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Ecumenical Councils

 An ecclesiastical council may be defined as a legitimate assembly of bishops who are gathered to discuss and decide ecclesiastical matters. The apostles themselves held the first Christian councils. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke informs us that they gathered in council on several occasions: to replace the apostle Judas (Acts I); to select the first deacons (Acts 6); to decide the question of circumcision of the gentiles (Acts 15). These repeated assemblies may have been prompted by those words of Christ: "For where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18,20).

The first councils of historical record after the death of the apostles are those of the second century. The Montanist heresy as well as the Easter question prompted the bishops of Asia Minor to gather in council. Eusebius mentions a number of such synods held in Asia Minor in the second century to deal with heresy and to resolve questions of discipline. Councils are reported in the third century at Elvira, Antioch, and Synnada. In the Council of Alexandria in 320 we find the bishops of an entire province gathering to discuss problems that loomed large in the fourth century. It was in this century too that the ecumenical council first appeared, namely the Council of Nicaea, 325.

Theologians have occasionally, but ineffectively, attempted to prove the divine origin of the council. However, the council is not a divine institution; it is not essential to the Church, as are the sacraments and the papacy. It is an ecclesiastical institution, conceived and given its form by the Church herself. At the present time the law of the Church recognizes three types of council: provincial, plenary, and ecumenical. It is provincial if the assembled bishops represent a single ecclesiastical province. It is plenary if a number of provinces are represented (canons 282, 286 of the Code of Canon Law). It is ecumenical if it is summoned, presided over (in person or through delegates), and approved by the pope (canon 222). Present legislation also determines those who may be summoned to the council. They are: cardinals (whether bishops or not), patriarchs, primates, archbishops, residential bishops, abbots and prelates nullius, abbots primate, abbots superior of monastic congregations, superiors general of exempt religious congregations, and titular bishops. Theologians too may be invited but they have no deliberative vote (canon 223).

Under present legislation, the pope deter- mines the agenda, subject to the suggestions of the fathers of the council (canon 226). The decree$ of the council, moreover, have no definitive power until the pope has confirmed and promulgated them (canon 227). This approbation does not necessarily follow the decrees of the council; it may be simultaneous, as it was during the council of the Vatican (1869-70), when decisions were made jointly by the pope and council, and under his presidency. The approbation may even precede the council as it did at Chalcedon (451), when the bishops simply confirmed the decision of the pope. The ecumenical council exercises a power that is supreme in the Church (canon 228). The power of the bishops in solemn assembly is real, but it is not absolute; it is subordinate to that of the pope, as the authority of the apostles was to that of Peter, the leader of the twelve.

There have been attempts over the years to identify in the early councils the elements that Church law now considers essential for an ecumenical council. It has proved a difficult task; and it may well be an impossible one. For example, the first and second councils of Constantinople (381, 553) were neither convoked nor presided over by the pope, and the conciliar decrees were not given approbation until a much later date. It would seem simpler to conclude with the French theologian, Yves Congar, that the structure of the council has evolved over the centuries. Since it is an ecclesiastical and not a divine institution, there is no intrinsic reason why its structure might not have varied.

Remarkably enough there is no official list of the councils that the Catholic Church recognizes as ecumenical. Catholic writers, however, are almost unanimous in listing the following ecumenical councils:  

Click on the council title below to read text of documents.

1. I Nicea, 325

2. I Constantinople, 381

3. Ephesus, 431

4. Chalcedon, 451

5. II Constantinople, 553

6. III Constantinople, 680-81

7. II Nicaea, 787

8. IV Constantinople, 869-70

9. I Lateran, 1123

10. II Lateran, 1139

11. III Lateran, 1179

12. IV Lateran, 1215

13. I Lyons, 1245

14. II Lyons, 1274

15. Vienne, 1311-12

16. Constance, 1414-18

17. Basel, Ferrara, Florence, Rome, 1431-45.

18. V Lateran, 1512-17

19. Trent, 1545-63  (Off site)

20. I Vatican, 1869-70

21. II Vatican, 1962-65  

If the Council of Florence, however, is listed as a distinct council and not a continuation of the Council of Basel, the number would rise to 22. Papal approbation was not extended to all the decrees of certain councils (e.g., Con- stance); hence these councils were ecumenical only in part. Most non-Catholic Christians recognize only the first seven of the above councils as ecumenical.

Below is given a brief description of each of the ecumenical councils.  

First Ecumenical Council -- Nicaea I



Nicaea (in N.W. Asia Minor)


A.D. 325


St. Sylvester I, 314 - 335


Constantine I, The Great, Western Roman Emperor 306-337; Sole Emperor 324 - 337

1. The Roman Empire was in turmoil. Constantine in the West and Licinius in the East had been at war, with the empire itself for the prize. In the Church Arius had challenged the divinity of Christ; and his heresy was weakening Christian unity.

Constantine eliminated Licinius in 323 and took the reins of empire. The old imperial tradition of Pontifex Maximus was still strong, and the emperor set himself the task of restoring religious as well as political unity. He first made an irenic appeal to Bishop Alexander and to Arius, the principal antagonists. When this failed, he summoned the Christian bishops of the world (oikoumene) to an assembly at Nicaea. The site was ideally suited to a large assembly and, with the resources of the empire at their disposal, more than 300 bishops gathered. The majority of them were from the East, a handful from the West.

