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General Councils

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This subject will be treated under the following heads:

  • Definition
  • Classification
  • Historical Sketch
  • The Pope and General Councils
  • Composition of General Councils
    • Right of participation
    • Requisite number of members
    • Papal headship the formal element of Councils
  • Factors in the Pope's Co-operation with the Council
  • Business Methods
    • The facts
    • The theory
  • Infallibility of General Councils;
  • Correlation of Papal and Conciliary Infallibility
  • Infallibility Restricted to Unanimous Findings
  • Promulgation
  • Is a Council above the Pope?
  • Has a General Council Power to Depose a Pope?

    Councils are legally convened assemblies of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts for the purpose of discussing and regulating matters of church doctrine and discipline. The terms council and synod are synonymous, although in the oldest Christian literature the ordinary meetings for worship are also called synods, and diocesan synods are not properly councils because they are only convened for deliberation. Councils unlawfully assembled are termed conciliabula , conventicula , and even latrocinia , i.e. "robber synods ". The constituent elements of an ecclesiastical council are the following:

    • A legally convened meeting
    • of members of the hierarchy,
    • for the purpose of carrying out their judicial and doctrinal functions,
    • by means of deliberation in common
    • resulting in regulations and decrees invested with the authority of the whole assembly.
    All these elements result from an analysis of the fact that councils are a concentration of the ruling powers of the Church for decisive action.

    The first condition is that such concentration conform to the constitution of the Church : it must be started by the head of the forces that are to move and to act, e.g. by the metropolitan if the action is limited to one province. The actors themselves are necessarily the leaders of the Church in their double capacity of judges and teachers, for the proper object of conciliar activity is the settling of questions of faith and discipline. When they assemble for other purposes, either at regular times or in extraordinary circumstances, in order to deliberate on current questions of administration or on concerted action in emergencies, their meetings are not called councils but simply meetings, or assemblies, of bishops. Deliberation, with free discussion and ventilation of private views, is another essential note in the notion of councils. They are the mind of the Church in action, the sensus ecclesiae taking form and shape in the mould of dogmatic definition and authoritative decrees. The contrast of conflicting opinions, their actual clash necessarily precedes the final triumph of faith. Lastly, in a council's decisions we see the highest expression of authority of which its members are capable within the sphere of their jurisdiction, with the added strength and weight resulting from the combined action of the whole body.


    Councils are, then, from their nature, a common effort of the Church, or part of the Church, for self-preservation and self-defence. They appear at her very origin, in the time of the Apostles at Jerusalem, and throughout her whole history whenever faith or morals or discipline are seriously threatened. Although their object is always the same, the circumstances under which they meet impart to them a great variety, which renders a classification necessary. Taking territorial extension for a basis, seven kinds of synods are distinguished.

  • Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world ( oikoumene ) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians. A council, Ecumenical in its convocation, may fail to secure the approbation of the whole Church or of the pope, and thus not rank in authority with Ecumenical councils. Such was the case with the Robber Synod of 449 ( Latrocinium Ephesinum ), the Synod of Pisa in 1409, and in part with the Councils of Constance and Basle.
  • The second rank is held by the general synods of the East or of the West , composed of but one-half of the episcopate. The Synod Of Constantinople (381) was originally only an Eastern general synod, at which were present the four patriarchs of the East (viz. of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem ), with many metropolitans and bishops. It ranks as Ecumenical because its decrees were ultimately received in the West also.
  • Patriarchal, national, and primatial councils represent a whole patriarchate, a whole nation, or the several provinces subject to a primate. Of such councils we have frequent examples in Latin Africa, where the metropolitan and ordinary bishops used to meet under the Primate of Carthage, in Spain, under the Primate of Toledo, and in earlier times in Syria, under the Metropolitan -- later Patriarch -- of Antioch.
  • Provincial councils bring together the suffragan bishops of the metropolitan of an ecclesiastical province and other dignitaries entitled to participate.
  • Diocesan synods consist of the clergy of the diocese and are presided over by the bishop or the vicar-general.
  • A peculiar kind of council used to be held at Constantinople, it consisted of bishops from any part of the world who happened to be at the time in that imperial city. Hence the name synodoi enoemousai "visitors' synods ".
  • Lastly there have been mixed synods , in which both civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries met to settle secular as well as ecclesiastical matters. They were frequent at the beginning of the Middle Ages in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. In England even abbesses were occasionally present at such mixed councils. Sometimes, not always, the clergy and laity voted in separate chambers.
  • Although it is in the nature of councils to represent either the whole or part of the Church organism yet we find many councils simply consisting of a number of bishops brought together from different countries for some special purpose, regardless of any territorial or hierarchical connection. They were most frequent in the fourth century, when the metropolitan and patriarchal circumscriptions were still imperfect, and questions of faith and discipline manifold. Not a few of them, summoned by emperors or bishops in opposition to the lawful authorities (such as that of Antioch in 341), were positively irregular, and acted for evil rather than good. Councils of this kind may be compared to the meetings of bishops of our own times; decrees passed in them had no binding power on any but the subjects of the bishops present, they were important manifestations of the sensus ecclesiae (mind of the Church ) rather than judicial or legislative bodies. But precisely as expressing the mind of the Church they often acquired a far-reaching influence due, either to their internal soundness, or to the authority of their framers, or to both.

    It should be noted that the terms concilia plenaria, universalia, OR generalia are, or used to be, applied indiscriminately to all synods not confined to a single province; in the Middle Ages, even provincial synods, as compared to diocesan, received these names. Down to the late Middle Ages all papal synods to which a certain number of bishops from different countries had been summoned were regularly styled plenary, general, or universal synods. In earlier times, before the separation of East and West, councils to which several distant patriarchates or exarchates sent representatives, were described absolutely as "plenary councils of the universal church". These terms are applied by St. Augustine to the Council of Arles (314), at which only Western bishops were present. In the same way the council of Constantinople (382), in a letter to Pope Damasus, calls the council held in the same town the year before (381) "an Ecumenical synod " i.e. a synod representing the oikoumene , the whole inhabited world as known to the Greeks and Romans, because all the Eastern patriarchates, though no Western, took part in it. The synod of 381 could not, at that time, be termed Ecumenical in the strict sense now in use, because it still lacked the formal confirmation of the Apostolic See. As a matter of fact, the Greeks themselves did not put this council on a par with those of Nicaea and Ephesus until its confirmation at the Synod of Chalcedon, and the Latins acknowledged its authority only in the sixth century.


    The present article deals chiefly with the theological and canonical questions concerning councils which are Ecumenical in the strict sense above defined. Special articles give the history of each important synod under the head of the city or see where it was held. In order, however, to supply the reader with a basis of fact for the discussion of principles which is to follow, a list is subjoined of the twenty Ecumenical councils with a brief statement of the purpose of each.

    First Ecumenical Council: Nicaea I (325)

    The Council of Nicaea lasted two months and twelve days. Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, assisted as legate of Pope Sylvester. The Emperor Constantine was also present. To this council we owe The Creed ( Symbolum ) of Nicaea, defining against Arius the true Divinity of the Son of God ( homoousios ), and the fixing of the date for keeping Easter (against the Quartodecimans).

    Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople I (381)

    The First General Council of Constantinople , under Pope Damasus and the Emperor Theodosius I, was attended by 150 bishops. It was directed against the followers of Macedonius, who impugned the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. To the above-mentioned Nicene Creed it added the clauses referring to the Holy Ghost ( qui simul adoratur ) and all that follows to the end.

    Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus (431)

    The Council of Ephesus, of more than 200 bishops, presided over by St. Cyril of Alexandria representing Pope Celestine I, defined the true personal unity of Christ, declared Mary the Mother of God ( theotokos ) against Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and renewed the condemnation of Pelagius.

    Fourth Ecumenical Council: Chalcedon (451)

    The Council of Chalcedon -- 150 bishops under Pope Leo the Great and the Emperor Marcian -- defined the two natures (Divine and human) in Christ against Eutyches, who was excommunicated.

