The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church

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This is our award-winning summary of the twenty-one ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church. It has proved useful for students and others who would like a quick reference to the major facts relevant to each council.

Eastern Councils

  1. Constantinople II
  2. Constantinople III
  3. Nicaea II
  4. Constantinople IV

Western Councils

  1. Lateran I
  2. Lateran II
  3. Lateran III
  4. Lateran IV
  5. Lyons I
  6. Lyons II
  7. Vienne
  8. Constance
  9. Florence
  10. Lateran V
  11. Trent

First Ecumenical Council — Nicaea I

Site: Nicaea (in N.W. Asia Minor)
Year: A.D. 325
Pope: St. Sylvester I, 314-335
Emperor: Constantine I, Western Roman Emperor 306-337; Sole Emperor 324-337

Action: Called by the emperor and ratified by the Pope, this council condemned the heresy of Arius (priest of Alexandria, d. 336) by defining the CONSUBSTANTIALITY of God the Son with God the Father. The Son is of the “same substance,” homo-ousion, as the Father (St. Athanasius); not merely a “like substance,” homoi-ousion (as with the semi-Arians); nor is He (as Arius taught) some sort of super-creature.

Note: St. Athanasius, Doctor of the Church (d. 373), Bishop of Alexandria, was present as deacon and peritus at Nicaea; exiled five times and excommunicated by the Arians. St. Ephrem, Doctor of the Church (d. 373), deacon, was also present at Nicaea as peritus .

Heresiarch: Arius.

Second Ecumenical Council — Constantinople I

Site: Constantinople (near Bosporus, a strait in today’s Turkey).
Year: A.D. 381
Pope: St. Damasus I, 367-384
Emperor: Theodosius I, the Great, 379-395

Action: It appears that Pope St. Damasus I was not contacted in regard to this council attended by about 186 bishops. Called by the emperor, it was not attended by the pope or his legates or any bishops from the West. Nevertheless, it is listed as a General Council of the 4th century by papal decrees of the 6th century, by which time its doctrinal definitions were accepted throughout the Church (Murphy, pg. 41). This council condemned the heresy of Macedonius by clearly defining the divinity of the Holy Ghost: He is not created like the angels no matter how high an order is attributed to such a “creature.” The council also reaffirmed the faith of Nicaea.

Note: St. Gregory Nazianzen, Doctor of the Church (d. 389), was the bishop presiding. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor of the Church (d. 386), was also in attendance.

Heresiarch: Macedonius.

Third Ecumenical Council — Ephesus

Site: Ephesus (S. of Smyrna in SW Asia Minor).
Year: A.D. 431
Pope: St. Celestine I, 423-432
Emperor: Theodosius II, 408-450

Action: Called by the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, influenced by his pious sister, St. Pulcheria (Emperor in the West was Valentinian III, 425-455), and ratified by Pope Celestine I, this council condemned the heresy of Nestorius by clearly defining the Divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are two natures in Christ (Divine and Human), but only one Person (Divine). Mary is the Mother of this one Divine Person, the eternal Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Nestorius was deposed as bishop of Constantinople. This council also briefly affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagians (see local Council of Carthage, A.D. 416).

Note: St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church (d. 444), was the bishop presiding.

Heresiarch : Nestorius.

Fourth Ecumenical Council — Chalcedon

Site: Chalcedon, (north of Constatinople)
Year: A.D. 451
Pope: Saint Leo I, the Great, 440-461
Emperor: Marcian, 450-457

Action: Called by Emperor Marcian, spouse of the chaste and noble St. Pulcheria, and ratified by Pope St. Leo the Great, the council condemned the heresy of the Abbot Eutyches, MONOPHYSITISM, which claimed that there existed only “one nature” (the divine) in Christ from the Incarnation onward. Though the council had approved the assertion that Constantinople should be ranked first after Rome ecclesiastically, Pope St. Leo did not. The primacy of the See of Rome was due to it’s possession of the Chair of Peter, not to any political power. In his “Dogmatic Epistle,” read by his legates at the end of the second session of the council (Oct. 10, 451), Pope St. Leo I also declared invalid all that had been done at the “Robber Synod of Ephesus” (a false Ephesus II): ” ….we see no Council, but a den of thieves (Latrocinium).” In the greatest testimony of the Eastern Council to the primacy of the Pope, the bishops cried out: “Behold the faith of the fathers, the faith of the Apostles; thus through Leo has Peter spoken!” Eutyches was excommunicated.

