On the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, about 50 miles north of Jerusalem, lies the ancient palestinean seaport of Caeserea. Nearly two thousand years ago, a Roman centurion assigned to that city, Cornelius, was in prayer in the middle of the afternoon. He was terrified when an angel suddenly appeared before him. The angel instructed him to send his men to the nearby town of Joppa and there fetch a certain Simon, surnamed Peter. Cornelius complied and sent his men. On the following day, they found Simon Peter who had experienced his own heavenly vision that very hour, a vision of such rich symbolism that the Apostle failed to comprehend its meaning. He had been praying on his roof at noon when he became hungry; as if in response to his desire, the heavens opened and laid before him a variety of animals, all good to eat, but all prohibited by the Law of Moses. A heavenly voice instructed Peter to kill and eat, but Peter, aware of his religious obligations, refused. The heavenly voice then declared that Peter must not call unclean what God has cleaned. He was then instructed to go with the men who came for him. Still wondering at the meaning of his vision, Peter traveled to Caeserea with the men and met with Cornelius who then described his angelic encounter. At that moment Peter realized the meaning of his own vision and preached to Cornelius’ household concerning God’s new covenant plan to bring all people into His covenant, Gentiles as well as Jews. These events, described in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10, ends with the baptism of Cornelius’ household.
The drama does not end there, however, for Peter then returned to Jerusalem and explained to the Church that the Word of God had come to the Gentiles. Many accused him of betraying the Law of Moses, but Peter then unfolded all of the events that had occurred concerning his vision and the angelic visitor of Cornelius. Apparently that explanation sufficed for his accusers put away their anger and glorified God for bringing "repentance unto life" to the Gentiles. At that point the Gospel began to be preached to all, not only to the Jews. There is no Christian who has not heard of the tireless efforts of St. Paul in the evangelization of the Gentiles. Not all know, however, the difficulties he experienced from some Jewish Christians who, rejecting the teaching of Peter, insisted that Gentile conversion include acceptance of the Law of Moses. Most of Paul’s epistles treat of these "Judaizers," as he called them, and their heretical teaching. The story continues in chapter 15 of Acts, when Paul brings news of the destructive tendencies of these Judaizers to the Apostles in Jerusalem. There then occurred an event which changed the life of the Church forever; the Apostles gathered in council to define and declare the doctrine of Gentile inclusion in the New Covenant and determine the pastoral effects of their teaching. This council consisted of the Apostles and priests of Jerusalem who listened to Paul’s testimony, then that of the Judaizers. There was a long debate and then Peter addressed the council. He explained that it was God’s will which decided the Gentiles should "hear the word of the Gospel and believe," that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles just as to the Jews without distinction. He then declared that circumcision and the Law of Moses were unnecessary. James, bishop of Jerusalem, then proposed pastoral guidelines for shepherding the Gentiles, which guidelines were accepted by the Apostles and priests.
This was the first ecumenical or general council of the Church (although it is customary not to include it in lists of general councils). It was a response by the Teaching Church to resolve a doctrinal dispute among members of the Church, primarily a dispute among Church leaders. It set precedence for the resolution of future disputes. First, it consisted of a gathering of the Apostles, that is, the bishops, and their assistant priests. Second, the purpose of the gathering was to solve a dispute among the teachers of the Church. Third, the role of Peter was primary; both his prior teachings and his words at the council were definitive. He noted that God’s revelation on this point was "through my mouth." Fourth, both sides of the dispute debated before judgement was passed. Finally, the judgement was of the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the resulting letter to the churches which summarized their judgement noted , "the Holy Spirit and we have decided…" The general council would become the primary tool of the Church for solving future doctrinal disputes. Nearly three hundred years was to elapse before such a dispute developed again which would require such a dramatic response by the Church.
Part I. The Ancient Eastern Councils
1. Nicea I
The first three centuries of Church history saw the faithful suffer under Roman persecution. With the Edict of Milan in 313, the Church finally found peace with the world outside of itself, but began an uneasy history of internal discord. The fourth through the eighth centuries saw several heresies flourish in the eastern churches which resulted in seven general councils during this period. It is noteworthy that the Greek Schism occurred not long after the seventh general council and to this day the Greeks count those seven councils as infallible, but none thereafter.
The council of Nicea, customarily called the first ecumenical council, was convened to judge the Arian heresy. The term "ecumenical" refers to the multiplicity of patriarchates that gathered together and has nothing to do with the ecumenical movement of today. In that ancient world of slow communications, the bishops of an area united under a common local bishop known as a patriarch. The western church had access to the patriarch of Rome, the pope. The bishops of Egypt and Africa organized under the patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. The bishops of the east (Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc.) fell under the domain of the patriarch of Antioch. Finally the bishops of the holy lands fell within the patriarchate of Jerusalem. These local churches often held local councils or synods of their own to resolve local issues. The first great heresy began in the Syrian town of Antioch, the same town St. Paul had once adopted as the center of his missionary activities and where St. Peter had once sat as bishop. Two hundred years later another Paul, Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, began to teach the novel idea that Christ was merely an adopted son of the Father, not a son by nature. For this error, which he preached at the end of the third century as the persecutions still raged, Paul was excommunicated and deposed by a synod of the Antiochian bishops. One of Paul’s disciples, a priest named Lucian, founded a theological school at Antioch where he taught a similar doctrine, that Christ was neither perfect God nor perfect man. Among his students were Eusebius, later bishop of Nicomedia, and one Arius.
Arius became a priest and lived in Alexandria where he was well respected and found favor with the bishop, Alexander. Towards the beginning of the fourth century Arius began to preach his own variant on Lucian’s doctrine, that Jesus Christ was a creature. The greatest of all creatures and purposely created for the work of redemption, but a creature nevertheless. Bishop Alexander attempted to silence Arius, but the priest was insistent. A synod of 100 local bishops convened and condemned Arius’ teaching by a vote of 98-2.
Arius fled for protection to Palestine, to Eusebius, bishop of Caeseria (not to be confused with Arius’ fellow classmate in the school of Lucian). This Eusebius, best known for his works on early church history, was rather sympathetic towards the charismatic priest and accepted him into his protection. Here Arius was able to spread his erroneous doctrine throughout the east by means of letters and, a rather new idea, of hymns and prose. Soon, the new heresy was well known in all corners of the east, sparking a great debate. Meanwhile, the other Eusibius, bishop of the imperial city of Nicomedia, was using his own influence to assist his old schoolmate. A kinsman of the emperor Constantine, he wrote letters to the emperor and his sister describing Arius’ situation and asking for imperial help. He had already held a local synod in 323 which reinstated Arius to the priesthood and requested Alexander to reinstate him at Alexandria as well. It should be noted that Constantine, at this time, was not baptized and displayed little zeal for the faith. His primary concern was maintaining peace in his empire and he saw the issues surrounding Arius and his doctrine as a danger to that peace. He recommended the matter to his friend Hosius, bishop of Cordova, Spain, who advised a council. St. Sylvester, bishop of Rome, concurred with this idea.
The council convened in the Spring of 325 in the Imperial Palace at Nicea in Bithynia. About 300 bishops attended the opening, including Hosius, acting as papal legate and assisted by two Roman priests, for Pope St. Sylvester was too old to journey such a distance. Emperor Constantine opened the proceedings and then the presidency of the council may have been handed over to Bishop Hosius. One can only imagine the awesome spectacle of the event, held in the beautiful imperial mansion with the emperor himself and attended by so many saintly bishops, some of them monks and many still bearing on their bodies the wounds they endured during the persecutions. They acted swiftly. The theology of Arius was condemned almost unanimously. The council defined the basic Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the form of a creed which is called the Nicean Creed. The original Nicean creed is as follows:
We believe in one God the Father almighty, creator of all things visible and invisible. And in our one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, the only-begotten born of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, born, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, which are in heaven and on earth, who for our salvation came down, and became incarnate and was made man, and suffered, and arose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit. [Denzinger, no. 54.]
This creed was later developed at the Council of Constantinople and there became essentially the same creed as is used in the liturgy. Of great importance is the phrase "of one substance with the Father." The Greek term used was "homo-ousion" which generally means "same-substance" (latin: consubstantialum.) It is unknown who thought of using this term, but, clear as its usage seemed to be, it would later cause many problems. Only two bishops refused to assent to the new creed; they were exiled by the emperor along with Arius and a few of his followers.
The council also resolved a few lesser issues, such as
the Meletian schism, the date of Easter and various disciplinary actions
regarding clergy. Of importance, though, is the council’s statement concerning
certain apostolic sees; the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem
were to be given honor over other eastern sees. This seemingly minor canon
was to create some stir in a later council as we shall see. The Nicean
Council ended about one month after it convened and the bishops returned
to their homes. As in the Jerusalem council of the apostles, a doctrinal
dispute among Church leaders had been settled decisively by the Holy Spirit
acting through the bishops. This was not, however, the end of the Arian
heresy; if anything, it was merely the introduction.
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2. Constantinople I
A pattern will become evident as we examine each council: many of those who hold to error before a council will continue to hold to it after, despite the clear teaching of the bishops. Arius and his followers did not retract their errors after the council. They held fast to them stubbornly and spread them with even greater zeal. The story continues as Constantine established his new capital of the empire at Constantinople, the site of modern day Istanbul, Turkey. Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius’ schoolmate, became the bishop of the capital. This same Eusebius retained his Arian beliefs, even though he had signed the confession of faith at Nicea with the other bishops. Once established as bishop of the imperial city, and already kinsman of the imperial family, he felt comfortable publicly preaching what he had previously held private, that those who held the doctrine of the "homo-ousion" denied the Trinity and implied the Father and the Son were one and the same. Constantia, the emperor’s sister, was won over and soon others followed, possibly even Constantine himself. Eusebius convened a local council, which conspired against his very non-Arian patriarch, Eustathius of Antioch, condemned and deposed him and gave his case over to the emperor who exiled him. Thus began several years of exiles for many Catholic bishops at Eusebius’ instigation. Meanwhile, Constantine received Arius back from exile, accepting a vague confession of faith as satisfactory, and the heresarch was received back into the Church in 335.
In that same year the patriarch of Alexandria was added to the list of Catholic bishops sent into exile. Bishop St. Athanasius had already been the staunchest defender of doctrinal orthodoxy both as a deacon assisting Alexander at Nicea and now as Alexander’s successor. He was to become the leading figure in the controversy, preaching the faith with tireless zeal and suffering exile after exile for his constancy. The following year saw the death of Arius and the next year saw the death of Constantine who received baptism on his deathbed from Eusebius. The empire was divided between his three sons who co-ruled.
