THE GENERAL COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH
By John L. Murphy
TO CERTAIN generations is given the singular privilege of witnessing a great event in
ecclesiastical history. Our present generation is one of those so favored. Only twenty
times in the long history of the Church have men witnessed a General or Ecumenical
Council. Entire centuries have passed without viewing this special facet of the Church's
Now, in response to the desire of Pope John XXIII, preparations have begun for the
twenty-first such Council. This will most certainly be one of the great events in history.
The interest surrounding the Council, however, has also turned our minds back to the
past, to the twenty preceding General Councils. Where were they held? At what time?
For what reason? What effect did they have?
The purpose of THE GENERAL COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH is to answer some of
these questions. What we have tried to do is take a quick glance at the various Councils,
and outline, in some way, their place in the history of the Church. A study of the
Ecumenical Councils is, in fact, a study of the Church. They have always been closely
associated with the great problems that faced the Church and the momentous decisions
that had to be made.
There is a certain difficulty involved in summing up nearly 2000 years of history. The
reader may feel overwhelmed by a mass of names and dates; but this is unavoidable. It
is perhaps best to read the present volume chapter by chapter, noting the chief concerns
of each period. At the end, a more unified view may result.
As it is, the characters change from one chapter to another, and at times even within a
single chapter. Popes and emperors appear with the same names and different
numbers, all of which adds to the confusion. Ultimately, however, it is not the names
and dates that matter. Of greater importance are the particular problems that faced the
Church in each century. It is these that give a special meaning to the General Councils.
The single unifying element in all these chapters is the Spirit of Christ, who dwells
always within His Mystical Body. Externally, the Councils tell a fascinating story. At
times, they present a picture of great confusion as well as great harmony. In every
instance, however, the Spirit of Christ has triumphed, and the Church has gained much
from these twenty solemn gatherings, marked in a special manner by the finger of God.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who have assisted me in preparing
this volume, above all, the Reverend Robert J. Novotny, S.T.L., and the Reverend
Thomas F. Casey, H.E.D., who were most helpful in preparing the manuscript. Their
worthwhile suggestions have solved many a problem and clarified a good number of
CHAPTER I: Christian Landmarks
CHAPTER II: The Church Before Nicea
CHAPTER III: Council of Nicea
CHAPTER IV: I Constantinople
CHAPTER V: Council of Ephesus
CHAPTER VI: Council of Chalcedon
CHAPTER VII: II and III Constantinople
CHAPTER VIII: II Nicea
CHAPTER IX: IV Constantinople
CHAPTER X: I-IV Lateran
CHAPTER XI: I Lyons - Vienne
CHAPTER XII: Council of Constance
CHAPTER XIII: II Lyons - Florence
CHAPTER XIV: V Lateran - Trent
CHAPTER XV: Vatican Council
CHAPTER I . . . CHRISTIAN LANDMARKS
There are two ways a man might view the Church of Christ. He might look at it from
the "outside," and see it only as an organization. He may think of it as a political body
of some sort, or a social group, or even identify it with the priests and bishops and
consider it the means of dominating other people. But in every instance his interest in
the Church is limited to the human element alone. He sees nothing but a group of
"men," not unlike any other organization around him.
The man of faith, on the other hand, will look at the Church from "within." He will see
it as the Church of God, the Body of Christ. It is for him a God-directed organization,
sustained by the activity of its divine Soul, the Holy Spirit Himself. ]
This second view gives the only adequate explanation of what the Church is. Beneath
the outer appearances of humanity, beneath even the sinfulness and failure of its
members, there is the sustaining power of God. God's strength, not man's, has
preserved this Church for nearly two thousand years, linking it to the apostolic faith of
the primitive community.
The history of the Catholic Church, then, is really a spiritual history: the account of how
the Holy Spirit has sustained it through the centuries; of how, in His own manner, He
has enabled it to withstand persecutions from without and the errors which threatened
it from within. The problems the Church has faced in the past two thousand years
would have ruined any purely human organization, yet the Church remains. There has
been growth, development-nonessential change. But the faith, the sacraments have
remained untouched. The power of the Holy Spirit has triumphed over the trials of
Central in this long history of the Church's life stand the twenty General (or
Ecumenical) Councils. A study of the Councils is, in fact, a study of the Church's
history-of the doctrinal and disciplinary problems that have beset her. The Councils
stand out as high points in her history, as true Christian landmarks, serving as guides
for the future. In every instance, they endeavored to sum up the teaching of the past
and to blot out doctrinal errors. By doing this they also pointed out the path to be trod
in the days that lay ahead.
The influence of these General Councils has possibly been felt more with the passing of
time than it was at the moment of solemn closing. When the color and ceremonial and
even the open disputes had vanished, and the bishops and prelates had returned to
their own countries, then it was that the Councils really began to exert their influence.
Despite all problems, the true doctrine had been set forth, the reforms had been
outlined and were now to be incorporated into the lives of the faithful. The influence of
such a Council, then, is never felt fully in a day or a month or even years; but it is
recognized as a special force in the life of the Church.
The secret behind this special force of a General Council is the Holy Spirit. There have
been many local meetings or councils during the long history of the Church. Only
twenty similar gatherings, however, stand apart from the others as General or
Ecumenical Councils. The underlying reason is the relationship of a General Council to
the Holy Spirit. It is, over and above any other ecclesiastical meeting, a particularly
profound and solemn expression of the guidance of that Spirit of Truth which Christ
promised to send upon His Church:
"If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give
you another Advocate to dwell with you forever, the Spirit of Truth whom the world
cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you shall know him,
because he will dwell with you, and be in you" (Jn. 14:15).
This is the mystery of the Church, the mystery of the General Council. The man of faith
can view the Church "from within," because he can perceive the working of the Holy
Spirit in the men and women who form the Church. But to the outsider, to the man
who does not recognize this divine Soul-who "neither sees Him nor knows Him"-there
remains only the outer shell.
Looked at from within, the General Council is not just another meeting. It is different
from all other gatherings within the Church. It is the most solemn expression of the
doctrinal and disciplinary life of the infallible Church of Christ on earth, "the pillar and
mainstay of truth."
As a result, we may say that in these Ecumenical Councils God has visited His people
in a special manner. In them the Holy Spirit has shown forth His power in an
extraordinary fashion. Christ, the divine Head of the Church, has willed to gather
together His bishops, in union with His vicar on earth and under the direction of the
Holy Spirit, in order to guide the universal Church. In every General Council, the
Mystical Body of Christ repeats this intimate collaboration with the Spirit of Truth
which animates it. At the close, the bishops can repeat with the Apostles at Jerusalem:
"For the Holy Spirit and we have decided...."
The difference between a General Council, then, and a local council, is not to be sought
primarily in the legal requirements upon which they are based. The current laws of the
Church only formulate, in their own way, the deeper theological truth. The true
meaning of a General Council arises from the intimate nature of the Church established
In other words, it is not fundamentally a question of how many bishops must attend, or
from what parts of the world they must actually come, or by what papal decree they
are approved. These are important questions, of course. But it is the supernatural life of
the Church which gives meaning to them all. A General Council is a part of the
"mystery" of the Church. Like all the varied elements within the Church, it also shares
in the supernatural quality of that life. It is far more than a gathering together of
bishops in a certain place; it is far more than solemnity and color. It is, above all this, a
, ever dwelling within this Church of Christ.
As a glance at the list of General Councils will indicate, they have been celebrated in
many different places, under many and diverse circumstances. There has been great
variety in the external ceremony and color. The number of bishops who attended has
varied greatly, ranging from as few as one hundred to as many as one thousand
bishops and prelates. Some Councils have continued for years; others have been
completed in a matter of days. Some were great spectacles before the world, causing
comment on all sides; others were celebrated in such fashion that large parts of the
Catholic world scarcely knew that they were going on. The single thread that joins
them together, however, is this special working of the Holy Spirit which comes into
play at an Ecumenical Council.
There must, of course, be certain laws concerning such a Council. It is not up to every
individual to decide whether a particular Council is or is not an Ecumenical Council.
When the Holy Father, for example, gives to the Church a solemn definition (like the
definition of the Assumption in 1950), we can also see beneath this the special working
of the Holy Spirit The Pope, however, must still make clear to the Church that he
to speak infallibly; he must let the members know that this is to be a solemn
So also with a General Council: there must be some way of knowing that it a
General Council. The Church must make clear to its members that this is to be an
Ecumenical, and not a local, Council, so that they may perceive in it this special
manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
Thus we have the legal requirements established for setting up a General Council. To
be truthful, some of these technical requirements seem to have varied through the
centuries. The Church can establish the laws which seem most fitting for the
circumstances in which she finds herself. The history of some of these twenty Councils
is shrouded in a good amount of obscurity. Special questions may be raised concerning
precisely who first called the Council together, who attended it, and what its precise
relationship to the Bishop of Rome might have been. But in the life of the Church, the
matter shines forth with much more clarity. The Church of Christ is a living thing, and
as such it grasps in a living fashion the activity of the Holy Spirit within it.