Note: Pope St. Leo I, Doctor of the Church (d. 461), was called the “Soul” of Chalcedon.

Heresiarch/Heretics: Eutyches — Monophysites.

Fifth Ecumenical Council — Constantinople II

Site: Constantinople
Year: A.D. 553
Pope: Vigilius, 537-555
Emperor: Justinian I, 527-565

Action: Effectively called by Justinian I and eventually ratified by Pope Vigilius, Constantinople II condemned a collection of statements known as the “Three Chapters”: 1) the person and the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Master of Nestorius, originator of that heresy; 2) the writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus; 3) the writings of Ibas of Edessa. The last two friends of Nestorius had been restored to their sees by Chalcedon when they no longer opposed the teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and of Ephesus. Chalcedon was not discredited here (as the Monophysites had hoped) since it had been concerned with men. Constantinople II was concerned with their writings, although a hundred years after they had died.

Note: Two important local councils condemning heresies: Carthage (416) solemnly approved by Pope Innocent II, (401-417), and then in 418 by Pope Zosimus (417-418), condemned Pelagianism (Pelagius, a British Monk), which heresy denied original sin calling it only “bad example.” Orange (429) France, solemnly approved by Pope Boniface II (530-532), condemned Semi-Pelagianism (an over-reaction to St. Augustine on grace), which claimed man needed grace only after his first supernatural act. St. Augustine made it clear that God’s grace is first.

Note: Council referred much to St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church (d. 444).

Heresiarch: Theodore of Mopsuestia (“3 Chapters”).

Sixth Ecumenical Council — Constantinople III

Site: Constantinople
Years: A.D. 680-681
Popes: St. Agatho, 678-681, and St. Leo II, 682-683
Emperor: Constantine IV, 668-685

Action: Called by Emperor Constantine IV, and its calling authorized by Pope St. Agatho, this council condemned the heresy of the Monothelites (Mono -one thelema -will), which attributed only one will, to Christ (the divine), instead of two wills (divine and human), which two are in perfect accord within the one divine person, Jesus. Constantinople III also reconfirmed Chalcedon. Pope St. Leo II, 682 — 683, approved the decrees of Constantinople III, Pope St. Agatho having died (Jan. 10) before the council’s end.

Note: Pope St. Leo II also condemned Pope Honorius I (625-638) for negligence of duty in the face of heresy, in that he should have ascertained that Sergius was teaching not a mere harmony (oneness) of wills in Christ but literally one will in Christ, the divine will. Honorius had not spoken ex cathedra, so infallibility had not been involved.

Heresiarch: Sergius (patriarch of Constantinople, 610 A.D.) who originated Monotheletism.

Seventh Ecumenical Council — Nicaea II

Site: Nicaea
Year: A.D. 787
Pope: Hadrian I, 772-795
Emperors: Constantine VI, 780-797 and Empress Irene (797-802)

Action: This council, called by Empress Irene (widow of Emperor Leo IV and regent for her son Constantine VI), with its doctrinal decree ratified by Pope Hadrian I, condemned ICONOCLASM. The Pope’s epistle here, just as with Pope St.Leo I at Chalcedon, set the tone of the council.

Note: Brewing beneath the surface at this time, however, was a rejection of papal authority. The Eastern Bishops, cut off from Rome and receptive to heresy under persecution, were held suspect by Rome.

Note: Iconoclasm had been fostered by Emperor Leo III (717-741), who was opposed by Popes Gregory II (715-731) and Gregory III (731-741) and by St. John Damascene (d. 749), priest and Doctor of the Church, who published three discourses in defense of images.

Heresy: Iconoclasm.

Eighth Ecumenical Council — Constantinople IV

Site: Constantinople
Years: A.D. 869-870
Pope: Hadrian II, 867-872
Emperor: Basil, 867-886

Action: Called by Emperor Basil and ratified by Pope Hadrian II, this council condemned and deposed PHOTIUS (820 — 891), the patriarch of Constantinople and author of the Greek schism.

Note: In 1054 the Greek schism was actually consummated by Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople at that time. PHOTIUS attacked enforced clerical celibacy, the addition by the West of the “FILIOQUE” to the Creed, and the crowning of Charlemagne in the West. CERULARIUS (about 200 years later) closed the churches of the Latins in Constantinople, had the Blessed Sacrament cast out and trodden underfoot as invalid, and persisted in refusing to see the three delegates sent by Pope Leo IX (1049-1054). On 16 July, 1054, they publicly placed on the altar of Saint Sophia the document containing his excommunication.