By 350, Constantine II became the sole ruler. He was virulently Arian and during his reign the Church experienced a new persecution, this time with the backing of several heretical bishops. Local councils were held throughout the empire which denied the Catholic doctrine and deposed many Catholic bishops, even the pope! The emperor gave his approval to these pseudo-councils by violently persecuting Catholic bishops. Soon the majority of episcopal sees in the east were shepherded by Arians, leading St. Jerome to remark that the whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marvelling to find itself Arian. During this time of unrest, the Arians themselves had divided into the three camps, the Arians, the semi-Arians and the middle party. This last group formulated a watered-down creed, which was thrust upon Pope Liberius in exile for his approval. Fearing for his life, Liberius signed the compromise formula, but did not teach it or impose it on the Church. He later retracted this creed, but was nevertheless assigned his place in history as the first pope not honored as a saint.
In 379, the Catholic emperor Theodosius came to power. He issued an edict which abolished all toleration of Arianism and restored peace in the empire. The following year he convoked a council in his capital city to finally resolve all remaining disputes. The purpose was not to define the doctrinal issues, as those had already been declared at Nicea; rather, the council focused on reaffirming the faith of Nicea in the east. It is interesting to note that this council was a local council, not ecumenical as there were no bishops from the Alexandrian patriarchate nor any western bishops present, nor even the pope nor his legates. Constantinople was given the prestigious title of ‘ecumenical’ centuries later by another general council.
The council began on a difficult foot as it was presided
by the bishop of Constantinople, but that See was then claimed by two individuals.
One, Paulinus, was backed by Rome and Alexandria, and the other, Meletius,
was backed by the other eastern bishops. It was Meletius who presided over
the gathering of the 150 bishops from Antioch, Asia Minor and Palestine.
He died shortly thereafter and was replaced by St. Gregory Nazianzen who
was elected the new bishop of Constantinople. St. Gregory became quickly
disillusioned by the ecclesiastical politics of his brother bishops and
resigned both his presidency and his see; he retired to the monastic life.
The council continued and reaffirmed the faith of Nicea, further developing
the Nicean creed into the form which is still used in the liturgy (save
for the word "filioque" which was added centuries later in the West). It
primarily focused on local issues of clerical discipline. One canon is
worth noting however: the bishops declared that the See of Constantinople
shall receive place of honor after the See of Rome, because "Constantinople
is New Rome" since the emperor had moved the capital. This was opposed
to Nicea, which gave primacy of honor to Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem
and became the seed of the Greek Schism.
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In 428 the monk Nestorius was elected bishop of Constantinople. A zealous defender of doctrinal orthodoxy, Nestorius resolved to ferret out any remaining tendencies to past heresies. Unfortunately, his zeal to condemn Arianism resulted in his development of a near-opposite error, that Christ was so clearly of one substance, one nature with the Father, that He could not have been truly human. That is, the historical Christ was a human person, in whom dwelt a divine Person – two persons, two natures, sharing one body. In a letter to Pope St. Celestine, Nestorius described those who, in his opinion, were confused regarding Christ’s divinity and His humanity. They speak of God as being born, of Mary as "Theotokos" (God-bearer) and the like. When St. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, heard of Nestorius’ error, he immediately wrote a defense of the traditional doctrine, that in Christ are two natures, one human and one divine, which are united in a single person. Nestorius attacked Cyril’s defense, denouncing it as untraditional. St. Cyril then wrote to members of the imperial family to report on this new doctrine. He also reported the recent events to the pope and asked for a judgement.
The pope responded in Cyril’s favor. He excommunicated all who held Nestorius’ error and authorized Cyril to depose and excommunicate Nestorius himself. He also wrote to Nestorius, demanding he recant his "many impious declarations which the whole Church rejects." Cyril prepared a list of twelve anathemas against Nestorius, which the heretic must either recant or suffer excommunication. Four bishops were sent to Constantinople to deliver the ultimatum to its bishop who refused to even receive them. Nestorius had been discussing this matter with the emperor and convinced him that he was innocent, that the Alexandrian bishop was merely plotting against Constantinople and that Cyril was trying to divide the imperial family over this issue. The emperor decided a general council was in order. The location was to be Ephesus, that famous city on the Aegean coast which had once been the home of St. John, our Lady and St Paul.
By the spring of 431, when the council was scheduled to convene, another event had already occurred which complicated the situation. A number of Antiochian theologians, led by their bishop, John, decided that Cyrils’ twelve anathemas were in themselves heretical, were, in fact, of an Arian tendency. With Nestorius, they planned to attack Cyril in the upcoming council. They were, however, delayed in their journey to the opening of the council, as were the Roman legates. As the 250 available bishops gathered in the Church of Maria Theotokos that spring day, the first note of discord sounded as Nestorius refused to attend until the Antiocheans arrived. He asked that the council be delayed until then, but, at Cyril’s insistence, the council began. In one day the bishops condemned Nestorius and deposed him. The orthodoxy of referring to Mary as "Theotokos" was confirmed.
Two days later the Antiochean bishops arrived and, miffed at their exclusion from the proceedings, held a council of their own. They deposed Cyril. At Nestorius’ instigation, the emperor declared Cyril’s proceedings null and void and commanded the entire body of bishops sit down in a single council to consider the matter again. Fortunately, the Roman legates arrived in time for this second session. St. Cyril presided over the council, "taking the place of Celestine, the most holy and reverend chief-bishop of the church of the Romans," per the council records. The first act was the reading of a letter sent by Celestine which declared Nestorius’ opinions as treasonous to the faith. The bishops cried out in response, "Celestine is the guardian of the faith. Celestine agrees with the council. There is one Celestine, one Cyril, one faith of the council, one faith of the world-wide church." One of the legates announced, "The members have joined themselves to the head, for your beatitude is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, and furthermore of the Apostles, is the blessed apostle Peter." The bishops, in union with the pope, condemned the heresy of Nestorius. One of the legates again declared,
No one doubts, but rather it has been known to all generations, that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith, the foundation stone of the Catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that the power of binding and loosing sins was given to him, who up to this moment and always lives in his successors, and judges. [ Ibid, no. 112.]
Nestorius was deposed. The Antiochean bishops were solemnly
excommunicated. Pope and emperor were formally notified of the results.
The emperor was displeased with the results. In an attempt to negotiate
peace, he agreed to the deposition of both Nestorius and Cyril and instructed
the bishops to return to their homes. The bishops, with the laity of Ephesus,
rioted and the imperial guards arrested the two bishops for their own safety.
One month later, the emperor received delegates from both sides of the
dispute and finally released Cyril to return to his see. The pope urged
the eastern bishops to seek a reconciliation between Cyril and John of
Antioch. The reconciliation was realized soon enough and peace was restored
to the East once again.
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The success of Ephesus was short-lived. St. Cyril’s teaching on the singularity of Christ’s Person was misunderstood by some as soon as the saint had died. This misunderstanding arose from Cyril’s usage of the Greek word "physis"; he said that in Christ incarnate there was one physis, meaning person. The word physis could, however, also mean nature and some took Cyril’s teaching to mean that in Christ there was only one nature, the divine nature. Those who held to this error believed that Jesus had no human soul, only a mortal body in which dwelled the living God. Without a human soul, Jesus did not have a truly human nature, hence only one divine nature and one divine person. Such believers were called monophysites and their leader was one Eutyches, the ninety year old abbot of the most influential monastery in Constantinople. It was not long before he was denounced as a heretic and a local council at Constantinople, led by bishop Flavius, deposed him, suspended him from the priesthood and isolated him within his monastery.
Cyril’s successor in the Alexandrian see, Dioscoros, denounced the proceedings, which affected the already weakened relationship between the two sees. Eutyches, meanwhile, and emperor Theodosius sent a letter to the pope, St. Leo the Great, asking for a judgement. When the bishop of Constantinople’s procedural report arrived in Rome, Leo judged against Eutyches. The emperor decided a general council was in order to resolve the dispute, so he convened one in Ephesus, but he only invited the bishops of his own states; the resulting council, despite the emperor’s intentions, could not be called a general council. St. Leo was invited, but he declined and instead sent three legates with a letter to the emperor agreeing to Eutyches’ condemnation and a letter to Flavius defining the Church’s doctrine on the Incarnation of Christ. This letter has traditionally been referred to as the Tome of Leo. It is an authoritative decision on the matter, not merely a theological speculation as other bishops made. It read, in part, as follows:
The uniqueness of each nature being preserved and combined in one person, humility was assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity, and for the sake of paying the debt of our creation, an inviolable nature was joined to a passible nature; so that, because it was adapted to our relief, one and the same mediator of God and men, the man Jesus Christ (1Tim 2:5) both could die by reason of the one, and could not die on account of the other. Accordingly, in the whole and perfect nature of true man, true God was born, complete in His own, complete in ours… [Ibid, no. 143.]
The council opened in 449 A.D. with 130 bishops, Dioscoros presiding. He refused to hear the pope’s letters. What followed was one of the great scandals of Church history. The gathering was railroaded by Dioscoros who had already decided on the matter; Eutyches was cleared and his accusers were instead deposed! The heated debates turned frantic and in the fray Dioscoros cried out that he feared for his life. That cry caused the imperial guards to storm the council, followed by a mob from the streets. Anger was directed towards Flavian who fled to the sanctuary for safety, but to no avail. He was dragged away to prison, then exiled. Within three days of his exile he died of injuries sustained by either the mob or Dioscoros. He managed, however, to send his account of the so-called council to the pope through the hands of the legates.
When St. Leo heard of the proceedings, he was outraged, calling the gathering a "Latrocinium," that is, a gathering of bandits, a title which has stuck to this day. He sent a letter to the emperor, demanding a new council, this time in Italy, reminding him that appeal to Rome is a fundamental principle of the Church. The emperor did not even respond. Theodosius’ daughter, Eudoxia, pressured him into submitting to the Holy See. Theodosius finally wrote a response, flippantly noting that his council had done good work and there was no need for another. That same year Theodosius died and his successor, Marcian, immediately wrote to Leo and agreed to a new council.
The new council convened in the Church of St. Euphemia in Chalcedon, chosen for its proximity to the capital. It opened with 500 bishops in attendance and 18 imperial commissioners charged to maintain order. In a letter to the council, St. Leo instructed the council to accept his Tome and authorized his legate, bishop Paschasinus of Sicily, to preside over the council. The presider opened the council in the name of "him who is head of all the churches." When the Tome was read, the bishops cried out, "Peter has spoken thus through Leo. So taught the Apostles. Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril. Everlasting be the memory of Cyril. Leo and Cyril taught the same thing, anathema to him who does not so believe." [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol XIV edition by H.R. Percival.] Discoros was tried and deposed. The council, in the name of Leo, "through us and through this holy council, in accord with the thrice blessed apostle Peter, who is the foundation stone on which the Catholic Church is built, the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him of his rank as bishop and of all his episcopal functions." Dioscoros was exiled.
