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The Authority of Ecumenical Councils

Councils are typically convened to address some pressing issue in the life of the Church. But what gives them their authority?

For nearly four years in the early 1960s, the internal affairs of the Catholic Church were front-page news. This was not due to any salacious rumors or terrible sins of priests and prelates. On the contrary, the attention was due to a monumental event, unique to the Catholic Church, and a rare event in history. Whether it was the pomp and ceremony or some profound sense of historical significance, the whole world seemed aware that something remarkable was happening at the Second Vatican Council. 

This was the twenty-first ecumenical council in the Church’s history. The ecumenical council is an extraordinary exercise of the Magisterium, it is a historically rare event, and these days it is a logistical nightmare. Thousands of bishops, priests, theologians, counselors, assistants, media, and more gather from all over the world. Matters of the utmost importance are discussed and debated. 

The history of the ecumenical councils is like a history of the Church in miniature. In most cases, councils are convened in order to address some pressing need in the life of the Church, usually some prominent heretical teaching but sometimes a disciplinary or pastoral issue. Councils have been convened to address misunderstandings in the nature of Jesus Christ and the Trinity; to defend and explain the use of icons and other sacred images as aids in prayer; to resolve schisms and the problem of rival claimants to the papacy; to defend the Church’s prerogative in naming and investing bishops, contra secular rulers; to respond to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation; to bring the Church’s message into the modern age; and many other reasons. 

But what is an ecumenical council, anyway? Why do the pope and the bishops have any authority to address these issues in the life of the Church? And is this authority recognized historically by other Christians? 

What is a council? 

There are many ways one can describe or define a Church council, but the Catholic Encyclopedia defines councils as “legally convened assemblies of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts for the purpose of discussing and regulating matters of church doctrine and discipline.” 

There are many gatherings in the life of the Church that take (or have taken) the moniker council. In the parish context, we hear of “parish councils,” “finance councils,” and the like; a diocese might have a “presbyteral council”; but typically when we speak of Church councils, we are speaking of ecumenical councils. This is the context most directly described by the Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition. 

The term ecumenical is derived from a Greek term, oikoumene, that refers to the whole world. When used in the context of Church affairs, ecumenical refers to matters that pertain to the universal Church. This is a term we hear fairly often, whether it is describing ecumenical dialogue or efforts toward ecumenism. When describing a council, it means that bishops from all over the world are involved, teaching in union with the pope, addressing matters that will affect the entire universal Church. 

The 1983 Code of Canon Law details official Church law regarding ecumenical councils, which helps give a more complete understanding. Among other things, even in the context of an ecumenical council the pope retains his primacy. This point was hashed out over centuries in a debate as to where ultimate authority in ecclesiastical matters lies.  

A group known as the conciliarists believed that councils were the ultimate authority, even above the pope. But ultimately the Church clarified that a council is not a higher authority than the successor of Peter. (Canon law applies penalties to those who appeal to a council or the whole college of bishops against the pope.) 

So an ecumenical council is a gathering of the bishops of the world, together with the pope, to discuss and address matters of importance to the whole universal Church. But there is another criterion that must be met: a council is not ecumenical unless and until it is ratified as such by the Holy Father. Most of the twenty-one (so far) ecumenical councils have been explicitly ecumenical from the outset, convened as such. However, the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) was initially a synod of the East, with bishops from the eastern Roman Empire. After the fact, however, the pope ratified its decrees for the universal Church, which made it an ecumenical council. 

 As of right now, the Church recognizes twenty-one ecumenical councils: 

  1. First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)
  2. First Council of Constantinople (381)
  3. Council of Ephesus (431)
  4. Council of Chalcedon (451)
  5. Second Council of Constantinople (553)
  6. Third Council of Constantinople (680-681)
  7. Second Council of Nicaea (787)
  8. Fourth Council of Constantinople (869)
  9. First Council of the Lateran (1123)
  10. Second Council of the Lateran (1139)
  11. Third Council of the Lateran (1179)
  12. Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215)
  13. First Council of Lyons (1245)
  14. Second Council of Lyons (1274)
  15. Council of Vienne (1311-1313)
  16. Council of Constance (1414-1418)
  17. Council of Basle/Ferrara/Florence (1431-1449)
  18. Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512-1517)
  19. Council of Trent (1545-1563)
  20. First Vatican Council (1868-1870)
  21. Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

Where does authority come from? 

The question naturally arises: what gives the bishops and the pope the authority to teach in this way? Why should we care what they say when they gather like this? 

The teaching of an ecumenical council is protected from error by the Holy Spirit through the charism of infallibility that is enjoyed by all the bishops teaching in union with the pope. Even in disciplinary matters, which are changeable and are thus not protected by infallibility, the bishops teaching with the pope have supreme authority and teach authoritatively. 

The Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” articulates this point clearly: 

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith” (Lumen Gentium 25).

St. Athanasius said that the Council of Nicaea was particularly sacred because of the fact that bishops came from all over the world to participate. This representation of the universal character of the Church does help give a sense of weightiness and authority to the proceedings, but this is not where the council’s authority comes from. Over the centuries, some councils were attended by a hundred or so bishops from a very small area, and others were attended by thousands of bishops from every inhabited continent of the world. 

