From the earliest days of the church, its leaders met together to address point of common interest. What has come to be known as the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles is one of the first examples of a gathering of this sort.
As the church grew and developed, after it obtained its freedom under Constantine, and new bishops were ordained, neighbouring ones began to meet in synods and in what are now called provincial councils. The Council of Arles, AD 314, is one of these earlier ones. This form of governance, known as “synodality,” showed how the church can truly function as a communion of believers.
Shortly thereafter, joint gatherings of the bishops from various provinces began to take place. Because of their universal character, these became known as ecumenical councils. The seven councils recognized in whole or in part by both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches as ecumenical, were called by the Byzantine emperors who gave them legal status within the entire Roman Empire. Various theological and political differences caused parts of the church to separate after councils such as those of Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451), but councils recognized as ecumenical continued to be held.
The first such gathering took place in Nicea in AD 325, grouping some 300 bishops (statistics vary according to the various reports). Since then, there have been 20 other councils, although in some listings there are others that were considered ecumenical by some authors, but were not recognized as such by the church of Rome.
These were privileged moments in the life of the church, whereby discussions could be held on various significant issues — such as the response to be given to new heresies, the necessity of agreeing on doctrinal teachings, the unity of the church, and so forth.
Since the teachings of the first seven ecumenical councils are generally held in common with the various Orthodox churches and constitute a solid doctrinal base upon which ecumenical dialogue can proceed, it is important to continue to delve deeper into the content of the pronouncements of these gatherings. There is much more in common between the Catholic and Orthodox communities than what separates them.
The three most recent ecumenical councils were Trent (16th century), Vatican I (1869 - 1870), and Vatican II (1962 - 1965).
The Council of Trent is recognized more particularly for its lengthy work (over a period of nearly 20 years) on what has been called the Counter-Reformation of the church. Vatican I is remembered for its definition of papal infallibility with the resulting centralization of authority in the church. Vatican II, in its insistence on the People of God, opened the doors to many new forms of participation in the life of the church.
The ecumenical council is one of the most important manifestations of the College of Bishops, in which the apostolic body abides in an unbroken manner (see canon 336). The college exercises its power over the church in solemn form in an ecumenical council. Canon 339 notes that all bishops, who are members of the College of Bishops, have the right and obligation to be present at an ecumenical council, with the right to vote.
At Vatican II there were some 2,500 bishops in attendance. However, given the fact that there are now some 5,000 bishops in the church, the logistics of organizing a new council could become overwhelming. This is why the church seems to favour meetings of the synod of bishops, where representatives of the various conferences meet together, usually in Rome.
The decrees of an ecumenical council require not only the approval of those in attendance, but also that of the Roman pontiff, without whose assent they have no effect.
There is another form of council which is also somewhat infrequent — the plenary council. This type of council, representing all the particular churches of the same bishops’ conference, can be held whenever the conference, with the approval of the Holy See, considers it necessary or advantageous.
In Canada, there has only been one such plenary council (in Quebec, in 1909). In the U.S., the three councils of Baltimore in 1852, 1866 and 1884 fulfilled a most important role as the church was beginning to take root in the territory.
The advantage of a plenary council is that, in addition to bishops, clergy and lay persons can be present and take an active part. There have been occasional calls for another plenary council in Canada, but the moment does not seem opportune right now. Rather, the conference of bishops assumes the overall leadership role for the church in Canada at the present time.
Councils, whether they be ecumenical or plenary, are considered to be a primary expression of “synodality,” which is a characteristic that should mark the way in which church governance is exercised. The late Metropolitan Archbishop Maxim Hermaniuk, CSsR, of Winnipeg exerted a profound influence during the days of Vatican II by recalling the importance of this notion and the need for its continuing application in the life of the church.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 29th article in a series.