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Papal Authority at the Earliest Councils

Consider to what extent the history of the earliest ecumenical councils harmonizes with either of these two theses:

First, from Vatican II:

“There never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor. And it is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke such councils, to preside over them, and to confirm them.”[Lumen Gentium, 22.]

Next, from a prominent non-Catholic historian:

“The Papacy had laid claim sporadically to the primacy of Christendom in earlier centuries [than the fifth], but these claims had either been denied or ignored by those to whom they had been addressed. . . . In the East [the popes] were confronted by a theory of Church government which had a place for episcopal authority, but none for Roman Primacy.”[W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 233, 235.]

These theses may be taken as fairly typical statements of Catholic belief, on the one hand, and, on the other, the viewpoint of many who are skeptical of the traditional Catholic interpretation of history.

In the records of the great councils of the fifth century, we can see the bishops of Rome coming to assume explicitly the dominant position which their successors have continued to exercise ever since in those councils termed “ecumenical.” That Roman primacy of jurisdiction was widely accepted in the East at this time is clear from the negotiations before and during the Council of Ephesus (431).

Cyril of Alexandria appeals to Celestine of Rome to deal with Nestorius in Constantinople, and Celestine replies, delegating Cyril to excommunicate Nestorius if he fails to recant. Celestine equates his own judgment with “the divine sentence of Christ,” stating he has written in similar terms to four other major bishops. [J. Stevenson, ed., Creeds, Councils and Controversies (London: SPCK, 1978), 279-80.] At the Council of Ephesus Cyril presides in the place of Celestine,[Mansi, Apl. Collectio, 4:1123. Here we find that, unlike the other bishops, whose names and sees are merely mentioned, Celestine is described—at the head of the list—as “the most holy and most sacred Archbishop of the Roman Church.”] and that the whole Council accepts as worthy of confirmation by all the words of the Roman legate Philip, who presented for conciliar approval (not debate) Celestine’s prior condemnation of Nestorius: “It is doubted by no one, but in fact has been known to all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter . . . received from our Lord Jesus Christ . . . the keys of the kingdom and that power was granted to him of binding and loosing sins, who, up till this time and always, lives in his successors and exercises judgment.” [Mansi, 4:1294; emphasis added.]

Twenty years later we find Pope Leo the Great speaking in a similarly authoritative style to the Council of Chalcedon. Although a rump of 150 bishops out of the original 600 [L. Rivington, The Primitive Church and the See of Peter (London: Longman, Green, 1894), 447.] passed the contentious canon 28, which mentioned only the political basis of the Roman primacy, [Stevenson, Creeds, 333.] the letter of the Eastern bishops to Leo, pleading for his acceptance and ratification of the canon, is eloquent testimony to the position of headship which they according him, however much they subsequently may have treated his annulment of the canon as a dead letter.[Ibid., 339-44.]

A papal primacy of jurisdiction, then, was without doubt accepted by the middle of the fifth century, although, then as now, there was resistance to particular acts of Roman authority on the part of various bishops. But was this also the case with the two great ecumenical councils of the prior century, or was there (as W. H. C. Frend maintains) an ancient Eastern tradition which had no place for papal primacy?

Owing to the scarcity of ancient documents on some of these matters, the historian cannot always claim to prove the validity of the Church’s position from written sources alone, but I argue that a Catholic understanding of the relationship between the popes and the first councils is quite consistent with the available documentary evidence.

There is no doubt that the first ecumenical council was convoked by the Emperor Constantine. Did Bishop Sylvester of Rome have anything to do with it? Ortiz de Urbina does not quite do justice to the evidence when he asserts that “Nicaea . . . was not convoked on the initiative of the Church.” [I. Ortiz de Urbina, Hoistoire des Conciles Oecumeniques (Paris, 1963), I:29.]

The original documentation of the Council has vanished, but Ortiz omits to tell us that, according to the historian Rufinus, who died about 410, Constantine made his decision “on the advice of the clergy” [Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., 1:218.]—a perfectly plausible assertion. We simply cannot prove either way from written sources whether Rome was consulted, but it seems likely that Constantine’s trusted associate Ossius of Cordoba, who subsequently presided at the Council, was involved in its preparation.

The Anglican bishop J. W. C. Wand declared that the Roman legates “certainly” did not preside at Nicaea. [J. W. C. Wand, A History of the Early Church (London: Methuen, 1963), 156.] But it is probable that Ossius himself was in effect a Roman legate of sorts and did not preside solely in his capacity as the Emperor’s favorite.

The Eastern priest-historian Gelasius of Cyzicus, who had no Roman ax to grind, affirms that Ossius “held the place of Sylvester of Rome, together with the Roman presbyters Vito and Vincentius.” [Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 85:1229; Gelasius wrote around 475 and claimed to base his history on the Council’s original acts, which are now lost.]

