IN PREVIOUS ISSUES we have told the stories of the first and third ecumenical councils. In what follows, Brother Michael tells the story of the fourth Ecumenical Council, that of Chalcedon (pronounced Kal- sē’- dun). This of necessity brings in, by way of background, the story also of a false council, which was first intended to be ecumenical, but whose authority was rejected by the Pope. This rebellious and heretical assembly has been styled in infamy, The Robber Council of Ephesus. The first four ecumenical councils are considered by many doctors and theologians to hold the same pre-eminence in the tradition of the Church as the four Gospels among the books of sacred scripture. Here are their names, dates, and principle achievements:
Nicaea I (325) — defended the divinity of Christ. Summoned by Pope Saint Silvester I.
Constantinople I (381) — defended the divinity of the Holy Ghost. Summoned by Pope Saint Damasus.
Ephesus (431) — defended the oneness of Person in Christ and the Divine Maternity of Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
[A council was also held at Ephesus in 449, but was considered false by the Pope because it was taken over by heretical rebels, and seemed to deny the duality of natures in Our Lord. ]
Chalcedon (451) — defended the dogmatic truth that the one divine Person, who is Jesus Christ, has two natures. He is true God and true man. Summoned by Pope Saint Leo I.
The other seventeen ecumenical councils are:
Constantinople II , 553 approved by Pope John II
Constantinople III, 680-681approved by Pope Leo II
Nicaea II, 787 approved by Pope Adrian I
Constantinople IV, 869-870 approved by Pope Adrian II
Lateran I, 1123 approved by Pope Callistus II
Lateran II, 1139 approved by Pope Innocent II
Lateran III, 1179 approved by Pope Alexander III
Lateran IV, 1215 approved by Pope Innocent III
Lyon I, 1245 approved by Pope Innocent IV
Lyon II, 1274 approved by Pope Gregory X
Vienne, 1311-1312 approved by Pope Clement V
Constance , 1414-1418 approved by Pope Martin V
Florence , 1438-1445 (also called Basel-Ferrara-Florence) approved by Pope Eugene IV
Lateran V , 1512-1517 approved by Pope Leo X
Trent , 1545-1563 approved by Pope Pius IV
Vatican I , 1869-1870 approved by Pope Pius IX
Vatican II , 1962-1965 approved by Pope Pope Paul VI
Chalcedon-City of the Council
The city of Chalcedon was made illustrious chiefly by the martyrdom of Saint Euphemia, a Christian virgin burned at the stake in 307 for refusing to compromise her Catholic Faith. On the spot of her martyrdom a great church was built, shortly after the end of the Age of Persecution. It was within the walls of this edifice in the year 451 that 636 bishops, representing the Universal Church, gathered together in what came to be the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church.
We know that only a very grave and urgent necessity would call for the convocation of all the prelates of the Church to an ecumenical council. How is it, then, that such an emergency came to be, when the Faith had been put on such a firm foundation, only twenty years earlier, at Ephesus? In fact, many of the characters who took an active part in the drama of the Third Ecumenical Synod were still very much alive. The answer is that the eradication of one heresy opened the door for the entry of another. The crushing of the Nestorians occasioned the rise of the Monophysites, who, under the guise of defending the Redemption against Nestorianism, denied it altogether by denying the human nature of Jesus, by whose sacred humanity we were redeemed.
Eutyches — Author of the Heresy
It need not be too surprising, nor is it a unique case in history, that the author of the new heresy was once a champion of the Faith. Eutyches, the heresiarch we refer to, was an archimandrite, which means that he was the head of an Eastern monastery. At the time of the Council of Ephesus, he was an ally of Saint Cyril and a friend of Eusebius of Dorylaeum, the two main challengers of Nestorius. Once Eutyches even led his monks in a march of protest to the imperial palace in defense of Saint Cyril, who was being persecuted by a faction sympathetic to the Nestorians. But, being a man of more zeal than learning and depth of understanding, Eutyches jumped from a defense of the necessary oneness of Person in Christ to a denial of the equally necessary duality of natures in Him.
Typical of men who reject the guidance of the Church and begin reasoning without the light of Faith, Eutyches was led to most absurd conclusions. Determined to maintain only one nature in Christ, and unwilling to be associated with the Arians, who denied Christ’s divinity, he was led to deny the sacred humanity which Our Lord received from Mary. This is why he is called a Monophysite (from Greek, monos [one], and phusis [nature]. This is also why he is said to have revived the more ancient heresy of the Docetists, by implying that what seemed to be the humanity of Jesus was a celestial body He had always had, even before He was conceived of Mary.
