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What is an ecumenical council?

Throughout the storied past of the Catholic Church, Christians were faced with serious questions concerning doctrinal teachings and disciplinary policies. Most of these questions were answered at the local level by the competent ecclesiastical authority (usually the diocesan bishop), but, sometimes, major issues were addressed at the universal level with a meeting of all Catholic bishops united in the vicar of Christ, the Roman pontiff. Bishops meeting to discuss serious issues in the church began in the apostolic age. The apostles gathered in Jerusalem in the mid first-century to discuss the pressing question of whether Gentile converts to the faith had to follow Jewish dietary laws and the law of circumcision. The church adopted this apostolic assembly model throughout history and such assemblies, when they involved the entire world’s bishops, were called “ecumenical councils.” 

Although all Catholic bishops are invited, the bishop of Rome’s role in an ecumenical council is central. The pope calls an ecumenical council, or historically, agrees to the calling of one by the secular authority. The pope or his representative (called a legate) presides over and directs the activity of the ecumenical council, and when its work is completed, he promulgates the decrees. An ecumenical council has no binding authority without the pope. Church history provides examples of a few illicit councils such as the infamous “Robber Council” (Latrocinium) of 449 held in Ephesus by proponents of the heretic Eutchyes, who taught Jesus had only a divine nature (and, as such, was not truly human). Pope Leo I (St. Leo the Great) (r. 440-461) condemned this invalid assembly calling it “a council of thieves.”

Ecumenical councils are rare events as the church has held only 21 in her 2,000-year history, averaging nearly one a century. Some periods of church history were witness to frequent councils that contributed greatly to a deeper understanding of the faith. One such prolific period was from the fourth through the ninth centuries when no less than eight (or nearly 40 percent) ecumenical councils were held. Perhaps the most important meeting was the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea (modern-day Turkey) in 325. The Roman Emperor Constantine called this council, with approval by Pope Sylvester I (r. 314-335), to discuss the teachings of a North African priest, Arius, who taught that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father. Arianism was an attack against the trinity since Arius posited that Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) was a creature of God. The assembled bishops definitively condemned Arius’ heresy and developed a creed to present the church’s teaching that Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father. This creed is still recited at Mass today.

There was a significant break in conciliar activity during the 10th century as the papacy dealt with various political issues in the post-Western Roman imperial world. After the 11th century papal reform movement secured a papacy independent of secular political control, the popes once more employed ecumenical councils to address matters of ecclesiastical discipline and to fight heresies. The Lateran councils in the 12th and 13th centuries were the defining events of a strong medieval papacy. The 14th century witnessed the great meeting at Constance where the Great Western Schism (a time when, at one point, three men claimed the papacy) ended with the election of Pope Martin V (r. 1417-1431). The famous “warrior pope” Julius II (r. 1503-1513) convened the Fifth Lateran Council in the hope of introducing much needed reform in the church, but the effort came to naught as the Protestant Revolt erupted soon after. One of the most famous ecumenical councils met at Trent during the 16th century. The work at this council ushered the movement known as the Catholic Reformation, which steadied and re-invigorated the church after the cleaving of Christendom from the Protestant movement. The most recent ecumenical council, the Second Vatican Council, met in the 20th century in order to address the needs of the church in the modern world.

Ecumenical councils are a rare but vital element in the life of the church. Each council has its own unique story within the historical context of its setting, and learning about them can provide a fruitful survey of the church’s history. 

Weidenkopf is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria. 

Find out more

For more on ecumenical councils, go to graduate.christendom.edu/councils.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019