    Fifth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople II (553)

    The Second General Council of Constantinople, of 165 bishops under Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian I, condemned the errors of Origen and certain writings ( The Three Chapters ) of Theodoret, of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia and of Ibas, Bishop of Edessa ; it further confirmed the first four general councils, especially that of Chalcedon whose authority was contested by some heretics.

    Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople III (680-681)

    The Third General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Agatho and the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, was attended by the Patriarchs of Constantinople and of Antioch, 174 bishops, and the emperor. It put an end to Monothelitism by defining two wills in Christ, the Divine and the human, as two distinct principles of operation. It anathematized Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Macarius, and all their followers.

    Seventh Ecumenical Council: Nicaea II (787)

    The Second Council of Nicaea was convoked by Emperor Constantine VI and his mother Irene, under Pope Adrian I, and was presided over by the legates of Pope Adrian ; it regulated the veneration of holy images . Between 300 and 367 bishops assisted.

    Eighth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (869)

    The Fourth General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Adrian II and Emperor Basil numbering 102 bishops, 3 papal legates, and 4 patriarchs, consigned to the flames the Acts of an irregular council ( conciliabulum ) brought together by Photius against Pope Nicholas and Ignatius the legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople; it condemned Photius who had unlawfully seized the patriarchal dignity. The Photian Schism, however, triumphed in the Greek Church, and no other general council took place in the East.

    Ninth Ecumenical Council: Lateran I (1123)

    The First Lateran Council, the first held at Rome, met under Pope Callistus II. About 900 bishops and abbots assisted. It abolished the right claimed by lay princes, of investiture with ring and crosier to ecclesiastical benefices and dealt with church discipline and the recovery of the Holy Land from the infidels.

    Tenth Ecumenical Council: Lateran II (1139)

    The Second Lateran Council was held at Rome under Pope Innocent II, with an attendance of about 1000 prelates and the Emperor Conrad. Its object was to put an end to the errors of Arnold of Brescia.

    Eleventh Ecumenical Council: Lateran III (1179)

    The Third Lateran Council took place under Pope Alexander III, Frederick I being emperor. There were 302 bishops present. It condemned the Albigenses and Waldenses and issued numerous decrees for the reformation of morals.

    Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV (1215)

    The Fourth Lateran Council was held under Innocent III. There were present the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic. It issued an enlarged creed (symbol) against the Albigenses (Firmiter credimus), condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published 70 important reformatory decrees. This is the most important council of the Middle Ages, and it marks the culminating point of ecclesiastical life and papal power.

    Thirteenth Ecumenical Council: Lyons I (1245)

    The First General Council of Lyons was presided over by Innocent IV ; the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Aquileia (Venice), 140 bishops, Baldwin II, Emperor of the East, and St. Louis, King of France, assisted. It excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II and directed a new crusade, under the command of St. Louis, against the Saracens and Mongols.

    Fourteenth Ecumenical Council: Lyons II (1274)

    The Second General Council of Lyons was held by Pope Gregory X, the Patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, 15 cardinals, 500 bishops, and more than 1000 other dignitaries. It effected a temporary reunion of the Greek Church with Rome. The word filioque was added to the symbol of Constantinople and means were sought for recovering Palestine from the Turks. It also laid down the rules for papal elections.

    Fifteenth Ecumenical Council: Vienne (1311-1313)

    The Council of Vienne was held in that town in France by order of Clement V, the first of the Avignon popes. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, 300 bishops (114 according to some authorities), and 3 kings -- Philip IV of France, Edward II of England, and James II of Aragon -- were present. The synod dealt with the crimes and errors imputed to the Knights Templars, the Fraticelli, the Beghards, and the Beguines, with projects of a new crusade, the reformation of the clergy, and the teaching of Oriental languages in the universities.

