Sunday, 13 March 2011


His Patrimoniality, the estimable Fr Hunwicke has begun a series on councils. I commend it to you. I am looking forward very much to seeing what he has to say.

This is a subject which has exercised my mind for quite a number of years. There is a general assumption that councils teach infallibly and certainly with great authority. However:

1) I am not convinced that, say, Nicæa I saw itself that way. Several of those who agreed to homoousios there didn't feel particularly bound to teach consubstantiality afterwards. Its prohibitions against bishops changing sees didn't prevent Eusebius, a signatory, changing from the see of Nicomedia to Constantinople. To my view, the fathers at Nicæa saw the council as being not a lot different from a local council, just on a bigger scale. It was an agreement, not a mouthpiece for the Holy Ghost.

2) How is one to regard a council, such as at Ephesus, where the business gets under way before an important party even has time to arrive and discuss the matter? Old Cyril of Alexandria (who presided) must be one of the several examples of people who became saints despite the magnitude of their, shall we say, darker side.
The Syrians, who at that time had a problem with the dual nature in one person of our Lord, were the party concerned. They went off into schism as a result, labelled as Nestorians. A later great figure of the Syrian (or, better, Assyrian) schism, Babai the Great, with his work on qnome and parsopa came up with, basically, what Ephesus taught, but in different language. Are they to be held to the verbal formulation of Ephesus (which they don't like for reasons as much historical as anything else) if what they believe adds up to the same thing in any case?

3) The same thing can probably be said of Chalcedon and the Copts, Armenians and Jacobite Syrians.

4) Athanasius' little councilettes at Alexandria (21 bishops in 362) and Antioch (25 bishops) managed to overturn the Arian council(s) of Ariminum/Seleucia (500 (!) bishops in 359), confirmed at Constantinople in 360 (when the world groaned to find itself Arian) which certainly saw itself as an Ecumenical Council. No doubt he swung it because he had the support of the new Emperor (successor to Julian the Apostate), Jovian.

5) By the middle ages, it seems to have been established that a Canon (with an anathema) in a Council document was highly authoritative, perhaps infallible, whereas the preamble and any notes were illuminative (if I can put it like that). So when Trent teaches whoever denies that the Sacrament of Order consists of both major and minor orders, anathema sit, that's gotta be taken really really seriously, but when in a note it lists the orders as porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, priest; that can be taken as seriously illuminative, but not infallible in any way (which it can't be, since the East does it differently, and Trent knew that—Council of Florence, and all that).

6) Vatican II has no canons at all. Some people, therefore, treat the whole thing as infallible. Is it all to be considered 'preamble' and therefore illuminative, or infallible?
Others consider infallible the bits they like (Gaudium et Spes, for instance) and pretend the bits they don't like (the use of Latin must continue in the Western rites) don't exist. Traddies can be as guilty of this as trendies.
Paul VI and Bd John XXIII seem to have thought that the council was to proclaim no new dogmas. What, then, does that make of the occasions when it does seem to vary from what has been held before? (e.g. Holy Orders as being Bishop, Priest, Deacon, see Trent above). Pope Benedict's idea of the Hermeneutic of Continuity is probably the best approach to this, but there are wrinkles that have to ironed out.

The East (when it stops trying to long for the days of the Emperor) seems to think that 'reception' is what makes the difference between a dodgy Council (like Ariminum/Seleucia, or the Robber Council of Ephesus) and a pukka one. I think that this is rather like our notion of the Sensus Fidelium. In other words, it all depends on whom you speak to. When Gregory the Great went to Constantinople as Papal Legate, he found almost every single church there still basically Subordinationist (kind of Arian). It was really only after centuries that Nicene orthodoxy really rooted itself in the East.

It has often been said that the Church thinks in centuries. Perhaps here we have an indication to Reception/Sensus Fidelium. It isn't an instant thing, but can take a very long time. Like the psychohistory of Hari Seldon, it only operates on a vast scale. A priest once commented to me that we are, sub specie æternitatis, still living in the Early Church; this is, of course, right. The bigger picture is something we will only see when we have all gone to our reward.

What I think is harder to prove is that the Holy Spirit whispers in the ears of every Father in an Ecumenical Council in such a way that, in effect, every Ecumenical Council takes verbal dictation from God. In some ways, a Council opens up more questions than it hopes to solve; the present dialogue taking place between the Society of St Pius X and what it calls 'Conciliar Rome' is a good example of this. That the Society is still trying to settle this matter, and hasn't simply separated itself from the Church, as so many have before, is a very good sign, and may perhaps help us to settle this issue of what a Council actually is.

