There seems little doubt that the meaning, within the life of the Universal Church of Councils (particularly those called Ecumenical), is going to be high on the agenda in the near future.
One obvious reason is the Catholic/Orthodox dialogue. Orthodox have set much store by Councils, partly because they have felt the need to define themselves against the Papacy. They have needed a magisterium; and the authority of Seven Councils has provided them with authoritative texts and teaching. Those Councils live on in the life of Orthodoxy in a way that Westerners might find hard to understand - in their commemorations during the Church Year; in iconography.
But there are problems. Why did Councils - if they are so important - cease happening so soon? Error did not cease to happen. Orthodox have regarded "the Latins" as in error; but Orthodoxy has never held an Ecumenical Council to deal with "Latin heterodoxies". And why, for example, is the Synod of Bethlehem which condemned Protestantism not 'Ecumenical'? The desuetude of Ecumenical Councils raises the difficult problem of whether the Orthodox Churches constitute, in their own eyes, the Catholic Church of Christ. I say difficult' because it is notorious that Orthodox have not sorted this question out among themselves. Some think Orthodoxy is the Church: that everybody outside Orthodoxy is an unbaptised heathen. Others behave de facto as if Orthodoxy is not the Catholic Church tout court. Yet: for a decade or two the Orthodox have been making preparations for a Council. Why? If they have one to which non-Orthodox are not invited, will they regard it as Ecumenical? (Interestingly, the Orient was sent invitations to Vatican I. I wonder how modern integristes gloss that.)
Secondly, the probable regularisation of the position of the SSPX within the Roman Unity will enhance the status of dialogue about what Vatican II means. What is its magisterial status? The pope who convened it and the pope who concluded it both described it as a pastoral and not a doctrinal council. So how much 'religious obsequium ' is it owed? You might think that a pastoral council was more concerned with an immediate pastoral situation than with eternal verities; indeed, Bl John XXIII effectively admitted this with his talk about aggiornamento. If the Council effectively addressed the issues of 1965, by definition it did not address the very different issues of 1565 or 1365 or 565 or 65. Nor is it very likely to prove to have addressed the issues of 2265. But: and here's the rub ... to what extent do its texts address the issues of 2009? Our world is already a very different world from the world which the Council was summoned to address fifty years ago.
For example: whatever one's views on questions of feminism and gender, few are likely to dispute that those questions are now widely being posed in a way which, fifty years ago, was the preserve of no more than a tiny minority. Proof, if proof is needed, is provided by the English language post-Conciliar liturgical texts which consistently render Deus as Father without any realisation that, little more than a generation later, the latter word would widely be held to be offensively uninclusive. The Anglican Alternative Service Book of 1980 still shows little awareness of the feminist-linguistic revolution which was then about to happen.
Moreover, when ARCIC was set up in the 1960s, nobody dreamed that the whole optimistic process which it embodied would be wholly derailed by the question of the ordination of women. When Vatican II passed Unitatis Redintegratio, who would have guessed that the whole bright world of ecumenical convergence which Rome (as many thought) was then belatedly buying into, would be replaced by a world of new splits within ecclesial communites and new causes of division between denominations? What becomes of an affirmation of the unity inherent in the common baptism of all Christians when quite a lot of them a few decades later insist on administering 'baptism' invalidly by corrupting the Names of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity? How, in fact, does a Decree engaging sympathetically and positively with an ecumenism of convergence apply to an ecumenism of divergence? SSPX are not the only thoughtful people to be wondering about that little difficulty.
On pragmatic grounds I suspect that a pastoral ecumenical council is too cumbersome, blunt and crude an instrument in our age of rapid change; and that Vatican II has proved this. A dogmatic council might be a different matter; it could consider propositions, talk theology, and issue definitions and anathemata. But I doubt if this is what that senile old fool Kung has in mind when he speaks about the glories of the abortionist Obama and the need for a new Council to promote condoms.
But my real doubts about councils are theological. Orthodox, Anglicans, and medieval conciliarists have embraced the idea of councils as a solution to what they have seen as 'problems' with the Papacy. In a later post, I plan to deploy some ideas of Dom Gregory Dix to suggest that the Papacy itself is in fact very much less problem-ridden than the conciliar idea.