Thus the Church has recognized certain Councils as ecumenical. The decrees
of these gatherings have played a special role in the life of Christ's members. If we look
over the general history of them all, we are able to draw certain conclusions about what
makes a General Council. It is from a consideration of all these various elements that
we come to our present-day understanding of such a Council.
If we were to define it, our definition would run something like this: "A General
Council is a legitimate gathering of the bishops of the entire world, called for the
purpose of discussing and settling the doctrinal and disciplinary questions of the
universal Church." A closer look at this definition will explain more fully the nature of
a General Council.
It is first of all a "legitimate" gathering. As Christ established His Church, there are to
be always and everywhere bishops who rule their dioceses in the same way in which
the Pope rules the universal Church. These bishops are not simply the Pope's
"representatives" in the diocese. They rule in the place of Christ, by divine right. They
are, therefore, Christ's "local vicars," as it were. While their power to rule comes , however, it is also true that they receive it the Pope. And this is
The bishops of the world and the Roman Pontiff form together the "college of bishops."
Cardinal Billot compared them to a human person: the head and members being the
Pope and the other bishops. They act in a Council as one unit, setting forth one
teaching, one solemn judgment.
A universal gathering of bishops, however, can never be "legitimate" without the head-
the Roman Pontiff. This springs from the very nature of the Church as Christ
established it. The Pope, therefore, must in some way preside over every General
Council; this is his office by the will of God and it cannot be set aside.
There still can be a question of exactly what this involves for the Pope. In giving their
answers, writers will phrase them in different ways, using various distinctions. But the
over-all response is much the same.
It does not seem that the Roman Pontiff must "call together" the General Council in the
sense that he the entire procedure. (Some writers will speak of this as the
"material convocation"-that is, the actual sending out of invitations, and the like. )
Today, of course, this is always true, but history seems to indicate that such was not the
case in the early centuries, where the emperor seems to have taken the first official step.
The teaching both of the Church and of history tells us, however, that no General
Council has been called against the wishes of the Supreme Pontiff, and without his
solemn approval. It is this approval of the "head" that gives to the entire proceedings
the nature of a legitimate Council. Without it, there would not be the authority
required, nor this special manifestation of the Holy Spirit we talked about. This the
authors will call the "formal convocation," that is, the official, authoritative "calling
together" of this group precisely as a General Council. Unless this takes place at some
time, there is no such Council, even though the actual might take place.
In practice, this approval (or "formal convocation") has generally been given
the Council actually meets; but it may occur with the meetings
themselves, or it can even the actual gathering. Moreover, the Roman Pontiff
may show his approval in any number of ways: by solemnly calling the Council, or by
addressing an official letter to the group; or by sending his delegates to attend; or by
signifying his approval at the completion of the discussions.
In any event, no final decree of a Council is binding unless the Roman Pontiff approves
of that final form. This, again, springs from the very nature of the Church. A Council is
a gathering of the head and members; but if the head refuses to approve of what the
members have done, those particular statements are not decrees of an Ecumenical
Council. We shall have occasion to note instances of this as we look at the Councils of
A General Council will also include the "bishops of the entire world" This, again, must
not be understood to indicate that the actual "celebration" of the Council demands that
every bishop really be present. Morally speaking, bishops should be present from all
parts of the world, but the emphasis is to be placed on another fact. In a General
Council, all the bishops have a to take a seat in the deliberations; they belong
there. This will appear above all in the official approval of the Council by the Roman
Pontiff which will signify the intention or purpose of the Council to legislate for the
Church. This would not be true, let us say, of a particular or local council,
where only the bishops attached to the dioceses concerned would have the right to be
present. In other words, it is not simply a question of counting bishops until they are all
present, or until a majority of some sort has arrived. Such a Council is not any more
"universal" if 2000 bishops attend than if only 200 are present. It is not a question
Externally, of course, a General Council ought to express this "universality" by the
actual attendance of bishops from all over the world; most frequently this has been the
case. But this is the precise point that makes such a Council "ecumenical" or
"universal." (Ecumenical comes from the Greek word , meaning "the
inhabited world"; thus the entire world: "universal.")
This notion is also expressed in the definition by the words: "called for the purpose of
discussing and settling the doctrinal and disciplinary questions of the universal
Church." The concern of a General Council is not simply a particular locality; it is the
faith and practice of the entire Church throughout the whole world. For this reason, its
decrees will have a greater meaning than any local Council. Ultimately, however, it is
the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in a special fashion that makes this so. Only in a
General Council is the Spirit of Truth active in this extraordinary manner. For this
reason a General Council can decree for the universal Church; and the decrees
only of a General Council are infallible. A local or particular council of bishops is not
infallible; it does not carry with it the promise of freedom from error. A General
Council, on the other hand, called together as a moral person-head and members (the
Roman Pontiff and the bishops of the world)-enjoys the same infallibility as a solemn
definition of the Roman Pontiff himself.
It is, thus, the infallible Church which is the primary concern. In setting forth the
revealed truth, this Church cannot fall into error. Since the Church possesses official
teachers, however, this infallible statement can come about in various ways: (1) It may
be evidenced in the day-to-day teaching of the bishops throughout the world, teaching
the same doctrine, in union with the Supreme Pontiff. (2) It may also be evidenced in a
solemn statement of the successor of Peter himself-in what we now call an statement, that is, issued "from the throne." (3) However, the Church may
also speak infallibly in a legitimate General Council. In every instance, the Church has
the assurance that these statements will not be erroneous. They will be true guides for
the Christian, bringing him a clearer understanding of the message of Christ, and
helping him to serve his Master more faithfully and more perfectly.
In all of this, we see the action of the Holy Spirit, ever dwelling within the Church. If
we turn now to a closer look at the individual Councils of the Universal Church, we
will be able to see how, under the guidance of this Spirit of Truth, the Church has been
able to meet the problems of the ages.
The first conciliar landmark dates from the fourth century: the Council of Nicea (325). It
was especially concerned with the Trinity, and for the next three hundred years or so,
other General Councils would arise, dealing with this same question. In this fashion,
the Church arrived at a more precise statement of the truths concerning Christ and the
In the Middle Ages, new problems would demand attention. There was the question of
reform within the Church, and that of reunion with those who had drifted away from
it. At one point in history, the Councils had to deal especially with the papacy itself
when the entire Church was thrown into confusion by the claims of pseudo-popes. The
Protestant Revolt of the sixteenth century would bring forth the great Council of Trent;
and the problems of our modern world had to be answered in the Vatican Council of
the past century.
All of these, one by one, took their place in the list of great Councils, through which
Christ spoke again and again to His people. Even if they seemed, at times, to fail in the
achievement of their immediate goal, the directives were there-the voice of Christ was
heard. Because of the special influence of the Holy Spirit in these most solemn
gatherings, they were destined to overshadow the many local councils and synods held
during these same centuries. And this is the mystery of the Councils, the role of these
Christian landmarks. By the will of God, they were destined, each in its own way, to
shine forth as beacons, directing the life of the Church and outlining through the
darkness the path to be followed by the faithful members of Christ upon earth.
CHAPTER II. . . THE CHURCH BEFORE NICEA
When Christ walked the earth with His disciples, preaching to the people, He unfolded
clearly for the first time the sublime mystery of the Trinity. The mind of man stood
helpless before this revelation It could never grasp this truth completely. In fact, until
God Himself opened up to the mind of man the secret of the Trinitarian life, no one
could have even imagined the divine nature being shared equally by three divine
Persons. Yet this was, above all, the mystery revealed by Christ. It was the mystery of
Christ Himself: God the Son among men, come to save them from their sin.
It was to be the work of the Church on earth to continue the work of Christ. Aided by
His Spirit, it was to keep alive and unchanged the truth unveiled by God; acting as His
instrument, it was to share in the work of applying to the souls of men the graces won
for them upon Calvary. For this reason, the history of the Church is really the history of
Christ-Christ in His fullness, the Mystical Christ.
The early years of that history were troubled years. They were dominated by two chief
concerns. There were on the one hand, the recurring persecutions from without, and,
on the other, the doctrinal errors within. The doctrinal battles had to be carried on
while the men and women who believed in Christ passed through the terrors of
persecution. This was the special cross of the first few centuries.
Sometimes our modern view of the ancient Church may tend to exaggerate the nature
of the persecutions. Unless we are careful, we may come to think of the Christians of
the first few centuries as living constantly in the catacombs, and coming into the light of
day only to meet the beasts in the martyr's arena. Actually, the persecutions were not a
continual, relentless persecution of the followers of Christ. They were more periodic,
interspaced with years of relative peace. But they did keep returning, again and again,
until the end of the third century. In the background of these persecutions, especially in
the years of peace, the Church continued to grow, became more definitely organized,
and set forth its doctrine with ever increasing clarity.
The first persecution broke out soon after the death of Christ, in Jerusalem itself. It was
this that first helped the faith to spread to other parts of the known world, for the
Christians had to leave Jerusalem. This persecution under Agrippa, which must have
begun about the year 36, brought the Church its first martyr, St. Stephen.