The council opened May.20, 325, with the emperor himself as honorary president, and adjourned July 25. Only fragments of the conciliar Acts remain to us: the creed or symbolum, the synodal letter to the Church of Egypt, a partial list of the bishops who were present, and twenty canons. The Nicene creed (not the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is recited at Mass), one of the most venerable of the Christian Church, was com- posed apparently by the bishops themselves, acting either jointly or through a committee. Based on an earlier Palestinian baptismal creed, it was amplified to define the divinity of Christ and thus eliminate the Arian heresy. Arius himself was exiled to Illyricum and his books were burned. The council also resolved several matters of discipline.  

Second Ecumenical Council -- Constantinople I

SITE: Constantinople (near Bosporus, a strait in today's Turkey).
YEAR: A.D. 381
POPE: St. Damasus I, 367 - 384
EMPEROR: Theodosius I, the Great, 379 - 395

2. During the latter half of the fourth century the Catholic religion suffered from heresy, schism, and from competition by pagan and Manichean cults. By the end of the century, however, the emperor Theodosius I had consolidated the Church's position consider- ably by outlawing schisms and pagan cults, destroying pagan shrines, and demanding adherence to the faith. In 381 he summoned a council of the Eastern bishops to unite the Church at the end of the Arian controversy. The council convened at Constantinople, the imperial city, under the presidency of Meletius of Antioch. Gregory Nazianzen, saint and doctor of the Church, succeeded him in that office, and for a brief time acted as patriarch of Constantinople. The presidency was then assumed by Nectarius, who followed Gregory as patriarch of Constantinople.

The Acts of this council have been lost to us, but the Council of Chalcedon attributed to it the creed that to this day forms a part of the Mass. Most probably the creed was not com- posed by the council but was simply an adaptation of an earlier creed or creeds.

The council also framed four disciplinary canons, the fourth of which claimed a primacy of honor for the patriarchal see of Constantinople. Constantinople, the council declared, should have the primacy of honor after the see of Rome because it was the new Rome, the new imperial city of Theodosius. The Eastern bishops quite erroneously, were attributing Rome's primacy to the circumstance of its having been the imperial city of the Caesars. The First Council of Constantinople was neither convoked nor presided over by the pope. No papal legates were present, nor was the West represented by its bishops. It made no claim to be a general council and made no report to Rome, where, until Chalcedon (451) its canons were unknown. Through later approbation, the First Council of Constantinople gained a place in the list of ecumenical councils. It was first recognized at the second session of the Council of Chalcedon, when the creed of Constantinople was accepted.  

Third Ecumenical Council -- Ephesus


Ephesus (S. of Smyrna in SW Asia Minor).


A.D. 431


St. Celestine I, 423 - 432


Theodosius II, 408 - 450

3. The Council of Ephesus had its origin in a controversy between the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, and the patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril. Nestorius denied that Mary should be called the Mother of God, although she had long been venerated by the controverted title both in Egypt and Cappadocia. To give her this title, he said, would lead men to believe that she had generated the divine nature. Cyril reported the matter to Pope Celestine, who sent a letter giving Nestorius ten days in which to repent or be excommunicated.

Trying to forestall the condemnation, Nestorius persuaded the emperor Theodosius II to summon a general council; he did so, commanding the bishops to gather at Ephesus. The pope readily acceded to the development, sending another letter and withholding sentence until the council had reviewed the matter. Cyril assumed the presidency before the arrival of the papal envoys and before Nestorius' friend, John of Antioch, had reached the city. Nestorius was excommunicated and deposed by Cyril and 198 bishops.

John of Antioch had delayed, it seems, in order to avoid the condemnation of *s friend. When he arrived, however, he immediately held a small synod of his own and deposed Cyril. The city of Ephesus was now in an uproar. Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, and the people favored Cyril in his defense of Mary's prerogative; the imperial representative was displeased at the hasty action of the council. When the papal legates arrived, the emperor ordered the council to hold another session. The papal legates, after reviewing the matter, condemned Nestorius in the pope's name.

The council proclaimed the divine maternity of Mary. Another of its decrees was to prove a stumbling block at a later date when a re- union was attempted between East and West: a decree that no one might write or compose a creed different from that of Nicaea. The Eastern bishops would later say that the West's addition of the filioque to the creed violated this ecumenical decree.

Fourth Ecumenical Council -- Chalcedon


Chalcedon, (north of Constatinople)


A.D. 451


St. Leo I, the Great, 440 - 461


Marcian, 450 - 457

4. Within twenty years after the Council of Ephesus, a reaction to Nestorianism had led men into the opposite error, Nestorius so separated the human and divine in Christ that he denied that Mary was the Mother of God. Moving away from this error, some men over- emphasized a unity of the two natures in Christ. They explained the union of the Word of God and human nature in a way that com- promised the reality and integrity of His humanity. Their doctrine became known as Monophysitism. Eutyches, one of the proponents of the theory, was denounced and ex- communicated at a synod in Constantinople in 448. He appealed to both pope and emperor. The emperor replied by convoking a general council to be held at Ephesus, Pope Leo I condemned Eutyches' doctrine without hesitation, and sent his representatives to the council with a dogmatic letter definitely stating the Catholic teaching.