The council enacted several canons on discipline, one
of which gave further power to the See of Constantinople. The Roman legates
were not in attendance that day and later demanded it be annulled. The
bishops refused and the council ended on a sour note. They sent a letter
to Leo, thanking him for his teaching authority and leadership of the Church.
Leo condemned the offending canon as being opposed to Nicea which established
the patriarchate of Alexandria as second in honor and Antioch as third.
He also belittled the canon of the Council of Constantinople which had
established that see as second in dignity, complaining that it was not
an apostolic see. Leo condemned all proceedings which repudiated Nicea.
Marcian eventually mediated peace between Rome and Constantinople.
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5. Constantinople II
The monophysites lived on in the east and their numbers grew after Chalcedon. In both Alexandria and Antioch, the monophysites established their own churches and rejected the Catholic Church and the council. Passions often flared and disputes became violent. Proterius, bishop of Alexandria was murdered for his teachings against monophysitism. In 474, the monophysite Basiliscus was crowned emperor and he formally condemned Chalcedon and Leo’s Tome, forcing many bishops to pledge their allegiance to him. He died soon enough and his successor, the monophysite Zeno, prepared an imperial edict which he hoped would define the faith for his subjects. This edict was prepared by the bishop of Constantinople, Acacius; for this he was deposed and excommunicated by Pope Felix III, but Acacius retaliated by open schism.
In 518, the Catholic Justin rose to the throne. Pope St. Hormisdas sent legates to Justin, carrying a new formula for all the bishops to sign, a formula which he hoped would bring peace throughout the empire. The bishops consented, conceding to the Apostolic See. Justin was succeeded by his son, Justinian, who ruled with his wife, Theodora, a monophysite. In Justinian’s mind, the entire controversy was merely one of misunderstandings and he resolved to reconcile all monophysites to the Church. His mission was short-lived, however, after Pope St. Agapetus arrived in Constantinople on a political mission. Justinian seems to have hardened himself against the monophysite party and called a synod which excommunicated and deposed monophysites everywhere. Meanwhile, Theodora established a friendship with the pope’s assistant, Virgilius, and, when St. Agapetus died in Constantinople, her influence resulted in his election as the new pope.
Amongst the theologians, attention turned to three long dead bishops whom the monophysites accused of Nestorianism and whose prolific writings on the subject became the rallying point for the controversy. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa became known as the Three Chapters and one’s position on the controversy was easily determined by one’s opinion of them. The emperor soon sided with his wife and he issued an imperial edict condemning the Three Chapters. The bishops of the East signed the edict, but only on the condition that the bishop of Rome also sign. Theodora’s man in the Holy See refused to sign. In 545, on the feast of St. Cecilia, as Virgilius was offering Mass in the Roman church of St. Cecilia, he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople. Held captive by the emperor, he stubbornly refused to sign the edict. Finally, Virgilius agreed that the Three Chapters could be condemned without rejecting Chalcedon. For the pope’s seeming compromise, a council at Carthage excommunicated him. A rift between East and West now seemed immanent and Justinian and Virgilius agreed to convene a general council.
Justinian attempted to prepare a document for the council, which would merely require approval of the bishops. Virgilius refused to acknowledge such a document prepared by the civil authority and threatened to excommunicate Justinian should he proceed with his plans. In retaliation, Justinian ordered Virgilius to be arrested, but the pope was protected by mobs of the faithful. He eventually escaped to Chalcedon. A furious Justinian arrested and tortured any bishops who were faithful to the pope. The pope issued a decree excommunicating everyone who sided with Justinian. This decree was posted publicly throughout Constantinople and most of the citizens rallied around the pope. Defeated by public opinion, Justinian retracted his own statements on the subject and ended the persecution. Finally, the council was called.
Justinian’s short lived contrition ended the day the council opened in Spring of 553. With 145 bishops present, none of them from the Latin church, Justinian read his Monophysite declaration to the council and requested approval. The bishops responded that the pope should preside over the council, but Virgilius replied that he would not attend the council unless other Latin bishops attended as well. Rather, he sent a document on the Three Chapters, which declared that the judgment of Chalcedon could not be changed; Chalcedon had examined the Three Chapters and refused condemnation. Justinian responded to the document by producing Virgilius’ prior letter, which effectively condemned the Three Chapters. The council took a dim view of the pope’s apparent turnabout and condemned him. The East was now in schism.
The bishops of the West refused to acknowledge the council’s
results. Virgilius was imprisoned by the emperor. As a means of establishing
peace between East and West, Virgilius conceded that the council’s condemnation
of the Three Chapters could be accepted without rejecting Chalcedon. He
was released and permitted to return to Rome, but died enroute.
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6. Constantinople III
The monophysite controversy continued to divide the East. They were soon racked by a new disaster, however – the spread of Islam. The empire dwindled as Persian warriors confiscated lands in the name of the new sect. When they threatened Constantinople itself, the empire realized that they must do something drastic. They needed national unity and that could not occur until Monophysites and Catholics were united. Emperor Heraclius (610-640) called on his bishop, Sergius, to develop a compromise position that both Monophysites and Catholics could accept together. This compromise position held that in Christ there was only one will, the Divine will. Since there was no human will, there was no genuine human nature and so the Monophysites were content. But, since one only spoke of one will and not explicitly of one nature, Catholics might agree to it also. This compromise position came to be known as Monothelism. The emperor put one Cyrus in the See of Alexander and, using the Monothelite compromise, managed to unite both Catholics and Monophysites in 633.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophronius, a monk of renowned sanctity. He condemned the new heresy and sent letters to the pope and the other patriarchs to that effect. Sergius then wrote his defense to the pope. Pope Honorius, failing to understand the basic issues of the controversy, replied that in Christ only one will operated. This shocking declaration seemed to exonerate the Monothelites. In fact, Honorius was not stating that Christ had only one will, but that in Christ the human will and the Divine will were in perfect conformity so He acted as if He had one will. Honorius also commanded silence on the issue throughout the whole Church. Sergius and Heraclius issued an edict imposing the papal silence on the empire, also legally establishing the monothelite position. This edict was known as the Ecthesis.
Several years later, Pope John IV held a Roman synod which judged against monothelitism and this decision was sent to the emperor. He decided to withdraw the Ecthesis, but soon died. Within the year, Heraclius’ grandson, eleven year old Constans II assumed the throne. In his name, the imperial court defended the Ecthesis and monothelitism. The patriarch of Constantinople, Paul, sided with the emperor and was excommunicated by the pope. The emperor then imposed his will in much harsher measure on the citizens. In an effort to clearly define the Faith, the pope convened the Lateran Council. This synod issued twenty canons clarifying the mystery of the Incarnation (see Denz., 254-274). It condemned the doctrine of one will, the teachings of Paul, Sergius and the Ecthysis. When news of the council reached Constans, he sent troops to Italy to seize the pope and force the bishops to sign his edict. The exarch in charge of the troops found the Roman people very unfriendly towards the emperor and thought he could stage a coup in Italy, setting himself up as an independent ruler. He died of plague no sooner then he began to carry out his plot.
In 653, the pope was kidnapped and imprisoned in Constantinople. He was accused of assisting the exarch in his plan to take over Italy, convicted of treason and exiled to Crimea where he soon died. The emperor died in 668, hated by his own people for his cruelty and murdered by one of his own officers. His son, Constantine IV, assumed the throne and immediately sought reconciliation with the Roman See. He asked Pope St. Agatho for a council to settle the Monothelite controversy. The pope agreed and asked the Latin clergy to hold local synods on the subject. Those results were collected and on Easter, 680, a Roman synod was held to review them. A profession of Faith was issued, signed by 125 bishops and the pope. It was sent to Constantinople with five papal legates. On their arrival, Constantine summoned the bishops of his empire.
The council opened in November of 680 in the emperor’s palace with 43 bishops. Constantine himself presided over most of the sessions. The champion of the Monothelites was the bishop of Antioch, Marcarius. He claimed that what he believed was not new, but the ancient faith. He produced many authoritative Church documents to support his doctrine. The legates claimed that such documents were forgeries and much time was spent analyzing the documents, comparing them with originals in the Church archives. The legates were proven right. When Pope Agatho’s profession of faith was read, the bishops cried out, "It is Peter who is speaking through Agatho!" All signed the profession, save Marcarius, who was deposed.
The notorious letter of Pope Honorious was also read. It too was condemned, the legates themselves leading the condemnation. Meanwhile, as the bishops were in session, a monothelite priest, Polychronius, attempted to sway the council by attempting a public miracle. He wrote a Monothelite profession of faith and lied it on top of a corpse, attempted to resurrect the corpse to life. Nothing happened and he too was condemned by the council. The definition of the council on the subject of two wills reads,
We proclaim two wills in Him, and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseperably, unfusedly according to the doctrine of the holy Father, and two wills not contrary, God forbid, according as impious heretics have asserted, but the human will following and not resisting or hesitating, but rather even submitting to His divine and omnipotent will. [Ibid, no. 291.]
It is of interest to note that the monophysitism of these
three councils is more properly called Eutychianism; the Coptic Orthodox
and other Oriental Orthodox churches are today termed monophysite, although
they do not deny that the nature of the Incarnate Christ is both fully
human as well as fully divine.
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7. Nicea II
The question of how many natures in Christ being resolved, the Church moved forward in relative peace on the subject. It was only within a few years, however, that the next attack on doctrine began. This time the controversy surrounded the veneration of images. A movement began in the East which saw such veneration as superstitious, a movement which is referred to as iconoclasm. Perhaps the first landmark event in the movement occurred when the emperor Leo III removed an image of Christ from the main palace gate. Leo, a brilliant leader who restored the empire to new vigor and secured it against the invading Saracens, was an iconoclast and used his military might to advance the movement. His removal of the public image from the palace gate provoked a city riot. Despite public outcry, Leo authorized even greater attacks on images, commanding his troops to destroy icons wherever they went. When he demanded the Patriarch of Constantinople yield to the iconoclast movement, the bishop resigned and Leo chose his own man to replace him. When Leo demanded the pope, St. Gregory II, yield to the iconoclast movement or be deposed, the Italian peoples revolted against the empire. Gregory’s successor, St. Gregory III, called a synod which confirmed the custom of image veneration.
