The Council of Nicea was Catholic

The headline of this posting may strike readers as comical. It is, of course, a fact.It seems so obvious as to be like asserting that the New England Patriots are a football team. However, there are Protestant polemicists who attempt to detract from Nicea’s Romishness by the use of various ahistorical machinations.

I was going through some old stuff on the hard drive the other day and happily came upon a little collection of arguments for the fact that the First Ecumenical Council was indeed Papist. (Some of the arguments are direct; others are more roundabout.) I publish it here in the interests of Church History and Apologetics, especially the latter. Most, but not all of this was drawn from Right Rev. Charles Joseph Hefele’s (D.D.) A History of the Christian Councils from the Original Documents to the Close of the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325. This is the first of a multi-volume scholarly series by the German historian, long out of print (the books, not the historian). Those looking for references would have to track down the book in a library.

First Point: The Council of Nicea was attended and run by Roman Catholics.

  • Pope Silvester was represented by two Roman priests, Victor and Vincent, and also by the Bishop of Cordova, one Hosius by name. Both St. Athanasius and Theodoret confirm that Hosius was the president of the Council. In a list drawn in order of rank, the historian (not the philosopher!) Socrates lists Hosius first of all bishops, before more eminent bishops. In fact, Hosius and the two priests signed the decrees first. After their signatures comes that of St. Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria. By right, no priest should have signed before any bishop. Neither did the bishop of Cordova, Spain have the right to sign before a Patriarch. The other Spanish bishops signed further down on the list, where Hosius would have, had he merely been representing himself, and not Pope Sylvester.
  • The synod was convened, according to the Sixth Ecumenical Council – Constantinople III – by Constantine and Pope Sylvester: “Arius arose as an adversary to the doctrine of the Trinity, Constantine and Sylvester immediately assembled the great Synod at Nicea.”
  • According to Socrates, Pope Julius asserted that, “Ecclesiastical discipline prohibits that a decree be received by the Churches unless sanctioned by the Roman Church.” Pope Julius ruled the Church 11 years after the Council and was the Pope who affirmed Athanasius’ orthodoxy. Athanasius himself quotes this same pontiff rebuking the Eusebians (semi-Arians) for bypassing his own authority (which he “received from the blessed Apostle Peter”) in condemning the church of the Alexandrians.
  • In Dionysius’ collection of the Acts of Nicea, he affirms that the Pope approved the Council: “And it pleased the council that all these things be send to the Bishop of Rome, Silvester.”
  • Two of the theologians at the Council were Sts. Ephrem and Athanasius. Both were deacons at the time. The first remained so and a monk his whole life, while the other eventually became a bishop. St. Ephrem, it can be proved, believed the following: Mary was the Mother of God, the woman of Genesis 3:15, our intercessor in heaven, the “source of our salvation,” and she resembles Christ in being totally free from all sin; Peter was the Rock and head of the Church. He (Ephrem) also prayed to saints (dead ones, that is).
  • We already cited Athanasius quoting Pope Julius asserting his own papal authority. Elsewhere, Athanasius calls Peter “the Chief” and refers to Rome as “the Apostolic throne.”

Second Point: The Council of Nicea taught Catholic doctrine.

  • Certain canons of the council, among them the eighth, speak of “doing penance” for sins. People found guilty of certain crimes (schism, for one) were to do assigned penances for a certain duration of time. This is the Catholic discipline of “doing penance” that Protestants reject. This canon (8) and others explicitly mention the “Catholic Church.”
  • Canons 15 and 16 speak of the “ordination” of Bishops, priests, and deacons.
  • Canon 18 explicitly mentions the “Eucharistic Sacrifice.” In fact, this canon asserts three Catholic dogmatic truths: (1) The Eucharist is the Body of Christ. (2) The Eucharistic service is a “sacrifice.” (3) Bishops and priests alone have the power to consecrate the Eucharist.
  • During the discussion over the Creed, the Eusebians wanted to use only biblical expressions in the Creed, hoping that such wording would be sufficiently vague to allow for their semi-Arian interpretation. This was frustrated when the term homousios (“consubstantial”) was used. This was a rejection, by the Council Fathers of the explicitly sola scriptura approach of the Eusebians.

Third Point: The Church which later subscribed to Nicea was the Catholic Church.

