Monday, June 16, 2014

How Many Councils?

Since I ventured outside of the common Church establishment into the traditionalist movement and now into Byzantine Christianity one question simmers in the background, never quite coming to a boil, but always on heat: how many ecumenical councils have there been?

Fr Gregory Hesse
Most Catholics, traditionalists of most shades included, would say that there have been twenty-one councils, from the first Nicene gathering until the Second Vatican Council. Some of the more fringe-edged traditionalists like the FSSPX are divided on the matter. Many, like Bishop Bernard Fellay believe Vatican II to be an awful council, a council they would like voided, but a council by legal definition nonetheless. Others, such as the late Fr. Gregory Hesse, adamantly maintained that Vatican II, by not defining doctrine and by teaching heterodoxy, was not a valid council.

A debate along different lines continues within Byzantine Catholicism. The non-Byzantine eastern Catholic churches—the Maronites, Malankara and Malabar, Copts etc—seem at ease with the councils of the last millennium. The Greek Churches do not. Something I have heard commonly in Greek Catholic churches, particularly from clergy, is that there are only seven ecumenical councils, the first seven that the Eastern Orthodox recognize (long having renounced Constantinople IV, Lyon II, and Florence). The reason generally given for their dismissal of the more recent councils is that neither they nor their Orthodox counter-parts were represented at those gatherings.

At first there is a logic to this. Can one be bound to that which one did not consent or agree? Were the Byzantine churches even invited to Trent?

After some further thought on the matter I have come to wonder if the Byzantine view currently in vogue about the recent councils is an allergic reaction to three centuries of Latinization by lunatic Franciscan missionaries and American eastern Catholics suffering from an inferiority complex after Fr. Alex Toth's scandalous debacle with Msgr. John Ireland.

Perhaps the first seven councils reign high in the Byzantine mind because they occurred when Byzantium dominated the Church. Councils from within and without Byzantium met at the emperor's calling. The orthodox Greek Fathers with their keen insight into neo-Platonic philosophy and their pastoral zeal always found an expression of true doctrine. Monks and ascetics formed the fluid Greek spiritual life. The Church of Constantinople itself was a battlefield for heretics and true worshippers, the victory of the latter always confirming and strengthening the existing taxis. One could say Nicaea II and the defeat of iconoclasm was the birth of the Orthodox church. Then it all slowly came apart. The empire decayed under the duress of Muslim, Latin, and Serbian presence. The Latin church developed its own theological tradition during the middle ages. The papacy in Rome underwent an immense spiritual and political revival, returning to a level of prominence lost since the days of Gregory the Great. The newer councils adopted Latin terminology and were focused around the person of the pope rather than the emperor. The paradigm shifted and the Greek Christian world receded.

This begs deeper questions. Can Byzantines be bound to accept concepts beyond their theological vocabulary? I have never met a Byzantine Catholic who believed in Original Sin, a transmitted stain or guilt. Without variance, they believe in the Fall, making us all, to quote one Ukrainian deacon, "spiritual crack babies." Josef Ratzinger famously stated that the Greeks cannot be bound to believe anything unaccepted in the first millennium. The reasoning seems logical at first, but has flaws upon historical inspection. How could Coptic, Latin, or Indian Christians be bound to the Creed of Nicaea? The idea of "essence" is hopelessly tied up in Greek philosophy as is "consubstiantiality." Are those optional for the Syro-Malabar Catholics?

There are even liturgical implications to this question. A great number of Byzantines missed many of the medieval and Counter-Reformation councils, but did reconvene with the Roman Communion in the 18th century. These Byzantines continue to this day to revere post-schism Greek saints like Gregory Palamas, John Cabasilas, and Theophan the Recluse. Some even venerate Mark of Ephesus as a saint! If we take Eugene IV's Cantate Domino at face value then a sizable portion of the Church is venerating in the liturgy and imitating in life the damned. 

Fr. Hunwicke some time ago pointed out that Robert Taft, SJ goes un-censured in his rejection of post-8th century councils. Does Rome take any recent councils other than Vatican II—the birth of the modern political establishment in Rome—seriously? I think if they did we would have more firm criteria as to what constitutes a council and the degree to which it binds the constituent parts of the Catholic Church.


  1. I had read that the First Council of Constantinople had no Western representatives, and that I was not recongnized as ecumenical in the West but some centuries after. So why should we Latins be bound to that "Greek synod" (using their own reasoning)?

    On the other hand, I would like to know your (and your readers') opinion - or correction- on a matter: fall I under some degree of heterodoxy if I think that Ecumenical Councils (I'm not talking about diocesan and provincial synods, &c.), as they were shaped since their very beginnings -Nicaea- are a Constantinian invention and, per se, as alienous to the Church Tradition as the Piononist Papacy is? By no means I want to reject them (how could I reject the Creed and doctrines they have tought throughout history?), but to point out that they were a product of historical circumstances, not of Apostolic Tradition nor of the very essence of the Church, so they would be not that counterpart to Papal authority that most Byzantines want them to be.

    Kyrie eleison

    1. The first eight councils had virtually no Latin representation at all except for a few Papal legates. Aside from Nicaea, which had a good number of African bishops, those early councils were almost entirely Hellenistic. It is interesting that Papal approval was necessary to make the council ecumenical (hence Constantinople only being promoted to ecumenical after its convention—that council changed the Creed by the way) but not Papal attendance or convocation. Indeed only two of the first eight councils were called by popes (Chalcedon and Constantinople IV, with the emperor joining in for the sake of participation).

      Councils were an innovation in the form they took. I could imagine that in the pre-Constantinian Church local bishops, presbyters, and deacons met periodically to discuss relevant matters and make decisions, but the idea of calling all bishops under imperial aegis to bind the Church to a formal statement was quite new. That of course does not make said statement negligible, nor does the Pionistic papacy make the Assumption less important.

      I think Conciliarism is a bad thing on the whole and not the needed countervailing piece to papal imperialism that Byzantines want. Three people in a room cannot entirely agree on anything. How is a committee of 3,000+ bishops going to govern the Church actively? The real solution I think is a return to the local power of the bishop, cultivation of local traditions, and local synodality—allowing the clergy of a given area to make decisions particular to their circumstance. I also think the establishment of patriarchates in the Latin church—preferably held by monks or people who take a vow never to hear a red hat or accept the papacy—would help matters immensely.

  2. Vatican II didn't define any doctrine. What doctrine it has is of course a restatement of earlier definitions. It has policy and suggestions for practice. So Fr. Hesse was wrong. (Was he a canon or monsignor? Just looked it up: dressed like that because he was ordained in St. Peter's Basilica. You can learn something every day.)

    I've done the Greek Catholic option in varying degrees on and off for two decades (plus a regrettable, regretted move to the Orthodox); now I do it 1/4 of the time (12 Sundays a year). The schismatic notion that there are only seven councils is popular with the mostly convert faction that's loud online (former Roman Riters or former Protestants who rightly fall in love with the rite but go too far), wannabe schismatics; thank God I have never encountered it among Byzantine Catholics in person including the clergy. The older second-generation Ukrainian-Americans at my part-time parish don't talk like that.

    We give most born Orthodox including most post-schism Orthodox saints the benefit of the doubt. We include them. They don't include us.