A Historical Retrospect
Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
A Skeletal Church History
At this time we have passed a half-century since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). These anniversaries offer an opportune occasion to recall also the importance of the other nineteen general councils of the Catholic Church. Church historians remind us that tracing the developments of the twenty-one general councils is an outstanding way to survey the two-thousand-year history of Christianity. While the general councils did not treat every aspect of theology and spirituality, they did address the major issues of their times. For this reason scholars recognize these meetings as an essential lifeline in church history.
Church councils imply democratic or constitutional meetings happening in a hierarchical church presided over by a pope claiming a singular and unique authority directly from Christ. Such a paradox is quite interesting and controversial, and a dominant theme threading across all the general councils.
Another prevailing theme is the cycle of challenge and response that brings councils into session to treat heresy, the need for reform, questions of church authority, and other significant issues popping up in various periods of the two millennia of Christian history.
Appreciating the Significance of Councils
The councils are the church’s “think tanks” for solving problems and plotting the future. Often issues are churning for decades or even centuries before they are brought to a council for solution. The council fathers enunciate guiding principles and procedures, and plot their implementation. The general pattern is to identify the reason for convoking the council, setting the goal, a period of preparation, the meeting itself, and the efforts to put into practice the decisions.
While still recent history, Vatican II’s landmark sessions (1962-1965) offers an opportune moment for a retrospective review of the previous twenty general councils. This will not only aid in understanding the specific history of each, but especially to put Vatican II and its results into clearer perspective. Studies of Vatican II and its different kind of conciliar documents abound. But what is lacking is sufficient attention to the prior councils and their documents in light of our own experience of Vatican II. The past is prologue.
Reading about councils is one thing. Living through a council and having learned about earlier councils is quite another. Firsthand familiarity with Vatican II gives people today an exceptional insight and perspective on how other councils worked. Contemporary Christians are more fortunate in this regard than the millions who lived during periods when no councils met, such as the 306 years between Trent and Vatican I, or the 92 years between Vatican I and Vatican II.
A Historical Overview
Tracing the twenty-one general councils in broad strokes, we can group them in four periods of church history because they seem to fit together in these four eras: early, medieval, reformation, and modern.
In the first millennium the councils met to formulate doctrinal statements to correct heretical differences. The councils of the middle ages and reformation dealt with reforming church divergences and clarifying certain doctrines. In the modern period the two Vatican councils were gathered for dissimilar reasons: the first to define papal infallibility; the second to renew the church in line with contemporary developments.
Some councils completed the unfinished business of their predecessors. The first eight councils, Nicaea (325) to Constantinople IV (869-870), met in somewhat rapid succession because they were refining creedal statements. Several followed soon after another to address persisting problems. The first four Lateran councils met successively in less than a century (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215) to address questions of church reform. In later situations councils finished the work that earlier meetings could not because of difficult circumstances.
Reviewing the historical contexts and major undertakings of the councils to respond to particular challenges will help to recognize the connecting themes and to form a general synthesis of the church’s journey to the present.
Why Church Councils Meet
What constitutes a general council? This is a meeting convened by the pope, although this has not always been the case in early church history. All bishops are called to participate, but others are also invited. There is no regular schedule for convoking a council; they are called as needed so that the council fathers can address the demanding religious and social issues of their day. From the very outset of the Church’s life, Christian leaders have used such major meetings to compare notes and solve problems.
For example, when Pope Innocent III announced Lateran IV, which met in 1215, he declared that some important questions required attention, and “since these objects affect the condition of the whole body of the faithful, we should summon a general council according to the ancient custom of the holy fathers to be held at a convenient time and to be concerned only with the spiritual good of souls.” Then he suggested a sweeping agenda “to uproot vices and implant virtues, to correct abuses and reform morals, to eliminate heresies and strengthen faith, to allay differences and establish peace, to check persecutions and cherish liberty, to persuade Christian princes and peoples to grant succor and support for the Holy Land from both clergy and laymen, and for other reasons which it would be too tedious to enumerate here.” All invitees were requested to be in Rome two and a half years after the summons and to prepare according to this directive: “Meantime, both personally and by discreet agents, you will inquire precisely about all matters which seem to call for energetic correction of reform, and, conscientiously writing a report, you will deliver it for the scrutiny of the sacred council.”
Constance (1414-1418) was a controversial assembly that wanted to put councils on a regular schedule mainly to assert their claim to authority over the papacy. In 1417 Constance stated: “The frequent holding of general councils is a pre-eminent means of cultivating the Lord’s patrimony. It roots out the briars, thorns, and thistles of heresies, errors, and schisms; corrects deviations; reforms what is deformed; and produces a richly fertile crop for the Lord’s vineyard.”