Leo III died in 740, succeeded by his son Constantine V, an equally zealous iconoclast. This emperor held his own council in 753, which condemned the veneration of images. The empire now engaged in the outright persecution of Catholics, killing many and destroying precious relics. In 780, Constantine VI took the throne at the age of five. His mother, the empress Irene, ruled on his behalf. She was a Catholic and restored peace to the empire.
Irene and the bishop of Constantinople, Tarsios, decided a general council would be in order to settle the controversy. They addressed this idea to Pope Adrian who agreed, provided such a council would condemn the iconoclast council of 753. Three hundred bishops assembled in Nicea in May, 787. A letter from Pope Adrian defining the doctrine was read by his legates, who demanded that each bishop rise and declare his acceptance. The council defined the doctrine of image veneration and, as required by the pope, condemned the council of 753.
After the bishops had returned home, a translation of the council’s proceedings was delivered to the new Frankish king, Charlemagne, who effectively ruled western Europe, including the Italian lands wherein resided the pope. The conciliar report was a very poor translation of the council’s proceedings; they seemed to imply that one could virtually worship images in the same manner as God. Charlemagne and his bishops then condemned the council in a lengthy document now known as the Caroline Books. They held a synod in Frankfort in 794 wherein 300 Latin bishops condemned Nicea II, their sole basis being the mistranslated report. The synod’s findings were sent to Adrian who patiently refuted each point of the findings, carefully clarifying the council’s actual declarations. His final word on the subject ran thus:
With regard to images, the belief of St. Gregory (the Great) and our belief are the same; and so the Greek bishops themselves, in this very synod, accepted the definition, to reverence images with salutations of honor, but by no means to give to them the true worship which, according to our faith, we give to the divine nature alone. [Mansi, XIII, 808; PL, vol 98.]
The iconoclast controversy continued for many years. Iconoclast
emperors came and went, renewing the persecutions during their reigns.
Byzantium finally realized that they would not survive such internal discord
and finally crushed iconoclasm legally and religiously once and for all.
On March 11, 843, the Eastern Church established the liturgical Feast of
Orthodoxy, which honored the victory over iconoclasm. This feast is still
an important date in the eastern rite calendars.
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Part 2. The Early Medieval Councils
8. Constantinople IV
The first seven councils of the Church debated issues on the nature of God. Now begins a new era in which the authority of the Church is debated. In effect, the next several councils focused on clashes between the Holy See and other powers. Superficially, it seems that they are concerned with disciplinary issues (a "pastoral council" to use a modern phrase), but underneath these conflicts and the specific events is an issue with the governing structure of the Church itself. Nor are these conflicts only between bishops, for now the duty of civil rulers in a Christian state becomes clearer and these disputes often involve them. The basic doctrinal dispute of the middle ages is, then, whether the See of Peter has supremacy over other episcopal sees as well as over civil rulers as far as the Church is concerned.
The first of these disputes surrounded a remarkable personality of ninth century Byzantium, Photius. He was one of the great men of his age, a brilliant scholar, statesman and committed to leading a holy and upright life. Although a layman, he was chosen by Emperor Michael III (called "the Drunkard") to assume the Patriarchal See of Constantinople in 853. The problem was that see had already been occupied since 847 by one Ignatius.
Michael and his chief counselor and uncle, Bardas, were noted for their remarkably immoral lives. Ignatius, a great champion of orthodoxy during the Iconoclast years, had forbad Bardas to receive Holy Communion until he repented and reformed. Humiliated in public, Bardas and Michael retaliated by arresting Ignatius, deporting him and then claiming that he had retired to a monastery, leaving the See of Constantinople vacant. They then chose Photius, a man of unequal capabilities appreciated even by scoundrels such as Bardas and Michael, to take the See. Those loyal to Ignatius were scandalized and refused to acknowledge Photius.
Photius declared his election to Rome, per the common practice, and the pope, Nicholas, decided it best to examine Ignatius’ deposition further. He sent two bishop-legates to Constantinople where they took part in a synod which deposed Ignatius. The problem was, the legates had no authority to act in the pope’s name. Nicholas rejected the findings of the synod. A year later, he finally received Ignatius’ appeal and then called a Roman synod which deposed Photius, his followers and the disobedient legates. Ignatius was restored, in the eyes of Rome, and the affair was quickly forgotten in the West.
Two years later, Michael III sent a reckless letter to Nicholas demanding the pope hear the case against Ignatius. Nicholas agreed, but insisted such a hearing be held in Rome. Meanwhile, a new situation developed which complicated the matter considerably. King Boris of Bulgaria had converted to Christianity and requested missionaries be sent into his land. Photius complied, which infuriated Nicholas as he believed that Bulgaria fell under the jurisdiction of the Latin Church. The problem reversed itself when Boris asked for his own patriarch, which Photius refused. Turning to Rome, Boris received an archbishop to his delight and Bulgaria joined the Latin Church, expelling all of the Eastern missionaries. Now a rift developed between East and West. Byzantium ignored the pope’s request for a hearing in Rome and so Nicholas again corresponded, accusing both Michael and Photius of disobedience.
Photius replied with the first serious attack on the pope ever suffered by the papacy. He accused Nicholas, and the Latin Church, of heresy in their claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (the Greeks tend to believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only). He declared Nicholas a tyrant. He called a synod in 867 which deposed and excommunicated Nicholas! Constantinople was now in open schism with Rome. Meanwhile, Nicholas died.
Intrigues stalked the capital as well as the Church. Basil the Macedonian took over the imperial throne, murdering Michael and Bardas. He then deposed Photius and reinstated Ignatius. Basil wrote to the pope, Adrian II, seeking peace between East and West and requesting a general council to settle matters. Adrian quickly convened a Roman synod which condemned the Eastern council of 867, excommunicated Photius, condemned all of his acts as Patriarch and sent legates to Constantinople to demand the same of a general council.
The Fourth Council of Constantinople opened in late Fall, 869 with Ignatius, the legates and a mere eighteen bishops; Adrian had refused admission to anyone who was consecrated by Photius or who remained loyal to him. This left very few. Most of the sessions were spent interviewing bishops and determining their admissibility. By the final session there were 102 bishops, including 37 metropolitans. The council’s main task was in dealing with the Photius affair. Per the legates' instructions, no trial was held; Photius was condemned and his writings plus the proceedings of the 867 council were ceremonially burned. Various canons were issued, the main one condemning anyone who attacks the pope as Photius did.
Adrian renewed Rome’s complaint to the empire concerning
the Bulgarian situation, for Greek missionaries continued to stay in Bulgaria
despite their ealier expulsion. Adrian soon died, succeeded by John VIII.
He wrote to Ignatius demanding the missionaries removal, but by the time
his letter reached Constantinople, Ignatius had been dead a year. His successor
was none other than Photius! Photius convened a synod in 838 where he recanted
his anti-papal writings of the past. With the pope’s authority, the legates
annulled the decrees against Photius issued by the general council. They
gave him a gift of patriarchal insignia with the pope’s best wishes.
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9. Lateran I
The Photius affair established a permanent rift between East and West which never healed. 1054 saw the complete separation of the Greek Church from the Latin Church; the Greek Schism became a permanent feature of Christianity. Meanwhile, the West had its own problems. The powerful German empire Charlemagne had established had eroded into a group of petty states, leaving a Europe devoid of any real power. The fragmented states and chieftains could not muster the unity needed to fend off the bands of Norsemen, Saracens, Magyars and Slavs that plagued Europe. In Rome, a succession of unscrupulous rulers controlled the papacy through murder, depositions and intrigues; this was the era of the "bad popes."
Towards the end of the tenth century, Otto I reunited the empire in Germany, establishing the feudal order of society wherein political power resided in the lords and their vassals who owned both the lands and the people who lived upon them. This new civil structure placed the Church in a new and precarious position. The churches, monasteries, cathedrals, bishops and clergy were effectively owned by the lord of the land; yet if she was to carry out her mission, the Church had to somehow remain free of those same lords’ control. The Church evolved into her own feudal lordship, wherein the bishop or abbot became lord of the land. Of course, it was the civil rulers who gave such lands and properties to the bishop and it was this relationship that developed real potential for abuse. For the bishop was now a mere vassal of his lord, selected by the lord and who pledged loyalty to his lord in the ceremony of lay investiture required of all vassals. The lord, then, chose a man whom he could control and who could pay him a sufficient sum of money to buy the ecclesiastical lands that went with the bishopric. The bishop, to recoup his losses, charged fees for priestly ordination or for the granting of a parish. The priest then charged for his services to pay back his bishop. The layman became the victim in this long line of simony.
Added to these abuses were those of clerical immorality. The cities of the empire had all but vanished and Europe became a rural society. Without the centralization of authority in the cities, it became nearly impossible for a bishop to control his priests, especially regarding the law of celibacy. Priests who married or lived with concubines became more the rule than the exception. Often the sons of these unions became priests themselves and inherited the father’s parish or see.
A reform movement arose which sought to combat these abuses. Pope Leo IX was the first pope to give impetus to the movement. He organized local councils throughout Europe, sending his legates to root out the vices and abuses, deposing bishops and restoring religious life. The pope himself resided over several such councils in Italy, France and Germany. Leo’s successor, Nicholas II, saw that the Holy See itself must endure such a reform and he legislated the rule that future popes should be selected by the college of cardinals, rather than by a civil ruler. The first to be selected by the cardinals was the intellectual giant Hildebrand, who became Pope St. Gregory VII. He attacked the system of lay investiture and decreed that no one was to receive an episcopal appointment from a layman and that no archbishop was to consecrate one so chosen. Then began the clashes between church and state. Emperor Henry IV ignored the papal decree and continued to select his own bishops; those same bishops deposed the pope in a synod and Henry sent his troops into Rome to take the Holy See by force. Gregory was exiled and died in 1085.
The war between the church and state raged on for another thirty seven years. Finally, in 1122 Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II negotiated a truce in the Concordat of Worms. This compromise put an end to lay investiture, but still required approval of the emperor for all episcopal appointments. To confirm the Concordate among the bishops, a council was called to be held in Rome. It opened on the Third Sunday of Lent in 1123 with nearly 1000 bishops and abbots, plus their retinue of canons, priests, knights, soldiers and statesman – perhaps the grandest assembly of any council – in the mother church of Christendom, the Church of the Holy Savior, also called St. John Lateran.
Although the proceedings of the council have been lost,
we know that they accomplished their primary work of ratifying the Concordat.
Many canons were decreed, most merely republications of prior papal decrees
regarding the abuses of the day. The relation between Church and State
was clarified, though, and the roles of the papacy in spiritual affairs
and those of the civil rulers in temporal affairs were defined.