 The council which met at Ephesus in 449 under the presidency of Eutyches' chief sup- porter, the bishop Dioscorus of Alexandria, proved to be a high-handed and outrageous affair, The papal legates were ignored; bishops unfriendly to the Monophysites' were excluded. Eutyches, of course, was acquitted of heresy and restored to his monastery, Pope Leo denounced the "robber council" and demanded that another be convoked: Theodosius refused. When the emperor died, his successor, Marcian, summoned a new council to Chalcedon.

The council met October 8, 451, in the Church of St, Euphemia. It was the largest council of the ancient world, with more than 500 bishops in attendance. The papal legates read the dogmatic letter of Leo and the council accepted it with the acclamation: "Peter has spoken through Leo," The Council's fifth session proclaimed two natures in Christ "without confusion, change, separation, division,"

The Council of Chalcedon in its canon 28 declared that the see of Constantinople should be second to that of Rome since it was the imperial capital. Pope Leo declared this canon null and void and detrimental to the prerogatives of the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch. Leo did ratify the doctrinal decisions of the council, however, and Chalcedon became ecumenical so far as its doctrinal decrees were concerned.  

Fifth Ecumenical Council -- Constantinople II




A.D. 553


Vigilius, 537 - 555


Justinian I, 527 - 565

5. After the Council of Chalcedon, religious dissent and national political disaffection to- ward the imperial government persisted, especially in Egypt and Syria. Therefore, emperors and their episcopal advisors attempted a series of compromises, hoping to con- ciliate the Monophysites: the imperial edict called the Encyclion (474) of the emperor Basilicus and the Heneticon (482) of the emperor Zeno.

Under the emperor Justinian (527-65) another such compromise, called the Three Chapters, occasioned the holding of the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. In order to remove objections of the Monophysites to the Council of Chalcedon, an imperial edict in 544 condemned (1) the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, (2) certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and (3) a letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris of Seleucia. These writings antedated the Council of Ephesus and were regarded by the Monophysites as containing the Nestorian error.

These writings were indeed somewhat reprehensible, but the Council of Chalcedon had not found it necessary to condemn them explicitly in 451; and a subsequent condemnation would seem to be a repudiation of the authority of Chalcedon. However, the Second Council of Constantinople did condemn them.

The Second Council of Constantinople was undoubtedly illegitimate. It was summoned by the emperor in defiance of the pope. Vigilius did not attend it nor did he ever approve it. (The so-called Second Constitution of Vigilius approving  the condemnation of the three chapters is not authentic.) The synod of Constantinople gained a place on the list of ecumenical councils when Pope Pelagius II gave his approval to its condemnation of the three chapters.  

Sixth Ecumenical Council -- Constantinople III




A.D. 680 - 681


St. Agatho, 678 - 681, and St. Leo II, 682 - 683


Constantine IV, 668 - 685

6, Monothelism (Gr., monom, one, thelema, will) was a further attempt at compromise with the Monophysites. The Monothelites agreed with the doctrine of Chalcedon on the two natures in Christ; but they argued for a one- ness of will and operation. They suppressed unduly the powers of Christ's human nature and insisted that there was but one type of activity, one will and one operation in Christ, namely the humano-divine.

In 634, Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, in a letter to Pope Honorius, suggested that prudence would advise against the use of either term, one will or two wills in Christ. At the same time he skillfully concealed his own favoring of "one will,"

The Monothelite controversy occasioned two imperial edicts, the Ecthesis (638) of the emperor Heraclius, and the Type (648) of the emperor Constans II. Pope Martin I, for his vigorous opposition to the latter, was arrested, brought to Constantinople, condemned as guilty of treason, and exiled to the Crimea, where he died of hardship and privation.

Since the seventh-century Moslem advance had conquered the chief Monophysite regions, the imperial government in Constantinople had less reason for attempting compromises. Thus the emperor Constantine IV (668-85) suggested to Pope Agatho that a council be held to bring the matter to an end.

This, the Third Council of Constantinople, condemned the Monothelite error and definitely asserted the Catholic doctrine of the two wills in Christ. The papal legates at the council presented a dogmatic letter of Pope Agatho which was greeted with applause and the exclamation: "Peter it is who speaks through Agatho." The succeeding pope, Leo II, con- firmed the decrees of the council, including a censure of Pope Honorius, not for heresy but for his negligence.  

Seventh Ecumenical Council -- Nicaea II




A.D. 787


Hadrian I, 772 - 795


Constantine VI, 780 - 797 and Empress Irene (797 - 802)

7. The purpose of the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 was to refute and condemn the Iconoclast policy and procedure of a series of Byzantine emperors. The emperor Leo III was a vigorous ruler, famous for his reorganization of the imperial government. He adopted a policy of opposition to the veneration of sacred images and, in line with his concept of imperial authority as extending also to matters of religion, ordered the removal of images from the churches.

The same program was continued with increased severity by his son, Constantine V. Dissent was punished by imprisonments and sometimes by penalties of torture and death.

This Iconoclast campaign continued for 60 years, until the accession of the empress Irene as regent for her son, Constantine VI. Person- ally opposed to the Iconoclast policy, she invited Pope Adrian I to convoke a council in order to restore right doctrine and practice. This council was held in Nicaea in 787. It condemned the Iconoclast error, justified the right veneration of sacred images, and made plain the distinction between the supreme worship given to God alone and the subordinate worship accorded to the saints.