Heresiarch: PHOTIUS.

Here end the Eastern Councils and begin the Western


Ninth Ecumenical Council — Lateran I

Site: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome
Year: A.D. 1123
Pope: Callistus II, 1119-1124
Emperor: Henry V, 1106-1125

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Callistus II, this council confirmed the Concordat of Worms (1122) between Emperor Henry V and Pope Callistus II, which secured that all elections of Bishops and Abbots should be made freely by the proper ecclesiastical authorities (electors). In Germany the emperor was to preside over these free elections and then bestow temporal power on the bishop so chosen, in return for temporal fealty. Outside Germany the emperor was to have no part in any elections.

Note: Also dealt with at this council was the subject of clerical marriages. It was decided that once ordained, a priest may not marry in either Latin or Eastern Rites.

Controversy: LAY INVESTITURE.

Tenth Ecumenical Council — Lateran II

Site: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
Year: A.D. 1139
Pope: Innocent II, 1130-1143
Emperor: Conrad III, 1137-1152

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Innocent II, this council voided the acts of the deceased antipope, Anacletus II (d. 1138), ending the Papal schism of the time. It also condemned the heresies of: 1) Peter Bruys (Bruis) and his NEO-MANICHEANS, who denounced the Mass as a “vain show,” opposed the Eucharist, marriage, and the baptism of children — all this leading to Albigensianism (“Material things are evil in themselves”); 2) Arnold of Brescia, who contended that the Church was an “invisible body,” not of this world, and should own no property.

Note: St. Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church (d. 1153), preached against the abuses and laxity attendant upon lay investiture, and the Lateran Council set down laws to remove them.

Heresiarchs: PETER BRUYS and ARNOLD of BRESCIA.

Eleventh Ecumenical Council — Lateran III

Site: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
Year: A.D. 1179
Pope: Alexander III, 1159-1181
Emperor: Frederick Barbarossa, 1152-1190

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Alexander III, this council regulated the election of popes (two-thirds majority vote by the College of Cardinals was required for the Pope to be elected, and the emperor was excluded from voting). It annulled the acts of three antipopes: ANTIPOPE VICTOR IV (1159) and TWO SUCCESSORS. One of its chapters excommunicated the Albigensians, but dealing with them in greater detail was Lateran IV Council, under Pope Innocent III.

Twelfth Ecumenical Council — Lateran IV

Site: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
Year: A.D. 1215
Pope: Innocent III, 1198-1216
Emperor: Otto IV, 1208-1215

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Innocent III [which pope defined ex cathedra (Denz. 430): “There is but one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved.”], Lateran IV prescribed at least annual confession and communion for all the faithful and made official the use of the word, “TRANSUBSTANTIATION.” Its only failure was the Fourth Crusade. It reformed discipline and condemned the heresies of: 1) ALBIGENSIANISM (NEO-MANICHEANISM), which opposed marriage and all sacraments and belief in the resurrection of the body; 2) WALDENSIANISM (anti-clerical heresy), which claimed that laymen living an apostolic life could forgive sins, while a priest in the state of sin could not absolve. Waldensianism also held that oath taking and assigning death penalties were held to be mortal sins. They also held that the Evangelical Counsel of poverty was a commandment, thus they forbad all private ownership of property.

Heresies: ALBIGENSIANISM and WALDENSIANISM.

Thirteenth Ecumenical Council — Lyons I

Site: Lyons, France
Year: 1245
Pope: Innocent IV, 1243-1254
Emperor: Frederick II, 1215-1250

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Innocent IV, this council excommunicated Emperor Frederick II, grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, for his contumacious attempt to make the Church merely a department of the state. Lyons I also directed a new crusade (the 6th) under the command of King St. Louis IX (1226-1270) of France against the Saracens and the Mongols.

Heretic: EMPEROR FREDERICK II.

Fourteenth Ecumenical Council — Lyons II

Site: Lyons, France
Year: 1274
Pope: Blessed Gregory X, 1271-1276
Emperor: Rudolph I of Hapsburg, 1273-1291

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Gregory X, this council declared the double procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son: “Qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.” The return of the Eastern Church to union with Rome, sought by the popes, failed utterly.

Note: St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor of the Church (d. 1274), died on his way to Lyons II. St. Bonaventure, Cardinal and Doctor of the Church (d. 1274), was prominent at Lyons II, died there, and was buried by the council. FILIOQUE DEFINED and added to Nicene Creed.

Fifteenth Ecumenical Council — Vienne

Site: Vienne (South of Lyons), France
Years: 1311-1312
Pope: Clement V, 1305-1314
Emperor: Henry VII, 1308-1313

Action: Called and ratified by Pope Clement V, first of the Avignon Popes (The “Avignon Captivity” lasted from 1305 until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI returned the Holy See to Rome), this council suppressed the Knights Templars (Master: Jacques de Molay) for crimes charged by King Philip IV of France. Their confiscated property was given to the Hospitalers or, in Spain, to national orders that had fought against the Moors. The council also declared that anyone who obstinately holds “that the rational or intellectual soul is not the form of the human body in itself and essentially, must be regarded as a heretic.” (Denz. 481) The council also condemned the Beghards (males) and Beguines (females), who so stressed “inner union with God”. Quietism, that prayer and fasting became unimportant. Quietism taught that the “spiritual” person is so perfect that he or she can give free reign to fleshly desires.

Note: In his 1302 Bull UNAM SANCTAM Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), declared ex cathedra that it is “…absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Denz. 469) He was opposed by the French King Philip IV, the “Fair” (1268-1314), who seems to have given up on gaining a condemnation of Pope Boniface, while gaining one against the Knights Templars at Vienne, 1311.

Heresies: The Errors of Peter John of Olivi and QUIETISM.

Sixteenth Ecumenical Council — Constance

Site: Constance, Germany
Years: 1414-1418
Popes: Gregory XII, 1406-1415; Martin V, 1417-1431
Emperor: Sigismund of Luxembourg, 1410-1437

Action: Called by Emperor Sigismund and Pope Gregory XII who authorized the convocation as he abdicated the Papacy. The anti-Popes Benedict XIII (Avignon) and John XXIII (Pisa) also agreed to “abdicate” in the interests of unity. The council elevated Martin V to the Chair of Peter to end the confustion of the Western Schism. Pope Martin ratified the council …except the decrees which proposed conciliarism. In addition to ending the Western Schism, Constance also condemned the heresies of: 1) John Wycliffe, who rejected the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, emphasized scripture as the sole rule of faith, subscribed to Donatism, asserted the Pope is not the head of the Church, and bishops have no authority; and, 2) John Huss, who preached the above after Wycliffe’s death.

Heretics: WYCLIFFE and HUSS.

Seventeenth Ecumenical Council — Florence

Sites with Years: Basel (Switzerland, near France), 1431-1437; Ferrara (Italy, north of Bologna, southwest of Venice), 1438; Florence (Italy, south of Bologna, north of Rome), 1439-1445
Pope: Eugene IV, 1431-1447
Emperors: Albrecht II, 1438-1439; Frederick III, 1440-1493.

Action : This council was called in 1431 for Basel, Switzerland, by Pope Martin V, who died that year. Pope Eugene IV confirmed this decree for Basel, and the first session was held on 14 December, 1431. Believing it would become unruly, Eugene IV dissolved the council within four days, angering the bishops at Basel, who began to reassert the heretical decrees at Constance that “a general council is superior to the Pope”. In January, 1438, the Pope ordered a fresh start at Ferrara. (Some bishops remained in open schism at Basel, even electing an anti-pope, Felix V — two “Popes,” two “councils” at one time.) A plague came to Ferrara, and the Pope moved the Council to Florence. On June 8, 1439, the Greeks accepted the double procession of the Holy Ghost and, by July 5, agreed on some other points, but lasting union failed: “Better the turban of the Prophet than the tiara of the Pope.” On May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Mohammedans. Cantate Domino decreed. (Papal Authority More Firmly Established): ex cathedra: It [the Roman Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that none of those who are not within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), unless before the end of their life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of Ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the Sacraments of the Church of benefit for Salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. [Pope Eugene IV, the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441, Denzinger 714]. Temporary reconciliation with the Greeks RE: Filoque.

Eighteenth Ecumenical Council — Lateran V

Site: The Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Rome)
Years: 1512-1517 (March). (Luther’s theses posted 31 October, 1517)
Popes: Julius II, 1503-1513; Leo X, 1513-1521
Emperor: Maximilian I, 1493-1519

Action: Called by Pope Julius II, this council opened on May 10, 1512; by Feb. 1513 Pope Julius was dying, and the council was reconvened by Pope Leo X in April 1513 and ratified by him. The most important discussions concerned the “Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.” In 1438 the King of France, Charles VII, had issued this edict, declaring a general council superior to the Pope and denying his right to nominate bishops in France. A later King, Louis XI, had abolished this decree in 1461, but Louis XII (1498-1515) had attempted to reintroduce it. This council clearly rejected the teaching contained in the edict. (The appeal for another Crusade against the Turks met with no enthusiasm, and the situation in Europe relegated such a venture to oblivion.)

