Popes on Parade: Ecumenical Councils POPshop

Councils are legally convened assemblies of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts for the purpose of discussing and regulating matters of church doctrine and discipline. The terms council and synod are synonymous, although in the oldest Christian literature the ordinary meetings for worship are also called synods, and diocesan synods are not properly councils because they are only convened for deliberation. The constituent elements of an ecclesiastical council are the following:

  • A legally convened meeting
  • of members of the hierarchy,
  • for the purpose of carrying out their judicial and doctrinal functions,
  • by means of deliberation in common
  • resulting in regulations and decrees invested with the authority of the whole assembly.

Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the Pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians. (Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Councils are named after the location in which they are held.

The Second Vatican Council

Apostolic Council

Jerusalem 49 Presided over by Saint Peter and attended by several apostles, including Saint Paul. The Council determined how gentiles would be admitted into the Church. The primary source for our knowledge of this Council is The Acts of the Apostles.

Early Councils

Ecumenical in the best sense of the word, these Councils are recognized by both the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches.

Nicaea I 325 318 bishops attended under Bishop Hosius of Cordova, legate of Pope Sylvester, and Emperor Constantine. The Nicene Creed was approved, the date of Easter was fixed, and the Arian heresy was condemned. The contents of holy scripture were decided.

Constantinople I 381 150 bishops attended under Pope Damasus and the Emperor Theodosius I. The Nicene Creed was reaffirmed and expanded, with the clauses referring to the Holy Spirit added. The heresies of Macedonianism and Apollinarianism were condemned.

Ephesus 431 200 bishops attended. St. Cyril of Alexandria presided, representing Pope Celestine I. Defined the true personal unity of Christ and declared Mary the Mother of God (theotokos). The heresies of Nestorianism and Pelagianism were condemned.

Chalcedon 451 150 bishops under the legates of Pope Leo the Great and Emperor Marcian. Tome of Leo and Definition of Faith approved, clarifying the two natures (Divine and human) in Christ. Eutyches, who taught that Christ had only one nature, was excommunicated.

Constantinople II 553 165 bishops under Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian I. Condemned the errors of Origen and The Three Chapters of Theodoret, Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Bishop Ibas of Edessa. While they were all together, the bishops confirmed the authority of the first four Ecumenical Councils, since some folks were questioning them, particularly the Council of Chalcedon.

Constantinople III 680-681 174 bishops under the legates of Pope Agatho and the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus. Attended by the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch. The heresy of Monothelitism was finally condemned by defining the two wills in Christ, the Divine and the human, as two distinct principles of operation. The whole controversy was fairly silly, and most of the adherents of Monothelitism did so for political, rather than doctrinal, reasons.

Nicaea II 787 367 bishops under the legates of Pope Hadrian I. Originally convoked by Emperor Constantine VI and his mother Irene The Council condemned Iconoclasm as heresy, much to the relief of artists throughout the East.

Mediaeval Councils

The schisms between the East and West became more frequent and more poisonous. After Photius seized the Patriarchal seat in Constantinople from Ignatius, schism replaced unity as the default position. After 1054, the break was complete and, except for brief flashes of unity, permanent.

The following Ecumenical Councils are generally only accepted by the Western (Catholic) Church.

Constantinople IV 869-871 102 bishops and 4 patriarchs under the legates of Pope Adrian II and Emperor Basil The Council condemned the Acts of an irregular council convoked by Photius, the usurping Patriarch of Constantinople, against Pope Nicholas and Ignatius (the legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople). It also condemned Photius himself.

Unfortunately, Photius and his followers continued to dominate the East. The result was schism; the Eastern bishops did not participate in another Ecumenical Council for over 300 years.

Lateran I 1123 About 900 bishops and abbots attended under Pope Calixtus II. The first Council held in Rome. It abolished lay investiture to ecclesiastical offices. It also addressed church discipline and the Crusades.

Lateran II 1139 About 1000 bishops and abbots attended under Pope Innocent II. The Council condemned the errors of Arnold of Brescia as heresy (Arnoldism, perhaps?).

Lateran III 1179 302 bishops attended under Pope Alexander III and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The West finally got the hang of properly naming heresies. Accordingly, the Albigensians and Waldensians were condemned. The Council also made a number of decrees regarding moral reforms.

Lateran IV 1215 The Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, 800 abbots, the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic attended under Pope Innocent III. The Fourth Lateran Council is the most important of the Middle Ages and represents the zenith of Papal power and prestige.

It issued a creed against the Albigensian heretics (Firmiter credimus) and condemned the heresies of Abbot Joachim. It also published seventy assorted reform decrees.