Expounding the Theological Issue
It is an infallible dogma of the Faith that there are two natures in Christ: the divine, which was and remains His in all eternity; and the human, which He took upon Himself nineteen hundred and seventy-nine years ago. In assuming the one He never lost the other; so that, in consequence, the Son of God the Father in eternity is now and forever also the Child of Mary. When the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate for our salvation, His human soul was directly created by God, while His body was formed from the flesh of Mary, His Virginal Mother.
This, simply stated, is what we are bound to believe concerning the duality of natures in Christ. Nature is the essence of a being considered under the aspect of what a being can do or what can be done to it. Person refers to the agent or patient, the doer or sufferer. Person answers the question, “Who?” Nature answers the question, “What?” Put in the style of the Catechism:
Q. Who is Jesus? A. He is God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
Q. What is Jesus? A. Jesus is true God and true man; indeed, the God-man.
The Person is one, the natures are two. Both questions were answered by Nestorius in the plural, and by Eutyches in the singular. The first of the two heresiarchs was wrong as regards the Person, the second, as regards the natures. According to Nestorius, Mary is not Mother of God; according to Eutyches, Mary is not even a mother.
But the aged archimandrite did not have the position of influence commanded by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eutyches was deficient as a theologian, and his knowledge of Scripture was superficial; consequently his sphere of influence should have terminated within the confines of his own cloister-that is, if events had followed a normal course. Yet, when has it ever been that events take a normal course when one is dealing with the powers of hell? Eutyches did end up getting powerful support, and he did become extremely dangerous.
Other Persons Favoring the Heresy
Unexpectedly, Eutyches was to receive protection, and even support, from important personages in Church and State. On the imperial throne in Constantinople, at the rise of the heresy, was the unstable emperor, Theodosius II-the same who, less than a score of years earlier, had favored the Nestorians and put Saint Cyril in jail. This unworthy grandson of Theodosius the Great was now won over to favor the new heresy by a strong and unscrupulous minister, the eunuch Chrysaphius, an able intriguer and master flatterer, who also happened to be a friend and a godson of Eutyches. The influence of this schemer over the vacillating emperor went so far as to succeed in having the emperor remove his own sister, the celebrated Saint Pulcheria, from the royal household, and therefore from any influence over the imperial policy.
From another direction, and for entirely different reasons, Eutyches received support from the very See of Saint Cyril. This great and holy Doctor of the Church, who, as Patriarch of Alexandria, and by the command of Pope Saint Celestine I, had led the fight against Nestorius, died in 444. He was succeeded by Dioscorus, a bishop of little theological discrimination and of a most violent temper, who had also conceived a grudge against the See of Constantinople and its saintly patriarch, Flavian. The reason for this jealousy was the sudden rise of Constantinople from being simply the City of the Emperors, to the position of leadership among the Eastern sees, a distinction once claimed by Alexandria.
The Church Takes Cognizance of the Crisis
We proceed now to tell the sequence of events which occurred during a period of about two years, leading first to a false council, which scandalized the world, and shortly after to a true council, which saved the Faith.
As the year 449 approached, many, including Eutyches himself, wrote to the Pope for a judgment on this issue. And the Pope, initially not too much alarmed, was taking the matter under consideration. Providentially, the Pope at the time was one of the holiest and most learned in history, Saint Leo the Great. In Constantinople, the Patriarch Flavian was not taking any action, perhaps himself also waiting for the Pope to speak first. But this condition of quiet, yet strained, suspense was to be suddenly exploded by a man who had a flare for the dramatic. His name was Eusebius, to whom we have already made reference. Twenty years earlier, at the rise of the Nestorian heresy, he was a mere layman who had heroically resisted the Patriarch Nestorius to the face, in defense of Our Lady’s title, “Mother of God.” Since that time, he had become the distinguished prelate of the historical city of Dorylaeum, celebrated later in the annals of the Crusades. This Eusebius, attending a local synod summoned by the Patriarch Flavian to settle a matter of territorial jurisdiction, stood up at the end of an ordinary session, and denounced his onetime friend and ally, Eutyches, for heresy. This action forced the patriarch and the synod to summon Eutyches for trial.
Here follows a story typical of heretics at all times. Eutyches became evasive, and refused to talk candidly on the issue. Fortunately, the record of the trial has been preserved, and is worth studying, for we see in it a perfect type of the Liberals of our own time. However, in spite of all the smoke screens raised by Eutyches in order to obscure the issue, his heresy was sufficiently evident, and he was condemned. This should have been the end of the matter, but actually it was just the beginning.