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10. Lateran II
The numerous councils decreed by Leo IX ushered in what may be called a new conciliar age. The synod became the primary means of working out disciplinary issues and they multiplied over the next century. The general council was no exception and the next century saw four such councils convened to combat a continuation of the same problems addressed at Lateran I. When Pope Honorius II died in 1030, two feuding families of the Roman nobility seized the moment to elect one of their own to the papacy. The Pierleoni family’s claimant called himself Anacletus II, while the Frangipani clan set up Innocent II. Although Anacletus controlled the power in Rome, forcing his opponent into French exile, Innocent had the backing of France, Spain, England and such renowned personages as St. Bernard of Clairvaux. When Anacletus died in 1138, his successor submitted to Innocent. This did not stop the Pierleoni family and their supporters, however. They continued to attack Innocent as an imposture. Innocent responded by convening a general council.
The council opened in the Lateran in Spring of 1139 with
500 bishops and 1000 abbots. Innocent presided and demanded the full submission
of all present, which he received. The council issued thirty canons
related to disciplinary issues such as the morality of jousting, the military
use of catapults and usury. The council also issued two doctrinal canons.
The first declared the necessity of internal contrition for the forgiveness
of sins. The second was a litany of heresies to be condemned.
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11. Lateran III
These frequent occurrences of abuses, vice and immorality had at least one good effect: the Church developed remarkable legislative skill in her experiences during this age. Canon law matured to such a degree that it has suffered very little revision since. Shortly after the Second Lateran Council, Rome saw a pontiff often described as the greatest legal mind to ever sit on the throne of Peter, Alexander III. His legislation is still considered genius. He had, however, the unfortunate plight of serving the Holy See at the same time as one of history’s most unpleasant characters ruled Europe, Frederick Barbarossa. This Frederick fancied himself ruler of the Church as well as of the state and to this end conquered much of Italy, including Rome, and set up his own collection of anti-popes. Alexander was forced to flee and watch from afar during eighteen years of usurpation as the Chair of Peter was used to further imperial power.
Alexander saw the strength of Frederick in his unification
of the petty kingdoms and city-states which he conquered and the organization
of those governments into a unified power. The pope decided to use a similar
means to defend Rome and organized many of the city-states of Italy into
a league capable of comparable military force. The league overcame Frederick’s
army who agreed to a truce in 1177. Two years later, in March of 1179,
Alexander convened a general council to seek reconciliation with the imperial
throne. The council also issued a number of canons dealing with such diverse
topics as education, lepers, Jews and the Catharii. The council also revised
St. Gregory VII’s legislation on papal elections, mandating the need for
a two-thirds vote of the cardinals, which legislation has survived to this
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12. Lateran IV
We now enter into an age of European history when the Church can be said to have arrived at the height of her glory. The beginning of the thirteenth century saw St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic and their mendicant orders. The reform movement of the last century was now at its height and the abuses of the early medieval period were fast fading under the brilliant ecclesiastical legislation of recent years. The papal election of 1198 brought Innocent III to the bark of Peter, one of the greatest pontiffs of history. A holy man, great legalist and certainly prolific writer (he left us over 6000 papal documents), his was the height of papal power and influence.
The primary issue of the day was that of the Manicheans, sometimes called Albigensians or Catharii ("the pure"). This heretical sect believed in a dualist view of the universe. Dualism is a doctrine that believes in two supreme beings, one good and the other evil. All that is good in the world is from the good god and all that is perceived evil is from the evil god; for the Manicheans, only spirit is good and all matter is evil. The Manicheans descended from the third century Persian mystic, Mani, who set forth his doctrine against Christianity. The doctrines re-emerged in the thirteenth century in southern France, primarily in the town of Albi, whence the name Albigensian. For the Christian, God is the source of everything and everything is good. Evil is merely the absence of good. God permits evil to occur because in such instances He will draw from the evil a greater good. Yet, for the Manichean, this explanation does not suffice. For them, a good God could not even permit evil if He had the ability to do so. Their solution: the good god has no such ability because he is in conflict with an equivalent power that seeks only evil. For the Manichean, all that is of the material world is from the evil one. A person’s duty is to avoid the things of this world because they will taint him with evil. The body was considered evil and so, therefore, was childbirth and marital relations.
Oddly enough, this dualist fantasy became quite popular. The Albigensians were particularly active and vocal in spreading their doctrines, a tendency that often erupted into mob violence in many towns. Local governments found themselves primarily employed in mob control. The state, fearing widespread civil unrest, called upon the Church to assist in riding Europe of these new doctrines which caused such violence. The Church agreed, sending forth missionaries to preach against the errors, missionaries primarily drawn from the newly established Order of Preachers founded by St. Dominic. The Church also established a special judicial office, the Inquisition, which focused on setting punishments for clerics and religious who taught the new heresy. Contrary to popular belief, the General Inquisition did not engage in any known acts of torture, nor did they condemn individuals to execution. In a few cases the Inquisition gave up on stubborn individuals as incorrigible; those persons were tried by the civil authorities for treason and executed. Finally, the Church convened a general council to define the heresy and condemn it.
This council, the fourth held in St. John Lateran’s, opened
in November of 1215 with 412 bishops plus about 800 abbots. The council
issued seventy canons on ecclesiastical law. These canons became the pillar
of Church legislation for centuries and the council itself the greatest
of the medieval councils. In fact, until Trent over three hundred years
later, one could merely refer to it as "The Council" (one thinks of the
progressivists of today who call Vatican II by the same phrase). It effectively
established a mature ecclesiastical structure which has remained intact
since. The council itself was so devoid of scandals or intrigues that there
is little interesting to tell of its proceedings. With it, the age of abuses
comes to a close; the Church is now prepared to enter into a new age of
European civilization which will see the end of a rural civilization, the
rise of towns and cities, a new merchant class, the growth of humanism
and the popular idea of individual liberty instead of institutional authority.
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13. Lyons I
The next council again surrounded a dispute between an emperor and a pope. The emperor was Fredrick II, a Sicilian elected to the throne in 1211 at the age of seventeen after being raised a ward of the pope. The pope was Innocent IV, another among the line of great legalist popes. The conflict began at Frederick’s coronation, wherein he took a vow to lead a crusade against the Turks. He neglected this vow for some sixteen years until Pope Gregory IX was elected in 1227; he reminded the emperor of his vow and demanded that he now fulfill it. Fredrick and his troops reticently complied, but no sooner had they embarked than they were attacked by the plague. Frederick turned back, but Gregory apparently felt that not even the plague should route him from his avowed task; he excommunicated the emperor. Frederick retaliated by marching on Rome and exiling the pope from his own city. Frederick then repeated his attempt at a crusade and traveled to the East where he negotiated a truce with the Sultan. Frederick would receive the holy lands in exchange for peace between East and West. He then returned home where he also made a truce with the pope.
That truce was short lived. Frederick embraced a number of novel doctrines concerning the Faith, not the least of which was that he, as emperor, was head of the Church. The pope was, in his eyes, merely the chairman of the college of cardinals, the spokesman for a group of ecclesiastics who were the emperor’s servants. He attempted to take over Italy by military force and re-establish Rome as the imperial capital. For his efforts, he was quickly excommunicated once again.
Gregory decided to unite the bishops with the papacy in this conflict. He summoned a general council in 1240 to meet in Rome. The council was derailed when Frederick had his navy attack the ships which transported the bishops to Rome and take them prisoner. All seemed lost when Gregory IX died that same year. He was replaced by Innocent IV, a Genoese cardinal who attempted negotiations with Frederick. Those negotiations failed and Innocent was forced to flee to France where he enjoyed the protection of King St. Louis.
Innocent convened a general council once again in 1245.
The location was to be Lyon, a large city in southeast France, near the
Italian border. Here, nestled in the Rhone River valley, 150 bishops gathered
on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Their issues were fivefold: clerical
abuses once again, the recapture of Jerusalem by the Saracens, threats
to the newly established Latin Church in Constantinople, the Tartar invasions
in Hungary and, of course, the abusive emperor. Frederick was solemnly
excommunicated and deposed by the council. This was, naturally, ceremonial
rather than practical. Frederick reigned until 1250, suffering little effect
from the conciliar declaration. The council had, at any rate, once again
declared the authority of the papacy and the autonomy of the Church.
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Part 3. Councils of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance
14. Lyons II
The story of this next council must begin even before the previous one, in the year 1204. The fourth crusade, having failed in its mission to reclaim the Holy Lands, attempted to minimize its losses by conquering Byzantium. The crusaders set up a Latin prince as the new emperor and declared that the only way to reclaim Jerusalem was to forcibly unite the Greeks with the Latin church. For the Greeks, this was the last straw in a long line of conflicts with the west; a conquered people, they abhorred their new rulers. Pope Innocent III attempted to establish a peaceful solution to this matter, but clumsily worsened the situation when he set up a Latin archbishop as patriarch of Constantinople. Innocent IV realized that negotiations were in order and began such with Emperor John III, but both died soon after such talks began.
In 1261, Michael VIII Palaelogus reclaimed the imperial throne for the Greeks. Unlike his people, Michael held no animosity towards the pope or the West. He envisioned an alliance between East and West which would strengthen Byzantium against the ever growing hordes of enemies prowling at every border. In particular, German emperor Charles of Anjou wanted nothing more than to conquer Byzantium and reestablish a great empire as in the days of ancient Rome. Michael’s desire seemed realized when, in 1271, Blessed Gregory X assumed the Holy See. Bl. Gregory had been a cardinal assisting crusaders in the East when he was elected; he was extremely sensitive to the delicate relationship between East and West and made it his first priority as pope. He immediately contacted Michael and recommended a general council including both East and West which would meet in the neutral town of Lyon. Gregory even secured a promise from Charles that he would permit Byzantine representatives safe travel.
Gregory was more than a careful strategist; he was a great saint as well. His primary purpose in calling a council was to restore morality to Christendom; reunion with the Greeks was only secondary. The pope himself prepared the council documents, calling for reports from bishops throughout Europe on the state of the Christian life in their dioceses, common abuses and proposals to improve the spiritual conditions of their flocks. His council opened in May of 1274 with 500 bishops in attendance and the Franciscan St. Bonaventure presiding for the pope. In his opening speech, Gregory noted the three purposes of the council: reunion with the Greeks, the need for a crusade to liberate the Holy Lands and the reformation of Christian morals.
The Greek delegation arrived six weeks after the council opened. It included Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, Archbishop Theophanos of Nicea and some officials of the imperial court. These delegates came in the name and authority of the emperor and 500 eastern bishops, including 50 metropolitans. On July 6, the reunion between the Latin and Greek churches was accomplished. The council issued a dogmatic constitution on the filioque which read partly as follows: [Filioque is the Latin word for "and the Son" which is part of the Latin version of the Nicean-Constantinople creed: "I believe in the Holy Ghost, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son"; this word was added in the West and was not part of the original creed. Many Greeks believed that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father only.]
