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NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
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II.  Concerning Ecumenical Councils in General.

An Ecumenical Synod may be defined as a synod the decrees of which have found acceptance by the Church in the whole world.22    This was until the division of the East and West the definition accepted by all the whole Christian world.  But since the Church has been divided, while the East has kept to the old definition and has not pretended to have held any Ecumenical Councils, the Roman Church has made a new definition of the old term and has then proceeded to hold a very considerable number of synods which she recognizes as Ecumenical.  I say “a very considerable number,” for even among Roman Catholic theologians there is much dispute as to the number of these “Ecumenical Synods,” the decrees of which, like those of Trent and the Vatican, have never been received by about half of the Christian world, including four of the five patriarchates and of the fifth patriarchate all the Anglican communion.  According to modern Roman writers the definition of these non-ecumenically received Ecumenical Synods is “Ecumenical councils are those to which the bishops and others entitled to vote are convoked from the whole world under the Presidency of the Pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received Papal confirmation, bind all Christians.”  Addis and Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary, s. v. Councils.  The reader will notice that by this definition one at least (I. Constantinople), probably three, of the seven undisputed Ecumenical Synods cease to be such.  It is not necessary to make a council ecumenical that the number of bishops present should be large, there were but 325 at Nice, and 150 at I. Constantinople; it is not necessary that it should be assembled with the intention of its being ecumenical, such was not the case with I. Constantinople; it is not necessary that all parts of the world should have been represented or even that the bishops of such parts should have been invited.  All that is necessary is that its decrees find ecumenical acceptance afterwards, and its ecumenical character be universally recognized.

The reader will notice that in the foregoing I have not proceeded from the theological foundation of what an Ecumenical Synod should be (with this question the present volume has nothing to do), but from a consideration of the historical question as to what the Seven Councils have in common, which distinguishes them from the other councils of the Christian Church.

And here it is well to note that there have been many “General Councils” which have not been “Ecumenical.”  It is true that in ordinary parlance we often use the expressions as interchangeable, but such really is not the case.  There are but seven universally recognized and undisputed “Ecumenical Councils”; on the other hand, the number of “General Councils” is very considerable, and as a matter of fact of these last several very large ones fell into heresy.  It is only necessary to mention as examples the Latrocinium and the spurious “Seventh Council,” held by the iconoclastic heretics.  It is therefore the mere statement of an historical fact to say that General Councils have erred.

The Ecumenical Councils claimed for themselves an immunity from error in their doctrinal and moral teaching, resting such claim upon the promise of the presence and guidance of the Holy Ghost.  The Council looked upon itself, not as revealing any new truth, but as setting forth the faith once for all delivered to the Saints, its decisions therefore were in themselves ecumenical, as being an expression of the mind of the whole body of the faithful both clerical and lay, the sensus communis of the Church.  And by the then teaching of the Church that ecumenical consensus was considered free from the suspicion of error, guarded, (as was believed,) by the Lord’s promise that the gates of hell should not prevail against his Church.  This then is what Catholics mean when they affirm the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils.  Whether this opinion is true or false is a question outside the scope of the present discussion.  It was necessary, however, to state that these Councils looked upon themselves as divinely protected in their decisions from error in faith and morals, lest the reader should otherwise be at a loss to understand the anathematisms which follow the decrees, and which indeed would be singularly out of place, if the decrees which they thus emphatically affirm were supposed to rest only upon human wisdom and speculation, instead of upon divine authority.

Theologians consider that the decisions of Ecumenical Councils, like all juridical decrees, must be construed strictly, and that only the point at issue must be looked upon as decided.  The obiter dicta of so august a body are no doubt of the greatest weight, but yet they have no claim to be possessed of that supreme authority which belongs to the definition of the particular point under consideration.33    Vide Vasquez, P. III., Disp. 181, c. 9; Bellarmin., De Concil., Lib. II., cap. xvij.; Veron, Rule of the Cath. Faith, Chap. I., §§ 4, 5, and 6.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils were all called together at the commandment and will of Princes; without any knowledge of the matter on the part of the Pope in one case at least (1st Constantinople)44    See Hefele’s answer to Baronius’s special pleading.  Hist. Councils, Vol. I., pp. 9, 10.; without any consultation with him in the case of I. Nice, so far as we know55    It should be stated that at the Sixth Synod it was said that I. Nice was “summoned by the Emperor and Pope Sylvester,” on what authority I know not.; and contrary to his expressed desire in at least the case of Chalcedon, when he only gave a reluctant consent after the Emperor Marcian had already convoked the synod.  From this it is historically evident that Ecumenical Councils can be summoned without either the knowledge or consent of the See of Rome.