In 813 a palace revolution introduced a new regime and brought about a second phase of Iconoclast policy, which continued for another 20 years. It was ended by the accession of a second empress-regent, Theodora. By her efforts and those of Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople, the decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea were re-enforced.

Eighth Ecumenical Council -- Constantinople IV

SITE: Constantinople
YEARS: A.D. 869 - 870
POPE: Hadrian II, 867 - 872
EMPEROR: Basil, 867 - 886

8. The Fourth Council of Constantinople had to do with a difficulty between Rome and Constantinople over the position of Photius, patriarch of Constantinople. Photius was one of the most celebrated and learned men in the court of the Byzantine emperor, Michael III. In 857 the saintly Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople, refused Communion to the brother of the empress: he was replaced by Photius. The new patriarch attempted to obtain papal rec08nition. After a delay of three years his appeal was judged by a Roman council, which ordered him to yield to Ignatius under penalty of excommunication. The angry Photius held a synod in 867 in which he excommunicated the pope. The situation changed radically with the accession of a new emperor. Basil the Macedonian deposed Photius and recalled Ignatius. Both Photius and Ignatius sent delegates to Nicholas asking papal legates for a new general council, to be held at Constantinople. Adrian II, successor to Nicholas, held a Roman synod in which he condemned the Photian council of 867, com- paring it to the "Robber Council" of Ephesus. He then dispatched three legates to preside at the new council of Constantinople.

The Fourth Council of Constantinople opened on October 5, 869. The number of bishops present was never very great, varying between 12 and 100. The fathers of the council declared the jurisdictional primacy of the Roman See, condemned the Iconoclasts, and censured the errors of Photius. Photius was present for two of the sessions. On October 29 he was anathematized by the council. However, it appears from modem studies that Photius was later recognized by Pope John VIII. The Fourth Council of Constantinople was never recognized in the East as an ecumenical council, and the entire complicated story is still a subject of historical study.

Ninth Ecumenical Council -- Lateran I

SITE: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome
YEAR: A.D. 1123
POPE: Callistus II, 1119 - 1124
EMPEROR: Henry V, 1106 - 1125

9. Misunderstandings and animosities between East and West, extending over many years in the history of the Church, reached a culmination in the year 1054 with the schism of Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople-the schism which, despite reunion efforts, has persisted to the present day. Therefore all the subsequent ecumenical councils have been held in the West.

Throughout the early medieval period the Church in the West faced a political situation different from that of the ancient Roman Empire and that of the Byzantine regime. Danger to the independence of the Church now arose from the feudal system. Feudal lords sought to control church property and appointments to ecclesiastical offices, especially, to the offices of bishop and abbot. When such I appointments were made politically, unworthy 1 persons became bishops and abbots. As a c result moral disorders appeared throughout the Church and Christian society. ] In the 10th century a reform movement I arose; it reached its height in the reform program of Pope Gregory VII. In the investiture conflict the Church strove to maintain its independence of the secular power in the choice of holders of ecclesiastical offices. The conflict centered especially in the contest between the papacy and the emperors Henry IV and Henry V. Eventually, by the Concordat of Worms in 1122, the Church succeeded in great measure in safeguarding ecclesiastical liberty and freedom of operation. To confirm the Concordat of Worms and to promote reform and regulate the ways of Christian life, Pope Calixtus II convoked the First Lateran Council of 1123. Some 500 bishops assembled at the Lateran in Rome under the presidency of Pope Calixtus. The Concordat of Worms was solemnly ratified and appropriate regulations were decreed to deal with the practical problems of Church discipline and with general social well-being.

Tenth Ecumenical Council -- Lateran II

SITE: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
YEAR: A.D. 1139
POPE: Innocent II, 1130 - 1143
EMPEROR: Conrad III, 1137 - 1152

10. The Second Lateran Council of 1139 was convoked to settle a disputed papal election and to strengthen the unity of the Church. After the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130 two rival factions in Rome, meeting on the same day, chose papal candidates, who took the names Innocent II and Anacletus II. The party of Anacletus prevailed in Rome itself, and Innocent, who had the larger following outside of Italy, took refuge in France. He came to be recognized everywhere except in Rome and southern Italy; and after the death of Anacletus in 1138 his successor soon submitted to Innocent.

To annul the official acts of Anacletus and to discuss other "imminent necessities," the Second Lateran Council was convoked in Rome in 1139, with some five to six hundred bishops present. The council condemned errors concerning infant baptism, the Holy Eucharist, matrimony, and holy orders. We find the first hint of the Inquisition in this council: those who remained obdurate in their heresy were to be given over to the secular arm for punishment. Thirty disciplinary canons were promulgated by the council, though for the most part they repeated the legislation of the I Lateran Council.  

Eleventh Ecumenical Council -- Lateran III

SITE: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
YEAR: A.D. 1179
POPE: Alexander III, 1159 - 1181
EMPEROR: Frederick Barbarossa, 1152 - 1190

11. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 had to deal again with the ever-recurring problem of the relations between the spiritual authority of the Church and the temporal authority of civil rulers. The issue now arose out of the revived study of ancient Roman law with its tradition of imperial absolutism. The emperor Frederick Barbarossa, with an enlarged conception of his authority, sought to extend his sovereignty in northern Italy and threatened the independence of the papal domain. He refused to recognize the election of Pope Alexander III, and for 17 years he supported a series of antipopes. Eventually defeated by the of the Lombard communes at Legnano in 1176, he made peace and recognized Alexander III.