While Constance failed in this attempt, no one in church leadership doubted the value and crucial importance of a general council. In 1512, five years before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, John Colet, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and a friend of Erasmus, preached a sermon to a gathering of England’s clergy in which he clearly stated: “For nothing ever happens more detrimental to the church of Christ than the omission of councils, both general and provincial.” He and others knew the church needed to call a council to address critical conditions.
While general councils met for a variety of reasons, Vatican II is considered to be the first council without a serious doctrinal issue at the head of its agenda. Vatican II was a different type of council, and Pope Paul VI affirmed this in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964) when he encouraged the continuation of its innovative direction: “How often in past centuries has the determination to instigate reforms been associated with the holding of ecumenical councils! Let it be so once more; but this time not with a view to removing any specific heresies concerning the church or to remedying any public disorders – for disorders of this sort have not, thank God, raised their head in our midst – but rather with a view to infusing fresh spiritual vigor into Christ’s mystical body considered as a visible society and to purifying it from the defects of many of its members and urging it on to the attainment of new virtue.”
The First and Model Council in the New Testament
While the council held in Jerusalem and recorded in the Acts of the Apostles is not listed with those we consider general or ecumenical, this meeting of Peter and James, Paul and Barnabas, and others is often noted as the first and model council. Constantinople II (553) explicitly mentioned the importance of the apostles coming together to consult and to make a decision.
The New Testament includes two accounts of this meeting: Acts of the Apostles 15 and Galatians 2:1-10. The “Council of Jerusalem” probably met in 49 or 50 to address the question that arose a handful of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection: Must one be a Jew in order to be a Christian? The issue boiled down to whether men needed to be circumcised and whether all were bound by the Jewish dietary laws.
Acts 15 set some important patterns for future councils. For example, Paul and Barnabas were “appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church….” Henceforth church leaders representing distant and diverse areas gathered in a central place to discuss common issues and arrive at solutions to the vexing problems. James employed a reasonable compromise approach, and the decision of his council was that Gentile men need not be circumcised to be followers of Christ. Then those meeting sent a letter explaining the decision and indicating the source of its authority: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us….”
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul relates that the group seemed to agree over a handshake, as though everyone participated equally in the decision: “they gave me and Barnabas their right hands in partnership” (Gal 2:9). But in the Acts of the Apostles, James listened to everyone and then made a decision: “My brothers, listen to me…. It is my judgment...” (Acts 15:13, 19). A slight discrepancy appears between Acts, which suggests one decision maker with whom others agreed, and Galatians, which sounds like a consensus decision. This situation is indicative of a tension in several general councils between popes exercising their primacy and bishops emphasizing collegiality and collaborative action.
Church Law on the Relationship of Pope and Bishops
The present Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, explains the working relationship between pope and bishops at general councils (canons 336-341). Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (no. 22) uses almost the same language. Canon 336 declares that the two working together are the final authority in the church: “The college of bishops, whose head is the Supreme Pontiff, …together with its head and never without this head, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal church.” The pope is a member of the college of bishops as head of the diocese of Rome, but the emphasis is placed on the pope as head of the college.
In regard to councils, canon 337 states: “The college of bishops exercises power over the universal church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council.” Canon 338 reserves to the pope sole authority in some matters: convoking an ecumenical council; presiding over it personally or through others; transferring, suspending, or dissolving a council; approving its decrees; setting the agenda, and approving items added to the agenda.
Current church law states that an ecumenical council cannot come into play without papal authority. But history shows exceptions in the first millennium when emperors and one empress called and sometimes presided over councils, usually with the knowledge and blessing of the popes. Nor did popes always attend general councils in person. In such a case they would send a legate to speak for them.
The decrees of a general council are valid and binding only after the pope approves them and orders them published. Canon 341: “The decrees of an ecumenical council do not have obligatory force unless they have been approved by the Roman Pontiff with the council fathers, confirmed by him, and promulgated at his order.” Only at the behest of the pope are the results then shared with the universal church.
Bishops are the main participants, and canon law gives them alone the deliberative vote, one that is binding on a council’s decisions and not merely an opinion that may be overlooked. However the convening pope may invite others to a council and determine how they will participate. This is covered in canon 339. At Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI gave a deliberative vote to the heads of religious orders, and invited the advice of many experts and observers – clerical and lay, male and female, Catholic and non-Catholic – especially in committee sessions, public lectures, and private consultations.
“Ecumenical” or “General”?
The terms “universal,” “ecumenical, and “general” are ordinarily used interchangeably, and somewhat loosely. But it is important to be accurate and note the distinctions. “Ecumenical” comes from the Greek word for “universal.” A truly ecumenical council, then, is a gathering that included representatives of the church from all parts of the world. By that definition, the first seven major councils were ecumenical, as Chalcedon called itself in 451, because they included bishops from the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire, considered to be the entire world at that time. In fact, very few western bishops were present at some of those meetings.