This, however, was only a faint echo of the two particularly fierce persecutions which
marked that first century. The Roman emperors also turned their hatred against the
Christians. First there was the persecution of Nero (from A.D. 64 to 67), and then-after
twenty-five years of relative peace-that of Domitian (A.D. 95) .
Yet these two trials were only the beginning. In the next century, Rome continued to
persecute the followers of Christ. There was, however, one difference. In the second
century, the emperors paid more attention to the legal requirements for condemning
Christians. This was, of course, scant comfort to those who died "legally." It was,
nevertheless, the first step toward a change in official attitude. Thus, while these later
emperors were not exactly "friends" of the Church, their attitude was different enough
that Tertullian could write that only Nero and Domitian were the "enemies" of the
Nevertheless, the persecutions did continue; Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch
died under Trajan at the beginning of the second century. Hadrian, Antoninus, and
Marcus Aurelius all continued to bring Christians to trial and to punish them with
death. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, died under Antoninus, in 156; the church at
Lyons was all but blotted out under Marcus Aurelius, only to rise again under the
direction of Irenaeus.
The first real help came from the worst of the Roman emperors (from the
point of view). Commodus (180-192) was very little interested in enforcing the Roman
law, but from this the Christians benefited. It was still against the law to be a Christian,
but the State under Commodus was not too much concerned with that fact.
With the death of Commodus, matters took on a different color once again. Under
Septimius Severus (193-211), the State began to take the initiative in bringing Christians
to trial. Formerly, the State had waited for denunciations from the people. In practice,
however, this change resulted in even more sporadic persecutions. They arose more
suddenly, at the will of the Emperor; they were in some ways more violent. Eventually
they died out, one by one, having spent their force with no lasting effect. Septimius
Severus failed in his attempt to slow down the progress of Christianity. Nor did the
bloody persecution of Maximin (235-238), brief though it was, meet with any greater
success. The Christian Church remained.
In the middle of the 3rd century, with the coming of Decius (249), we came upon the
last-and the most violent---persecution of the century. This general persecution aimed
at stamping out the Christians once and for all. During this period large numbers of
Christians apostatized. The persecution was waged on all sides: at Rome, in Africa, in
Gaul, in Spain, and in Asia; Christians died by the hundreds. Gallus succeeded Decius
in 251 and renewed the persecution.
Valerian, the successor of Gallus, continued this policy soon after he became emperor
(253-260). It was only after his death that it appeared the trials were over. But the
appearances were deceptive. After nearly twenty years of peace, Diocletian was
instigated by Galerius to undertake what was to be the final persecution of the
Christians (303). A period of violence followed, with many deaths, but Christianity was
to triumph. The bloody purge was finally called off in 311 by Constantine, Licinius and
Galerius-one of the very men who had moved Diocletian to begin it. It was now stated
officially (even though begrudgingly) that "it is permissible to be a Christian." Church
property was restored, religious assemblies were allowed.
The final and lasting peace came with the famous Edict of Milan in 313: the peace of
Constantine. It marks the dividing point in the history of the early Church, and brings
with it the first General Council of Nicea.
With these external trials as a backdrop, the doctrinal battle went on within the Church
during these same years. Before St. Paul died, he wrote a letter to his disciple Timothy,
summing up the Christian teaching: "Remember that Jesus Christ rose from the dead
and was descended from David; this is my gospel, in which I suffer even to bonds, as a
criminal" (2 Tim. 2:8). These two points were the extremes which had been joined
together in Christ. He is a true Man: descended from David; but He is also God, since
He rose from the dead as He had foretold. The whole doctrinal story of the early
Church is a defense of these two extremes against those who would over- emphasize
one point at the expense of the other.
Even before the first century had drawn to a close, there were those who had begun to
challenge this central thought of Christianity. For different reasons, they denied
especially that Christ was true God. When St. John wrote the Fourth Gospel toward the
end of the first century, he clearly had them in mind. He explains this as the very
reason why he wrote his Gospel: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus
is the Christ, the Son of God . . ." (Jn. 20:31).
There were also some men who denied that Christ was the Messias; these were,
especially, the early Christians who belonged to the so-called "Judaizing" party. They
wished to hold fast to the practices of the old Jewish Law, and yet they realized that
there was in the teaching of Christ a certain rejection of at least part of this Law. In
rejecting Him as the Messias, however, they also rejected Him as God.
Other Christians of the first century came into contact with systems of philosophy that
taught that material things were evil in themselves. They believed in Christ, but came
to deny that He was true Man. Because of these other ideas, they felt they had to deny
at once that Christ ever possessed a real, physical body. To them it seemed impossible
that "God" could have taken on something as "evil" as a material, physical body.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, put to death at the beginning of the second century, was greatly
concerned with those who denied that Christ possessed a true human nature. On his
journey to Rome, where he was to die, he wrote seven letters to different churches. In
them he mentions the error of these men. We now refer to them as "Docetists," from the
Greek word (which means "to seem" or "to appear"). They claimed that Christ
only "seemed" to have a body like ours; actually He did not. Hence Ignatius wrote: "Be
deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David's lineage, of Mary: who was
really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really
crucified and died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really
raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us.... It is not
as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. It is they who are a sham! Yes,
and their fate will fit their fancies-they will be ghosts and apparitions."
The men of this period eventually began to speak of the Trinity by using terms that
differ from those in Scripture. This, of course, was something that had to happen. The
doctrinal history of the Church is a continuation of this process. What has been said in
the graphic speech of Scripture must come to be expressed in more "technical" terms to
satisfy the needs of the inquiring mind of man, and to answer the objections of various
heretics. This could not be avoided. But when man attempts to explain in any way the
content of revealed truth, there is the grave danger that he will distort it. He may all too
easily put his ideas into the words of Scripture, and give them an entirely new
Ultimately, only the proper teaching authority in the Church can give the final answer.
This is the task of the Popes and the General Councils down through the ages: to single
out what is a valid clarification of scriptural terminology from what is erroneous.
Without the guarantee of an infallible guide in this matter, Christian truth would soon
be lost in the maze of contrary opinions. Yet, we need not believe the opinion of any
mere man, no matter how wise nor how saintly he may be. We are obliged to accept on
faith only the word of God, and nothing more. For this reason God continues to speak
through His Church. He makes use of those to whom He has entrusted the sacred office
of teaching. They speak not on their authority, but on God's and we accept not their
opinion but the truth testified by the authority of God who speaks through them.
Before such matters are settled, however, history recounts a long series of errors and
confusions. An infallible teaching authority does not receive a new revelation from
heaven. Though guided always by the Holy Spirit, the Popes and the bishops of the
world have not always known what to say. They must discuss and study the truths of
faith, and only then can they speak. Infallibility at that moment means that when they
do speak, God will keep them from error.
Thus in these early years, we see the need of stating the very same truth of Scripture,
but by expressing it in different words. In that way, the Church comes to understand
revealed truth more clearly. Later, for example, we will note how the Blessed Mother is
solemnly defined, at the Council of Ephesus, as the "Mother of God." This is said
nowhere in Scripture in these very words; but it is true nevertheless. It is contained in
Scripture, just as the belief in it was a part of the faith and teaching of the Church in the
first century. But it must gradually be stated in these more precise terms.
Perhaps the first great impulse toward this process came from the Gnostics.
means "knowledge," and these were the "wise ones" who claimed to understand life
properly. There were pagan Gnostics before Christ; thus Gnosticism did not develop
from Christianity. When some of these men came into contact with Christian truth,
however, they attempted to join the two teachings together. Frequently they fell into
error. Their fundamental belief that matter is evil was at the basis of the error of
"Docetism," into which some of them fell-the belief that Christ had no true physical
The Gnostics also thought of God as someone from whom there came forth "sparks" of
some sort-emanations, they called them. This notion was to confuse the Christians of
later centuries when they came to describe the relationship of the Second Person of the
Trinity to the Father. In fact, the general Gnostic notions will occasionally appear in our
doctrinal history for many centuries. Gnosticism developed many varied forms, so that
it is really impossible to reduce them all to one system. But the general tendencies are
clear when they do appear.
As a result, the early defenders of the faith were especially concerned with these and
similar errors. In regard to the explanation of Christian faith in the third century two
men stand out: Tertullian and Origen. These two had a tremendous effect on the
"technical" vocabulary which the Church was developing -Tertullian in Latin, Origen in
Greek. New words had to be coined to express the truths of the Christian faith in
something beyond the words of Scripture, and they helped lead the way.
By departing from the graphic terms of Scripture, however, they were taking a certain
risk, and eventually they both fell into a doctrinal error. Tertullian even left the Church
and joined the group known as Montanists---a group of Christians who desired to lead
extremely devout lives, but who fell into error since they felt they alone were being
guided by the Holy Spirit; the Church itself had supposedly fallen into serious heresy.
In the third century, however, new errors began to rise, errors that can be identified in
special ways. They were actually preparing the way for heresy of the early
Church: . The names of two men stand out in this early period: Sabellius
and Paul of Samosata.