    Sixteenth Ecumenical Council: Constance (1414-1418)

    The Council of Constance was held during the great Schism of the West, with the object of ending the divisions in the Church. It became legitimate only when Gregory XI had formally convoked it. Owing to this circumstance it succeeded in putting an end to the schism by the election of Pope Martin V, which the Council of Pisa (1403) had failed to accomplish on account of its illegality. The rightful pope confirmed the former decrees of the synod against Wyclif and Hus. This council is thus ecumenical only in its last sessions (XLII-XLV inclusive) and with respect to the decrees of earlier sessions approved by Martin V.

    Seventeenth Ecumenical Council: Basle/Ferrara/Florence (1431-1439)

    The Council of Basle met first in that town, Eugene IV being pope, and Sigismund Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Its object was the religious pacification of Bohemia. Quarrels with the pope having arisen, the council was transferred first to Ferrara (1438), then to Florence (1439), where a short-lived union with the Greek Church was effected, the Greeks accepting the council's definition of controverted points. The Council of Basle is only ecumenical till the end of the twenty-fifth session, and of its decrees Eugene IV approved only such as dealt with the extirpation of heresy, the peace of Christendom, and the reform of the Church, and which at the same time did not derogate from the rights of the Holy See. (See also the Council of Florence.)

    Eighteenth Ecumenical Council: Lateran V (1512-1517)

    The Fifth Lateran Council sat from 1512 to 1517 under Popes Julius II and Leo X, the emperor being Maximilian I. Fifteen cardinals and about eighty archbishops and bishops took part in it. Its decrees are chiefly disciplinary. A new crusade against the Turks was also planned, but came to naught, owing to the religious upheaval in Germany caused by Luther.

    Nineteenth Ecumenical Council: Trent (1545-1563)

    The Council of Trent lasted eighteen years (1545-1563) under five popes : Paul III , Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV, and under the Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand. There were present 5 cardinal legates of the Holy See, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 235 bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of monastic orders, and 160 doctors of divinity. It was convoked to examine and condemn the errors promulgated by Luther and other Reformers, and to reform the discipline of the Church. Of all councils it lasted longest, issued the largest number of dogmatic and reformatory decrees, and produced the most beneficial results.

    Twentieth Ecumenical Council: Vatican I (1869-1870)

    The Vatican Council was summoned by Pius IX. It met 8 December, 1869, and lasted till 18 July, 1870, when it was adjourned; it is still (1908) unfinished. There were present 6 archbishop-princes, 49 cardinals, 11 patriarchs, 680 archbishops and bishops, 28 abbots, 29 generals of orders, in all 803. Besides important canons relating to the Faith and the constitution of the Church, the council decreed the infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra , i.e. when as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.


    The relations between the pope and general councils must be exactly defined to arrive at a just conception of the functions of councils in the Church, of their rights and duties, and of their authority. The traditional phrase, "the council represents the Church ", associated with the modern notion of representative assemblies, is apt to lead to a serious misconception of the bishops' function in general synods. The nation's deputies receive their power from their electors and are bound to protect and promote their electors' interests; in the modern democratic State they are directly created by, and out of, the people's own power. The bishops in council, on the contrary, hold no power, no commission, or delegation, from the people. All their powers, orders, jurisdiction, and membership in the council, come to them from above -- directly from the pope, ultimately from God. What the episcopate in council does represent is the Divinely instituted magisterium , the teaching and governing power of the Church ; the interests it defends are those of the depositum fidei , of the revealed rules of faith and morals, i.e. the interests of God.

    The council is, then, the assessor of the supreme teacher and judge sitting on the Chair of Peter by Divine appointment; its operation is essentially co-operation -- the common action of the members with their head -- and therefore necessarily rises or falls in value, according to the measure of its connection with the pope. A council in opposition to the pope is not representative of the whole Church, for it neither represents the pope who opposes it, nor the absent bishops, who cannot act beyond the limits of their dioceses except through the pope. A council not only acting independently of the Vicar of Christ , but sitting in judgment over him, is unthinkable in the constitution of the Church ; in fact, such assemblies have only taken place in times of great constitutional disturbances, when either there was no pope or the rightful pope was indistinguishable from antipopes. In such abnormal times the safety of the Church becomes the supreme law, and the first duty of the abandoned flock is to find a new shepherd, under whose direction the existing evils may be remedied.