The Third Lateran Council was then convoked to restore order after 25 years of conflict I between pope and emperor. The council made I provision against any future contest over papal I election; the choice of a pope was entrusted to I the cardinal clergy of Rome and a two-thirds majority of the voters was required for a valid election.  

Some 300 bishops assembled under the' presidency of Pope Alexander Ill, himself the t greatest legal expert of the time; the regulations f of the First and Second Lateran Councils were ~ renewed and new ones added in regard to I social problems in ecclesiastical and civil life; 8 measures were taken to secure the cooperation of ecclesiastical and civil authority in a r crusade against those promoting the Albigensian heresy, which threatened the welfare of d society in both Church and state.

The Third Lateran Council marked a victory of the Church over imperial ambition in a contest in which the Church stood for a higher kind of order under the will of God; and therefore it marked also an increase of prestige for the spiritual authority in the years that lay ahead.  

Twelfth Ecumenical Council -- Lateran IV

SITE : The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
YEAR: A.D. 1215
POPE: Innocent III, 1198 - 1216
EMPEROR: Otto IV, 1208 - 1215

12. In the thirteenth century the Church influenced the whole life of medieval society. And the dominant figure at the beginning of that century was Pope Innocent III. The leaders of society, bishops and abbots, kings and feudal lords, looked to him for guidance and support. Yet he faced grave problems: the persistence of imperial ambition, declining enthusiasm for a crusade against the Moslems, controversy in the fields of philosophy and theology, and the growth of the Albigensian menace.

Three years before his death, Innocent III convoked the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the greatest of the medieval councils. It was attended by some 400 bishops, 800 representatives of religious orders, and representatives of civil governments. Pope Innocent presented to the Christian world an extensive examination of its spiritual and temporal condition along with an elaborate and detailed program of further constructive reforms. The council urged a continuation of crusade effort; it issued a profession of faith against the Albigenses and condemned the errors of Joachim of Flora; it prescribed many practices for clergy and laity and dealt with social problems of the time.

The vast legislation of the IV Lateran Council made it the most important council before Trent and did much to adapt the Church of the twelfth century to the needs of the age.

Thirteenth Ecumenical Council -- Lyons I

SITE: Lyons, France
YEAR: 1245
POPE: Innocent IV, 1243 - 1254
EMPEROR: Frederick II, 1215 - 1250

13. The conflict between papacy and empire was resumed shortly after the death of Pope Innocent III, and more bitterly than ever, by the emperor Frederick II, grandson of Frederick Barbarossa. Ambitious, able and crafty, Frederick waged his contest with Popes Honorius III and Gregory IX and was finally overcome by Pope Innocent IV; he was ex- communicated and deposed in the First Council of Lyons in 1245.

Fearing the violence of Frederick, who had invaded the papal state, Pope Innocent IV escaped from Rome and took refuge in France, where he convoked the First Council of Lyons, chiefly to take extreme action there against the imperial enemy. At the council Frederick was judged guilty on several charges: violation of sworn promises, breach of treaties, violence toward bishops and cardinals, invasion of the papal state and suspicion of heresy. Frederick tried for some time to avoid utter defeat but with little success. At length, broken in spirit, he retired to southern Italy and died, of a sudden illness, in 1250.

Fourteenth Ecumenical Council -- Lyons II

SITE: Lyons, France
YEAR: 1274
POPE: Blessed Gregory X, 1271 - 1276
EMPEROR: Rudolph I of Hapsburg, 1273 - 1291

14. In the latter part of the thirteenth century political circumstances raised hope for healing the Eastern Schism, and this was one of the chief reasons for the convocation of the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. The Byzantine emperor, Michael VIII, feared the ambition of Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily and Naples, and his aspirations for a wider realm. Hence Michael VIII approached the papacy with a proposal to end the schism by due profession of faith and by submission to the authority of Rome. The offer was prompted by political motives and did not correspond to the wishes of the Eastern schismatics generally.

Pope Gregory X, hopeful for a reunion, invited a Greek delegation to the Second Council of Lyons of 1274. The Greek delegates were greeted with solemn ceremony; they agreed to all the necessary conditions for re- union; and a letter from the emperor gave assurance of his fidelity. However, in the East the reunion encountered strong opposition from the Greek clergy and people. Michael VIII made efforts to overcome the opposition but without success and with diminishing interest, and the schism was resumed after his death in 1282.

Among the reform measures decreed by the Second Council of Lyons was a further prescription regarding the method of papal election: the cardinal electors were to meet in conclave, that is, under lock and key, with no outside communication until after the election.

Fifteenth Ecumenical Council -- Vienne

SITE: Vienne (South of Lyons), France
YEARS: 1311 - 1312
POPE: Clement V, 1305 - 1314
EMPEROR: Henry VII, 1308 - 1313

15. The chief action of the Council of Vienne of 1311 was the suppression of the Order of Knights Templar. This military and religious order had been founded in the crusade period for the defense of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. In the course of time the Templars acquired large resources of property and power in the European countries. Their power inspired envy and cupidity, especially on the part of the king of France, Philip IV. He deliberately and systematically planned the destruction of the order, complaining to Pope Clement V and charging the Templars with infidelity and immorality.