  • The Robber Council of Ephesus: In 449, the defenders of Eutyches (the Monophysite Heresiarch) summoned a council which was intended to be Ecumenical. A papal legate named Hilarus (who later became pope) was sent. At one point, through military force (soldiers were present), bishops were forced to sign a decree deposing Saint Flavian, who had condemned Eutyches and his followers. With one word, the papal legate brought the council to a halt: Contradicitur, “it is contradicted.” He quickly ran from the scene in fear of his life, but having done the job.
  • The Council of Chalcedon, which was two years after the Robber Council, condemned its chief architect, Dioscorus because he “…had held an (ecumenical) council without the Apostolic See, which was never allowed.” This was a reference to Dioscorus’ re-convening the council after the papal legate withdrew. St. Leo the Great excommunicated the perpetrators of the synod and wrote to the emperor that the acts of the council were null. No one in the East or West considers “Ephesus II” to be ecumenical, because the pope condemned it.
  • Constantinople II: The same guilty party that schemed at the Robber Council also schemed for a Council which eventually became ecumenical – Constantinople II. In the year 545, Pope Vigilius was forcibly taken to Constantinople, where he was to approve a council convened to condemn (considerably after the fact) the Nestorian doctrines of Theodore of Mopsuestia and two other men. (The Monophysites, whose heresy was the opposite of Nestorianism, viewed any fresh condemnation of Nestorianism as a feather in their cap.) The Pope approved the Council, which taught sound doctrine. Because of his approval, this council too is received as ecumenical.
  • The Synod at Arles (France) in 314 said that Easter should be celebrated on the same day everywhere, and it appealed to the authority of the Pope to enforce the decision. (This issue was finally settled at the Nicene Council, where the Roman custom for keeping Easter was made the positive law of the Church.)
  • Some ancient Latin translations of the Council’s sixth canon read: “Ecclesia Romana semper habuit primatum.” (The Roman Church has always had the primacy.) This led Emperor Valentinian III in an edict of 445 to maintain that the Council had confirmed the primacy of the Apostolic See.
  • In the person of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (certainly run by the same Church which ran the First!) sent to Pope Leo their acts to receive his approval, saying, “All the force and confirmation of these acts is reserved to the authority of your Holiness.”
  • Such saints as Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Ambrose, and Chrysostom, all of whom, it can be proved, held Roman doctrines on the Papacy, the Mass, prayers to saints, the authority of Apostolic Tradition, etc., believed in the authority of the Council.

Council of Nicaea 325, Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican, 1590

  • Hefele’s work is available on Google Books online, or microsofts live book search; I’ve forgotten which. It’s my understanding that the work is not Catholic but Anglican; can you clarify?

    On one of my sites I have links to a huge number of online Catholic books. Categories (pages) include CHURCH HISTORY; PHILOSOPHY THEOLOGY; SPIRITUALITY; CATHOLIC SERMONS; BIBLICAL COMMENTARIES; ect.

  • Karl Joseph von Hefele was definitely a Catholic. He was a member of the German Positive School of theology, the school that gave us Heinrich Denzinger, among other lights.  (They are called “positive” because they emphasized what was “posited” by the magisterium. In other words,  teaching authority was their point of emphasis. This was valuable in a day when speculative theology and (especially) biblical studies were heavily influenced by enlightenment principles.  The Germans kept things grounded in the teaching authority of the Church.

    You can read the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Hefele here:

    You can read about the German Positive School here:

    That last article has a special mention of Karl Joseph von Hefele.

    God bless you and may Our Lady watch over you.

  • Thanks. I’ve linked to his books on my site.

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  • Bruce

    Hi Brother Marie,

    They closed the thread at Chronicles. Thanks for the articles.

    We have no problem with primacy as in “first among equals.” I have little doubt that the Bishop of the Imperial capital was a very important Bishop.

    This is a stumbing block to the eastern half of Christianity and to the northern nations of Christendom. I think God would have made it clear in the statements of the great ecumenical councils since He knew it was gonna come up.

  • Dear Bruce,

    I had stopped following that thread on Chronicles. Thanks for catching up to me here.

    Here are a few thoughts for your consideration…

    I find the whole “first among equals” thing odd for this reason: Nobody that I’ve ever seen advance it actually considers themselves juridically part of that Church of which the Pope would be “first among equals” of all the world’s bishops. In short, it a purely theoretical honor, but one which has no real importance.

    The significance of Rome transcends its being the Empiral Capital. During the ages when there was no Roman Empire, or when it was the Holy Roman (French) or Holy Roman (German) Empire, the Pope was still significant as Pope, not as bishop of a City whose status was of no political significance. Even in the days when the Emperor resided in Milan (St. Ambrose’s day), the Pope was undisputed head of the Church.

    If you would like to see some documentation considering the Early Church and the Papacy — including the ecumenical councils — I recommend Joseph Gallegos’ site:

    The Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon hailed Pope Saint Leo’s Christological “Tome” with the words, “Peter has spoken through Leo!”

    Even today’s saint — Saint Clement of Rome — is a fantastic proof of the prerogatives of the Roman Church and its Bishop. While Saint John the Apostle was yet alive, the Church of Corinth (closer in distance to Saint John than to Rome) wrote Pope Saint Clement for advice on how to settle their dilemma. The result was his his “Letter to the Corinthians,” where he plainly intervened authoritatively in the affairs on an Eastern Church quite outside the jurisdiction of his bishopric. (As Bishop, he is only Bishop of Rome; as Pope, he is Pope of the Universal Church)

    God bless you.