Councils, General (Ecumenical), Theology of
COUNCILS, GENERAL (ECUMENICAL), THEOLOGY OF
By the theology of ecumenical councils is understood here both the exposition of the teaching of the Church on the subject and the reflection of the theologians on it. The substance of this teaching is to be found in the third chapter ("The Hierarchical Structure of the Church and the Episcopate") of vatican council ii's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium; the reflection of theologians is in a developing stage.
The constitution consolidates the points of doctrine that were clearly understood in the past, and at the same time it marks a new departure by its fresh approach and inspiration. It is not a formal definition, but it is the solemn expression of the mind of the Church on itself and its life; hence it is a document of the highest authority. A common theological note (qualification) cannot be attached to the constitution as a whole: the theological value of each sentence should be determined by a careful analysis of the text, of its context, and of its historical background.
The constitution describes an ecumenical council as the solemn exercise of the full, supreme, and universal power of the episcopal college. The term "ecumenical" is here synonymous with "universal"; it means a council that represents the whole Church and that has full power over it.
Structure of an Ecumenical Council. The strongest manifestation of the unity of the episcopal college, of which it is the most important activity, an ecumenical council has a structure in substance identical with the structure of the college itself.
The episcopal college has to be understood as the community of bishops, united into one organic body (see bishop [in the church]). The structure of this communion is of divine origin; it has no parallel in civil corporations. It cannot be changed by any human power. Its head is the successor of peter, the pope, who has in this structure a singular position that was given by Christ to Peter and has been transmitted by Peter to the bishops of Rome (see primacy of the pope). The pope is the principle and the foundation of the unity of the body: without him it could not exist at all. He is the universal bishop (a traditional name); he represents the unity of the church that transcends all diversity of peoples, nations, or persons. Without him there could not be a universal council; there would be only a meeting of individual bishops or the gathering of the local episcopate without the mark of supreme power. His power is the full power of keys to the exercise of the power of the episcopal college. It is his exclusive right to convoke, to preside over, and to confirm a council. The right of convocation is explicitly attributed to the pope by the constitution, although it is not necessary to conclude that it is so by divine law. In fact, some of the early councils were not convoked by the bishop of Rome. Also, it is the pope's prerogative to preside over an ecumenical council, either personally or through his legates. This right flows naturally from his office of being the head of the college, but it need not be exercised fully, nor has it always been exercised throughout the course of history.
The right to confirm the decisions of a council is again the pope's. This confirmation is so necessary that without it there can never be an ecumenical council: the final approval of the head is required by the law of God. Otherwise the acts of a council cannot be the acts of the whole body.
The primary members of an ecumenical council are all the consecrated residential bishops who are in hierarchical communion with the bishop of Rome. They are all shepherds of God's people in the fullest theological sense of the term. Their membership is of divine right. True members of it are also all the consecrated titular bish ops, provided that they are in communion with the See of Rome. They have been incorporated into the episcopal college through their consecration, although they may not be in charge of a diocese. It is disputed whether or not they enter a council by divine right, since their share in the power of the episcopate is less than full. It is certain, however, that all bishops sitting in council are in possession of a power given to them by God and not by any human person. They are not the delegates of the pope; they are not simply dignitaries associated to the pope to help him in the supreme government of the Church. They are members of an organic body who have received their specific power and mission from God. They are not the delegates or representatives of their subjects in the modern parliamentary sense. They act as shepherds in the service of their flock and not as public servants to carry out the wishes of their people.
Persons who are not consecrated bishops have no native right to be active members of an ecumenical council, since they do not belong to the episcopal college. But a council itself or its head, the pope, may invite such persons and give them the right of speech and of vote, and thus enlarge a council's membership. Thus abbots of monasteries and heads of the greater religious orders or congregations were invited to sit at both Vatican Councils. There is no theological reason why laymen cannot take part in the proceedings, and in fact some of the lay auditors at Vatican II addressed the fathers. In this way the universality of a council is still more enhanced, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who are not bishops is honored.