Sabellius was a priest of Lybia who taught chiefly at Rome. He attempted to explain the
Trinity in a novel fashion: he admitted only a . Thus, he claimed,
whenever we speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are really only
calling the one divine Person by three different names, depending on how God is
manifesting Himself to the Church. Sabellius has the dubious honor ( given to others
throughout the centuries) of having this general error named after him: .
There were, however, other men who held similar teachings, and other names. One
group was known as the . They logically concluded that if there was
only a difference in names, it was really the "Father" who suffered on the cross. Hence
the name, from (father) and ( suffer ).
Paul of Samosata was the bishop of Antioch, and an important name in history, since he
was a friend of Lucian, the teacher of Arius. Paul of Samosata taught things very much
like Sabellius, but he attempted to explain the teaching in more scientific fashion. His
starting place was God as an intelligent Being. God has intelligence, and therefore He
can "utter" a divine . This word he called by the Greek name , which
means the same thing. For Paul, however, this was not a person at all; it was
only a manner in which God manifested His power.
As a result, when Paul of Samosata came to speak of Christ, he claimed that Christ was
only a man-a mere man, and nothing more. He was not God. We might call him the
"adopted son" of God, but for Paul that meant only one thing: this "power" of God (the
) overshadowed Jesus, and dwelt in Him as in a temple.
In this teaching, the is not really "distinct" from God; it is simply an mpersonal
power of God. Thus the Logos was not a divine person. Paul of Samosata expressed
this by saying that God and the were "of one substance." In saying this, he
used a most important word in the history of the Church, but used it in his own
meaning: . As Paul of Samosata used it, it meant there was no Trinity of
persons at all- no Father and Son (nor Holy Spirit). The was simply an
attribute or power of God. In this he was very much like Sabellius.
To this, however, Paul had added another idea: the notion of the coming to
dwell in Jesus of Nazareth. In this way he was helping to prepare for the big debate of
the Council of Nicea, for Arius was to develop this thought in his own way.
With the stage set in this fashion, two new figures appear who are destined to bring
forth the first General Council of the Church. The one is Constantine, the Emperor who
would give peace and official recognition to the Church. The other is Arius, who by his
teaching on the Trinity, would succeed in tearing asunder the Church of Christ, and
bring forth the need of a General Council. He was to do it, however, not by persecution
from without, but by sowing the seeds of doctrinal error within the Church itself.
CHAPTER III . . . COUNCIL OF NICEA
IN THE Church of the fourth century, there were two centers of intellectual life that
have assumed a special place in history: Antioch and Alexandria. Both of these cities
had their own schools in which Christianity was discussed and analyzed, and both
cities developed their own approach. When we speak of them today, we think more of
the "spirit" behind each school, rather than the school itself. It was the special approach
of each that determined their influence.
Antioch was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, surpassed only by Rome
and Alexandria. It was one of the most beautiful cities of the East, a center of Greek
culture; yet it marked the border line between the two worlds, the East and the West.
Oriental mysticism mingled there with the more legal spirit of Rome. It was here that
Peter had first settled, before moving on to Rome; on February 22 the Church celebrates
this in the feast of the "Chair of St. Peter at Antioch." And as St. Luke informs us, ". . . it
was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians'" (Acts 11:26).
In the fourth century, there was a learned man at Antioch who exercised so great an
influence over Christian thought that he is usually called the founder of the "School of
Antioch." This man was Lucian. The name of Diodorus of Tarsus also marks a high
point of the school, as well as St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher-bishop of
Constantinople, who also bad received his training at Antioch.
The spirit of Antioch laid special emphasis upon the grammatical and historical
meaning of Scripture, and on the value of human reason in the service of religion. This
carried with it, unfortunately, the special danger of falling into a purely historical and
rational approach to Christian truth. History and human reason tended to mark the
approach of Antioch more than they ought to. The end result was a number of heresies
in which Scripture was understood more by human reason than according to the
traditional faith of the Church.
Alexandria, on the other hand, was the great port city of Egypt. Even before the time of
Christ, it included a large Jewish population, a group that showed a special concern for
combining Jewish culture with Greek philosophy. To meet the needs especially of the
Egyptian Jews, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was made-the Septuagint, as
it is called.
The Christians of Alexandria in the fourth century shared much of this same spirit. As
in Antioch, there were certain catechetical schools established in the third century. The
greatest name associated with these schools in northern Africa is that of Origen. His
influence was such that he is justly looked upon as the great light of the Alexandrian
school; he was active in this city about the year 215 under Clement of Alexandria.
Somewhat in opposition to Antioch, the school of Alexandria adopted a more
philosophical or even mystical approach to Christian truth. In explaining Scripture, this
latter school tended to see imagery or allegory in the inspired texts, and showed less
concern than did Antioch for the literal sense of Scripture. This approach carried with it
another special danger, the danger of falling into some kind of exaggerated
"spiritualism." It could produce a manner of speaking of the Church that tended to
wander off from the visible reality of daily life. Despite this, the followers of Origen
time and again rose to defend the orthodox teaching of the Church. Of them all, St.
Athanasius stands out as the greatest. The history of this most famous bishop of
Alexandria is intimately linked up with the story of Arius and Arianism.
In the fourth century, and in the centuries to follow, the theological disputes were to
center in a special way in these two schools, Antioch and Alexandria. The pendulum
swings first to one side, then to the other. Out of the conflict came the clear statements
of the early Councils of the Church.
When Lucian began his teaching at Antioch, he sowed the seeds of the greatest error
concerning Christ in the early Church, Arianism. Lucian had been a friend and ally of
Paul of Samosata, and he carried with him many similar ideas. Paul had really held
that there was no Trinity. The ( the "power" of God, as he understood it) had
simply "dwelt" in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Lucian held something similar, and
passed it on to his most famous pupil at the school of Antioch -a priest by the name of
Arius was a native of Libya but was attached to the church of Alexandria. He evidently
studied at Antioch under Lucian; at any rate, his doctrine is assuredly inspired by that
of Lucian. Arianism breathes the spirit of Antioch even though it came to light in
Alexandria; it was, moreover, accepted very quickly by the school of Antioch while
failing to capture Alexandria or Egypt throughout the fourth century. In its concern for
the literal meaning of Scripture, and its deceptive use of the arguments of human
reason, Arianism reflects the approach of Antioch rather than the allegory of
As a heresy, Arianism was not "popular" in the sense that the ordinary Christian fully
understood the complicated system. It was above all a concern of the schools. It is a
curious fact of history, however, that this heresy did filter down into the market place,
and became the topic of daily conversation and the subject matter of popular songs and
hymns. What this really amounted to was more of a "taking sides" on the part of the
people---particularly when the political decrees of the emperors added to the conflict.
To be a "good Arian," as far as the man in the street was concerned, often meant to be a
devoted follower of some strong leader. This very fact contributed much to the
progress of Arianism, just as it did later on with regard to Protestantism in the sixteenth
Arius himself was an excellent example of such a strong leader. He was well known as
a preacher, and had a large following among a certain class of Christians at Alexandria.
He was able to gather about him men and women who were especially interested in
leading a more perfect or penitential form of life. Into his preaching, however, he
gradually introduced more and more of Lucian's theory about the Son of God. This
could not fail to attract the attention of the bishop of Alexandria, a man named
Alexander. About 318 the bishop began an inquiry into the manner in which Arius
explained Christ as the Son of God. When he recognized the teaching of Arius for what
it was, he saw how much it was opposed to the faith handed down by the Apostles.
Arius was therefore called upon to give up this teaching once and for all. When he
refused to do so, he was excommunicated by the bishop, along with his followers, most
likely in 319 or 320.
The theory of Arius is difficult to express briefly. His interpretation of one scriptural
text may serve as a starting point St. Paul had written to the Colossians: "He (Christ) is
the image of the invisible God, the of every creature. For in him were
created all things in the heavens and on the earth . . ." (Col. 1:15). Ignoring all other
texts of the Bible, the Arians tried to defend their theory on this and similar phrases.
For Arius, there was but one God and one divine Person. This God is eternal. There is
mention in Scripture, however, of not only Christ but also the : the "Word." As
far as Arius was concerned, this Word (the ) was not God; he was not the
second Person of the Trinity. He was simply a creature, but a creature of a special and
unique type. The , he claimed, was created by God before everything else; he
was created before the world, before the universe, before time. But the Logos was
created by God, and created out of nothing; thus he is the "first-born of every creature."
As a result, however, the Logos was not God, and therefore he did not possess the very
same nature or being as God. He was not, in other words, of the same "substance" as
In Greek the word especially used for substance was . The adjective "same"
was, in Greek, . It is from this Greek word that we have such English words as
"homogenized." Homogenized milk, for example, is milk that is all of zone and the
same kind" (from and ---"kind"). Thus means "one and
the same substance."
The Arians would not admit this truth; what they were really denying, of course, was
the divinity of Christ If the was not of the same nature, the same substance as
God, then he was not God. And this is just what they taught.