If in any way I have gone over the line in this, I apologize, and submit my judgment to that of the Church. I am just trying to feel my way through an interesting set of ideas.


Anagnostis said...

Perhaps here we have an indication to Reception/Sensus Fidelium. It isn't an instant thing, but can take a very long time.

This is pretty much the Orthodox understanding: Councils gain their particular not of authority from their reception by the whole Church, and subsequent martyria. As we're reminded today, in the case of Nicaea II, that took the best part of a century and claimed more lives than Diocletian.

Anonymous said...

Infallibility is a negative power. Certainly the Holy Spirit provides the bishops with the graces necessary to say something helpful but He doesn't guarantee they will use them only that they will not err in what they actually say. This applies generally to the content of documents directed by Pope or Council to the Universal Church on a matter of faith and morals and to the form and the content of a document addressed by the same to the same while invoking their supreme teaching authority. This can be seen from the use of phrases such as 'solemnly define', 'apostolic authority' etc.

An Ecumenical Council is Ecumenical because all the bishops communion with the Holy See are invited and the Holy See confirms its acts afterwards. This is clear from many sources not least Lumen Gentium. It doesn't matter how many bishops not in communion with the Holy See form a council or what a council whose acts are not confirmed says, either way they are not ecumenical. Nicaea certainly saw itself as authoritative. The behaviour of Eusebius a leader of the Arian party and an imperialist sycophant is neither here nor there. It is precisely the form of words and its irreformability which distinguishes the extraordinary magisterium from the ordinary and universal magisterium. The question about Vatican II is not whether is bellongs to the extraordinary magisterium (it clearly doesn't) but whether and if so how much of it belongs to the ordinary and universal magisterium which is infalible as to content but not form. This question is problematic because of the statements of John XXIII about its 'pastoral' and non-dogmatic character and the fact that two douments are labelled 'dogmatic' and one 'pastoral'.

Ttony said...

I'm sorry to have such a trivial comment on such a splendid piece, bu t is the first time that Hari Seldon has been quoted as a secondary authority in a work of ecclesial history?

Mike said...

Just came across this:

[It is a] quite unworkable idea that the authority of the Pope depends on the authority of the Council. There is no way of deciding which councils were ecumenical councils except by saying that those councils were ecumenical which had their decisions ratified by the Pope. Now, either that ratification is infallible of itself, or else you will immediately have to summon a fresh ecumenical council to find out whether the Pope's ratification was infallible or not, and so on ad infinitum. You can't keep on going round and round in a vicious circle; in the long run the last word of decision must lie with one man, and that man is obviously the Pope. In the last resort the Pope must be the umpire, must have the casting vote. If therefore there is to be any infallibility in the Church, that infallibility must reside in the Pope, even when he speaks in his own name, without summoning a council to fortify his decision.

It comes from “In Soft Garments” by Ronald Knox.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Your first point is exactly what Gregory Dix argued at some length. Nikaia I was a feast of adhoccery and had not the faintest idea that it was the first of an august succession of Ecumenical Councils. The subsequent reception of it by seventeen Christian centuries does, of course, make a difference to its position within the Magisterium.

Deacon Nathan Allen said...

I had to smile at the reference to the Arian council of Ariminum, as it called to mind a limerick by P.G. Wodehouse:

There was a young man from Ariminum
Who would jump into rivers and swim in 'em.
When his friends said, 'You Fish!'
He would answer, 'Oh, pish!
Fish can't swim like me, they've no vim in 'em!'

Pachomius said...

One thing Fr Hunwicke briefly on is: which parts of a Council count as the Ecumenical Council?

Chalcedon is the illustrative example here: namely, Canon 28, which raises Constantinople to the same privileges as the First Rome.

[Then, of course, there are Canons 29 and 30...].

I suspect the counter-argument to this problem is that the same problem arises with Papal Infallibility (namely, what is, and which bits. Unam Sanctam contains one bit which uses the correct formulary, but, being effectively the same as 'extra ecclesia', the question there arises of what it actually means.)

Anonymous said...

With regard to your comment about Trent, it doesn't seem to say that minor orders are sacramental. It simply says that they "exist in the Church." Obviously I don't think there's any denying that.

Dr. Adam DeVille said...

The question of how to categorize councils, and which authority they have, is an on-going one. Recent attempts to deal with such questions have been made by Norman Tanner, whose book I discuss here:

Further, on the question of the Council of Constance in particular--which council poses hugely vexing problems--Francis Oakley's recent book is extremely important: