Councils of the Church
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Councils of the Church are authorized gatherings
of bishops for the purpose of discussing ecclesiastical problems and passing
decrees on them. In Roman Catholic terminology, if all the bishops are called
to participate, thus actually representing the Christian world, the assembly
is called general, or ecumenical, which means universal; if only part of the
hierarchy is invited, the council is particular. The latter may be provincial
or plenary, depending on whether a single provincial area, like the diocese
of Ohio, or a whole country sponsors the gathering. Church councils, even
on a provincial basis, enjoy juridical authority in religious questions that
is distinct from the legislative powers of individual bishops. In this respect,
also, councils differ from episcopal conferences which are not, as such, legislative
According to the norms of canon law, it is impossible
to have a general council which has not been convoked by the Roman pontiff,
and its decrees have binding force only if sanctioned and promulgated by the
Holy See. By divine right only residential bishops, i.e., those actually holding
a diocese, are asked to participate. But ecclesiastical privilege now extends
the invitation also to cardinals and titular bishops, abbots, heads of monastic
orders, and generals of exempt religious congregations of men, such as the
Jesuits, which do not owe obedience to bishops or cardinals. All the foregoing
have a deliberative voice and vote in the council. Theologians and others
participate only in a consultative capacity.
General councils are named after the place where
they are held. There have been 21 such councils recognized by the Roman Churchthe
Council of Pisa (1409), though legally constituted, was later disavowed. The
Eastern Churches separated from Rome recognize as ecumenical only the first
seven councils, and among Protestants the first four are received with special
reverence. The 21st ecumenical council, Vatican II, was initiated in 1962
by John XXIII and continued under his successor, Paul Vl, through 1965.
Following are the ecumenical councils of the Roman
Catholic Church, with dates and a brief statement of their principal legislation:
- Nicaea I (325).
Condemned Arianism, defined that the Son of God is consubstantial with the Father, formulated a doctrine that later became incorporated in the so-calledNicene Creed.
- Constantinople I (381).
Condemned the Macedonians who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Confirmed and extended the decisions of Nicaea 1.
- Ephesus (431).
Condemned Nestorianism, which held there were two distinct persons
in the Incarnate Christ, a human and a divine. Defended the right of Mary
to be called the Mother of God.
- Chalcedon (451)
Condemned Monophysitism, or Eutychianism, by defining that Christ had
two distinct natures and was therefore true God and true man.
- Constantinople II (553).
Pronounced against certain prelates and theologians as infected
with Nestorianism, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyprus, and
Ibas of Edessa.
- Constantinople III (680-681).
Defined against the Monothelites and ruled that Christ has
two wills, human and divine.
II (787). Condemned the Iconoclasts, or image breakers, and defined that sacred
images may be honored without idolatry.
- Constantinople IV (869-870).
Condemned Photius as patriarch of Constantinople.
- Lateran I (1123).
First general council in the West, endorsed the Concordat of Worms
regarding the investiture of prelates.
- Lateran II (1139).
against the schism of the antipope Anacletus II and issued decrees against
usury, simony, and other abuses.
- Lateran III (1179).
Legislated against the heretical Waldenses and Albigensians and decreed papal elections
by two-thirds majority of cardinals at conclave.
- Lateran IV (1215).
Made reform decrees, ordered annual confession and Easter Communion, defined transubstantiation.
- Lyons I (1245).
Condemned the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for his persecution of the Church.
- Lyons II (1274).
Effected a temporary reunion of the Eastern Churches with Rome and decreed that papal
elections should begin ten days after the death of the pope.
- Vienne (13111312).
Suppressed the Knights Templar, sought aid for the Holy Land, defined the relation of
the soul to the human body, and condemned certain mystic sects, notably the
Fraticelli, Dulcinists, Beguards, and Beguins.
- Constance (1414-1418).
Issued reform decrees in "head and members," condemned Wycliffe, burned
Hus at the stake, and put an end to the Western Schism by deposing and imprisoning
the Conciliar Pope John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa).
- Florence (1438-1443).
Affirmed the papal primacy against Conciliarists, who said a general council was superior
to the pope, and sought to effect a reunion of the Eastern Churches separated
- Lateran V (1512-1517).
Defined the relation of pope to a general council, condemned philosophers who taught
the human soul was mortal and only one for all mankind, and called for a
Crusade against the Turks.
- Trent (1545-1563).
Called to meet the crisis of the Protestant Reformation; proclaimed the Bible and Tradition
as rule of faith; defined doctrine on the Mass, the sacraments, veneration
of sacred images; and issued decrees on marriage and clerical reform.
- Vatican I (1869-1870).
Defined the nature of revelation and faith, the relation of faith and reason, and
papal infallibility; condemned Pantheism, Materialism, Deism, Naturalism,
- Vatican II (1962-1965).
Called to renew the Church for her mission in the middle of the 20th century; issued
statements on the nature of the Church, Christian unity, liturgical reform,
the role of the bishops in governing the Church, increased activity of the
laity, relation of the Bible to theology, Christian education, application
of Christian social doctrine, and religious freedom in civil society.
Vol. #7, pp. 394-395
Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica