The Chief Ecumenical Councils of the Church
- Councils in general
- A council, in the broadest sense, is a meeting
of Church officials (mostly Bishops) to deal with
various matters for the good of the Church.
- A general or ecumenical council is a meeting of
bishops from the whole world (not every single bishop in the world,
but some bishops from every region), under the leadership of the Pope, to
- condemn heresy,
- define the Church's teaching more precisely, and
- reform Church practices.
Not every ecumenical council does all three things.
(The term 'ecumenical' comes from the Greek word
'oikoumene', 'the whole inhabited world'.)
- Other councils are particular or regional; they
can be for a diocese, a province (several contiguous
dioceses headed by an archbishop), or a nation.
- Catholics believe that the doctrinal decisions of an ecumenical
council are infallible. This is based on the idea that the bishops
are successors of the apostles, to whom Christ promised the Holy
Spirit to 'lead them into all truth'; so when all the bishops work
together to determine the truth in matters handed down from the
apostles, the Holy Spirit helps them to not say anything that would
contradict the teaching that Christ committed to the apostles.
- Regional councils are not necessarily infallible. Their
disciplinary decrees have authority for the Catholics of the dioceses
represented. The doctrinal decisions of some regional councils have
been later ratified by a general council or pope. A few regional
councils have issued doctrinal decisions later declared to be wrong by
a general council or a pope.
The first known regional council was the Council of Jerusalem in 52
A.D. (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15). Its decrees were both
doctrinal (circumcision is not necessary for salvation) and
disciplinary (Christians should not eat meat that had been sacrificed
to an idol).
- There have been only 21 ecumenical councils in the period from 325
to 1965; about one every eighty years on average, but some were only
20 years apart and some 250 or 300 years apart. There have been
hundreds of regional councils.
- The Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.)
- The Arian Heresy
- Arius, a Libyan priest at a parish church of Alexandria
(in Egypt), taught that Christ was not God, but only the
first and greatest of created beings. He started teaching
this publicly about 319 A.D.
- This teaching spread in Alexandria and neighboring regions for several years.
- End of persecution
- Several of the Roman emperors, during about 250 years, had made laws persecuting Christians
- Constantine, son and heir of one of the four tetrarchs or
co-emperors, born about 274 A.D.; his mother St. Helena was a
Christian, and he was friendly to Christians though he was not not
baptized until late in life.
- Co-emperors Constantine and Licinius's edict of toleration, 313
A.D. (This just repealed earlier laws that outlawed Christian
worship; the Empire was not officially Christian until much later.)
- Constantine conquers
Licinius and becomes sole emperor, 324 A.D.
- Constantine requested the bishops to meet at Nicaea (a town near
Byzantium/Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman empire, in
what's now Turkey)
Most of the bishops of the eastern Empire came, and many from the
west. Pope Sylvester I was sick, but he sent delegates to represent him.
There were about 318 bishops present.
- The bishops condemned Arius's teaching as contrary to the teaching
of the Church, and drew up a Creed or profession of faith asserting
the true doctrine about the nature of God. The 'Nicene Creed' we
recite during the Mass is the creed of the Council of Nicaea,
with some additions made by the First Council of Constantinople.
The precise phrasing of the Creed, 'begotten, not made, one in being
with the Father' - or, 'of the same substance as the Father' -
was intended to exclude Arius' false teaching that Christ is not God.
- The bishops also decided a controversy about determining the date of
Easter, and issued some disciplinary instructions ('canons') on
ordination, reception of heretics back into the Church, pardon of
those who had denied Christ during the recent persecutions, and so
- After the Council, Arianism persisted for
about 300 years, gradually dying out. Several Emperors and
most of the Army officers were Arian.
- The Arians tried to
accept the Nicene creed but put their own interpretation on it. Later
councils were necessary to explicitly exclude these forms of
'semi-Arianism'. But the decrees of the Council of Nicaea
laid a groundwork for demonstrating the falsehood of later heresies.
- The Council of Trent (1545-1563)
- Need for reform
- Disappointing results of Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517)
- Martin Luther's appeal to a general council
- Pope Paul III calls a council (1537); various delays, disputes
between Germans and Italians about venue; finally starts at Trent
(on the border of Italy and Germany)
in December 1545
- Both disciplinary and doctrinal decrees were issued
- The canon of Scripture (previously defined at regional councils of
Hippo (393) and Carthage(397)); Lutherans and Calvinists had denied the
inspiration of some books of both Testaments
- Relation of Scripture and Tradition, and how they are interpreted
- Original Sin and Justification
- On the sacraments, especially Baptism and Confirmation
- Disputes about change of venue (because of pressure from
Emperor Charles V, and epidemic in Trent), 1547-49
- Temporarily adjourned in 1549; death of Paul III
- Election of Julius III; council meets again in 1551-52.
Several decrees on the Eucharist, especially re:
the Real Presence of Christ and transubstantiation
- Adjourned again because of civil war in the Empire
- death of Julius III; election and death of Marcellus II (1555)
- Paul IV (1555-59) was unable to reconvene the council because of
the situation in Germany.
- Pius IV (1559-65) re-convoked the
council, which met again in January 1562.
In these sessions the bishops issued further doctrinal decrees
about the nature of the Eucharist, and the Church's power to make
arrangements about the celebration of the Mass (e.g., communion under
both kinds, or only under the form of bread; whether & at what age
small children can receive communion, etc.). They discussed whether
to allow the Mass to be celebrated in local dialects and decided
against it. There were also both doctrinal and disciplinary decrees
about the sacraments of Orders and Matrimony.
- They asserted the distinct orders of bishop, priest, and deacon,
as against the Calvinists.