In faithful and devout profession we declare that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, not as from two beginnings, but from one beginning, not from two breathings, but from one breathing. The most holy Roman Church, the mother and teacher of all the faithful, has up to this time professed, preached and taught this; this she firmly holds, preaches, declares and teaches; the unchangeable and true opinion of the orthodox Fathers and Doctors, Latin as well as Greek, holds this. [Denzinger, no. 460.]
The emperor himself signed a lengthy profession of faith which included a belief in purgatory, the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist and the supreme authority of the see of Rome. There is some speculation that the emperor coerced the Eastern bishops into submission to the council.
With the reunion happily established, the next order of business fell to the subject of moral reformation. Thirty disciplinary canons were published, primarily directed at bishops since a reformed bishop can effect the reformation of many souls. The council also discussed the issue of mendicant friars, who were multiplying at a remarkable rate. The bishops were annoyed at the uncontrolled growth of mendicant orders, whose members seemed to attract the faithful away from the diocesan parishes. The council legislated controls regarding the proliferation of new orders.
Gregory also imposed upon the council a new innovation
regarding papal elections – the conclave. Gregory’s election had followed
three years of vacancy in the Holy See, a situation which was a scandal
to the faithful. His conclave required the cardinals to assemble in Rome
quickly after the death of a pope and to be literally sealed in a building
from which they could not escape until a successor was chosen. Despite
the bishops’ general grumblings, the conclave was approved and remains
a characteristic feature of papal elections to this day.
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We now come to the pitiful tale of perhaps the most scandalous episode in Church history and its corresponding Council, wherein all of the worst of scandal and intrigue gathered in deadly form. It focuses on the French king, Philip the Fair, considered by many to be the most avaricious and cruel king of old Europe. In his efforts to finance France’s lengthy war with England, Philip plundered the Church by levying heavy taxes on Church property. His efforts were condemned by Pope Boniface VIII, who declared the state had no such authority over the Church. After arresting and trying a French bishop in the civil court, Philip was again the subject of a papal rebuke. Now incensed by the pope’s admonishments, Philip waged a war of propaganda against Boniface. The pope was unjustly accused of a variety of crimes and the French soon began referring to him as the Antichrist. This conflict reached a head when Philip’s chief advisor, William de Nogaret, attacked the papal palace with French troops and threatened the aged Boniface with violence. This was in 1303. The townspeople rallied to their Papa’s side and drove the troops out, but Boniface was shaken by the incident. He died within three weeks.
Philip now found himself charged with the pope’s death by the surrounding countries of Europe. To save face, he decided to somehow prove his trumped up charges against Boniface. His opportunity came at the election of Pope Clement V, a Frenchman who is regarded as one of history’s weakest popes. His coronation in 1305 took place in Lyon with Philip attending. The king, taking advantage of the new pope’s vacillating nature, suggested to Clement that he stay in France, at the palace at Avignon, in order to investigate what Philip claimed was a great Church scandal. That suggestion to stay at Avignon was the origin of the famous opprobrium wherein a succession of French popes ruled the Church from that French city for seventy three years, never even setting foot in Rome. And that scandal which seemed so important concerned the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar was one of several religious military orders that served the crusades. All of these orders were composed of knights, soldiers and their staff, yet were true religious orders in the Church whose members professed vows and adhered to a daily rule as well as a habit. These orders were unique in that their apostolate was to assist Christendom in winning back the Holy Lands. The Templars were unique in that they owned great castles in Europe which, after the crusades, they used as banks. With their military might capable of securing these castles, the Templars became a popular financial institution among the European nobility. As religious, they were trustworthy and as knights they were effective. Of course, they soon became a very desirable target for the avarice of Philip. He wanted their wealth and their lands and, as they answered only to the pope, it became necessary to discredit them before the pope. Philip concocted a litany of accusations against the Templars so horrible and vicious that not even Clement could believe it. The knights were accused of sorcery, of homosexual orgies, idol worship, every kind of heresy, blasphemy and numerous other evils. Philip decided he would gather proof to offer the pope.
On October 13, 1307, every Templar in France (about 2000 men) was arrested and tortured in the most unspeakable manners. At that time, a confession under torture was considered admissible evidence and many Templars, under such horrible pains, offered the desired confessions. Those who did not confess were simply killed. The confessions of those who did confess were given to Clement who believed the testimonies presented; he immediately opened a special court of investigation. In all countries except France, the knights were acquitted of the charges. Only in France, under the operations of Philip, were the knights victimized. After the tortures, all revoked their confessions, but in France it was an executable offense to revoke a confession of heresy, so many of the knights were burned at the stake. Even the Grand Master of the order, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake after the king tricked him into a confession.
Seeing his opportunity to easily control Clement, Philip revived his attack on Boniface. He insisted Boniface’s body be exhumed, tried and burned as a heretic. The king sent a team of lawyers to Avignon to make the king’s case to Clement who was very uncomfortable to try such a case. He managed to drag the process out for nearly a year before the king recalled his lawyers for more pressing needs.
A general council to try the knights convened on October 16, 1311 at the French city of Vienne. Clement and Philip invited only certain bishops. A new procedure was established in which each issue was studied by a commission and their proposed resolution would be placed before a consistory of the college of cardinals. If they approved the resolution, then the council of bishops would be forced to give their approval without debate. The commission on the Knights Templar strongly recommended that the knights themselves be heard in council. King Philip quickly travelled to Vienne and somehow that recommendation was then changed; the commission suddenly voted to suppress the order. Clement immediately issued a bull of suppression and commanded submission of all the bishops. No one was even allowed to speak on the matter under threat of excommunication. Philip had won – but his victory turned sour. Clement transferred all of the order’s wealth to another military order, the Knights Hospitallers.
The council also judged three issues of doctrine. The
first was a declaration that the human soul is, per se, the form of the
human body, a doctrine of great interest to scholastic theologians. The
second condemned as heresy the claim that ‘usury is not a sin.’ The third
involved a variety of errors held by the group known as the Beghards or
the Beguines. These believed in various ideas about spiritual advancement
which may be described in modern terms as new age. The council closed on
May 3, 1312, closing a sad and scandalous chapter in Church history which
hangs over the Church even today.
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This council’s history must begin immediately after Vienne in the French town of Avignon. Here, on the shores of the Rhone not fifty miles from the Mediterranean coast, a great papal palace was built to house that succession of French popes who followed the lead of Clement V. With Rome in a seemingly endless state of war, attacked by plague and the Roman people of a rather uncivilized type, the French cardinals found life at the Avignon court quite pleasant in contrast. As the majority in the College of Cardinals was French, it was a simple enough matter to consistently choose from among their own and so maintain the papacy in Avignon, at the cost of great scandal to the Church.
After seventy three years of an Avignon papacy, pope Gregory IX bowed to the appeal of Italy’s great saint, Catherine of Sienna, and left Avignon for his rightful place in the Eternal City. Within two months, Gregory died and a conclave followed. The fifteen cardinals – of whom eleven were French – found their conclave surrounded by Italian mobs demanding the election of an Italian and threatening violence. The cardinals gave them an Italian, Urban IV. The French cardinals returned to their homeland and there declared the election invalid as they did not feel free to cast their votes according to their will. They held their own conclave and elected one Robert of Genoa as pope, who called himself Clement VII; he reigned at Avignon of course. The Church was now in a precarious situation where two men called themselves pope and no one really understood who had the valid claim. Urban IV had the prestigious backing of the holy St. Catherine, yet Clement was supported by the wonder working Dominican saint, Vincent Ferrer. The Church was in an uproar. Both claimants died and were succeeded, Clement by Pedro de Luna (Benedict XII), a close friend of St. Vincent. St. Catherine died during the reign of Urban IV, who was succeded by Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII. The bishops declared that the only means to settle this issue, which we now call the Great Western Schism, was through a general council.
In 1409, the bishops gathered in the Italian town of Pisa. Both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII were declared deposed and excommunicated. A new man was elected to the papacy, Alexander V, who died within the year and was succeeded by John XXIII. As Gregory and Benedict stubbornly refused to submit to the council, the Church now had three claimants to the Holy See.
Emperor Sigismund called a general council in the Italian town of Constance in October of 1414 to resolve the issue of the three popes once and for all. The council decided that, with the Italian bishops holding a majority, fair votes could not be gathered. A new election system was developed wherein each country could cast one vote; nationalism was thereby prevented. John formally convened the council which began the proceedings to decide what to do with him. A worldly man, things did not look well for his continued reign, so he fled to Hapsburg. He was eventually captured, deposed and imprisoned. The council moved on, however, without him and this created a most precarious situation. First, which of the three papal claimants was the valid pope? If not John, then the council was not properly convened and so its results not valid. Second, the council issued a decree, Sacrosanctum, which declared that the pope is subject to the general council. This decree seems difficult to reconcile with the Catholic Faith, which places the pope above the council as head of the Church. These problems were answered in the fourteenth session when Gregory XII, of the papal line originating with the Roman conclave, sent two bulls to the council. The first formally convened the council. The second declared his resignation for the sake of peace. The council accepted and thereby declared that the Roman conclave was a valid election and that Gregory was the valid pope. As such, John was an anti-pope who had no authority to convene a council, likewise the council at Pisa. What the council of Constance calls the fourteenth session is actually the first valid session and all proceedings of the first thirteen sessions, including Sacrosanctum, were invalid. The council attempted negotiations with Benedict XIII, whose stubborn refusal to step down finally lost him the patronage of St. Vincent Ferrer, but in the end he was declared an anti-pope and deposed.
The council decided a conclave was in order and this time the emperor sent his troops into Rome to protect the cardinals from mob influence. Within three days Martin V became the new pope, bringing an end to the Great Western Schism and a ruinous chapter in Church history. The council discussed a great variety of issues related to the episcopal and papal administration of the Church. At its closure in 1418, Martin V only approved seven administrative decrees of minor note, which represent the outcome of the longest council yet convened.
Of great interest is, however, the issue of the heretics
John Wycliffe, John Hus and Jerome of Prague. These men are still seen
as the forerunners of Protestantism. John Wycliffe was an English priest
who preached, among other things, that Christ did not establish a hierarchical
Church, that there is no such thing as the Sacrament of Orders or the priesthood
and that the sole source of divine revelation was Sacred Scripture. He
had died in 1384 and the council, condemning his writings, commanded his
bones be dug up and transferred outside of the consecrated grounds of the
cemetery. John Hus was a professor at the University of Prague and a follower
of Wycliffe. Brought before the council, he obstinately refused to recant
his heretical views and so the bishops declared him a heretic, a crime
which was equivalent to treason in that day and place; the civil authorities
charged him so and burned him at the stake. The doctrines of Wycliffe and
his followers Hus and Jerome were condemned by the council, which represents
the only doctrinal declarations of this ecumenical council.
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The antics of popes and bishops continued after Constance, but seem to have finally dissipated at the Council of Florence, perhaps the most civil of all the Renaissance councils. This council goes by several names – Florence, Basel, Basel-Ferrera-Florence – because the gathered bishops moved the location twice. Its history begins at Constance, where the bishops, still seeking to increase the power of the council over the pope, declared that general councils were of such benefit that they should be held every ten years. Pope Martin V convened the first of these on schedule in 1423 in the Italian town of Pavia, just south of Milan. After several months and never more than twenty five bishops in attendance (it opened with just two), Martin dissolved it for lack of interest.
Martin’s successor, Eugene IV, convened the next scheduled council in Basel, Switzerland, which opened in December, 1431. By that time, the followers of John Hus had engaged in a civil war against the Catholic princes of Bohemia. The resolution to this bloody state of affairs was of the greatest importance to Christendom. The bishops at Basel decided that the Hussites should be invited to the council to state their issues and seek resolution. Pope Eugene declared that there would be no dealing with the Hussites and issued a bull dissolving the council. Of course, the issue of the Hussites was merely a medium by which the pope and the bishops sought to dominate each other. After receiving the bull, the council declared that a pope held no such authority and they continued their sessions.
Within a year, Eugene gave in to the will of the council and granted them the right to gather. The council replied by deciding how best to reform the papacy, restricting the pope from any interference in the appointment of bishops. Further demands were made of the pope who gave in to all of them. When the King of Milan, emboldened by the council’s weakening of the papacy, marched on Rome to "punish" the pope, Eugene fled to Florence. Despite Eugene’s rather timid attitude towards the council, at no time did he formally revoke his bull of dissolution. Basel remained an unauthorized council.
In 1437, Eugene began negotiations with the Byzantine emperor, John VIII, for the reunion of the Greeks with the Latin Church. Despite the truce made in 1274 at Lyons, the Greeks once again parted from the Latins over the issues of the filioque, the doctrine of purgatory, the primacy of Rome and the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist. Eugene and John decided that a general council of Greeks and Latins together could resolve any differences and end the schism. The pope then formally denounced the proceedings at Basel and reconvened the council at Ferrera near Bologna, Italy. His legates at Basel obeyed with some of the bishops and new proceedings opened at Ferrera in February, 1438 with 131 Latin bishops and 31 Greek bishops including the Patriarch of Constantinople, plus the emperor amid great liturgical pomp and ceremony. It moved again a year later to Florence. After some months of discussions on the doctrinal topics, the Greek bishops agreed that the Latins believed essentially as they did and agreed to reunion. The council issued a decree to this effect and the Greeks returned to their homes in Fall of 1439.
With this victory of reunion fresh in the eyes of the world, the Franciscan missionaries laboring in the Middle East made quick headway with other schismatic and heretical Christian sects. While the Greek bishops were still traveling home, the Armenian monophysites arrived in Italy to request reunion, this as a result of the Franciscan friars’ efforts. Then came the Coptic monophysites from Egypt. They were followed by the Nestorian remnant. It seemed that all East and West would become one. The council finally closed in 1445 with no fanfare.
The reunion was short lived, unfortunately. Memories of
the treacherous actions of Latin crusaders were still haunting the Byzantine
Christians, who also believed that reunion with Rome would result in the
suppression of their Eastern liturgical heritage. Many rebelled against
Florence and much of the Orthodox Church was once again in schism.
Meanwhile, at Basel, many bishops remained, insisting that the pope
had no authority to dissolve their council and they continued their "anti-council"
for some years. They deposed the pope and declared themselves infallible.
Eugene responded with excommunication. The civil authorities of Europe
split, the princes siding with whomever offered a more lucrative benefit
for their loyalty. This situation of paying princes to remain loyal to
the Holy See established a precedent of blackmail, which would haunt the
papacy for centuries. The bishops at Basel elected their own pope in 1439.
Eight years later, forced into defeat, that man "resigned" and the Basel
bishops "elected" the already reigning pope, Nicholas V. They reconciled
with Rome and the mini-schism ended.
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Part 4. The Baroque and Modern Councils
18. Lateran V
Among the more colorful characters to have sat upon the throne of Peter, perhaps none have achieved such fame as Julius II. More a Renaissance prince than a pope, Julius has left us the fine legacy of artistic triumphs as the main supporter of Michelangelo and Raphael and the builder of the Vatican Basilica. More curious is, however, his legacy of political and military excursions which won for him the nickname of the Warrior Pope. Julius wanted the Holy See to be free of the political machinations that had dominated it for so many centuries; he sought to free Rome from the influence of civil rule. He engaged in many wars – with Julius himself leading the troops into battle – and in many political alliances which changed on a near daily basis. Thus, the pope, like many rulers of the age, had many political enemies not the least of whom was King Louis XII of France.
Louis entered on a war of propaganda against Julius and the French bishops sided with their king. As the French military successfully engaged the northern Italian states in battle, expanding the borders of Louis rule, more bishops sided with their new king as well. These bishops from France and northern Italy held what they styled a general council in Pisa in 1511 to depose the pope. They declared a state of emergency in the Church and felt justified in suspending Julius from any papal functions.
Julius, for his part, convened a general council in the Lateran in April of the following year, the purpose of which would be general reform and to determine the status of the gathering at Pisa. Julius died after the sixth session and was succeeded by Pope Leo X, a member of the de Medici family who negotiated a peaceful relationship with Louis. The rebel bishops repudiated the schismatic council at Pisa and peace was restored.
The council then moved on to the issues of reform. The new worldliness of Renaissance life had left the Church in desperate need of reform in many areas of Her life. Bishops often lived far from their dioceses and ignored their flock, seeking pleasures and luxuries and abusing their high status and wealth. Many priests were remarkably ignorant and incapable of preaching. Religious flagrantly disobeyed the rules of their order, leaving the cloister and going wherever their fancy led them. The laity had accepted a spiritual life which was mechanical, clamoring after devotions, indulgences and curiosities. In general, many members of the Church, perhaps most, had succumbed to the new worldly spirit of the age and practiced religion as more of an annoying necessity out of fear of hell. Many clerics and layman were now calling on the Church to reform herself, to remove the chaff from among the bishops and clerics, to preach the Gospel to the laity and educate them on the basic tenets of the Faith, to breathe a new life of sincere spirituality into the Church.
The council effected several reforms, none of which accomplished much in practice. The Index of forbidden books was established. The papacy and the episcopacy went through a general reform, but with enough loopholes that most bishops could continue their extravagant lifestyles. Efforts were made to reform religious orders. A single dogmatic definition was made, the defense of the immortality and multiplicity of the soul, against those scholastic theologians who embraced the teachings of Averroes. The council ended in March of 1517 and set its reforms into action. Already God was raising up saints to carry out this reform, but not before the Church was to suffer her most cruel blow. In October of that same year, a young doctor of theology at Wittenberg University in Germany, Fr. Martin Luther of the Augustinian order, took the first step in an academic debate on the abuses of indulgences. According to common university practice, he invited the debate by writing out his ideas, in the form of ninety five theses, and posted them on the church door for all other academics to see. No one came to his debate, But somehow this quite ordinary act became the very symbol of the Protestant movement. Back to top
The failure of Lateran V to effectively reform the Church bore extraordinary results. Many felt that abuses were not the result of a hierarchy gone bad, but of a hierarchy per se. They blamed the very existence of priests and bishops, and the sacraments which they administered, for the weak state of Christianity. They saw the problem as one of authority – when men held authority, they abused it; hence authority must be eliminated from the Church. It was the logical conclusion to the new Renaissance individualism. These reformers declared that the Church must shed herself of clerics, religious, sacraments and anything related to these perceived additions to the Gospel before Christians could lead lives of true faith. The most famous of these reformers was, of course, Martin Luther. He developed a theology wherein merit had no place, not even for a baptized Christian. He eventually denied the Mass, several of the sacraments, the priesthood, the virtue of religious life, the episcopacy and the papacy. He found many followers, especially among European princes who now found a rationale to rid themselves of the tyranny of the papacy and the Catholic emperor. These princes allowed the new Protestant heresy, as it came to be called, to flourish in their lands. Public sentiment followed the reformers who declared the pope to be anti-Christ and Catholicism became illegal throughout much of Europe. In 1527, Protestant reformers attacked Rome, wishing to overthrow the "anti-Christ." Pope Clement VII, another weak Renaissance pope, could do nothing to stop them. The Renaissance had spawned a new idealism of individualism and personal liberty; authority was now seen as an evil. Ironically, it had been the papal authority itself which had funded and championed so much of Renaissance idealism.
In October of 1534, Paul III assumed the papal throne. A lover of the arts, Christians hungry for reform lost hope that he would accomplish anything beneficial. It was he, however, who launched the reform that finally steered the Church back on course. He decided to convene another council, but not before he cleaned up the papal household first, including the College of Cardinals. He selected brilliant and holy men for the college, such as St. John Fisher, Reginald Pole and Erasmus (who declined). A commission of reform was established. Religious orders devoted to true reform, such as the Jesuits, were given canonical status and the authority to do great works. Paul created the Holy Office to defend the Church against the new heresies of the Protestants. It appeared that the papacy was finally moving towards ridding itself of the abuses that had curtailed its authority for so long.
The council convened in Trent cathedral, in northern Italy, on December 13, 1545. There are three periods of the council, the first lasting until 1549. In his opening address, Card. Reginald Pole of England, secretary of the council, criticized the bishops as the source of all trouble in the church. He made it clear that reform of the episcopacy was critical if the Church was to become an effective instrument of the Gospel. It was during this first period that decrees were enacted to adequately reform the bishops and priests. The bishops also clarified the Church’s eternal teaching on original sin, justification and sacraments, topics that were under severe attack by the Protestants. The council broke in 1549 when problems with the emperor suggested all bishops return to their sees.
The second period of the council began in 1551 when Pope Julius III reconvened the bishops. This period, wherein the bishops continued their clarification of sacramental theology, ended when threats of war sent the bishops home for safety after only one year. In 1555, Cardinal Carafa, the most rigid and impetuous of the council secretaries, became Pope Paul IV. He continued the cleanup of Rome in a most harsh manner, using the Inquisition and the Index to their fullest capacities. He was succeeded by Pius IV, who convened the council for the third and final time in 1562. Upon his succession as pope, Pius IV was pestered by his nephews seeking ecclesiastic offices. Pius decided to offer the office of cardinal to his one nephew who asked for nothing, a pious youth now known as St. Charles Borromeo. It was Charles who led the council through its third period, which ended on December 4, 1563.