There was a time, then, when the did not exist. He was created by the free will
of God. According to Arius, however, this became in turn the creator of all
other things in the universe. Thus the Word was more of a superangel, as it were, the
first and highest creature of God; in fact, the was the only creature directly
created by God. In this sense only is he called by Scripture the "only-begotten." All
other things were created directly by the and not by God. This does give other
creatures some kind of reason for calling the "God." He brought them into
This must be understood as "God" only in a secondary sense, however. Arius would
admit that the , as a creature, could have sinned; this could not be true of God.
Since the Father foresaw from all eternity that the would not sin, He
"adopted" the in a special manner as His Son. Only in this way is the
God; he is an "adopted God," but nothing more.
Thus when Scripture speaks of the "Son of God," this is all it means, according to Arius.
When Paul said that the Word is the "first-born of every creature," and that "in him
were created all things," this is how it is to be understood. But there is no real
possession of one and the same nature by God and the . They differ as the
Creator differs from a creature.
The entire matter might have ended when the bishop of Alexandria excommunicated
Arius, but it did not. Arius was a proud man, and a man with influential contacts.
When he realized that he was in trouble, he sought out protectors, and he found them.
Thus the conflict was extended. His most powerful defender was a fellow disciple of
Lucian; it was Eusebius, by this time bishop of the imperial city of Nicomedia. He was
a man of great power, and eventually Arius fled to Nicodemia, having left Alexandria.
There he experienced the protection of Eusebius; from Nicomedia he carried on his
A period of letter writing soon followed. Arius wrote those bishops he hoped would
defend him; some of his bishop-patrons wrote other bishops, trying to win them over to
the position of Arius. The bishop of Alexandria, however, also wrote to the other
bishops-more than 70 letters in all. Among them was a letter to the Pope at Rome,
containing an official account of the heretical teaching of Arius, and of his
While all of this was going on, Constantine, who had come to power in 306, was
gaining ground. In 313, the imperial edict that brought the persecution of the Church to
an end bore the names of Galerius, Constantine, and Licinius. Fifteen days after the
publication of the decree, Galerius was dead; only Constantine and Licinius remained.
In September of 323, however, Constantine defeated the Eastern Emperor, Licinius, and
in 324 became at last the sole ruler of the Roman world. And it was to him that the
disputing parties now turned for a solution.
Constantine had for some reason chosen as his special ecclesiastical adviser the bishop
of the Spanish city of Cordova, a man named Hosius. This bishop may possibly have
had something to do with the conversion of Constantine. At any rate, Hosius was
destined to play a large role in the first General Council of the Church.
When Constantine had emerged as the sole ruler of the Empire, and had heard of the
doctrinal disputes that were going on in the Church, he first of all sent Hosius to the
bishop of Alexandria. He had hoped thus to negotiate peace between the disputing
parties. Little was accomplished by this mission, but either as a result of it or by reason
of later conversations, it was realized that this problem could not be settled at a local
level. Hosius had learned the full error of Arius and its terrifying implications for
Christian truth. As a solution, the Council of Nicea, the first Christian landmark in the
long line of General Councils, came into being.
There had been many smaller "councils" or synods before Nicea; the idea was not
entirely new. What was different, however, was the notion of a or
Council. For the first time the bishops of the entire world were to be
gathered together to determine a point of Catholic belief. As the ancient historian
Eusebius remarks: "When they were all assembled at Nicea, it appeared evident that
the proceeding was the work of God...." For the first time, the activity of the Holy Spirit
in a General Council was to be experienced by the Christian world.
Our knowledge of the Council is rather limited; the accounts of the of the
gathering are said to have covered some forty volumes, but they have long since been
lost. It seems clear, however, that Constantine himself, at the urging of the bishops near
him, sent out the invitations to the bishops to attend. Constantine also paid the
expenses involved in the celebration of the Council. The primary purpose of the
gathering was to solve the problem of Arianism, although two other points were to be
discussed: (1) the date for the celebration of Easter, which had been disputed by some;
and (2) the question of the schism of Meletius in Egypt-a man who attempted to usurp
the power of the bishop of Alexandria in a dispute concerning those who had denied
the faith during the persecutions ( the ) .
The Roman Pontiff, Sylvester I, was apparently not consulted before Constantine acted,
but he ratified the move by sending two legates to the gathering, the Roman priests
Victor and Vincentius. It was in this way that the "head" of the college of bishops
convoked the meeting-what the authors refer to as the "formal convocation."
The Council was to be held at Nicea in Bithynia. It was a convenient location for the
Western bishops to reach, since it is close to the sea, but the principal reason for the
choice seems to have been the desire of the Emperor to attend. Nicea lay close to the
summer residence of the Emperor, and it was therefore far more convenient. Today
there is nothing at this spot but a small village called Isnik, but at that time, Nicea was
the center of the cultural life of Bithyma. Known as the "Golden City," it was a fitting
spot for this great spectacle to unfold.
The Council opened, it would seem, about May 20, 325. It apparently closed on June 19.
The opening session was a magnificent event, and obviously quite a change for many of
the bishops who attended. Some of them had known even personally the final
persecutions under Diocletian and, even more recently, under Licinius. They must have
flinched as they passed by the armed soldiers, standing now only as honorary guards
to add solemnity to the event. Memories of imperial guards in the past, seeking out
Christians and leading them to death, could not help but come to mind. But the world
had changed very rapidly.
The bishops gathered in the grand hall of the imperial palace at Nicea, where seats had
been arranged on opposite sides of the room. Clad as an Oriental sovereign, in gold
and precious stones, Constantine entered the hall in solemn fashion once the bishops
had gathered together. He then addressed them briefly in Latin on the purpose of the
Council, and his talk was immediately translated into Greek. Then the lively debates
began among the bishops present.
In all, there were about 250 bishops present. The traditional number given is 318, but
this seems to be a reference more to the 318 servants of Abraham than historical record
(cf. Gen. 14:14). The Creed itself bears the signature of only 220 bishops. Most of those
in attendance came from the eastern half of the Empire, but the Western provinces,
Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Italy, were also represented by at least one bishop.
The bishops soon grouped into parties, following their own convictions. There was a
small but powerful group of 15 or 20 bishops favoring Arius, led by Eusebius of
Nicomedia. A second group urged the solution of stating simply what had been said
before, with no further clarification; these included the bishops who disliked the idea of
defining faith in new terms not found in Scripture. A third group, however, eventually
achieved its desire. These bishops wished to re-examine the entire teaching in the light
of tradition, and express Catholic belief clearly, and, if need be, in new terminology.
Arius was given a chance to defend his teaching, but when he expressed his position
clearly and bluntly, all but his own party wished to condemn him. It was apparent by
then that some kind of formula had to be adopted to do this. Eusebius of Nicomedia,
Arius' patron, was ready for this; he had prepared such a formula. As might be
expected, it was so vague that both the Catholics and the Arians could sign it with
equal ease; it was no solution at all.
Only after overcoming the objections of those who wished to repeat nothing but the
scriptural terminology was the final Creed formulated: "We believe in one God, the
Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus
Christ, the , the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of
the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten, , () with the Father...."
The phrase "Son of God" was used in place of to avoid any confusion on that
point. The words "only-begotten" were further explained as meaning that the Word
was not created from nothing, but possessed the very nature and substance of the
It was, however, by describing the Son of God as "of one and the same substance" with
the Father-consubstantial-that the Arians were overcome above all. Those who insisted
on this word realized this as much as did the Arians themselves. To say that the
was "of one and the same substance" with the Father meant that he was not
simply "from God" or 'like God"; it meant that he God in the full sense of the term,
identical with the Father. It was thus the ideal means for separating the orthodox
believers from the heretics, for to accept this term meant to abandon the teaching of
Arius. In this way did become the byword of Nicea and the years that
When these formulations were finally settled, all but two of the bishops signed; they
were condemned by the Council along with Arius. Even Eusebius of Nicomedia
signed. The first General Council came to an end, and before the papal legates and the
bishops returned to their homes, the Emperor entertained them at a lavish banquet.
Constantine then officially approved the decrees of the Council, and set them forth as
laws of the State, ordering the removal of all those who failed to accept these decrees.
But the story did not end there; in fact, it was scarcely beginning.
CHAPTER IV . . . I CONSTANTINOPLE
THE figure of Constantine is one that has possibly been glorified unduly in the history
of the Church. He had long been spoken of in glowing terms as the "first Christian
Emperor," converted in a miraculous fashion when he saw a cross of light appear in the
heavens, bearing the inscription: "In this sign shalt thou conquer." The unrelenting
study of the past hundred years, however, has set much of this aside. What remains is
the picture of a man who was undoubtedly sincere in his acceptance of the Christian
God and of Christ the Saviour. It has been questioned, however, just how much of a
"Christian" he actually was beyond this. While his conversion may have been sincere,
and while many of his official acts are stamped with Christian influence, it is possibly
best to say that Constantine was "sincerely wrong." He never really grasped the fullness
of Christianity, and that can mean only one thing: he was never a true Christian. No
one can be a faithful disciple of Christ by accepting only half of what Christ and His
Constantine may never have been a member of the Church at all; he postponed his
baptism until the year 337, just shortly before he died. He took leave of this life in a
devout enough fashion, pledging himself to the life of a baptized Christian. and
begging God's mercy for his sins. But it was not a Catholic who baptized him, but an
Arian-no less than Eusebius of Nicomedia himself; his faith may have been the same.