An ecumenical, or universal, council is to be distinguished from a particular council. A universal council concerns and binds the whole Church; a particular council, only one part of the Church. The perfect definition of the term "ecumenical" does not exist. Theologians are divided about the essential elements. It is beyond doubt, however, that the distinction between universal and particular is not based on the larger or smaller number of bishops present, but on the particular structure of a council. Thus a council cannot be ecumenical without being acknowledged as such by the pope, the head of the episcopal college. The See of Rome could confer this universal character either expressly or by the tacit reception of the decrees of a council as binding on the universal Church. The presence of a certain number of bishops is required; but it is not necessary that the majority of bishops should be present. The doctrine formulated by them and proposed for approval to the pope ought to express the faith of the universal Church.
If the decisions of a local gathering of the bishops are not approved by the See of Rome as binding the whole Church, a council remains a particular one, regional, national, or provincial. It may have a high authority, but it is not an ecumenical council. The character of universality can be given to a council by the universal shepherd only, who is the pope.
Power of an Ecumenical Council. The episcopal college, whether sitting in council or dispersed, is in possession of a supernatural power. The word "power" is of biblical origin, and traditionally it has the connotation of a divine gift in man that gives him strength to fulfill his mission and vocation. A divine power was present in Christ before, and more manifestly after, His resur rection (Rom 1.4); He gave power to the apostles individually and, in a different form, to their college. Each Apostle in his person and the twelve as a community became subjects of power. These powers substantially remained in the Church; every bishop receives it personally through his consecration, and the community of bishops has kept it without interruption since the time of the Apostles. To understand the power of the episcopal college and of an ecumenical council, one has to recognize precisely the distinction between the personal power of the bishops and the corporate power of their college. A bishop is exercising a personal power in governing his diocese; he is sharing a collective power when he is deliberating and deciding issues in an act done in common with his brother bishops under the presidency of the pope. The personal power of the bishop extends over his diocese; the collective power of the episcopate extends over the universal Church. When this collective power is exercised in a solemn way, there is an ecumenical council.
Since all episcopal power is supernatural, the council's power is supernatural. Its origin is in the mandate of Christ given to the Apostles to sanctify, to teach, and to rule God's people. Its permanent source is in the presence of the Holy Spirit among the bishops. It has to be distinguished from power as one understands it in a civil society; the analogy between the two is remote. Nevertheless, the manifestations of the supernatural power take form in a natural legal framework through decrees, decisions, constitutions, and other forms of juridical pronouncements. This blend of natural and supernatural reflects the divine and human in the character of the Church.
The power of an ecumenical council is a power to sanctify: not in the sense that the council as a collective body could distribute all the Sacraments, but in the sense that it could effectively regulate the worship of the Church and the administration of the Sacraments and thus promote the sanctification of the faithful. It is also a power to teach. An ecumenical council is the most highly qualified witness of the word of God. It has the apostolic mission to declare the content of the faith to all nations and to every creature. It has the power to define what one has to believe. In other words, it has the charism of in fallibility in teaching. Nevertheless, to assess the theological significance of a conciliar statement, detailed study of the text and of the circumstances from which it was born has to be made. Further, it is a power to govern. A council is entitled to shepherd God's people toward God's kingdom through laws and commands that are binding on the consciences of the faithful (see people of god). A council is helped by the Holy Spirit to be wise in government, but it was not given by Christ the maximum degree of prudence. Therefore its disciplinary decrees have a permanent value only as far as they express some immutable truth. Otherwise they are subject to change by later councils or by the popes.
An ecumenical council has full power over the Church. Fullness here means all the power to sanctify, teach, and govern that the Church has received from Christ and that can be possessed by a community such as the episcopal college. There are powers in the Church that by nature have to be possessed by an individual person; they cannot be ascribed to a community. The power to baptize or to confirm has to be exercised personally; therefore a council cannot have it. The power to preach and to govern can be possessed by a community; therefore the ecumenical council has it.
The power of an ecumenical council is supreme in the Church. A council is not subject to any other authority, but all other authorities are subject to it. The power of a council is universal: it extends over all human persons who have received the Sacrament of Baptism and over all corporations that may exist in the Church.
The constitution states that the pope has the same full, supreme, and universal power in the Church as the council. This one has to believe with divine faith, since it has been defined at vatican council i (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 3050–74). Theologians are debating whether or not the distinct attribution of power to an ecumenical council and to the pope implies two subjects of power (imperfectly distinguished, since without the pope there cannot be an ecumenical council), or two organs through which the power of a unique subject of power (the episcopal college) is expressed and exercised. Vatican II wanted to leave the question open; hence it can be freely discussed. It is certain, however, that on an empirical level there are two legal subjects exercising this supreme power, the pope and a council. On a deeper theological and ontological level, one probably has to say that the college of bishops forms a unity and is in permanent possession of the full, supreme, and universal power in the Church, but that this power is exercised either by the head alone or by the whole college through a corporate action. The solemn exercise of this corporate action is precisely the essence of an ecumenical council. In practice any conflict between the pope and an ecumenical council is excluded by the fact that the pope is the head of the council, and by carefully balanced legal provisions about the convocation, progress, and dissolution of a council. On a deeper level it is the Holy Spirit who preserves the divine structure of the Church in its integrity, since the danger of either the pope reducing the council to a shadowy existence or the bishops trying to weaken the authority of their head could not be excluded by any legal institution. The solemn exercise of power is here opposed to its ordinary use. The former means the exercise of their collective power by the bishops gathered under the presidency of the pope in one place deliberating and reaching decisions with a common effort. The latter signifies the use of the same power under the leadership of the pope by the bishops dispersed all over Earth. The specific difference is not in the extent of the power but in the way it is exercised.
An ecumenical council exercises its power in a collegiate way, which means that each bishop acting on the strength of the collective of the council contributes actively toward a final decision. The bishops share the same power as equal members of a body, except for the head, who retains his exceptional position throughout. It is, however, customary for him to keep out of the debates and to use his power only for the confirmation of the conclusions of the discussions. Further, it is of the essence of this power that the bishops are invested with it as God's trustees, the beneficiary being God's people, the whole Church. The power can be used only to build the Church in the service of the faithful. The competent authority to judge the right use of this power, however, is an ecumenical council itself and not any other person. There cannot be a judicial authority higher than the body possessing the power described.
Need for Ecumenical Councils. The constitution lays down that the collegiate character of the episcopate is of divine origin and that its permanence in the Church is of immutable divine right. It follows that it is of divine right too that the same college should have ways and means to exercise its power. To hear the voice of the episcopate is essential for the life and progress of the Church. This essential element may be present in the frequent consultations among the bishops themselves and between the bishops and the pope. Its solemn manifestation, however, remains the work of an ecumenical council. The judgment about its necessity is reserved to the pope; he is assisted by the Holy Spirit in carrying out his duty. The pope cannot be subject to any human tribunal. It can be said, however, that at the time of a crisis or great need in the life of the Church there may be a moral necessity for an ecumenical council.
When the whole Catholic episcopate is gathered together, it is easier to exchange information and to reach a decision; it is easier to share a common power and inspiration, and hence the importance and moment of ecumenical councils. They are the highest manifestations of the unity and diversity of the episcopal body.
Christ among the Bishops. An ecumenical council should not be considered as a body distinct from the Church. It is an organ of the Church; it is part of the greater unity that is the whole Church, the mystical body of christ. Through a council the faith of the Church is authentically expressed, and at the same time the teaching of Christ is made manifest for God's people. It is Catholic belief that Christ Himself is present among the bishops gathered together. He comforts them and helps them through His Spirit, so that in their turn the bishops should be able to comfort and help God's people. Ecumenical councils are great manifestations of the continuing gift of Redemption that God does not cease to offer mankind.
See Also: authority, ecclesiastical; conciliarism (theological aspect); councils, general (ecumenical), history of; episcopal conferences.
Bibliography: Classical works: r. bellarmine, De conciliis et ecclesia, v. 2 of Opera omnia, ed. x. r. sforza, 8 v. (new ed. Naples 1872). l. thomassin, Dissertationes … in concilia tum generalia, tum particularia (Paris 1667). c. passaglia, De conciliis oecumenicis, ed. h. schauf (Rome 1961). Works pub. shortly before Vatican Council II: y. m. j. congar and b. d. dupuy, eds., L'Épiscopat et l'Église universelle (Paris 1962). h. kÜng, Structures of the Church, tr. s. attanasio (New York 1964). k. rahner and j. ratzinger, The Episcopate and the Primacy, tr. k. barker et al. (New York 1962). j. p. torrell, La Théologie de l'épiscopat au premier concile du Vatican (Paris 1961). Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta (Bologna-Freiburg 1962). Reference works: j. forget, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'alÈs, 4 v. (Paris 1911–22;) 1:588–628; Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 3.1:636–676. y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947–) 2:1439–43. h. lais and h. jedin, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 6:525–532.
[l. m. Örsy]
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