Clement, residing in France as first of the Avignon Popes, was subject to pressure by the French king. Although there were some reasons for criticism of the Templars, Clement doubted the seriousness of the charges. But Philip IV by bribery and torture magnified the evidence and threatened to take the matter into his own hands despite the immunity of the Templars from the civil courts. Therefore, the pope agreed to an examination of the case under the auspices of the Council of Vienne of 1311. Philip found means to influence the judgment, so that Clement finally rendered sentence, not condemning the Order of Templars but sup- pressing it for the general good.

Among its dogmatic decisions the council decreed that the soul is the form of the body, and that both children and adults receive sanctifying grace and the infused virtues at baptism. The disciplinary decrees of the council are not clearly known to us, since they were published only in a collection of "constitutions" incorporating other decrees.

In an attempt to help the Holy Land, the council levied a tax on ecclesiastical revenues; and Philip the Fair promised to undertake a crusade. The funds were raised but Philip failed to move.

Sixteenth Ecumenical Council -- Constance

SITE: Constance, Germany
YEARS: 1414 - 1418
POPES: Gregory XII, 1406 - 1415; Martin V, 1417 - 1431
EMPEROR: Sigismund of Luxembourg, 1410 - 1437

16. One of the most severe trials, which the Church has endured throughout the centuries, was that of the great schism of the West- not a schism in the strict sense but rather a division of obedience within the Church between rival claimants to the papal office.

Dispute in regard to the validity or the election of Pope Urban VI in 1378 resulted in the formation of the two rival obediences - Rome and Avignon. As the division continued, it appeared to many that solution of the difficulty must be found in the convocation of a general council. The cardinals of bath parties attempted a council at Pisa in 1409, but without the consent of either of the two claimants; and they made matters worse by electing a third papal claimant.

In this impossible situation the emperor Sigismund insisted that there must be another council under papal authority, that is, under the authority of the Pisan claimant, whom he recognized, the antipope John XXIII, who had the largest following at the moment but the weakest claim.

The council met at Constance (1414-18). The antipope, John XXIII, became aware that the council would not accept his claim; and he formally renounced his claim on March I, 1415, on condition that the other claimants would do likewise. When pressure was put on him to guarantee his abdication, he secretly fled from Constance. The council, thus left without a head, nevertheless continued in session at the urging of the emperor and in its own conviction that a general council was the supreme authority in the Church. Accordingly, the council pronounced the deposition of John XXIII.

The Roman claimant, Gregory XII, now sent word offering to abdicate on condition that the council would first agree to be reconvoked in his name. This was done and Gregory XII freely resigned. The Avignon claimant, Benedict XIII, remained obstinate and was deposed by the council, which then proceeded to elect a new pope, Martin V, whose election brought the schism to its end.

Seventeenth Ecumenical Council -- Florence

SITES with YEARS: Basel (Switzerland, near France), 1431 - 1437; Ferrara (Italy, north of Bologna, southwest of Venice), 1438; Florence (Italy, south of Bologna, north of Rome), 1439 - 1445
POPE: Eugene IV, 1431 - 1447
EMPERORS: Albrecht II, 1438 - 1439; Frederick III, 1440 - 1493.

17. The unfortunate experience of the Western Schism and the success of the Council of Constance in bringing it to an end had given strength to the theory that supreme authority in the Church was vested in a general council. On the basis of this theory-false and fraught with danger-the Council of Constance had decreed that in the future councils must be held periodically.

The danger was made clearly evident in the Council of Basel, convoked reluctantly by Pope Eugene IV in 1431. It soon displayed a very distinct hostility toward the pope, and its action showed the futility of conciliary procedure without central authority.

Meanwhile new proposals for the healing of the Eastern Schism had appeared. Constantinople was threatened again, this tin1e by a serious Moslem advance. The Greeks preferred to deal with the papacy rather than with the Council at Basel, and Pope Eugene ordered a transfer of the council to Ferrara. It was later transferred to Florence and its final session was held in Rome.

The Greek delegation to the council of Ferrara-Florence was headed by the Byzantine emperor, John VIII, and included the patriarch of Constantinople, while the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem were represented by proxies. Discussions for re- union went on throughout an entire year on all points of difference between East and West; agreement was reached on all of them and a decree of reunion was solemnly published on July 6, 1439. The Council of Florence also succeeded in bringing back Monophysites in Armenia, Ethiopia and Syria. Nestorians in Cyprus, and Maronites in Syria.

But the reunion with Constantinople was not accomplished despite the solemn assurances at the Council of Florence. For the Greek delegates met with violent opposition from clergy and people on their return home. The Byzantine emperor John VIII remained loyal to the reunion but was not able to publish the ~ decree in Constantinople. His successor, I Constantine XII, was likewise loyal; and, at I the urging of Pope Nicholas I, he did publish the decree in Constantinople in 1451, but the r populace held aloof. Two years later, on May r 29, 1453, the historic city fell into the hands of r the Moslems.

The Councils of Constance and Basel are I regarded as ecumenical only insofar as they received papal approval.

Eighteenth Ecumenical Council -- Lateran V

SITE: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
YEARS: 1512 - 1517 (March). (Luther's theses posted 31 October, 1517)
POPES: Julius II, 1503 - 1513; Leo X, 1513 - 1521
EMPEROR: Maximilian I, 1493 - 1519

18. The abuses throughout the Church and I the misunderstandings which brought on the Protestant revolt in the 16th century and which were corrected by the Council of Trent in I 1545-63 should have been dealt with in a I council long before that date. There were indeed reform movements throughout the 15th century, but they lacked the force and effectiveness that only a general council could furnish.

The tardiness in this regard was due largely to the persistence of the conciliary theory. When Pope Eugene IV ordered the transfer of the Council of Basel to Ferrara, a small minority refused to obey and tried vainly to continue in session in Basel, but before long were obliged to disband. Nevertheless, the theory of conciliar supremacy still showed I itself now and again. In 1511 the king of France, Louis XII, in political opposition to papal policy, tried to convoke a council of cardinals at Pisa. Pope Julius II countered by convoking a Fifth Lateran Council in Rome in 1512.

The Lateran Council of 1512-17, summoned by Julius, continued its work under Pope Leo X. It was largely occupied by negotiations with the French kings, Louis XII and Francis I; but the council also gave serious attention to the need of reform and decreed measures, which, while not enforced in practice, did provide a thorough study of the situation, which served well the purposes of the later Council of Trent.

The disciplinary legislation of the council concerned itself with the nomination of bishops by the pope, religious instruction in the schools, and duties of cardinals. It sanctioned the "Mounts of piety" and regulated the printing of books. The "Mounts of piety" were institutions that lent money out of charity, without interest. In the course of time they began to charge a small fee, a charge that prompted an immediate objection. The council permitted the practice. In another decree the Lateran forbade the printing of books without the permission of the bishop and of the inquisitor.

Nineteenth Ecumenical Council -- Trent

SITE: Trent, Italy.
YEARS: 1545 - 1549
POPES: Paul III, 1534 - 1549 & 1551 - 1552; Julius III, 1550 - 1555; Pius IV, 1559 - 1565
EMPERORS: Charles V, 1519 - 1556 & Ferdinand I, 1556 - 1564

19. The difficulties which Pope Paul III en- countered in his determination to convoke the Council of Trent and the difficulties that confronted tile council itself throughout its course amply explain the delay in decisive action. Difficulties were presented by the attitude of the Protestants, by the recurrent wars between the emperor Charles V and the king of France, Francis I, by the conflicting opinions of Charles V and the popes as to the council's program, and by obstructions on the part of the kings of France and England.

Nevertheless, the Council of Trent did its work well, so well that there was no call for another general council for the subsequent 300 years. Its work was arduous and its course was interrupted twice, so that is was divided into three periods: 1545-47, 1551-52, 1562-63.

First period (1545-47). The papal legates found only three bishops awaiting them when they reached Trent. Attendance grew slowly; and ten months later the pope formally opened the council in the presence of 4 arch- bishops, 21 bishops, and 5 generals of religious orders. It was decided that dogmatic and disciplinary questions would be treated simultaneously. Between January 6, 1546, and March 3, 1547, the council accomplished a great deal. It declared that apostolic tradition was a source of revelation and decreed that the Vulgate was the authentic text of the Bible. It defined the number and essence of the sacraments, as well as the doctrines of original, sin and justification. In matters of discipline it decreed that bishops must reside in their dioceses and it forbade the multiplication of benefices.

Second period (1551-52). In March of 1547 an epidemic broke out and the council was transferred to Bologna. At the emperor's 'insistence, however, it returned to Trent, and was reassembled by Pope Julius III in 1551. Protestant theologians now appeared for the first time; unfortunately, negotiations broke down when they demanded that the council review everything it had already done and declare its supremacy to the pope. On April 2S, 1552, war erupted between the emperor and the elector of Saxony; and the council was suspended.

Third period (1562-63). In 1561 Pius IV ordered the bishops to reassemble at Trent. When the papal legates arrived on April 16, there were so few bishops that little could be done aside from preparing a program. The council finally opened on January IS, 1562. ID September the council wrote its decree on justification, the most important doctrinal decision of the entire council. At this point a crisis arose to threaten the council. The emperor Ferdinand had advanced a plan of reform, which the papal legates thought ill advised. The emperor thereupon summoned a number of bishops to Innsbruck and initiated an independent assembly. Fortunately, the new papal legate, Cardinal Morone, was able to smooth over the incident and the council finally resumed its work in July of 1563. By the end of July it had adopted a vast plan of reform ex- tending into every area of ecclesiastical life. The final session of the council, in December 1563, W~5 devoted to decrees on indulgences, purgatory, and veneration of the saints; it also initiated an extensive reform of religious orders.

Angelo Massarelli who had held the office of secretary through the entire council gathered the signatures to the decrees; 199 archbishops and bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of religious orders, 19 procurators of absent bishops. As subsequent events were to prove, the council of Trent was the most effective instrument of reform in the history of the Church.

However, it could not solve practically in I the political atmosphere of the time the problem of the relation between the Church and the civil governments in the areas that remained Catholic. There would be trouble in the years ahead in this regard. It would remain for the Vatican Council, 300 years later, to pronounce definitively and finally in regard to the universal authority and the infallibility of the Roman pontiff.