Despite his interest in the Council of Nicea, there were other less Christian aspects of
Constantine's life. Among them must be included the murder he arranged of his wife,
Fausta, and of one of his own sons, Crispus.
The greatest difficulty, however, was derived from Constantine's concept of the
"Christian" emperor. He looked upon himself as the defender of the faith, but the faith
he would defend was quite dependent upon his mood and his current advisers. In this
way it came about that some time after Nicea, Constantine changed and became the
defender of the Arians. It was he who was responsible for expelling Athanasius from
his diocese the first time.
In history, whenever the political power has come to the defense of Christianity by
involving itself in the operation of the Church, it has almost always ended by doing
more harm to the Church than good. This is surely the case in the post-Nicean era.
Arianism was not only to remain a vital heretical movement, but it was to make great
progress; and this progress was to be due in large measure to the patronage of the
When the bishops signed the Creed at Nicea, there was outwardly a great unanimity.
But the sincerity of some of the bishops is surely open to question. A number evidently
signed more at the insistence of Hosius and the Emperor than because of personal
conviction; this was especially true of the Arian bishops-Eusebius above all.
Even among the Catholics who accepted the teaching in its entirety there was not a
wholehearted agreement that all was well. There were those who still felt that the
definition of a doctrine in nonscriptural terms was not well advised. They tended to
look upon it as an innovation, the result of the pressure of a "liberal" group of some
sort, intent upon destroying the faith of Scripture rather than defending it. This
hesitancy opened the road for vacillation, and it helps explain the lapse, later on, even
of some of the more devout and orthodox bishops.
There were two particular problems associated with the use of the "new" word, ; both the Arians and the scriptural-minded Catholics realized this. There was,
first of all, the fact that it is a term obviously influenced by the West, and even at this
date such a state of affairs was not looked upon happily by many Eastern bishops.
Tertullian had apparently introduced the word into the Latin
vocabulary about the beginning of the third century. The fact that the Greek translation
of such a term did find its way into the Nicean Creed is not unimportant; the
overwhelming majority of the bishops present had come from the East. This fact alone
emphasizes the influence of the West as well as the extreme usefulness of the term.
Apparently it was Hosius who was most influential in securing its adoption by the
Council, and he came from Spain.
Nevertheless, the word was somewhat new to the East, even though Origen and his
disciples had used it. While the meaning intended at Nicea was clear, the fact that it
was something of an innovation continued to disturb some souls. Moreover, the
problem was further complicated by the fact that the very same word had been used to
indicate something in other Greek writers. The most outstanding instance
was that of Paul of Samosata. He had used the word to indicate the
exact opposite teaching. For him, to say that the Father and the Son are
did not mean that the two divine Persons possessed the same divine nature. As he used
it, the word meant that the "Father" and "Son" are simply two different names for the
one God-the one and only divine Person. With this meaning in mind, Paul of Samosata
had taught that the "Father" and "Son" are ---that is, they are entirely
identical and are not distinct persons at all. As a result, the local synod of Antioch had
condemned Paul of Samosata in 268 for teaching that the Father and Son are !
Such a state of affairs could not help but breed further confusion in the East, even after
the Nicean Creed had been issued. The Arians used these arguments in order to
promote their teaching; they probably did so in some instances with malice
aforethought. But even the more orthodox believers were led into confusion. After all,
they recognized that Paul of Samosata had been condemned for saying that the Father
and the Son were , and yet Nicea had explicitly decreed that they are
Added to these technical problems, there came the politically ambitious schemes of the
emperors and a number of the bishops. Arianism was, for some, a steppingstone to
power, and they were quick to make use of it. They valued power and position far
above orthodoxy in faith. Among these, it would seem that Eusebius of Nicomedia
would take first place. He was interested above all in "getting ahead." He was little
concerned with doctrinal precision, and would gladly have settled for a more vague
statement at Nicea. He apparently did sign the Nicean Creed simply to keep his
position at the time.
Shortly after Nicea, Eusebius somehow managed to convey this impression to the
Emperor Constantine and was promptly exiled. Constantine died, however, in 337 and
the empire had to find a new ruler. There was no difficulty in getting men who were
willing to assume the burden; quite the opposite, there were far too many claiming the
right to do so. The three sons of Constantine eventually emerged triumphant. At first
they divided the vast empire three ways, but when one of them- Constantine II-died
three years later in a civil war with his brother, the authority rested with the remaining
two: Constans and Constantius II.
The change in regime marked a new chapter in the history of the Councils. Actually it
had already gotten under way in 330 when Constantine permitted Eusebius and Arius
to return from exile. Eusebius and his followers at once went into action. Since they
could not risk an open attack, they resorted to intrigues.
The technique adopted was very simple; it was used first of all on one who by now was
their great enemy: Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. The technique consisted in
managing somehow or other to place the orthodox bishop in disfavor, and then in
installing an Arian bishop in his see, once he had been exiled. The case of Athanasius
was a pattern of many to follow.
St. Athanasius had attended the Council of Nicea as a deacon and secretary to the old
bishop of Alexandria who had first of all condemned Arius. By 328, however,
Athanasius had succeeded the older man as head of the church at Alexandria. Upon his
return from exile, Eusebius first directed his attention to Athanasius, managing to
maneuver him into disfavor with Constantine. As a result, in 335 Athanasius was sent
into exile by the Emperor.
With Athanasius out of the way, and Eusebius back in power with Constantine as his
special patron, it seemed sure that the Arians-or the , as they are also
known-were sure to triumph. One thing still remained undone: Arius himself had not
yet been received back into the Church, although recalled from exile. Constantine
finally decreed that this be done by the bishop of Constantinople (since public
resentment still made it impossible at Alexandria). At that very moment, however,
Arius died (336), and soon afterward Constantine also passed on. The triumph was
When the sons of Constantine took over the rule of the empire, Athanasius was allowed
to return; thus the two opponents were free to carry on the dispute. The battle
continued mostly by way of intrigue, however. Of the two remaining sons of
Constantine, Constans was a baptized Catholic, while Constantius II favored Eusebius.
Constans was not a particularly healthy man, but he was the more powerful of the two.
As a result, until his death in 350, his presence warded off any Arian attack on the West
and at least limited greatly any violence in the East.
After the death of Constantine the Great, however, the conflict had become increasingly
evident. Eusebius had soon managed to have himself appointed bishop of
Constantinople. It was an office of tremendous importance, and it placed him in a
position to do much to further the Arian interests.
The technique continued, then, of attempting to fill the various dioceses with Arian
bishops. The first big attempt was to replace the recently returned Athanasius with an
Arian bishop in Alexandria. To this was added a second technique, one that was to
become even more important in later years. It consisted of inserting synonyms into the
decrees of the Councils, thus giving them a completely different meaning but with very
little outward change in wording.
There were also appeals to Rome from both sides, a number of local synods, and
threatening statements on the part of the Emperor. The whole Christian world seemed
torn in doctrinal conflict. Today, historians will place descriptive tags on various
groups-a practice complicated by the Greek words used for this purpose. The names
are based on the solution the group proposed. Four large groups can be distinguished,
one Catholic and three Arian:
1. The , led by Athanasius, who insisted on the full meaning of Nicea:
Christ is of the one and same substance as the Father.
2. The . These were a group of Arians who, after Nicea, came out into the
open and clearly stated in express terms what others had said more indirectly. They
claimed, therefore, that the Word (the ) was entirely the Father.
Hence the name, from the Greek word . The a stands for "not"; and the
adjective means "like." Thus the Word is "not like" the Father. They
represent the teaching that is exactly the opposite of that of Nicea. (They are also called
from the name of one of their leaders, Eunomius.)
3. The . This group is named by using only the Greek adjective
(which means "like" or "similar"). They were a vague group who hoped that
the entire debate could be solved by side-stepping the issue. They proposed that we
hold that the Word was "like" the Father, dropping the (substance) of Nicea
entirely. In this way, a type of compromise peace would result; the Arians could
understand the phrase in their own way, the Catholics in theirs. Since their motives in
suggesting this are recognized as more political than doctrinal, they are also known as
4. The . This was the largest of all the Arian groups after Nicea; they
are generally known today as the . Their solution involved a departure
from Nicea, but they attempted to make the change as easy as possible. All they did
was change the adjective (the "same") to ("like" or "similar"). They
added it, however, to the ousia ("substance") used at Nicea. In this way, there was little
change. The of Nicea became simply . The only
apparent difference was this extra "i" (a in the Greek alphabet). But the meaning
was completely changed. If the was only "similar" in substance, He would still
not be true God.
These many divisions resulted in great confusion on all sides. Smaller councils or
synods were held at various places, but none of them came up with a lasting solution.