Trent provided the legal basis for effecting a true reform of the Church. It also defined the Faith in a clear and lucid manner against the Protestant heretics. In fact, the dogmatic decrees of Trent became the basis of catechetics and theology for four hundred years following, a period we now call Tridentine. Despite the clear and effective teachings and legislation of Trent, reform could not occur unless reform-minded leaders rose up to carry out the decrees, leaders of such sanctity and intellectual capacity that the lure of the world held no effect. In 1566, Pope St. Pius V assumed the papal throne and effectively completed the reform of Rome begun by his predecessors. One of the most saintly men to hold the See of Peter, St. Pius carried out the full work of the reform; the liturgy was beautifully clarified, catechesis made the hallmark of the Teaching Church, priests were finally trained in an adequate manner following the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, religious orders returned to their apostolates. Under the inspiration of St. Charles Borromeo, bishops reformed their offices, disassociating themselves from the wealth that had enslaved them for hundreds of years. Under the powerful guidance of SS. Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola and so many others, religious orders returned to their rules and flourished in astonishing holiness. St. Philip Neri reformed the citizens of Rome by his street preaching as the Jesuits reformed the whole world. The reform of the Church, so long desired, had finally come.
Unfortunately, the reform of Trent could not eliminate
the Protestant heresy. The teachings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the
other heretics held sway over many in Europe who desired freedom from the
authority of the Church. Approximately ten million Catholics left the Faith
and northern Europe became effectively Protestant thenceforth. Yet the
Church’s numbers were not depleted for at that same time the Franciscan
missionaries in Mexico baptized approximately ten million native
Americans, who begged for baptism after the Mother of God appeared to one
of their own and took her Mexican children under her own care.
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20. Vatican I
It was inevitable that the Renaissance individualism, which had so transformed Christianity in Europe, would soon enough take its toll on civil authority. New philosophies sprouted almost daily, frequently calling for democratic government and an end to monarchical or aristocratic rule. The dam finally burst in Paris of 1789; the Revolution put an end to the old world and western civilization would never be the same again. The Church was crippled and, once given permission by the state to exist, could effect little more than to add itself to the plenitude of institutional opinions which one may or may not choose to heed.
Ven. Pope Pius IX assumed the See of Rome in 1846. Attacked by the state, imprisoned in the Vatican, ignored by a new atheist society, he nevertheless raised his voice against the abuses of civil and social powers of his day. His Syllabus of 1869 remains a summary of the evils of nineteenth century Europe. Faced with a Church which had no impact on European life, he convened a general council to decide how to cope with the new world in which the Church found itself. A body of one hundred theologians and canonists were commissioned to draft a list of decrees which the council would discuss. Only two were sanctioned, one concerning papal infallibility and one against the new rationalism. The council opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1869 in the Basilica of St. Peter – the Vatican.
A dogmatic statement of the Faith was drafted, known as Dei Filius. The bishops debated the language quite extensively, finally giving unanimous consent on Low Sunday of 1870. This dogmatic constitution defined various truths concerning God the Creator, sources of revelation and the relationship between faith and reason. Its purpose was to condemn certain rationalist ideas that were popular at the time.
Next, the bishops took themselves to the other subject, that of papal infallibility. On this subject, the bishops were divided into two distinct camps – those who believed the time was ripe to make such a pronouncement and those who felt the time inopportune. This later group, the minority, became known as the Inopportunists in popular history. Though all of them believed in papal infallibility, they were concerned that making such a definition at the general council would cause scandal in many regions of the Church. Some thought their efforts of converting, or even peacefully coexisting among, the Protestants would come to an end. Others thought such a definition would be misunderstood by the Faithful or that the definition would lead to a tyrannical papacy. There were many fears, many speculations. For months the bishops argued until the entire council became tedious to its attendees. The dogmatic constitution, Pastor Aeternus, underwent numerous re-writes before the council put it to vote. 535 bishops cast their votes during a tremendous July rain storm which cast the Vatican’s interior into darkness and the definition was passed, but not unanimously. The definition reads partially as follows:
…the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable. [Denzinger, 1839.]
The Franco-German war began that week and Napoleon III withdrew
his troops from the Vatican. With no protection, the Vatican surrendered
to Italy and Pius IX suspended the council indefinitely. Two post-scripts
are noteworthy. First, none of the scandals predicted by the Inopportunists
ever occurred. The Catholic faithful accepted the definition of infallibility
happily, as they had always believed it, for it changed nothing in their
belief. Nor did it scandalize the Church living in Protestant nations.
Second, the only group to flatly reject the doctrine were a small group
of theologians in Germany and Switzerland. They won over some laymen and
called themselves the Old Catholic Church, obtaining episcopal consecrations
from a Jansenist bishop in France. They continue as an organization to
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21. Vatican II
The Vatican council did not entirely dispel rationalism among the clergy. By the end of the nineteenth century, a group of theologians were anonomously teaching ideas they knew to be incompatible with the Catholic Faith. The basis of their thought was relativism – that absolute truth did not exist, that ideas were fluid and different people at different times and places could believe entirely different ideas, yet all be right. The new doctrines found their way to a seminary underground in France and Germany and it appeared the Church was at risk. Pope St. Pius X, a brilliant intellectual, met the attack with the encyclical, Paschendi dominici gregis, defining and condemning the movement, called Modernism, and implementing a host of protective legislation that deflected the heresy which he termed "the synthesis of all heresies." When congratulated on his victorious defense, he replied that he had merely driven them underground for a while, until they find a more opportune moment to resurface.
That moment came during World War II. Pius XII was consumed by efforts to establish peace and to save the victims of the Holocaust. With so little papal attention to theology, the modernists re-established themselves in the seminaries and became more persistent. After the war, the pope issued his encyclical Humani Generis with the purpose of halting the spread of the new rationalist heresies, but it was too late. The neo-modernists had established themselves. By the time Pope John XXIII thought to convene a general council, the Catholic acedemia of northern Europe and much of America had become captivated with variants of the modernist doctrine.
The question remains to this day: why did Pope John desire a council? There seemed to be no need for one and he never really clarified his reason, other than to claim that he had received a divine inspiration. As a cardinal, John had been repeatedly victimized by Roman bureauocracy and many believe that he wanted to merely simplify the way the Church carried out Her business. Preparations began in 1960; numerous documents were prepared on a variety of topics from communism to liturgy. The council opened on October 11, 1962 with over 2000 bishops, the largest gathering of any council in history. Immediately, the bishops of northern Europe, led by Cardinals Fringes and Suenens, gained political control of the council by establishing new rules of order. The bishops then informally grouped themselves into voting blocks and the council was transformed into a kind of modern political machine. All but one preparatory document – that on liturgy – was discarded and a new agenda was established. The neo-modernists and their bishops now controlled the council. Fr. Hans Kung, the most famous of the neo-modernist theologians asserted that what had once been the dream of an avant-garde group in the Church had "spread and permeated the entire atmosphere of the Church due to the Council." ["Pope John’s Council", Michael Davies, Angelus Press, 1977.]
Sixteen documents were issued during the council’s four sessions before the council closed on December 8, 1965. These documents covered a range of topics from the liturgy to ecumenism to social communications. The two dogmatic constitutions on the Church and Revelation completed the work of the first Vatican council. The remaining documents were pastoral in nature, as John XXIII had noted in his opening speech that the entire council was meant to form pastoral directives, not to resolve any dogmatic disputes.
Vatican II should have been one of the lesser and more mundane of ecumenical councils. It has turned out to be perhaps the remarkable and controversial of all. The effect of neo-modernism in the council and in the life of the Church after the council has been profound. The latin liturgy underwent a sudden and shocking transformation. The Church became involved in the ecumenical movement, previously condemned by several popes. The local bishops conference suddenly found it wielded an authority similar to that of the pope. Catholics felt at ease to disregard any portion of Catholic doctrine or morality they found troublesome. In summary, the interior life of the Church was suddenly disrupted.
The neo-modernist Progressives joyfully carried out their program of reform in what they called the spirit of Vatican II. Like the Protestants of the 16th century, they rejected religious authority; but unlike the Protestants who left the Church to form their own denominations, the Progressives chose to remain inside the Church and change it to meet their needs. They called Vatican II a new Pentecost and the post-Vatican II Church a new creation of the Holy Spirit; the pre-Vatican II Church, they said, was to be no more. They were condemned by Pope John Paul II time and again, but in a brave new church where condemnations had no relevance. A protest was raised by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve and his new Priestly Society of St. Pius X; they established the Traditionalist movement which sought an end to the neo-modernist influence through the Church.
Author's note, added in 2018: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI engaged the Church to end the novelties that rose in the wake of the council, and they were rather successful. The more sensational novelties were eliminated, the seminaries were renewed such that theological relativism ended with newer generations of priests, and the life of the Church began to see the interior renewal desired by Pope John XXIII, a renewal of the Gospel of God's divine mercy, infused by the Holy Spirit. It is particularly interesting that Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) was one of the those avant-garde young theologians who helped shape Vatican II along with Hans Kung, Karl Rahner and other Progessives. It was in his later role as cardinal and pope that he preached the dangers of relativism to the Church, and sought a renewal of theology in the seminaries; for this he was attacked in print by Progressive theologians who thought of him as a traitor to their movement. As we know, Pope Benedict resigned, claiming exhaustion due to old age. His successor, Francis, fairly ended the renewal protocols of John Paul II and Benedict, and focused on furthering the message of God's mercy. He too was attacked in print by those who were happy with renewal efforts and felt it was too soon to end them. Pope Francis, however, focused not on the transient stage of eliminating novelties that will eventually take care of themselves, but on the permanent task of preaching mercy, which appears to be the real fruit of Vatican II.
If the lessons of history can teach us one thing, it is that change is inevitable. The neo-modernist influence on today’s Church will one day be merely an historian’s curiosity like the Arian stronghold of yesteryear or the clerical abuses of the middle ages. This is the life of Christ’s Church, superficially weak, but spritually strong and vibrant due to the presence of the Head. Today we cannot fathom our Lord’s plan for His Church, but tomorrow our progeny will benefit from His wise providence. Let us again return to that first Jerusalem council of the Apostles and hear the advice of St. James as he quotes the Prophet Amos:
After this I will return and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord… (Acts 15:16-17)
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