    In normal times, when according to the Divine constitution of the Church, the pope rules in the fullness of his power, the function of councils is to support and strengthen his rule on occasions of extraordinary difficulties arising from heresies schisms, relaxed discipline, or external foes. General councils have no part in the ordinary normal government of the Church. This principle is confirmed by the fact that during nineteen centuries of Church life only twenty Ecumenical councils took place. It is further illustrated by the complete failure of the decree issued in the thirty-ninth session of the Council of Constance (then without a rightful head) to the effect that general councils should meet frequently and at regular intervals, the very first synod summoned at Pavia for the year 1423 could not be held for want of responses to the summons. It is thus evident that general councils are not qualified to issue independently of the pope, dogmatic or disciplinary canons binding on the whole Church. As a matter of fact, the older councils, especially those of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), were not convened to decide on questions of faith still open, but to give additional weight to, and secure the execution of, papal decisions previously issued and regarded as fully authoritative. The other consequence of the same principle is that the bishops in council assembled are not commissioned, as are our modern parliaments, to control and limit the power of the sovereign, or head of the State, although circumstances may arise in which it would be, their right and duty firmly to expostulate with the pope on certain of his acts or measures. The severe strictures of the Sixth General Council on Pope Honorius I may be cited as a case in point.


    (a) Right of participation

    The right to be present and to act at general councils belongs in the first place and logically to the bishops actually exercising the episcopal office. In the earlier councils there appear also the chorepiscopi (country-bishops), who, according to the better opinion, were neither true bishops nor an order interposed between bishops and priests, but priests invested with a jurisdiction smaller than the episcopal but larger than the sacerdotal. They were ordained by the bishop and charged with the administration of a certain district in his diocese. They had the power of conferring minor orders, and even the subdiaconate. Titular bishops, i.e. bishops not ruling a diocese, had equal rights with other bishops at the Vatican Council (1869-70), where 117 of them were present. Their claim lies in the fact that their order, the episcopal consecration, entitles them, jure divino , to take part in the administration of the Church, and that a general council seems to afford a proper sphere for the exercise of a right which the want of a proper diocese keeps in abeyance. Dignitaries who hold episcopal or quasi-episcopal jurisdiction without being bishops -- such as cardinal-priests, cardinal-deacons, abbots nullius, mitred abbots of whole orders or congregations of monasteries, generals of clerks regular, mendicant and monastic orders -- were allowed to vote at the Vatican Council . Their title is based on positive canon law: at the early councils such votes were not admitted, but from the seventh century down to the end of the Middle Ages the contrary practice gradually prevailed, and has since become an acquired right. Priests and deacons frequently cast decisive votes in the name of absent bishops whom they represented; at the Council of Trent , however, such procurators were admitted only with great limitations, and at the Vatican Council they were even excluded from the council hall. Besides voting members, every council admits, as consultors a number of doctors in theology and canon law. In the Council of Constance the consultors were allowed to vote. Other clerics have always been admitted as notaries. Lay people may be, and have been, present at councils for various reasons, but never as voters. They gave advice, made complaints, assented to decisions, and occasionally also signed the decrees. Since the Roman emperors had accepted Christianity, they assisted either personally or through deputies ( commissarii ). Constantine the Great was present in person at the First General Council, Theodosius II sent his representatives to the third, and Emperor Marcian sent his to the fourth, at the sixth session of which himself and the Empress Pulcheria assisted personally. Constantine Pogonatus was present at the sixth, the Empress Irene and her son Constantine Porphyrogenitus only sent their representative to the seventh, whereas Emperor Basil, the Macedonian, assisted at the eighth, sometimes in person, sometimes through his deputies. Only the Second and the Fifth General Synods were held in the absence of the emperors or imperial commissaries, but both Theodosius the Great and Justinian were at Constantinople while the councils were sitting, and kept up constant intercourse with them. In the West the attendance of kings, even at provincial synods, was of frequent occurrence. The motive and object of the royal presence were to protect the synods, to heighten their authority, to lay before them the needs of particular Christian states and countries.