Condemned: PRAGMATIC SANCTION OF BOURGES (Charles VII/Louis XII).

Nineteenth Ecumenical Council — Trent

Site: Trent, Italy.
Years: 1545-1549
Popes: Paul III, 1534-1549 & 1551-1552; Julius III, 1550-1555; Pius IV, 1559-1565
Emperors: Charles V, 1519-1556 & Ferdinand I, 1556-1564

Action: Called by Pope Paul III, this council was continued by Pope Julius III, and, after 18 years and 25 sessions in all, Pope Pius IV concluded it and solemnly confirmed its decrees. Trent condemned the heresies of Luther, Calvin, and others. It issued decrees on the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacraments (notably Baptism and Holy Orders) and teachings on marriage, purgatory, indulgences and the use of images. +See canons II and V, BAPTISM. The remaining tasks begun by Pope Pius IV were continued by his successor, Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572): reforming of the Missal and Brieviary, writing of the Catechism based on the decrees of Trent, appointing a commission to issue a more exact edition of the Vulgate, and the reforming of morals.

Note: St. Peter Canisius, Priest, Doctor of the Church (d. 1597), represented the Pope at Trent, and was an opponent of Melancthon.

Heresy: PROTESTANTISM

Twentieth Ecumenical Council — Vatican I

Site: The Vatican (St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City-State, Rome).
Years: 1869-1870
Pope: Pius IX, 1846-1878
European Rulers During the Council: AUSTRIA: Francis Joseph, 1848-1916; ENGLAND: Victoria, 1837-1901; FRANCE: Napolean III, 1852-1870; SPAIN: Republic, 1868-1870; PRUSSIA: German Empire Prussian Kingdom William I, 1861-1888; RUSSIA: Alexander II, 1855-1881; ITALY: Victor Emmanuel II, 1848-1861 (King of Sardinia) 1861-1878 (King of Italy); Ulyssyes S. Grant, 1869-1877 (United States President).

Action: Convened and ratified by Pope Pius IX, the First Vatican Council defined the INFALLIBILITY of the Pope when, as Supreme Pontiff, he speaks from the Seat of Peter (ex cathedra), on a matter of Faith and Morals, pronouncing a doctrine to be believed by the whole Church.

Twenty-first Ecumenical Council — Vatican II

Site: The Vatican (St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City-State, Rome).
Years: 1962-1965
Popes: John XXIII, 1958-1963; Paul VI, 1963-1978

Action: Called by Pope John XXIII and ratified by Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council was a Pastoral Council (not dogmatic) with 16 documents emphasizing ecumenism understood as religious fellowship, rather than emphasizing Catholic missionary enterprise for the conversion to the Faith. In 1960 Pope John XXIII declined to reveal the third secret of Fatima, which message was due that year, declaring it did not bear on his pontificate. Then in 1962 Pope John XXIII entered into a Vatican-Moscow agreement. In this agreement it was stated that for the Russian Orthodox to be present at his Council, no condemnation of Communism was to be allowed there. 1968 — Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae , against artificial contraception. 1969 — Pope Paul VI promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae .

NOTE: There was no dogma defined and no heresy condemned at Vatican Council II.


Bibliography

  • Br. Francis, M.I.C.M., selected notes and texts.
  • Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma , Translated by Roy J. Deferrari from the 30th Edition of Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum , St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co., 1957. (Imprimatur).
  • Hughes, Philip, A Popular History of the Catholic Church , New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1947. (Imprimatur index, tables of Popes and emperors, 320 pp.)
  • Laux, Rev. John L., Church History , Rockford, Illinois 61105: Tan Books & Publishers, 1989 (1945 Benzinger Bros.,N.Y.). (Imprimatur, index and appendices, 621 pp.)
  • Murphy, Fr. John L., The General Councils of the Church , Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1960. (Imprimatur, index 193pp., photos [8 plates], map [opp. p.1] of sites of the General Councils.)
  • Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Saints to Remember , Still River, Mass.: St. Benedict Center, 1961.

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