Twentieth Ecumenical Council -- Vatican I

SITE: The Vatican (St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City-State, Rome).
YEARS: 1869 - 1870
POPE: Pius IX, 1846 - 1878
EUROPEAN RULERS DURING THE COUNCIL: AUSTRIA: Francis Joseph, 1848 - 1916; ENGLAND: Victoria, 1837 - 1901; FRANCE: Napolean III, 1852 - 1870; SPAIN: Republic, 1868 - 1870; PRUSSIA: German Empire Prussian Kingdom William I, 1861 - 1888; RUSSIA: Alexander II, 1855 - 1881; ITALY: Victor Emmanuel II, 1848 - 1861 (King of Sardinia) 1861 - 1878 (King of Italy); Ulyssyes S. Grant, 1869 -1877 (United States President).

20. The Vatican Council of 1870 was the largest of all the ecumenical councils in the number of bishops who took part and was the first attended by American bishops. Unlike the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Vatican Council did not have to deal with serious heresy or schism, nor with grave moral problems within the Church. Its concern was rather with dangers from without which might produce consequences within the Church and within society in general, dangers presented by the rationalism and the liberalism of the 9th century.

At a public consistory June 26, 1867, Pope Pius IX called upon the bishops of the world to attend the Vatican Council, which was to open on December 8, 1898. He extended the same invitation to the Protestants and the Eastern bishops still separated from Rome; both refused. Breaking a tradition that was centuries old the pope did not invite Catholic heads of state to attend the council. Certain segments of public opinion were violently opposed to the council. International Masonry undertook to assemble an anti-council at Naples to be opened on the same day as that of the Vatican; it was attended by Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Hugo.

In the months that preceded the council it was rumored that papal infallibility would stand high on the list of subjects for discussion. The reaction was immediate and spirited. One group of bishops enthusiastically supported a definition of infallibility; this group was led by Dechamps, archbishop of Malines, and included Manning of England, Martin of Germany, and Spalding of the United States. Another group of bishops feared that such a definition would be inopportune, rendering even more difficult the conversion of Protest- ants and Eastern Schismatics. This group numbered among its members: Bishops Mathieu and Dupanloup of France, Hefele of Germany, Kenrick of the United States.

The council opened on schedule December 8, 1869. Pope Pius IX presided over an assembly of 774 bishops, 49 cardinals, 10 patriarchs, and 127 archbishops. Papal infallibility was not on the agenda of the council when it opened. The controversies of the previous year had so highlighted it, however, that more than 400 bishops requested that it be added to the schemata; 135 bishops signed a counter-proposal, among them eight American bishops led by Archbishop Kenrick of St. (Louis. Their opposition was focused in the main on the inopportuneness or the definition, not its dogmatic foundation.

In its third session the council's decisions on faith were accepted and promulgated by Pius IX in his constitution Dei Filius. The errors of pantheism, rationalism and materialism were contrasted with the truth of the Catholic teaching on the existence of God, the possibility of revelation, and the necessity of faith.

On May 13, 1870, the general discussion opened on a formula that would accurately express the notion of papal infallibility. The original formula underwent numerous modifications. On July 13 it received 451 affirmative votes, 88 negative, and 62 conditionally affirmative votes. The formula was again revised; and the revision dealt a deathblow to the theory that papal authority was in any way dependent on the rest of the Church. At this point 55 bishops left Rome. Out of respect for the pope they preferred to abstain rather than cast a negative vote.

Of the 535 bishops present, 533 voted on July 18 to accept the formula; and two voted to reject it: Bishop Riccio of Cajazzo and Bishop Fitzgerald of Little Rock. When the decree was promulgated by Pius IX, the two bishops immediately made their submission.

The council was forced to leave much of its work undone. War was declared between France and Germany on July 19, 1870; on October 20, 1870, Pius IX issued a decree suspending the council indefinitely.

Twenty-first Ecumenical Council -- Vatican II

SITE: The Vatican (St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City-State, Rome).
YEARS: 1962 - 1965
POPES: John XXIII, 1958 - 1963 Paul VI, 1963 - 1978

21. The Council was opened by Pope John on Oct. II, 1962, and was continued by his successor Pope Paul VI; it closed on Dec. 8, 1965. Over 2300 patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops took part in the Council.

The first important result of the Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Dec. 4, 1963), providing for numerous changes in rites and rubrics, mainly to secure more active and intelligent participation of the faithful. Notable among the changes were a liberal permission for the use of the vernacular, restoration of the homily, omission of Psalm 42 from the prayers at the foot of the altar, and omission of the Last Gospel.

Highpoints of the Council's subsequent activity were a clarification of the doctrine of collegiality, affirmation of the Church's desire for Christian unity, and an invitation to other Christians to join in discussion with a view to promoting understanding. Beside the Constitution on the Liturgy, the conciliar documents included the following: Constitutions: the Nature of the Church, Divine Revelation, the Church and the Modem World; Decrees; Social Communications, Ecumenism, Eastern Catholic Churches, Pastoral Duties of Bishops, Renewal of the Life of Religious, Seminaries, the Lay Apostolate, Missionary Activity of the Church, the Priestly Life and Ministry; Declarations; the Church and Its Attitude toward non-Christian Religions, Christian Education, Religious Freedom.



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