In the history of the Christian Church, especially at a later period in connection with the Great Schism, much discussion has taken place among the learned as to the relative powers of a General Council and of the Pope.  It will be remembered by everyone that the superior authority of the council was not only taught, but on one occasion acted on, by a council, but this is outside of the period covered by the Seven Ecumenical Synods, and I shall therefore only discuss the relations of these seven synods to the Roman See.  And in the first place it is evident that no council has ever been received as ecumenical which has not been received and confirmed by the Roman Pontiff.  But, after all, this is only saying that no council has been accepted as ecumenical which has not been ecumenically received, for it must be remembered that there was but one Patriarchate for the whole West, that of Rome; and this is true to all intents and purposes, whether or no certain sections had extrapatriarchal privileges, and were “auto-cephalous.”

But it would be giving an entirely unfair impression of the matter to the reader were he left to suppose that this necessity for Rome’s confirmation sprang necessarily from any idea of Rome’s infallibility.  So far as appears from any extant document, such an idea was as unknown in the whole world then as it is in four of the five patriarchates to-day.  And it should be borne in mind that the confirmation by the Emperor was sought for and spoken of in quite as strong, if not stronger, terms.  Before passing to a particular examination of what relation each of the Councils bore to the Roman See, it may be well to note that while as an historical fact each of the Seven Ecumenical Councils did eventually find acceptance at Rome, this fact does not prove that such acceptance is necessary in the nature of things.  If we can imagine a time when Rome is not in communion with the greater part of the West, then it is quite possible to imagine that an Ecumenical Council could be held whose decrees would (for the time being) be rejected by the unworthy occupant of the Apostolic See.  I am not asserting that such a state of affairs is possible from a theological standpoint, but merely stating an historical contingency which is perfectly within the range of imagination, even if cut off from any practical possibility by the faith of some.

We now come to a consideration of how, by its acts, each of the Seven Synods intimated its relation to the Roman See:

1.  The First Council of Nice passed a canon in which some at least of the Roman rights are evidently looked upon as being exactly on the same plane as those of other metropolitans, declaring that they rest upon “custom.”

It was the Emperor who originated this council and called it together, if we may believe his own words and those of the council; and while indeed it is possible that when the Emperor did not preside in person, Hosius of Cordova may have done so (even uniting the two Roman Presbyters who were the legates of the Roman See with him), yet there is no evidence that anything of the kind ever took place, and a pope, Felix III. (a.d. 483–492), in his Fifth Epistle (ad Imp. Zen.) declares that Eustathius, bishop of Antioch, presided at this council.66    Cf. Theod. H. E., Lib. I., e. 6.

The matter, however, is of little moment as no one would deny the right of the See of Rome to preside in a council of the whole Church.

2.  The Second Ecumenical Council was called together by the Emperor without the knowledge of the Roman Pontiff.  Nor was he invited to be present.  Its first president was not in communion at the time of its session with the Roman Church.  And, without any recourse to the first of all the patriarchs, it passed a canon changing the order of the patriarchates, and setting the new see of Constantinople in a higher place than the other ancient patriarchates, in fact immediately after Rome.  Of course Protestants will consider this a matter of very minor importance, looking upon all patriarchal divisions and rank and priority (the Papacy included) as of a disciplinary character and as being jure ecclesiastico, and in no way affecting doctrine, but any fair reading of the third canon of this synod would seem plainly to assert that as the first rank of Rome rested upon the fact of its being the capital city, so the new capital city should have the second rank.  If this interpretation is correct it affects very materially the Roman claim of jure divino primacy.