    This laudable and legitimate co-operation led by degrees to interference with the pope's rights in conciliar matters. The Eastern Emperor Michael claimed the right to summon councils without obtaining the pope's consent, and to take part in them personally or by proxy. But Pope Nicholas I resisted the pretensions of Emperor Michael, pointing out to him, in a letter (865), that his imperial predecessors had only been present at general synods dealing with matters of faith, and from that fact drew the conclusion that all other synods should be held without the emperor's or his commissaries' presence. A few years later the Eighth General Synod (Can. xvii, Hefele, IV, 421) declared it false that no synod could be held without the emperor's presence the emperors had only been present at general councils -- and that it was not right for secular princes to witness the condemnation of ecclesiastics (at provincial synods ). As early as the fourth century the bishops greatly complained of the action of Constantine the Great in imposing his commissary on the Synod of Tyre (335). In the West, however, secular princes were present even at national synods , e.g. Sisenand, King of the Spanish Visigoths, was at the Fourth Council of Toledo (636) and King Chintilian at the fifth (638); Charlemagne assisted at the Council of Frankfort (794) and two Anglo Saxon kings at the Synod of Whitby ( Collatio Pharenes ) in 664. But step by step Rome established the principle that no royal commissary may be present at any council except a general one, in which "faith, reformation, and peace" are in question.

    (b) Requisite number of members

    The number of bishops present required to constitute an Ecumenical council cannot be strictly defined, nor need it be so deigned, for ecumenicity chiefly depends on co-operation with the head of the Church, and only secondarily on the number of co-operators. It is physically impossible to bring together all the bishops of the world, nor is there any standard by which to determine even an approximate number, or proportion, of prelates necessary to secure ecumenicity. All should be invited, no one should be debarred, a somewhat considerable number of representatives of the several provinces and countries should be actually present; this may be laid down as a practicable theory. But the ancient Church did not conform to this theory. As a rule only the patriarchs and metropolitans received a direct summons to appear with a certain number of their suffragans. At Ephesus and Chalcedon the time between the convocation and the meeting of the council was too short to allow of the Western bishops being invited. As a rule, but very few Western bishops were personally present at any of the first eight general synods. Occasionally, e.g. at the sixth, their absence was remedied by sending deputies with precise instructions arrived at in a previous council held in the West. What gives those Eastern synods their Ecumenical character is the co-operation of the pope as head of the universal, and, especially, of the Western, Church. This circumstance, so remarkably prominent in the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, affords the best proof that, in the sense of the Church, the essential constituent element of ecumenicity is less the proportion of bishops present to bishops absent than the organic connection of the council with the head of the Church.

    (c) Papal headship the formal element of councils

    It is the action of the pope that makes the councils ecumenical. That action is the exercise of his office of supreme teacher and ruler of the Church. Its necessity results from the fact that no authority is commensurate with the whole Church except that of the pope ; he alone can bind all the faithful. Its sufficiency is equally manifest: when the pope has spoken ex cathedra to make his own the decisions of any council, regardless of the number of its members nothing further can be wanted to make them binding on the whole Church. The earliest enunciation of the principle is found in the letter of the Council of Sardica (313) to Pope Julius I, and was often quoted, since the beginning of the fifth century, as the (Nicaean) canon concerning the necessity of papal co-operation in all the more important conciliary Acts. The Church historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl., II, xvii) makes Pope Julius say, in reference to the Council of Antioch (341), that the law of the Church ( kanon ) forbids "the churches to pass laws contrary to the judgement of the Bishop of Rome " and Sozomen (III, x) likewise declares "it to be a holy law not to attribute any value to things done without the judgment of the Bishop of Rome ". The letter of Julius here quoted by both Socrates and Sozomen directly refers to an existing ecclesiastical custom and, in particular, to a single important case (the deposition of a patriarch), but the underlying principle is as stated.