The Tome of Saint Leo
The most lasting result of these turbulent events is a document of antiquity, a veritable treasure for the Church, known as the Tome of Saint Leo. It is a profound and authoritative expression of the Faith, an expounding of its deepest mysteries. How came it to be written? For that, we must continue the story of the heretical Archimandrite.
Eutyches was not the type to accept defeat. He became more active than ever. Having no worry about reprisals from the secular powers (remember his protector, the eunuch Chrysaphius), he nailed his protests against the action of the local synod all over the walls of Constantinople, sent letters complaining of his mistreatment to religious far and wide. Nor did he desist from sending another letter to Rome, this time an appeal.
When the Roman Pontiff received the archimandrite’s appeal, he realized that the danger was not so restricted as he had thought. Mildly rebuking Flavian for not communicating with him earlier and in more detail concerning the trouble, Pope Leo promised to send him very shortly an exposition that he was currently preparing on the controverted doctrine. In the same letter he verified the excommunication of Eutyches, though he cautioned the Eastern shepherd not to be unmerciful in case the archimandrite should return to his senses. The Pope considered the troublesome monk to be less guilty of maliciousness than ignorance.
At the time, however, this was not all that was disturbing the sensitive mind of Saint Leo. From without, the barbarians were invading Eastern Europe, Spain, and Africa, and had even sacked Rome itself. Moreover, from within, other heretics with their destructive creeds were threatening Christendom as never before. Almost placidly, the successor of the virile fisherman from Galilee picked up his quill, and amid all this turmoil composed what is the most simple and yet the most sublime doctrinal treatise concerning the mystery of the Incarnation that has issued from Christian antiquity. But Saint Leo is not solely to be credited for the inspired writing. Upon completing his treatise, the Supreme Keeper of the Keys visited the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, and asked Saint Peter himself to correct any mistakes is the treatise; then, placing the letter on the grave, he fasted an. prayed for forty days. When Pope Leo returned to the holy crypt he found his exposition of Faith-edited! We have included for you the substantial part of this Tome:
. . . for He Who is One and the same, as must be often repeated, is truly Son of God and truly Son of Man. God in this, that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;” man in this, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us;” God in this, that all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made; man in this, that He was made of a woman, and under the law.
The birth of the flesh is the revelation of human nature; the being born of a virgin is the sign of divine power. The weakness of the child is shown by the lowliness of the cradle; the glory of the Highest is proclaimed by the voice of the angels. He is like to the children whom Herod wishes cruelly to slay; but He is Lord of all, whom the wise men rejoice humbly to adore. And that it might be concealed that the Godhead is covered by the veil of the flesh, the voice of the Father called from Heaven: “This is My Beloved Son.
He who as man is tempted by the cunning of the devil, He, as God, is ministered to by angels. Hunger, thirst, weariness, and sleep are evidently human; but to feed five thousand men with five loaves, to walk on the sea, to command the storms, is without doubt divine. As it does not belong to one and the same nature to bewail a dead friend with deep compassion, and to call him back to life when he has been four days dead by the mere command of His word, or to hang upon the Cross and to make the elements tremble, so it does not belong to one and the same nature to say: ‘‘I and the Father are one,” and “the Father is greater than I.,’ For although in Jesus Christ there is only one Person of God and man, yet the common glory and the common lowliness of the two natures have a different source. From us He has the manhood, which is inferior to the Father; from the Father He has the Godhead, which is equal to the Father. . . .
This is a slice of the doctrinal masterpiece, known throughout history as Leo’s Tome. No reply could have proved more devastating to the one-nature proponents. Both from the logic of its Scriptural reasoning and from the eminence of its author, it was destined to be an immortal standard of Faith, though its total triumph was by no means immediate. Presently, dark clouds began to gather on the horizon.
Before we go on, we would like to emphasize the fact that Flavian did a very courageous thing in excommunicating Eutyches. He would have been naive, however, if he had not suspected that dire consequences would follow; nevertheless, he could never have known that his holy zeal was shortly to bring him to eternal glory at the hands of his enemies.
The Rebellious False Council
When Pope Saint Leo confirmed the excommunication of Eutyches, the Faith could be said to have won a round, but immediately the enemy was posed for trouble. The devil found a willing agent in Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria, whose grudge and heretical tendencies we have already noted. Dioscorus succeeded, through his allies around Theodosius II, to move the impressionable emperor to action, in complete disregard of the papal prerogatives. By an imperial order, a council of bishops was summoned to meet at Ephesus, at which, as the plan later unfolded, Dioscorus was to preside. The reason for the energetic move by Dioscorus was to exonerate Eutyches and depose Flavian. The true but hidden motive was to raise the See of Alexandria above the See of Constantinople. The Emperor would never have cooperated had he been aware of the hidden motive.