3.  Before the third of the Ecumenical Synods was called to meet, Pope Celestine had already convicted Nestorius of heresy and deposed and excommunicated him.  When subsequently the synod was assembled, and before the papal legates had arrived, the Council met, treated Nestorius as in good standing, entirely ignoring the sentence already given by Rome, and having examined the case (after summoning him three times to appear that he might be heard in his own defence), proceeded to sentence Nestorius, and immediately published the sentence.  On the 10th of July (more than a fortnight later), the papal legates having arrived, a second session was held, at which they were told what had been done, all of which they were good enough to approve of.77    Protestant Controversialists, as well as others, have curious ways of stating historical events without any regard to the facts of the case.  A notable instance of this is found in Dr. Salmon’s Infallibility of the Church (p. 426 of the 2d Edition) where we are told that “the only one of the great controversies in which the Pope really did his part in teaching Christians what to believe was the Eutychian controversy.  Leo the Great, instead of waiting, as Popes usually do, till the question was settled, published his sentiments at the beginning, and his letter to Flavian was adopted by the Council of Chalcedon.  This is what would have always happened if God had really made the Pope the guide to the Church.  But this case is quite exceptional, resulting from the accident that Leo was a good theologian, besides being a man of great vigour of character.  No similar influence was exercised either by his predecessors or successors.”  This sentence is not pleasant reading, for it is an awe-inspiring display of one of two things, neither of which should be in the author of such a book.  We need only remind the reader that Celestine had condemned Nestorius and his teaching before the Council of Ephesus; that Honorius had written letters defining the question with regard to the will or wills of the Incarnate Son before the III. Council of Constantinople (which excommunicated him as a heretic for these very letters); that Pope Vigilius condemned the “Three Chapters” before the II. Council of Constantinople; and that Gregory II. condemned the iconoclastic heresy before the Seventh Synod, if the letters attributed to him be genuine (which is not quite certain, as will be shewn in its proper place).  Thus the only two great questions not decided, one way or another, by the See of Rome before the meeting of a General Council were Arianism and Macedonianism, and some have held (though mistakenly as is generally thought) that Arius was condemned by a synod held at Rome before that of Nice.

4.  The Council of Chalcedon refused to consider the Eutychian matter as settled by Rome’s decision or to accept Leo’s Tome without examination as to whether it was orthodox.  Moreover it passed a canon at a session which the Papal legates refused to attend, ratifying the order of the Patriarchates fixed at I. Constantinople, and declaring that “the Fathers had very properly given privileges to Old Rome as the imperial city, and that now they gave the same (τὰ ἴσα πρεσβεῖα) privileges” to Constantinople as the seat of the imperial government at that time.

5.  The fifth of the Ecumenical Synods refused to receive any written doctrinal communication from the then pope (Vigilius), took his name from the diptychs, and refused him communion.

6.  The Third Council of Constantinople, the sixth of the Ecumenical Synods, excommunicated Pope Honorius, who had been dead for years, for holding and teaching the Monothelite heresy.

7.  It is certain that the Pope had nothing to do with the calling of the Seventh Synod,88    See Michaud’s brilliant answer to Hefele, Discussion sur les Sept Conciles Œcuméniques, p. 327. and quite possible that it was presided over by Tarasius and not by the Papal legates.

Such is, in brief, the evidence which the Ecumenical Councils give on the subject of what, for lack of a better designation, may be called the Papal claims.  Under these circumstances it may not be deemed strange that some extreme ultramontanists have arrived at the conclusion that much of the acts and decisions as we have them is spurious, or at least corrupted in an anti-papal direction.  Vincenzi, who is the most learned of these writers, argues somewhat thus “if the members of the Ecumenical Synods believed as we do to-day with regard to the Papacy it is impossible that they should have acted and spoken as they did, but we know they must have believed as we do, ergo they did not so act or speak.”  The logic is admirable, but the truth of the conclusion depends upon the truth of the minor premise.  The forgeries would have been very extensive, and who were they done by?  Forgeries, as the false decretals, to advance papal claims we are unfortunately familiar with, but it is hard to imagine who could have forged in Greek and Latin the acts of the Ecumenical Synods.  It is not necessary to pursue the matter any further, perhaps its very mention was uncalled for, but I wish to be absolutely fair, that no one may say that any evidence has been suppressed.99    The reader may easily satisfy himself on this matter by reading the somewhat extensive works of Aloysius Vincenzi, published in Rome in 1875 and thereabouts.


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