In an article in the April AD2000, I wrote, 'Study of the history of [ecumenical] councils is fascinating and important'.
Councils are fascinating in that there is no fixed pattern in their history. Bearing this in mind, we shall be wary of thinking that recent councils, e.g., Vatican II, are typical. Vatican I (1869-71) and Vatican II (1962-1965) were controlled by popes in accordance with modern notions of councils, notions not presupposed in the conduct of previous councils.
This is hardly surprising, seeing that the first ecumenical council, that of Nicea, was held around 1600 years earlier. The Church was very different then.
What are some of these interesting aspects? First, there is the question: Which councils are ecumenical or general?
The answer lies with historians. Catholic writers commonly assert that the number of them is 21 but no one knows for sure because there is no widespread agreement about the criteria of a council. This is brought to light by the fact that the article on councils in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 omits the Council of Pisa from its list and includes only parts of Constance and Basle, whilst the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique of 1911 excludes the Councils of Pisa, Constance and Basel.
The division between the first eight councils and the rest is clear. The eight were held in the East and the great majority of members were Greek. Today the Orthodox Churches consider these the only genuine ecumenical councils for they have not attended the others, except for delegations to Lyons and Florence.
Seeing ecumenical councils are not of a region, they are supposed to be councils of the whole Church. But how does one know whether they represent the whole Church? The members (called 'Fathers') are not elected and most have been bishops. That seems justified because bishops are the successors of the Apostles, entrusted by the Lord with proclaiming his message and governing his people.
At once we encounter problems with this. Only in the cases of the two recent councils, Vatican I and II, has a majority of bishops attended. The first council, Nicea (315 AD), had more bishops than any other council until that of Vatican I (1869). Sometimes not all bishops were invited. To the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) the emperor invited only a certain number from each of the 59 provinces he ruled.
Attendances of bishops vary wildly. Figures are sometimes hard to establish because the records of some councils have been lost. To Ephesus in 431 came 230 to 250, yet there were about 300 bishops in Asia Minor alone. To the opening of the Council of Basel in 1431 came only a handful.
The Council of Trent (1545- 1563) determined about half of all dogmas decreed by councils. In the first four sessions there were 51 to 62 Fathers, some of whom were not bishops. At the thirteenth session which produced important doctrine on the Eucharist, there were 54 Fathers. At the final session in 1563, signatures to the Acts numbered 236. At the time there were about 700 bishops worldwide.
Composition of the Fathers also varied widely with regard to geographical distribution and bishop/ non-bishop. The first eight councils were held in the East (modern Turkey). At Nicea there was only one from north Africa, an intensely Christian area with many bishops. Bishops from the Latin West or from regions such as Armenia and Georgia were few.
The rules laid down by emperors allowed bishops to be represented by delegates or procurators. Bishops of Rome did not attend any of the first eight Councils. They sent legates. Some mediaeval Western councils included large numbers of procurators with the right to vote.
To Vienne in France (1311-1312) the pope invited only 231 ecclesiastics of various kinds, saying the rest could be represented by procurators. Today it is difficult to believe that the Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne would be allowed to send representatives to present their views to, and cast their votes at an ecumenical council. It is more difficult to believe that popes did so when communications between pope and legates were difficult.
The mediaeval councils called by Bishops of Rome contained plenty of non-bishops. At Constance there were 132 abbots, 155 priors, plus hundreds of doctors of theology and of law - plus others. Frequently cardinals who were not bishops have been members. At Basel in 1436 only 10 percent of participants were bishops. Princes were members and voted. The Byzantine Greek emperor voted at Florence, as did a mere envoy of the Duke of Burgundy.
Councils have included priests (e.g., cardinals) as members with the same rights to debate and vote as bishops. Trent, Vatican I and II have included superiors of religious orders or monasteries or associations of religious orders.
The Code of Canon Law of 1917 (223) says members of an ecumenical council can include abbots, superiors of monastic congregations, or superiors of religious orders. The Englishman, Abbot Christopher Butler, was a prominent Father at Vatican II. The present Code (339) provides that a pope or council can call non-bishops to a council and give them a right to vote. So under the present law, laity could be Fathers of a council.
As I said above, with masterly understatement, it is difficult for a historian to determine the number of ecumenical councils. Is a council truly an ecumenical council which is summoned by an emperor who determined its agenda and procedure? What are we to make of the authority of councils whose decisions were made by just a handful of successors of the apostles (bishops)?
So far I have not looked at the decisions or decrees of councils. Interpreting them is difficult. Some of those difficulties may be considered in a future article.
Dr Frank Mobbs is a former lecturer in philosophy and theology at universities, colleges and seminaries and the author of numerous articles and several books, including The Incredible Da Vinci Code.
His email address is: fmobbs_at_integrity.net.com.au