While the separated Eastern Orthodox churches consider only the first seven councils ecumenical, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one to be ecumenical or general, even though the east was missing from the councils of the second millennium. Lateran I (1123) called itself a general and not an ecumenical council because no eastern bishops participated. Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome referred to itself as ecumenical since eastern and western bishops gathered to discuss reuniting the church.
The common usage of “general council” acknowledges the absence of the east from most meetings after the first millennium. This use became the custom in the course of time. In 1974 when marking the 700th anniversary of Lyons II, Paul VI said it was “counted sixth among the general synods celebrated in the western world,” since those meetings of the medieval period took place in western Europe. Paul VI used “synod” instead of “council” but both terms carry the same meaning in the church records of the day. The important distinction is the difference between general, universal, or ecumenical meetings, and local, regional, or provincial meetings. Numerous provincial or local councils or synods met during the first three centuries of Christianity, especially during the third century, to handle matters of doctrine and discipline. These earliest church meetings in North Africa, Rome, Gaul, Asia Minor, and Iberia paved the way to Nicaea I, the first general council. Many local meetings, some attended by popes or their delegates, also met during the Middle Ages. Today regional synods of bishops continue to meet, sometimes in Rome, and frequently in the home countries as national synods or conferences.
A Concluding Review
The time between councils, their duration, and their attendance reveal a wide variance. Counting twenty-one general councils may lead one to think that they were called about one each century. But in reality general councils have met infrequently and often in clusters. And there were long periods of time that experienced no councils at all. Three centuries elapsed before Christianity was recognized by the Roman Empire. Only then was the first general council convened. Then eight councils sat in the 545 years between Nicaea I (325) and Constantinople IV (869-870). Two and a half centuries later the seven medieval councils, Lateran I (1123) to Vienne (1311-1312), met over the next 189 years. With the passing of another century two more general councils met within three decades: Constance (1414-1418) to Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (1431-1445). In the sixteenth century Lateran V (1512-1517) followed more than sixty years later, succeeded by Trent, which met in three stages over 1545-1563. Three centuries transpired before the next council, Vatican I (1869-1870). Another century and Vatican II (1962-1965) met.
General councils varied in duration. Lateran II sat only a week, while Constance (1414-1418) met for three and a half years of steady activity. But length of time is no indicator of importance or achievement, for Lateran IV gathered for only twenty days and was the most impressive of the medieval councils. Vatican II met 281 days over four autumn gatherings, but, as at most councils, a great deal of work took place before and after the four sessions. Lateran V met for five years, 1512-1517, but accomplished little.
Concerning participation, as few as a dozen members were present during a low point at Constantinople IV (869-870), and only seventeen during one session of Trent in 1551-1552. In striking contrast 2,540 packed St. Peter’s Basilica for the first session of Vatican II in 1962. But the historical period of a general council was not necessarily a big influence on attendance. In spite of difficulties in travel and communication during the ancient and medieval eras, about 600 took part in Chalcedon (451), more than 400 at Lateran IV (1215), and nearly 900 at Constance (1414-1418).
Even though each general council exhibited distinctive characteristics, a common thread runs through all. Each council rose to the occasion and responded to the urgent needs of its day. Hopefully this brief and broad view of conciliar history offers a context for a better appreciation of our church’s growth and development, and places the church’s life in clearer perspective. Perhaps it will whet our appetites for delving a little deeper into how these councils have served the church in addressing the challenges they confronted. History repeats itself.
The Correct Context
Each council must be seen in its proper context. Our faith reminds us that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church and the fathers of the councils through all the centuries. And the Holy Spirit will be with the Church in all the years to come. If we lose sight of this fundamental truth, we risk the confused thinking that the Holy Spirit might abandon Christ’s Church. But we know the Holy Spirit, like Christ himself, is always with us.
In 1870 Blessed John Henry Newman shrewdly projected that it takes a century to integrate fully the wisdom of an ecumenical council. “It is rare,” he wrote, “for a council not to be followed by great confusion…. The century following each council has ever been a time of great trouble.”
At the outset of Vatican II, Blessed John XXIII noted that “It is now only dawn….” We are still digesting the work of Vatican II: 16 major decrees approved by more than 2,500 council fathers, who cast over 1,200,000 ballots after 1,000-plus speeches, and over 6,000 written interventions.
Consider this an invitation and opportunity to refresh and to renew ourselves by rereading (or reading for the first time) the dynamic teachings of Vatican II and of earlier councils. These documents reveal a Church ever faithful, a divine gift, a Church ever dynamic, and a grace that continues from the time of the Apostles.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “The Church both before and after the [Second Vatican] Council is the same one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church journeying through time.”