In the Gospels, we see Jesus giving the apostles the authority (and even a mandate) to teach:  

These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 10:5-7).

More than just this commissioning, Jesus gives his own teaching authority to the apostles: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). The apostles are the mouthpiece of the Lord, as it were, and given the authority to speak in his name. As a result, because of this authority the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). 

We also see this authority being handed on beyond the Twelve, to Paul and others. “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (1 Cor. 12:28; cf. Eph. 4:11). This passage from St. Paul is reminiscent of the prophet Malachi: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).  

Furthermore, Paul tells Timothy that a bishop should be an “apt teacher” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2) and to “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). 

Authority handed down

We have established that the apostles were granted the authority to call councils. We also know that the office of apostle no longer exists; but the apostles named their successors and handed on this authority and mandate to them. Quoting Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:  

In order that the full and living gospel might always be preserved in the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time (CCC 77).

Vatican II elaborates on the role the Magisterium plays:  

Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that is proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit if faith (Dei Verbum 10).

Jesus Christ gave authority to his apostles to teach in His name, and this authority was passed on to their successors, the bishops, in a particular way when they teach together in union with the Successor of Peter, the Pope. They are tasked with guarding the deposit of faith, and with defining and defending the Truths revealed to us through Sacred Tradition. 

Do Protestants and Orthodox accept council authority? 

There is near-universal acceptance among Christians of the first four ecumenical councils, and many accept the first seven. (The Assyrian Church of the East only accepts the first two, Nicaea and Constantinople, but they are outliers in this regard.) The reasoning for this varies from church to church, denomination to denomination. But we can identify the broad reasons for why Protestants and Orthodox do not accept the authority of all twenty-one ecumenical councils. 

Most Protestants and Orthodox accept and believe what the earliest ecumenical councils taught, but the authority of these councils is not derived from the episcopal office held by the council fathers or by their teaching together in union with the pope. The historical baggage to unpack here is beyond the scope of this piece. (For more information, see my book Church Councils: 100 Questions and Answers from Ignatius Press). 

It boils down to where authority lies. For Protestants, Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith, so a council of bishops does not have the authority to solemnly define anything. For Protestants, the authority of the early Church councils comes from the fact that these councils teach an authentic biblical theology.  

The question of authority is one of the most fundamental points of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. As has been explored countless times in the page of this magazine, the principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is self-defeating, and even the canon of Scripture itself was identified and defined by the magisterium of the Church via Sacred Tradition. 

For the Orthodox, the historical question of the role and authority of the pope has been one of profound controversy. The Orthodox churches hold the view that the Catholic Church took a unilateral approach following the seventh ecumenical council (the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787), without a proper appreciation of the role the Eastern patriarchs should have played. They view the subsequent councils as essentially “councils of the West.”  

We should note, however, that there were attempts at reunion between East and West (following the Fourth Lateran Council [1215] and the Council of Basle/Ferrara/Florence [1431-1449]), and the Orthodox bishops were also invited to the First and Second Vatican Councils, but only as observers, not as council fathers—in other words, they would have been eligible to participate in discussions but not vote. 

‘All the bishops of the world’? 

Part of our definition of an ecumenical council is that “all the bishops of the world” are teaching in union with the pope. Catholics believe that the Orthodox have valid apostolic succession, and thus valid sacraments and orders, which means that their bishops are valid bishops. Similarly, there are bishops who may have been validly (but illicitly) ordained who are not in union with the pope, as well as those who simply are ill or otherwise indisposed and cannot attend a council.  

Doesn’t this mean that our criterion has not been met? Not all the bishops of the world are participating, after all. 

On the contrary: “all the bishops of the world” refers to those bishops who are in union with the pope, and for sufficient reason (like illness or incapacity) they can, of course, be excused from participating in person. The point to remember is that the teaching authority of the bishops flows from their being appointed by the pope, and being in union with him. So a bishop who is not in communion is not even eligible to participate in a council in this way, and certainly is not obligated to. 

A tremendous responsibility 

As we have seen, the bishops (together with the pope) have a tremendous responsibility to their flock. The people of the Church need to be shepherded, need to be instructed in the faith; if one leads one of these astray, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck (see Matt. 18:6).  

The protection of infallibility that the bishops and pope enjoy in this context is not some sort of reward for holiness. On the contrary, it is a recognition of the need for protection; we are fallen, and the bishops are just as fallen as the rest of us. We make mistakes, and we sometimes even have nefarious intentions. But the Church is protected from doctrinal error because Christ in his wisdom and mercy left us the paraclete, the Holy Spirit (see John 14:15-31). 

Will we ever see a Vatican III? A Lateran VI? A Constantinople IV? We have every reason to think that future popes will convene other ecumenical councils, perhaps even in our lifetimes. And in that event, we can trust that the council fathers will be exercising their teaching authority granted to them by Christ as the successors of the apostles. 

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