    Papal co-operation may be of several degrees: to be effective in stamping a council as universal it must amount to taking over responsibility for its decisions by giving them formal confirmation. The Synod of Constantinople (381) in which the Nicene Creed received its present form -- the one used at Mass -- had in itself no claim to be Ecumenical. Before Pope Damasus and the Western bishops had seen its full Acts they condemned certain of its proceedings at an Italian synod, but on receiving the Acts, Damasus, so we are told by Photius, confirmed them. Photius, however, is only right with regard to the Creed, or Symbol of Faith : the canons of this council were still rejected by Leo the Great and even by Gregory the Great (about 600). A proof that the Creed of Constantinople enjoyed papal sanction may be drawn from the way in which the Roman legates at the Fourth General Synod (Chalcedon, 451) allowed, without any protest, appeals to this Creed, while at the same time they energetically protested against the canons of the council. It was on account of the papal approbation of the Creed that, in the sixth century, Popes Vigilius, Pelagius II, and Gregory the Great declared this council Ecumenical, although Gregory still refused to sanction its canons. The First Synod of Constantinople presents, then, an instance of a minimum of papal co-operation impressing on a particular council the mark of universality. The normal co-operation, however, requires on the part of the head of the Church more than a post-factum acknowledgment.

    The pope's office and the council's function in the organization of the Church require that the pope should call the council together, preside over and direct its labours, and finally promulgate its decrees to the universal Church as expressing the mind of the whole teaching body guided by the Holy Ghost. Instances of such normal, natural, perfect co-operation occur in the five Lateran councils, which were presided over by the pope in person; the personal presence of the highest authority in the Church, his direction of the deliberations, and approbation of the decrees, stamp the conciliary proceedings throughout as the function of the Magisterium Ecclesiae in its most authoritative form. Councils in which the pope is represented by legates are, indeed, also representative of the whole teaching body of the Church, but the representation is not absolute or adequate, is no real concentration of its whole authority. They act in the name, but not with the whole power, of the teaching Church, and their decrees become universally binding only through an act, either antecedent or consequent, of the pope. The difference between councils presided over personally and by proxy is marked in the form in which their decrees are promulgated : when the pope has been present the decrees are published in his own name with the additional formula: sacro approbante Concilio ; when papal legates have presided the decrees are attributed to the synod ( S. Synodus declarat, definit, decernit )


    We have seen that no council is Ecumenical unless the pope has made it his own by co-operation, which admits of a minimum and a maximum consequently of various degrees of perfection. Catholic writers could have saved themselves much trouble if they had always based their apologetics on the simple and evident principle of a sufficient minimum of papal co- operation, instead of endeavouring to prove, at all costs, that a maximum is both required in principle and demonstrable in history. The three factors constituting the solidarity of pope and council are the convocation, direction, and confirmation of the council by the pope - but it is not essential that each and all of these factors should always be present in full perfection.

    (a) Convocation

    The juridical convocation of a council implies something more than an invitation addressed to all the bishops of the world to meet in council, viz.: the act by which in law the bishops are bound to take part in the council, and the council itself is constituted a legitimate tribunal for dealing with Church affairs. Logically, and in the nature of the thing, the right of convocation belongs to the pope alone. Yet the convocation, in the loose sense of invitation to meet, of the first eight general synods, was regularly issued by the Christian emperors, whose dominion was coextensive with the Church, or at least with the Eastern part of it, which was then alone convened. The imperial letters of convocation to the Councils of Ephesus ( Hardouin I, 1343) and of Chalcedon ( Hardouin II, 42) show that the emperors acted as protectors of the Church, believing it their duty to further by every means in their power the welfare of their charge. Nor is it possible in every case to prove that they acted at the formal instigation of the pope ; it even seems that the emperors more than once followed none but their own initiative for convening the council and fixing its place of meeting. It is, however. evident that the Christian emperors cannot have acted thus without the consent, actual or presumed of the pope. Otherwise their conduct had been neither lawful nor wise. As a matter of fact, none of the eight Eastern Ecumenical synods, with the exception, perhaps, of the fifth, was summoned by the emperor in opposition to t

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