Pope Liberius (352-366) had suggested a Council, for example, and the Emperor
Constantius agreed, but whatever meetings were held only ended in even greater
confusion. At some of them the Arians turned to strong-arm tactics; the decrees issued
were simply heretical. Meeting after meeting ended in this fashion. About the most
noteworthy result in each case was either sending St. Athanasius into exile or recalling
him-depending upon which party won the upper hand. Athanasius was, by now, the
leading defender of the faith of Nicea; hence his importance as a symbol of the entire
The whole question now centered about the Nicean Creed: Should it be accepted or
not? At one gathering at Milan the Arian bishops became so enraged that they dragged
the pen from the hand of the bishop of Milan as he was about to sign the Creed; a
veritable riot resulted. The Emperor finally intervened and forced the bishops to
condemn Athanasius, to reject Nicea, and receive the Arians into full union in the
In the midst of this seemingly endless confusion, even Pope Liberius was tricked into a
difficult position. He still remains one of the most discussed men of the period. Liberius
continued to insist upon a free Council, but his wishes were not heeded. Instead, there
came forth from Sirmium (the villa of the imperial court) one formula after another,
more or less Arian in tone. The first such formula had passed over the word entirely; the second was an obvious Arian decree, an open denial of Nicea; and
the third was something of a compromise, but, understood in proper fashion, it could
be viewed as in agreement with Nicea.
The signature of Liberius was needed, of course, to give real force to these formulas,
and to this day historians debate whether Liberius signed any of the formulas, and if so
which one he did sign. Whatever did take place, it is certain enough that Liberius was,
in point of fact, a stanch defender of Nicea (and also of Athanasius, which then meant
the same thing). If he signed any, it would seem that it was the third formula, which
admits of a proper interpretation; if he signed the second, however, it is clear from his
other actions that he was tricked into it.
In any event, it raises no special problem in regard to papal infallibility, since Liberius
never clearly issued a solemn statement on his own authority. He preferred to continue
demanding a free Council, with no interference from the Emperor. For this he was
rewarded with exile himself! Liberius was kidnaped by night at the order of the
Emperor and carried off to the imperial court. It seemed as though the Arians were in
complete control. Those bishops who refused to condemn Athanasius were removed
from their sees; even the Pope was now held captive.
Nothing was settled, however, since the group in favor with the Emperor changed from
the Semi-Arians to the Anomoeans to the Politicals and back again. Things continued in
this manner until Constantius died in 361. The immediate successors of Constantius
came and went rapidly. In 379, Theodosius became the emperor in the East, and out of
all this confusion rose the first Council of Constantinople ( 381).
By this time, Athanasius had died (373) and the leadership of the Catholic party had
passed first to St. Basil and then to St. Gregory Nazianzen. Yet when Theodosius came
to power, the Arians dominated everywhere in the East, especially at Constantinople;
the orthodox believers in that city had neither bishop nor church. The new Emperor,
however, was a devout Catholic and he wished to change all that. He decided,
therefore, to restore the Catholics to power and to expel the Arians. To secure a lasting
peace, he finally convoked the free Council that had been sought twenty or thirty years
before by Pope Liberius. In this way the State broke officially with Arianism, and for
the first time in years expressed in a clear fashion its acceptance of the Nicean faith.
Of all the General Councils, I Constantinople is, for a number of reasons, one of the
most perplexing. Considering the futile attempts of the past, it did not seem that this
Council would effect much more than these earlier gatherings had done; nevertheless it
did, and the power of the Holy Spirit triumphed. It is unique in the history of the
Councils. From all appearances, only the bishops of the East were invited. About 186
bishops took part, but not a single one from the west. Despite the frequent requests of
Pope Liberius and his successors for a free Council, it seems that now not even Pope
Damasus (366-384) was contacted in regard to this gathering; he did not take part in the
proceedings, not even through his legates. We would have to conclude, in fact, that the
Council was formally "convoked" by the Roman Pontiff at a much later date; history is
silent on any approval given by Damasus I. In the sixth century, however, I
Constantinople is listed in the papal decrees among the other General Councils of the
fourth and fifth centuries.
We have very little information concerning what took place at this Council. It opened in
May of 381; it most probably closed in July of that year. There were in all three men
who presided over the sessions: Meletius, Gregory of Nazianzen, and finally Nectarius.
One of the first tasks was the election of a new bishop of Constantinople; the Arian
bishop chose to leave the city rather than comply. For this office St. Gregory Nazianzen
The bishops then turned to the doctrinal questions of Arianism. About thirty-six Arian
bishops had accepted the invitation to attend the Council, but, since they all refused to
accept the Nicean Creed, they had left the city before the Council began. The bishops
were especially concerned with a group of Semi-Arians who had fallen into error in
regard to the Holy Spirit; this new error had to be condemned as well. Just as the
Arians had claimed that the Word was only a creature and not God, so these Semi-
Arians stated the same thing about the Holy Spirit. They are called
from one of their chief leaders, Macedonius (who had been the bishop of
Constantinople about twenty years earlier).
When the thirty-six Arian bishops left the city, the remaining 150 went on to reaffirm
the faith of Nicea. After all these years of dispute, they simply repeated the of Nicea, adding nothing more. The formula they issued seems to have been a
Jerusalem Creed, completed by the formula of Nicea; the Council simply made this
formula its own. Because of the teaching of the Macedonians, this Creed includes a
more definite statement concerning the Catholic belief in the Holy Spirit: "We believe in
the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life; he proceeds from the Father, is adored and
honored together with the Father and the Son; he spoke through the prophets." With
certain smaller changes, it is this Creed that we recite in the liturgy of the Mass today.
In this way, the doctrinal quarrel was finally settled; the faith of Nicea on this point
was once again secure. New troubles would arise, but they would be of a slightly
different nature. One source of difficulty, however, was created by the third canon
formulated by I Constantinople: "The bishop of Constantinople shall hold the first rank
after the bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome." In this lay the seeds of
discord and political unrest that would eventually lead to the great schism of the
Eastern Churches. But that is another story, to which we must return later on; there are
other doctrinal problems that must be treated first.
CHAPTER V . . . COUNCIL OF EPHESUS
AFTER I Constantinople, the divinity of the Word was well secured in the Church. The
picture changed somewhat at this point. The earlier debates had centered around the
Trinity, and the question was asked: "What is the relationship of the (Word) to
the Father?" It indicated a special concern for Christ in His nature and His
relationship to the Trinity.
In the fifth century, we can note a new interest, although the debates and crises
continue to mount on all sides. Those now taking part in the discussions all admitted
the fact that the is truly God in the sense defined at Nicea. They began to
inquire about the relationship of the to the nature of Christ. The big
question now became: "What is the relationship of the Logos (Word) to Jesus of
While the controversy was being waged between the Arians and the Catholics toward
the end of the fourth century, a new outlook was being developed. The Catholics had
been insisting that Christ was both true God and true man. The Arians had really
ended up by stating the exact opposite: Christ was neither true God nor true man. He
was not of the same substance with the Father, hence He was not God; but the
was also a superangelic being, created before all other creatures, so that the Arians
to pass over the humanity of Christ.
In the back of this Arian teaching there was the seed of another error. This started to
come to light especially in the teaching of Apollinaris; his error had also been
condemned at I Constantinople in 381: .
Apollinaris was the bishop of Laodicea in Syria, and a violent anti-Arian. But in
opposing that doctrine he himself fell into another extreme. Apollinaris accepted the
divinity of Christ in the full and orthodox sense, but he failed to do full justice to His
humanity. Thus, differing from the Catholics and from the Arians, Apollinaris would
say that Christ was true God, but not true man.
The reason for this position was more or less his acceptance of Plato's philosophy,
which he then applied wrongly to Christ. Plato, a Greek philosopher who died about
347 B.C., had spoken of a threefold division in man: he had a body, a soul, and a spirit.
The "spirit" was the element in man that made it possible for him to think, to act as a
rational human being. The soul simply joined with the body to give it life; it is what he
would call a "sensitive soul," rather than a rational soul.
When Apollinaris spoke of Christ, therefore, he claimed that Christ was a true human
being in the sense that He did have a soul; but this was a sensitive soul only. Thus
Christ had a true body and the five senses; He had true human feelings and emotions.
All this pertained to the sense life.
In regard to the "spirit," however, which Apollinaris considered the source of
intellectual life, he held that Christ had no such spirit: He possessed, in other words, no
rational soul. For Apollinaris, the took over the role of the "spirit" in Christ,
and was therefore the source of His thought life and the acts of His will.
Since man is a combination of body and soul, to be a true man means to and to
to do things in the very same manner that other human beings think and will.
Apollinaris failed to explain properly the humanity of Christ for this reason. If Christ
had no human "spirit," He also had no human thoughts, no human will; thus He could
not be human in the same way that other men are. And if this were true, then what is to
be said of those texts in Scripture which say that Christ "prayed" to the Father in
heaven, and that He "obeyed" the command of the Father in dying upon the cross?
These are actions of a mind and a will. Christ could not pray or
obey insofar as He is the second Person of the Trinity; this He could do only insofar as
He is man and possesses a true human intellect and will.