Lyons I 1245 The Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Aquileia (Venice), 140 bishops, Eastern Emperor Baldwin II, and King (Saint) Louis IX of France attended under Pope Innocent IV. The Council excommunicated (and deposed) Emperor Frederick II and began a new crusade under the command of St. Louis.

*more here about Frederick and Jerusalem*

Lyons II 1274 The Patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch, 15 cardinals, 500 bishops, and more than 1000 other dignitaries attended under Pope Gregory X. The Council managed to work out a temporary reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches. It didn't last. The word filioque was accepted into the Nicene Creed by the Greeks, and in return a Crusade against the Turks to recover Palestine was contemplated.

The Council developed new rules for papal elections.

Vienne 1311-1313 The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, 300 bishops, and three kings (Philip IV of France, Edward II of England, and James II of Aragon) were present under Pope Clement V, the first of the Avignon popes. The Council considered the charges against the Knights Templars, the Fraticelli, the Beghards, and the Beguines. It also planned a new Crusade and launched a plan to reform the clergy and universities.

The Council was dominated by the French King and clergy.

Constance 1414-1418 numbers? Formally convoked by Pope Gregory XI only after it had already been meeting for a year. The Council of Constance was held during the great Schism of the West, with the aim of healing the divisions brought about by having two Popes (three after the abortive so-called "Council" of Pisa in 1403). The Council formally elected the Pisan Pope Martin V, and Gregory accordingly resigned.

The new Pope confirmed the Pisan decrees against the heresies of Wyclif and Hus.

Basle / Ferrara / Florence 1431-1439 numbers? under Popes Martin V and Eugene IV. Originally convoked in Basle, the Council was moved to Ferrara and then to Florence, and it was finally brought to a close in Rome.

The Council attempted reunion with the East (again), and examined a proposed compromise with the Hussites of Bohemia (Heretics or not? You decide!) before moving on to the question of which was superior: Pope or Council. Before the matter could be definitively settled, the Pope suddenly discovered that he was up past his bedtime and sent everybody home.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

Papal prestige never truly recovered from the Western Schism before being pummelled by the Councilar Movement of Florence. This one-two punch left the Church reeling, and the era of the Borgias certainly didn't help.

The first stirrings of Reformation can be found, perhaps, in the movements of Wyclif and Hus (condemned by the Council of Constance), but with the confluence of the teachings of Martin Luther with the machines of Johannes Gutenburg, the unity of the West was shattered forever.

Lateran V 1512-1517 15 cardinals and about 80 archbishops and bishops attended under Pope Julius II (and later Leo X) and legates of Emperor Maximilian I. The Council's decrees were mostly disciplinary. A new Crusade was planned, but it had to be cancelled. Apparently there was some trouble in Germany that ended up completely distracting everybody. Somebody named Martin something...

Trent 1545-1563 5 cardinal legates, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 235 bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of monastic orders, and 160 doctors of divinity attended through the pontificates of five popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV. By far the longest and (arguably) most influential Council, Trent launched the Counter-Reformation and defined what it meant to be Catholic for four hundred years.

The Council was convoked to condemn the heresies of Luther and other Protestants. It went far beyond its original mission to completely reform the discipline and operation of the Church. Above all, the Council stressed continuity, universality, and the immortality of the Catholic Church.

The Modern Era

For hundreds of years, the Church lived in the dogmatic tradition of the Council of Trent, inflexible and impervious to change.

Vatican I 1869-1870 6 archbishop-princes, 49 cardinals, 11 patriarchs, 680 archbishops and bishops, 28 abbots, 29 generals of orders attended under Pope Pius IX. The Council met 8 December, 1869, and lasted till 18 July, 1870, when it was adjourned due to the siege of Rome by the Italians. It was never officially closed and never completed its agenda.

Although the Council published acts relating to the Faith and the constitution of the Church, it is chiefly remembered for defining Papal infallibility in such a way that was too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals

Vatican II 1962-1965 2450 Counciliar Fathers, including patriarchs, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, abbots, generals of orders, theologians, and a partridge in a pear tree attended under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Vatican II was the largest Council in Church history, and ranks with the Councils of Nicea I, Lateran IV, and Trent in terms of defining the direction and tone of the Church.

Pope John XXIII talked about "opening the windows" of the church, and the reforms of Vatican II were wide and deep. The Latin of Trent was mostly shelved in favour of languages people actually still spoke, ecumenical co-operation was sought throughout Christendom and the world, and many reforms were enacted in matters of Church practice and discipline.

The sentences of excommunication of the Patriarch and synod of Constantinople, enacted in 1054, were rescinded.

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