31 August 2009


Sometimes facts are just too big to see. I think the position of "Ecumenical Councils" in the Church is a fine example. We had Vatican I, which gave us a dogmatic definition of Papal Primacy and Infallibility. We had Vatican II, which, as episcopal shop-stewards comfortably explained to us, "redressed the balance" by saying some rather wonderful things about Episcopacy. But we have never had a Council which went properly into the theology of Ecumenical Councils. Throughout Church history, there has beem more than a tendency for 'Conciliarism' to be a political weapon of power-groups in Christendom anxious to down-play the role and status of the Papacy or the Local Church or both. We had that in the late Middle Ages; that committed Conciliarist Henry VIII was not above playing the 'Council' card; and Byzantine Orthodox use it as an argument against Papalism and an alibi for their own lacunae in the area of Magisterium. They always seem to be on the point of having a Council but never quite to have it; non-Orthodox might be forgiven for suspecting that they dare not actually have a Council because it would reveal too starkly the fault-lines in their own community. So, in theory and in terms of their liturgical commemorations, Councils are highly important ... but there hasn't been one since the Seventh. I know there are historical reasons which would have made it difficult for them to have a Council; but it remains a plain fact that their conciliar rhetoric and theorising seem out-of-sync with reality.

There is little Biblical evidence for Concilarism. The Council of Jerusalem is sometimes cited; but S Paul seems so unaware of its status and authority that the first two chapters of Galatians leave biblical scholars wondering whether he is actually referring to it or not. If he is, it seems that S Peter had forgotten about it, or perhaps understood its decrees differently from S Paul. As for the Ecumenical Councils of the succeeding centuries, some of them, as Joseph Ratzinger once pointed out, were such a right old mess that one wonders if they did more good or harm. I have some vague recollection ... perhaps readers can fill my gaps ... that in some cases we are not quite sure what degrees they did pass ... if they did ... And that same Joseph Ratzinger wrote very critically about the post-Vatican II notion that the combination of Council+Pope is so potent that it can do more or less anything and ride rough-shod over Tradition.

This is where we Anglican Catholics can help. Dom Gregory Dix pointed out, in 1938, the ad-hoccery which lay at the basis of Conciliarism.
"The Council of Nicaea is a landmark in the history of dogma, and it is no less so in the history of Church institutions and law. But it is essential to remember that its contemporaries hardly saw it in that light. After ages could revere in it the first and most august of a whole series of Ecumenical Councils, all divinely inspired for the infallible vindication of fundamental Christian truths. But Nicaea came before the Christian world of its own day with no background of theory concerning the infallibility of "General Councils" as such (such a thing had not even been dreamed of in pre-Nicene times), without precedent or even any real preparation of Christian opinion, and without ... any clear and universally accepted theory of the binding nature of any Conciliar authority in matters of belief or practice.In pre-Nicene times Councils were an occasional device, with no certain place in the scheme of Church government. The local church under its bishop might be expected to give weight to a Council's decision, but acceptance and carrying out of that decision was still not so much a duty as a matter for the local church itself to decide.
The ultimate effect of Nicaea was decisive in more than one direction, but for the moment it did not look as though it would be so. A century later it has become "the great and model synod" ... but in its own generation local churches which were unconscious of any presumption did not boggle at emending out-of-hand its dogmatic symbol for their own purposes - what of those unknown persons who constructed our "Nicene Creed" out of the Council's Symbol, omitting the ek tes ousias tou Patros ..."

I hope to return to this.


Joshua said...

Whatever happened to provincial councils in Catholicism, or Orthodoxy? In the East, the Bethlehem (Jerusalem?) Council of 1672 (as you asked, why wasn't it Ecumenical anyway, all the Orthodox were there) is the last one I recall quoted - Ott refers to it - and in the West, I think the last provincial councils of any note (for doctrine, not matters of discipline) were mediƦval.

In the C. of E., Convocation having been suspended to avoid Hoadley being given a hiding, nothing happened till the modern period - and the less said of what modern Synods thereof have decreed the better.

Why is all emphasis put on Councils Ecumenical - is this the Conciliarist version of "only the Pope's pronouncements are worthwhile"? For that matter, bishops don't seem to issue letters on doctrinal subjects either anymore (so far as I know, even Pastorals are few and far between). When was the last time a bishop solemnly, publicly taught dogmatic theology in his exercise of the Magisterium proper to his order?

