How much do Catholics know about ecumenical councils?

How much do Catholics know about ecumenical councils?

Frank Mobbs

Can you name one ecumenical council? How many can you name? Can you name one important decision made by each? Have councils been infallible in teaching, just as popes have been? If councils have taught infallibly, have they all so taught?

Before writing this article I telephoned ten Catholics and asked them these questions. The first was a devoted Catholic aged about 40. He had never heard of any ecumenical (general) council. Not believing him, I jogged his memory. 'How about the Second Vatican Council?' 'I'm sorry', he said, 'I have never heard of that Council.'

The other nine did better. Several had heard of Vatican II and deduced there must have been Vatican I. But they knew nothing of any council other than Vatican II. Some could name three councils and could mention one of their decisions. One had studied theology and she could name nine.

These answers proved useful for they convinced me that an article like this is needed.

Ecumenical or general councils are councils of the oikumene (the household of the whole Church). The foundational idea of councils is that the bishops are successors to the apostles and so are endowed by God with the authority to teach and govern, as were the apostles.

Catholic theologians in general count the number of such councils as 21. They are distinct from the councils of bishops of a region or of a nation and distinct also from the synods of a diocese. They are supposed to be meetings of representatives of the whole Church, not just of a part.

Under modern canon law only a pope has authority to summon a council. However, this was unknown to the first eight councils. Nicea was infallible but not summoned by a pope but by Constantine. In fact, prior to about 1000 AD, popes played a negligible role in councils. Before then they sent delegates to represent them who signed decrees on their behalf.

While a pope can teach infallibly, over the Church's two millennia history councils in practice have defined the overwhelming majority of dogmas.

The 21 councils have dealt with three different kinds of matters: dogma, discipline, and policy.

A dogma is a definition of a matter of faith. A Christian is bound to believe a statement when the council requires belief of all the faithful. Perhaps the best known example is the definition of the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea (325 AD), which we recite at Mass, the definition of Jesus Christ as being 'one in being [of the same substance] with the Father', that is, as sharing in the nature of God.

It follows that if a council defines as true a dogma, it will always be true. Hence is impossible for a council to declare a previously defined dogma to be false.

I said that Christians are bound to believe a dogma. Matters of discipline are very different. These are orders to obey certain rules. Orders are not things to be believed but rather obeyed or disobeyed. Not being true or false they are not eternal and so can be abolished or reimposed. A council can order the faithful to abstain from eating meat during Lent and later abolish the order and, later still, impose it again.

Examples of policy have included summoning a crusade or deposing an emperor.

Vatican II has summarised the tradition of the Church in the document Lumen Gentium (Constitution on the Church). This taught that the divinely authorised body of teachers and rulers is the magisterium, namely the bishops (including the Pope as the Bishop of Rome).

The bishops teach with authority but rarely infallibly, that is, with God's guarantee that what they teach is true. They can exercise this infallibility when they meet as an ecumenical council. However, Vatican II declared no dogmas at all, so never exercised infallibility. A leading participant at the Council, Abbot Christopher Butler, writes, 'The Council made no new definitions of faith' (Theology of Vatican II, p.26).

As for disciplinary matters, councils have issued hundreds of decrees. Most concern clergy and religious. One decree penalises those who offer bribes in order to become a monk! (Vocations directors please note).

As conditions change many disciplinary decrees have been abolished and new ones promulgated. Vatican II was in line with the tradition of councils when it abolished a number of liturgical practices and mandated or permitted others.


Earlier I gave a rough definition of a council as a meeting of the bishops of the Church. However, the history of councils is very complex and shows wide variations in membership and procedures. The first seven ecumenical councils were summoned by Roman emperors who determined agendas and procedures and issued the decisions of the councils with their authority.

The First Council of Constantinople (381) contained no Western (Latin) bishops at all while council membership has varied widely. Two consisted almost exclusively of bishops while the Second Council of Lyons was attended by about 500 bishops, and about 1100 other participants.

For years I have been concerned by inadequate teaching of the great importance of councils in the life of the Church. An example lies in the Catechism of Christian Doctrine published by the Australian bishops in 1939. On page 28 we are informed that a pope can teach infallibly but there is no mention of the truth that councils can also teach infallibly, provided a pope does not repudiate the teaching.

Study of the history of councils is fascinating and important. I invite readers to take up this challenge.

Dr Frank Mobbs has taught philosophy and theology at universities and colleges and is the author of several books, including The Incredible Da Vinci Code.

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