his work concerning the ecumenical character of the Ignatian Council of 869870. Abraham of Crete, who translated the Greek Acts of the Council of Florence, with the permission of the Curia called this the eighth ecumenical council, following the Greek tradition. Cardinals Reginald pole and contarini also regarded this as the eighth ecumenical council. The 16th-century canonist Antonio Agustín, archbishop of Tarragona, although betraying some hesitation concerning the eighth council, said that both Churches recognized nine ecumenical councilsthe ninth being the Council of Florence. He attributed an ecumenical character to only seven councils of the Western Churchthe third, fourth, and fifth of the Lateran, the second of Lyons, and those of Vienne, Constance, and Trent.

In his edition of the Acts of Councils (1567), Laurence Surius, although not daring to suppress the figure "eighth" for the Florentine synod, warns the reader that "many important synods had followed the second of Nicaea, which is called the seventh." G. Bini, in his collection (1606), corrects Abraham of Crete and Surius, calling the Council of Florence the 16th ecumenical council. This designation was accepted by J. Sirmond, whose edition of the conciliar Acts (160812), published by order of Pope Paul V, was called Collectio Romana; his example was followed in other editions of the Acts:P. Labbe and G. Cossart (Paris 167172), I. Harduin (Paris 1715), Colletti (Venice 172833), D. Mansi (Florence and Venice 175998).

Local Councils (Concilia Particularia). The holding of local synods twice a year was recommended by canon five of the Council of Nicaea I. The patriarchs convoked bishops under their jurisdiction to deliberate on disciplinary and doctrinal questions. In the Patriarchate of Constantinople a so-called synodos endemousa, or permanent synod, developed, the patriarchs assembling bishops from the nearest dioceses and prelates who were visiting the capital for deliberation on current religious affairs. Such a synod had to select three candidates for the vacant patriarchal see and present them to the emperor for appointment. Similar practices existed in the East also for the election of bishops. In Germanic lands the synodal practice developed differently, under the influence of the idea that kings also had a priestly character that gave them a measure of control over the churches in their realms. The synods of the bishops were transformed into national assemblies presided over by the kings. Besides the bishops, the secular lords also participated, and not only Church affairs but also measures serving the interests of the state were debated. In the Frankish kingdom, the decisions were published as "orders of the ruler" (capitularia ). The Visigothic kings, converted from Arianism, held 18 synods of this kind from 589 to 702 (see toledo, councils of).

Composition of the Councils. The first seven ecumenical councils of the West presented a similar pattern. Although convoked and directed by the popes, they admitted, besides the abbots and representatives of religious institutions (procuratores ), princes and their ambassadors. Not only religious problems but also state affairs were discussed and decided, such as the truce of God, cessation of hostilities, and the organization of crusades. The Council of Constance even permitted persons without episcopal character to vote. The voting was carried out not according to the number of prelates present but according to the system adopted by medieval universities of the four nations: Germany, France, England, and Italy. A fifth vote was later given to Spain. Such a composition of a general council was a breach with tradition, and the proclamation of the superiority of a general council over the pope endangered the primatial right of the pope. This parliamentary system was even more fully developed by the Council of Basel, which ended in schism. The old tradition concerning the convocation and composition of general councils was firmly reestablished by the Council of Trent. The sessions were presided over by the representatives of the pope, and the right to vote was given only to bishops, to the generals of the orders, and to representatives of monastic congregations. Although princes were invited and were represented by their ambassadors, the council limited the discussions and decisions strictly to religious problems. This type of organization was further developed at Vatican Council I. No representatives of rulers were admitted. The pope maintained the right to propose the subject of debates. The preparation of the propositions (schemata ) was entrusted to theologians of four deputations elected by the council. The right of vote was given only to bishops and to the heads of religious orders.

At Vatican Council II, major Christian bodies, Orthodox and Protestant, although not in communion with Rome, were invited to send delegates as observers. They were permitted to attend the public sessions and the general congregations, but they did not have the right to vote or speak. They could and did make their views known to the commissions through the Secretariate for Promoting Christian Unity. Before the opening of the third sessions (Sept. 8, 1964), Pope Paul VI announced that women auditors, eight religious and seven lay, had been invited to the council. By the end in 1965, the Second Vatican Council proved to be the most ecumenical council in the history of the Church both by reason of numbers in attendance and by broad representation of various Christian traditions.

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[f. dvornik/eds.]

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