O for a Cyril to write extraordinary anathemata to a Nestorius again!

Christian said...

Perhaps unsurprisingly my favourite text from any Council are the very last words of Trent:

Cardinal Lorraine: We all thus believe; we all think the very same ; we all, consenting and embracing them, subscribe. This is the faith of blessed Peter, and of the apostles: this is the faith of the Fathers: This is the faith of the Orthodox.

Answer: Thus we believe; thus we think; thus we subscribe.

Cardinal Lorraine: To these decrees adhering may we be made worthy of the mercies and grace of the first and great supreme priest, Jesus Christ God; our inviolate Lady, the holy mother of God, also interceding, and all the saints.

Answer: So be it: so be it. Amen, Amen.

Cardinal Lorraine: Anathema to all heretics!

Answer: Anathema! Anathema!

rev'd up said...

Ah, the hyperbole of Trent! "This is the faith of Blessed Peter." Hubris. You can spasm all you want about it Christian, but it really is just a load of silliness. God bless you though, I needed a laugh this morning.

Sure enough Father, the final analysis leaves us with neither Councils nor Popes as absolutely authoritative. The Church, like politics, is local, local, local. And dialog as a means of reconciling disparate groups, though highly touted, is but vainglory. The only solution (and please don't pass this off as mere facetiousness) is to invite all interested parties to come to the banqueting house and issue cloths pins for every ones noses. As with observations regarding Noah's Ark being sweet salvation yet full of stinky-pooh, we must consider that our Ark has been to sea longer than his. And is really full of it.

Michael McDonough said...

I don't think one can draw up a "general theory" of Ecumenical councils, any more than one can draw up a "general theory" of the Petrine Ministry, and for the same reason: no human being can know all the possible needs for it in the future.

Could St. Cyprian have imagined that Constantine would be the one to invoke Nicaea? Could Aquinas have known about the Protestant Revolt? When Vatican I used all that legal terminology (so abhorrent to the Orthodox!) to define the Primacy, was that not simply a way of saying: "we have no idea what the Pope will be called on to do, what we do know is that the Pope will be there to do whatever-it-will-be, with the warrant of Christ Himself"?

Patricius said...

Ecumenical Councils are perilous affairs, and there always seems to be a crisis period afterwards. I say ''period,'' but that could well be indefinate (as is the case with Chalcedon and the Monophysites and Eutychians). There has to be some ''balance'' between ''papalism'' and ''concilarism.'' In order to get what I'd want (abolition of the New Rite and full reinstatement of the Old Rite - minus Low Mass -, as well as a re-establishment of many customs/traditions hitherto lost over the course of centuries) there'd need to be a Pope of like dispositions with myself, but would perforce withdraw into autocratic solitude - and there lies the danger of ultramontanism. On the other hand, to get what one wants through an Ecumenical Council is equally unlikely. The last Council was, of course, very different from the ancestral notion of an ''Ecumenical'' Council.

Chris Jones said...

For the Orthodox, the fact that we have never had a Council which went properly into the theology of Ecumenical Councils is not a bug, but a feature. Contrary to what some folks think, an ecumenical council is not an element of the Orthodox Church's polity which corresponds to the Papacy in the Catholic Church's polity. The Orthodox Church has no equivalent to the Papacy: not the ecumenical Patriarch, nor the councils (ecumenical or otherwise), nor anything else. There is only the Apostolic Tradition, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.

Thus the absence of an institutional magisterium is not a lacuna, but a fundamental characteristic of catholicity in the Orthodox view. There can be no conciliar definition of the council as a structural element of the Church. A council is not an "institution" whose authority and infallibility could be guaranteed in advance. It is a pneumatological event whose authenticity and authority can only be discerned in the Holy Spirit.

Independent said...

The SSPX does a service when it criticises Vatican II, but fails to realise that many of the same criticisms can be levelled at Trent and Vatican I. It is time that both the latter were subjected to thorough historial examination. Perhaps the increased interest in Newman will at least lead to increased study of Vatican I and especially those who were unhappy about its definitions. Abbot Butler's book has a whole chapter about how it was interpreted with Manning sounding like so many modern Catholics and Newman pointing to a very restricted interpretation. Amusingly the SSPX seems nearer to Newman than to Manning. They like the secretary to the Council seem to be taliking of true and false infallibility.