Aware that the barbarian incursions in Italy would prevent the pope from attending the synod in person, the promoters of the new council sent an invitation to Saint Leo, so as to give the gathering every characteristic of Catholicity. Needless to say, the Pontiff was not too optimistic about the idea of such a synod; however, being faced with a veritable fait accompli, there was no alternative for him at the time but to send his deacon Hilary as his personal representative. The deacon along with two legates, Bishop Julius of Puteoli, and the priest Renatus, had strict orders to see to it that the Pope’s letter to Bishop Flavian [Leo’s Tome] be read and subscribed by all. Furthermore, Hilary was invested with complete authority to ratify or nullify any decree that might be promulgated. Lamenting years later over the atrocities perpetrated at this unfortunate assembly, the same Pontiff referred to the gathering as a Latrocinium (Robber Synod), which name it has borne ever since.
The Council opened on August 8, 449. It was held in the same Church of Saint Mary where Our Lady’s Divine Maternity was so gloriously proclaimed just eighteen years before. The sacredness of the setting proved to be no barrier for the sacrilegious behavior to come. The Council was a short one. In fact, it was terminated at the end of the first session.
To begin the fiasco, Dioscorus, in his capacity as president of the assembly, deliberately ignored the legates’ request that Pope Leo’s letter to Flavian be read. Previously, he had promised the legates that he would read the letter; then, having taken it from their hands, he adroitly put it aside. What he did read in its place was an imperial edict ordering the admission of an unruly Eutychian monk named Barsumas into the ranks of the bishops. Other irregularities were quick to follow. The president then declared in a threatening voice that anyone who would dare alter the faith of Nicaea or Ephesus would receive a double condemnation, that of the emperor and that of God. The imperial commissioners were prepared to back up these threats, or at least the temporal part of them-physically! Some of the secretaries had up to this point been taking notes for their bishops, when suddenly their writings were confiscated by Dioscorus’ deputies. Not a few of them had their fingers almost broken off. Only the partisans of the president were allowed to take notes. Next, Eutyches himself was given the floor. He first directed all sorts of accusations against the persons of Flavian and Eusebius; then, having recited several creeds to the satisfaction of the Monophysites, he was restored to his monastery, and without any further ado, the excommunication against him was removed.
Passing over many other atrocities, we come to the point of the Alexandrian’s long desired coup, his hour of victory. The Patriarch of Constantinople was solemnly pronounced excommunicated and his bishopric was given over to Dioscorus’ secretary, Anatolius.
Hilary’s patience ran out. Raising his voice above the tumult, he bellowed the consecrated formula, Contradicitur! thus nullifying by the Pope’s authority all the illegal proceedings. Then, taking Flavian’s appeal with him, the brave deacon escaped through an open door, and only by a circuitous route was he able to return to Rome. This same Hilary is the one who succeeded Saint Leo as pope and became a canonized saint. The Church honors him on February 28.
Flavian himself was not so fortunate. For when this patriarch had loudly protested his unjust sentence, Dioscorus jumped from the platform where he presided and, beside himself with fury, ordered the doors of the church thrown open. In poured soldiers armed with chains, along with a horde of Barsumas’ hoodlum monks. By this harassing technique the president of the assembly constrained all the bishops to subscribe to Flavian’s excommunication-or else! Meanwhile, the enraged tyrant cautiously approached his rival. Drawing near, he struck Flavian with his fist, sending the unsuspecting prelate sprawling to the floor. Barsumas’ cohorts, seeing the assault, ran to the scene like vultures; then surrounding their stunned victim they shouted, “Kill, kill!” The prostrate body of Bishop Flavian was then kicked and trampled upon unmercifully. Three days later the Patriarch of Constantinople died of his wounds. The Church honors him as a saint and a martyr. His feast day is February 18.
The news of this Ephesian travesty left the Pope deeply grieved. As he read over the martyred Patriarch’s appeal, unaware as yet that the signer was dead, Leo was justly enraged. “What has been done with no regard for justice, and contrary to the authority of all the canons, possesses no sort of validity,” he said. It was not long afterwards that he heard of Flavian’s death.
For the moment, all the Pope could do was to take strong measures against Dioscorus and Eutyches. Both were forcefully anathematized at a Roman synod convoked for the purpose. However, in order to rectify the many outrageous injustices inflicted at the Robber Synod, the Pontiff wrote to Theodosius II telling him to rescind the unlawful decrees. He also offered to assist the Emperor in the summoning of another ecumenical council, this time to be held in Italy, where they could more easily put the Faith in order. As was feared, Theodosius refused to cooperate. Meanwhile, the deluded Alexandrian piled absurdity upon malice, for in retaliation to Pope Leo’s recent measure, he presumed to excommunicate the Pope!