- Consent of the parents is not necessary for marriage to be valid.
- Secrecy does not in theory make a marriage invalid, however,
there had been many problems due to secret marriages, and the
Council ordered that Catholics should be married before a
parish priest and two witnesses to have their marriage
recognized by the Church.
Protestants were invited to these sessions, but most refused to come
and no common ground for discussion could be found with the few who came.
- In the last sessions of 1563 there were decrees on Purgatory,
honoring the relics of Saints, and on Indulgences; also the decrees of
earlier sessions were re-affirmed.
- Besides the doctrinal decrees mentioned above, the Council of
Trent also issued reforming disciplinary decrees, especially on the
duties of bishops and priests, provided for the creation of new
seminaries, and ordered that new editions of missal and breviary (prayer book) be prepared.
- Pius IV confirmed the decrees of the council (January 1564) and
started to implement them, e.g. he established a new seminary in Rome.
The work of reform was continued by St. Pius V.
A profession of faith and catechism were drawn up based on the decrees
of the council - not to replace the Nicene Creed (which is still said
in the Mass today), but for use in receiving converts from Protestant
- The First Vatican Council (1870)
- It was generally agreed that the Pope, as successor of St. Peter
in the bishopric of Rome, has jurisdiction over the whole church and
special teaching authority, but there were various opinions about
whether and under what conditions the Pope's teaching is infallible.
Some people wanted the Church to define its teaching on this more
clearly. Others, though mostly thinking the Pope was infallible, did
not think it would be a good idea to define this formally because it
might push away potential Protestant converts, make relations between
the Church and various governments more difficult, and cause other
- Pope Pius IX announced his intention to call a general council in
December 1864. During the next several years he worked with various
bishops to prepare the list of topics to be discussed.
- Pius convoked the bishops to meet at the Vatican in 1869.
They met briefly in December but did not start official business until
- The Council began with a profession of faith, containing the
entire text of the Nicene Creed, and also summarizing much of the
Church's teaching as defined by earlier Councils (especially Trent) in
- In April the bishops published a Dogmatic Constitution on the
Catholic Faith, notable mainly because it defined clearly the Church's
teaching on the inspiration of Scripture:
These books the church holds to be sacred and canonical not because
she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been
composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain
revelation without error, but because, being written under the
inspiration of the holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and
were as such committed to the church.
- In July the bishops published the First Dogmatic Constitution on
the Church of Christ, which summarized and defined more precisely the
Church's teaching on the Pope's authority, and the conditions under
which his teaching is infallible because of the Holy Spirit's special
...when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in
the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,
in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine
concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he
possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter,
that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to
enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.
- The bishops had intended to meet longer and discuss the sacrament
of Marriage and various disciplinary matters, but the outbreak of the
Franco-Prussian War caused many of the bishops to go home early, and
the council was interrupted for a few months.
- Some of the bishops met again in September 1870, but the
occupation of Rome during the civil war in Italy forced them to
disperse without finishing any more business.
- After the council, a group of German Catholics led by Ignaz
Döllinger broke off as a schismatic church, not accepting the
decree on papal infallibility. They became known as the Old Catholics.
- The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)
- Pope John XXIII elected (October 1958); his intention to call a
general council (January 1959)
- Council convened in October 1962; 3000+ bishops present
- The council issued sixteen decrees, mostly reformatory
but with some doctrinal statements.
- It restored the order of deacons, which had fallen out
of use in the last couple of hundred years.
- It ordered that the liturgy (chiefly the order of Mass) should
be examined and revised, and gave permission for some use of
modern languages in the liturgy.
- In three doctrinal decrees it described the relation of
the Church to the Eastern Orthodox churches, the various
Protestant groups, and non-Christian religions (especially
Judaism and Islam). In particular, it restated that Christ
has committed to his Church the fullness of truth; but some
other religions teach some true things as well, and
in evangelism the Church should recognize and build on the truth
that the evangelized already know.
The decree on religious freedom made officially part of church
teaching what had been said by several of the Church Fathers
and implemented by such Catholic political
leaders as Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland.
Death of John XXIII (May 1963); election of Paul VI
His decision to continue the council
- Close of the council (1965)
- Implementation of the council's decrees
- New order of mass (in Latin)
- Translation of this new
order into various national languages by different national and
regional groups of bishops
- New lectionary (three-year cycle of Biblical readings in Sunday
Mass and two-year cycle for weekday Mass)
- Restoration of the permanent diaconate
- Restoration of the catechumenate (RCIA)
- Restoration of the sacrament of annointing the sick for people in
any serious illness, not just people near death
- Revised breviary (now called the Liturgy of the Hours) and its
translation into modern languages
- The new Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Some results of the implementation
- Greater enculturation of the liturgy, especially in missionary countries
- Greater involvement of lay people in ministry
- Schism of Latin-mass traditionalists led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
- Y'all here in RCIA
- Articles from The Catholic Encyclopaedia: General
Councils; Council of Nicaea, Trent, Vatican; Arianism; Constantine the
Great; African Synods
- Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies and How the
Reformation Happened (on Nicaea and Trent respectively)
- Rev. James MacCaffrey, History of the Catholic Church from
the Renaissance to the French Revolution (on Trent)
- James Cardinal Gibbons, Faith of our Fathers
(History of Catholic thought on religious freedom prior to Vatican II)
- Alden Hatch, A Man Named John: the Life of Pope John XXIII
- Vatican II: the Faithful Revolution (5-hour documentary)
- Decrees of Trent, Vatican I and II
Prepared by Jim Henry
9 September 2001
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