That Rome was acknowledged as the first of all sees is shown by the fact that the signatures of its undisputed legates, Vito and Vincentius, come immediately after that of Ossius. It is likely that Ossius, being a Western prelate and the foremost champion of anti-Arianism, was accepted by Sylvester as an ad hoc representative and presided by mutual agreement with Constantine.

With regard to the attitude of the papacy after Nicaea there is no dispute: Rome enthusiastically endorsed the Trinitarian profession of faith and the disciplinary canons of the Council and continued to insist on their observance.

What of the attitude of the Council fathers toward Rome? Canon 6 accords to Alexandria a metropolitan authority over Egypt, Libya, and Persepolis, and the reason given for this is that “this is also customary to the bishop of Rome.”[J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1965), 360.] These words are perhaps somewhat obscure in their precise implications, but they do show that in some way Roman custom was regarded as normative for the wider Church, including the East.

Furthermore, the canon is concerned with the normal mode of Church government in the “patriarchal” areas of Alexandria and Antioch, and if the right of Rome to act as arbiter in extraordinary cases (involving accusations of heresy and the like) was not disputed at the time, there is no reason why it should have been mentioned in this context.

The Roman synod of 485 states that the Nicene fathers “referred the confirmation of things and the authority to the holy Roman Church,” [Rivington, 164.] although there is no original documentary evidence of this. Constantine seems to have promulgated the creed and canons without seeking Roman confirmation, but, quite apart from the fact that the Emperor’s attitude cannot necessarily be taken as a yardstick of accepted Christian orthodoxy at that time, his action proves very little, given the absence of the Council’s acts.

If the Roman legates had made it clear on the Council floor that the end product was in accord with their mandate from Bishop Sylvester, Constantine may well have taken the attitude that there was no need for further confirmation. Indeed, shortly after Nicaea we find Bishop Julius of Rome appealing to a “canon of the Church,” as well as to “custom,” against a synod of bishops that ignored the authority of Rome. [Stevenson, Creeds, 8.] Which “canon” he had in mind is not clear, but it seems most improbable that Sylvester, only a few years before, would have taken a contrary view to that of Julius and felt content for the Nicene Council to make final decisions without in some way gaining his approval.

With the First Council of Constantinople (381) we are dealing with another case in which there are not extant acts. This council also was convoked by an emperor, Theodosius I. [Ibid.] The language of his decree suggests he regarded the Roman see as a yardstick of Christian orthodoxy. He commands all his subjects to practice the religion which Peter the apostle transmitted to the Romans. In calling the Council, Theodosius did not envisage the assembled bishops debating Roman doctrine as though it were an open question.

The fact that Meletius of Antioch presided at Constantinople I, and the absence of any Roman legates, might appear to be evidence against the Roman primacy. It must be remembered that the Council was not originally intended to be ecumenical in the same sense as Nicaea.

It included, after all, only 150 bishops from Thrace, Asia Minor, and Egypt and was convoked to deal with certain Eastern problems.[New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Constantinople, First Council of.”] In fact, it was not recognized as ecumenical by the Council of Ephesus half a century later, and it was left to Pope Gregory the Great to elevate it to that status. [Rivington, 256-68.]

The most controversial statement of the Council is the third canon, which states, “The bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honor after the bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome.” [Stevenson, Creeds, 148.]

When this later was cited and confirmed by a rump meeting of the Chalcedonian fathers, Leo the Great took exception because it ignored the “principle of apostolicity” and overstressed the “principle of accommodation” (of the Church’s political geography to that of the Empire).[Francis Dvornik, Byzantium and the Roman Primacy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1966), 44-45.]

This relatively local character of the Council is relevant also to its second canon, which forbids bishops to intervene in the affairs of churches in other civil dioceses.[Stevenson, Creeds, 147-48.] According to the German historian W. Ullman, this indicates an “inferior position now accorded to the Roman Church.” [W. Ullman, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1974), 6.]

But it seems that the canon had only Eastern bishoprics in mind, since it spells out the five major regions of the Eastern Empire and does not even mention Rome or any Western diocese. If this canon had been understood to imply that Rome had no jurisdiction over the East, why was it not cited fifty years later, in protest against Pope Celestine’s hard-hitting interventions against Nestorius?

Ullman also emphasizes that, in sanctioning the decrees of the Council in July 381, Theodosius “did not even mention Rome.”[Ibid., 9.] We are asked to accept that “the government made crystal clear that Rome and its church were to be relegated to an inferior place. Rome was to sink to a historical site.” [Ibid., 10.]