The Happy Outcome
At this moment of gloom in the life of the Church, the Providence of God was to interfere drastically like a bolt from the blue. A quick succession of events was to end the crisis in favor of the Faith. It began by the sudden removal from the imperial throne of the unfortunate Theodosius, by a fatal fall from his horse. This cleared the way for the return to sovereign authority of Saint Pulcheria, the elder sister of Theodosius, who had held the regency during his minority and shared with him for a time the supreme power, even after his coming of age. This wise woman, in order to govern her empire more effectively, married the widowed general Marcian, a virtuous Catholic, upon condition that he would respect her vow of virginity. Marcian’s first noteworthy accomplishment as emperor was the execution of the court flatterer, Chrysaphius. Another fortunate event was the conversion of Anatolius, who, as we remember, was placed on the chair of Saint Flavian, as Patriarch of Constantinople, by Dioscorus and the Monophysites. His example was followed by many prelates of the East who had also favored the heresy.
The Emperor Marcian and Saint Pulcheria then proceeded to cooperate with Saint Leo in summoning a legitimate council. This was finally achieved when 636 bishops poured into the Church of Saint Euphemia on October 8, 451. It was by far the largest gathering of prelates ever assembled; in fact, its quantitative distinction would not be surpassed until the First Vatican Council in 1870.
When all was in order, the imperial commissioners called for the reading of the acts of the Robber Synod. In their capacity as policemen, these magistrates were to conduct the order of affairs of the council and to see to it that peace be maintained- a difficult task. However, as was understood, they were to leave the religious part of the disputations to the bishops. If emotions were high up to this time, they became increasingly accentuated as the tragic drama of the false synod of Ephesus was brought back to life. Astonished ears heard many remorseful confessions escape the lips of prelates who had succumbed to Dioscorus’ threats and signed Flavian’s excommunication. Even greater amazement seized the minds of the listeners when they heard several witnesses testify that they were forced to sign a blank paper, or be beaten with clubs and swords. In a strange sort of pharisaical criticism, the Patriarch Dioscorus rebuked the repentant bishops, saying that for their Faith they should have been willing to shed their blood. There was no real defense for those so accused; all they could do now was to ask for clemency from the assembly, and this they were not denied.
As the day progressed and Saint Flavian’s profession of Faith was being read, a peculiar thing occurred. Apparently some of the Dioscorites were having second thoughts; and upon hearing the true doctrine as expounded by the martyr, many of the tyrant’s wavering disciples were seen to leave their places and take new seats among those bishops loyal to the Church. Every time this spectacle took place, shouts of jubilation echoed through the hall from the orthodox quarter.
When night had descended and the remainder of the acts were being read by candlelight, one of the commissioners put forth a welcome suggestion. “Since,” he said, “Flavian and his followers were deposed at Ephesus, then all those bishops who were guilty of the depositions should now suffer the same punishment.” Some bishops agreed, but the majority voted that Dioscorus alone should be so punished; so it was decided, and so it was officially done at the third session. Thus the first day of the memorable assembly concluded.
The second meeting was marked by the absence of the Patriarch of Alexandria. This was a purely doctrinal session. Putting the Robber Synod aside, the conciliar Fathers concentrated on unfolding the correct theology of the Incarnation. Several of the previous conciliar creeds were recited, and then the letter of Saint Cyril to Nestorius, wherein he clearly teaches the duality of natures in Christ. “That is the orthodox faith,” the assembly shouted; “that we all believe . . . thus believes Pope Leo.”
A climactic peak, making the day unforgettable to history, was attained when the famous Tome of Saint Leo was solemnly read. The 630 bishops, almost all of whom were from the East, were unable to restrain their enthusiasm. Rising to their feet, they cried out, That is the faith of the Fathers, that is the faith of the Apostles. . . . Peter has spoken by Leo!
This, briefly told, is the story of the Council of Chalcedon- the Fourth Ecumenical-of 451. At this Council a heresy was crushed-that of the Monophysites-and by the same measure, the Faith of the Church was once more saved. We owe this happy outcome to the zeal and piety of three great saints, whom we now invoke for help against the heresies of our time:
Saint Leo I-Pope and Doctor of the Church,
Saint Flavian-Bishop and Martyr,
Saint Pulcheria-Virgin and Empress, Pray for the Church!