This is quite astonishing. In promulgating a canon which expressly acknowledges Rome’s primacy over Constantinople, Theodosius is supposed to be relegating Rome to an “inferior place,” even when his own law of the previous year, making the faith of Rome mandatory for the whole Eastern Empire, remained fully in force!

If, as seems likely, the disciplinary canons were seen as a domestic Eastern affair not requiring Rome’s assent, there is no compelling reason why Theodosius should have mentioned Rome in the post conciliar edict, since the dogmatic teaching of the Council was already known by all to enjoy Roman approval.

After the Council the West expressed dissatisfaction at the Council’s election of Nectarius and Flavian to the sees of Constantinople and Antioch, and Pope Damasus proposed a general synod at Rome to settle matters. The reply of those bishops who remained at Constantinople is informative: They claim they had wished to “flee away to Rome to be at rest with you,” but plead that for practical reasons this has been impossible, so now they propose to send three representatives to Rome instead, in order to “show our own peaceful determination and how we aim at unity.” [Rivington, 270-71.]

Is there a touch of hypocrisy here? Even if there is, it is significant that the bishops do not question the right of Damasus to summon Eastern bishops to Rome in this manner. Flattery and hypocrisy, after all, are precisely those diplomatic devices used in dealing with persons who are acknowledged to enjoy superior authority.

Finally, it is worth noting that, in the Roman synod of 382, Damasus, while not explicitly mentioning the contentious third canon (which never was submitted officially to him), may well have had it in mind: He emphasized that Rome’s claim to primacy was grounded on the succession from Peter, and he was the first pope known to call Rome consistently “the apostolic see.” [New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Damasus I.”]

At first sight it may seem that the imperial initiative in convoking the early councils is inconsistent with Vatican II’s declaration that it is “the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke such councils.” But the wording of Lumen Gentium is cautious. It cites only the Code of Canon Law Canon 227, 1917 Code. in support of this assertion, as if to suggest that this is a matter of positive ecclesiastical law rather than something absolutely essential.

The minimal criterion for a council to be considered ecumenical is specified in the previous sentence: The council must be “confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor.” These words were probably written with Constantinople I in mind, since it was not accorded the status of an ecumenical council until a much later date, after papal approval.

It may be true, as Ortiz claims, that the precedent set by Constantine in convoking a general council was “objectively . . . an abuse of power on the part of the Emperor,”[Ortiz, 29.] but it is understandable that after centuries of frequently oppressive pagan rule the Church would not have been anxious to look a gift Emperor in the mouth, so to speak.[It was natural for Constantine and his subjects to think of him as Pontifex Maximus, “the symbol of the spiritual genius and deified corporateness of Rome,” as E. G. Weltin said in The Ancient Popes (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1964), 171.] The Hebrew background of Christianity was, of course, well-attuned to theocratic ideas, and Paul himself had taught (Rom. 12) that civil power derives its authority from God.

Frend’s claim that the Eastern tradition excluded Roman primacy at this stage of history and that the “sporadic” papal claims to universal jurisdiction were “denied or ignored by those to whom they were addressed” is at best an argument from silence and does not seem well-supported by the available evidence.

No doubt some Easterners (and Westerners, for that matter) rejected claims of Roman primacy—particularly Arians, Semi-Arians, and others who dissented from the Roman faith. On the other hand, it seems plausible to maintain that the primacy of honor unquestionably accorded Rome at Nicaea was accompanied by an awareness among the Council fathers that they could not make decisions binding on the whole Church without the agreement of the See of Rome. [This is a principle of which the Vatican I definitions of 1870 are a valid development.]

I say “plausible” because, although we do not have access to the proceedings of either Nicaea or Constantinople I, we do have other evidence, the most important being summarized as follows:

  1. Later tradition, including Eastern tradition, accorded to Sylvester of Rome a leading, though indirect, role at Nicaea, and the Council’s sixth canon suggests that Roman “custom” is normative for the whole Church.
  2. Theodosius’s decree of 380 views the Petrine faith of Rome as similarly normative, and we find no widespread objection to this from Eastern bishops of the time.
  3. The admittedly small part played by the papacy at Constantinople I can be explained by the fact that it was not at the time seen as a convocation representing the entire Church.
  4. At the first two ecumenical councils of which we have ample documentation—Ephesus and Chalcedon—we find a real authority being exerted by Rome and being accepted by most of the Eastern bishops.

In view of the conservatism of all Christian groups at this time—that is, the vehement claims of all parties to be resisting innovation—the burden of proof would seem to lie with the historian who wishes to maintain that the idea of papal jurisdiction over the whole Church, recognized so widely by fifth-century conciliar fathers, was a novelty which would have been repudiated by their predecessors at Nicaea and Constantinople. Such a historian, I think, would find it difficult to discharge this burden of proof.

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