This, then, was the starting point for all the debates of the next two or three centuries. It
was to lead to a fuller understanding of Christ, and when the debates had ended, there
would be a record of four more General Councils that had arisen to clarify these
Apollinaris had really intended only to defend the unity of Christ. He had wanted to
show that Christ the Man was really and truly the , the second Person of the
Trinity. To him it seemed best, therefore, to explain the mental activities of Christ
by considering them the actions of the . In doing this, however, he was really
teaching that Christ was not a true man at all; He possessed no true human nature. It
was only to be expected that he would soon be attacked.
His greatest opposition came from the school of Antioch. Diodore of Tarsus opposed
him at once, laying much greater emphasis on the two realities in Christ: a true and
perfect human nature as well as a true and perfect divine nature. He passed this
teaching on to Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodore, in turn, may have been the
teacher who passed it on to Nestorius. At any rate, when we come to Nestorius we find
a man who is thoroughly penetrated by the principles of the school of Antioch. It is
after this man that the second great heresy of the early Church is named:
. This heresy was concerned with the relationship of Christ's human
nature to His divine nature.
In his own eyes at least, Nestorius was a great defender of the faith. He was strongly
opposed to the Arians and the Semi-Arians who had already been condemned. With
the teachings of the school of Antioch as his norm, however, he went a step further. He
thought that he could perceive within the Church itself another error that concerned
Christ, and he struck out against it.
Like Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius was far from achieving any great clarity in the
statement of his position. While the underlying principles may have been obscure, the
final conclusions were not. For this reason, Nestorius soon aroused the ire of the
bishops of his time because of his teaching, which failed to do justice to Catholic faith.
Theodore had emphasized so much the fact that Christ was both God and man ( against
Apollinaris and his followers), that he practically ended up by talking about two
entirely distinct persons: Christ, who was God; and Jesus of Nazareth, who was man.
Nestorius did the same, even more clearly.
Nestorius saw a further application of this position which he made his own in a special
way. He concluded that Mary brought forth only Jesus, and not the . The
only began to dwell in a special manner in Jesus of Nazareth some time after
He was born. This meant, therefore, that we are not justified in calling Mary the
"Mother of God," except in some loose, figurative sense. She was only the Mother of
Christ, in whom God (the ) later came to dwell. It was in this conclusion about
May that the error of Nestorius became most apparent.
When Nestorius became the bishop of Constantinople, a new crisis was in the process
of formation. About the year 428, one of his disciples, the monk Anastasius, mentioned
this point in a sermon; the clergy and the faithful were shocked. When they complained
of it to the bishop, Nestorius not only refused to condemn the teaching, but he made
use of the opportunity to set forth the doctrine himself.
For many years now, the faithful had spoken of the Blessed Mother as the
-the "Mother of God." There are indications of its use in prayers as early as
the third century. Nestorius now claimed that this was a dangerous word. He held that
we ought to speak of Mary only as the - the "Mother of Christ." Thus the
defense of the true doctrine concerning Christ was necessarily linked so intimately to
the honor given to Mary as His Mother. One cannot dishonor Mary without
dishonoring Christ as well, and those who heard Nestorius preach realized this.
The Catholic faith has always insisted that Christ possesses two complete and perfect
natures, the human and the divine. These two natures are not in any way confused
with one another; there is nothing essential lacking to either. As Scripture indicates,
Christ is true God and true Man.
These two natures are united, however, insofar as they belong to one and the same
Person: the second Person of the Trinity. From all eternity this divine Person possessed
His divine nature. Without losing this, He also assumed, at the time of the Incarnation,
a human nature that was fashioned in the body of Mary. He made entirely His own this
human body and the spiritual soul God infused into it; this was accomplished by the
action of the entire Trinity. It is accordingly the human body and soul of that Person to
whom the Trinity united it: the second Person of the Trinity.
Since it is through the that the human and divine in Christ are united, the
Church speaks of the " union" -a word derived from the Greek word for
person (). It means that in the union of the human and divine natures,
both natures remain complete and perfect; they are united, however, "in the person"
(hypostasis) of the divine Word, the second Person of the Trinity.
Nestorius, on the other hand, seemed to hold that there was originally a "human
person" resulting from the union of this body and soul in Christ ( just as there was a
"divine Person" in the Trinity-the second Person, the ) . Nestorius indicated
that some kind of person resulted from the union of these two. He did not hold
that this human person and the divine Person were either fused together or destroyed,
as later heretics did; but they were joined together in such a way that the human person
was somehow subordinate to the divine person.
No matter how you understand this, however, it can only amount to saying that there is
no more than a "moral union" of two entirely distinct persons in Christ. The so-called
human person is "more or less" joined to the divine Person, but that is all. The end
result is that when you consider the body and soul of Jesus, the Son of Mary, you do
not really consider the body and soul of . The only dwells this
body and soul, as in a temple. The body and soul really belong to the "human person."
For Nestorius, then, Jesus of Nazareth is simply the "Godbearer," and not really God.
Since the dwells within Him, Nestorius would say that Jesus is "one" with
God, but not in the sense that the Church had always understood it. This became most
clear in the further conclusion regarding the Blessed Virgin. According to Nestorius,
Mary was, we might say, the Mother of the "temple," but not of the ; she was
not the Mother of God, but only the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth.
On the other hand, the Church insisted that a mother is always the mother of a
; she is not simply the producer of a body. Common sense alone indicates this.
A mother is mother of someone, not something. Ultimately the question, therefore, is
this: "Precisely who is Christ?" If Christ is God, then Mary is the Mother of God, the
mother of the divine Person. If Christ is not a human person, Mary cannot be the
mother of a human person.
Mary is not the Mother of God in His nature, obviously; God is eternal,
infinite. But in becoming the Mother of God in His nature, she was
necessarily the Mother of the Person to whom that human nature belonged, and that
Person was the second Person of the Trinity. This was the chief point of the entire
dispute. To call Mary the Mother of God is really another way of saying that Christ is
God: one divine Person with both a human and a divine nature.
Nestorius was most firm in his position. He excommunicated the members of his own
church who refused to accept his teaching. Some appealed at once to the Emperor,
while others notified the Bishop of Rome. In this way the stage was set for the third
General Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431.
From Rome there came the request of Pope Celestine I (422-432) for further information
about the dispute at Constantinople. He wrote to the patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril,
for this information. Thus Cyril became the leading character of this debate, somewhat
as Athanasius had been in regard to the Arians.
Cyril sent his report to Rome with the deacon, Posidonius; he reached there in the
spring of 430. The Western bishops examined the teaching of Nestorius at Rome and
declared that it was heretical. The Pope then sent word to Cyril that he was to depose
Nestorius if he did not reject his teaching within ten days after he heard their decision.
Before proceeding with this directive, however, Cyril decided to call together the
bishops of the East at Alexandria in order to investigate again the precise error of
Nestorius. Perhaps more than the Western bishops, Cyril may have realized the danger
of not pinning Nestorius down to precise points; the long and troublesome history of
the Arian controversy was still fresh enough in the memory of the East.
The Eastern bishops gathered together, and on November 3, 430, they issued a letter
along with the famous twelve of Cyril. These were a series of
propositions condemning errors about Christ. Nestorius was to subscribe to them or be
deposed. They were intended to be very precise doctrinal statements, eliminating all
possibility of misunderstanding. As it happened, they were phrased in Cyril's own
words, and there was some possibility of misunderstanding; they were destined to play
a role in later history.
Nestorius and his followers rejected the entire idea, and turned to accuse Cyril himself
of being a heretic. A number of other bishops also supported Nestorius, above all John,
the patriarch of Antioch. Some did so because they were in agreement with Nestorius'
position; others were perhaps confused by the terminology of Cyril. But the battle was
The Roman emperors then took the next step. The empire was still divided between
two men: Theodosius II was the Eastern emperor, and Valentinian III was the emperor
in the West-the last really effective one of the West. Theodosius, however, was the
moving force in this matter. Although neither Pope Celestine nor Cyril had asked for a
Council, the question had been mentioned; Nestorius especially had sought a Council.
Theodosius therefore convoked a Council that was to open on Pentecost Sunday of 431
at Ephesus. This was a famous seaport along the Aegean Sea, a city known in pagan
times for its devotion to the Greek goddess, Diana. In Christian Ephesus a far more
noble woman had taken the place of Diana in their hearts: the Mother of God. It was
only fitting that her glories should happen to be extolled there at this third Ecumenical
The Pope had known of the desire of Nestorius and others for a Council; hence there
was no great surprise at Rome. He agreed to send three legates to represent him at the
gathering: two bishops, Arcadius and Projectus, and the priest, Philip. They were given
careful instructions. First of all, they were to attach themselves firmly to Cyril of
Alexandria, who would serve as their guide.
Second, they were to safeguard the rights of the Bishop of Rome. They were to come as
judges, not as parties to a controversy. The Bishop of Rome had a]ready settled the
question of Nestorius and his teaching; they were simply to make sure that this was
carried out. Owing to this directive the Council produced some of the most outstanding
testimony of that century to the Roman primacy, since the bishops gave vocal
expression to their acceptance of papal authority.
Lastly, considering the difficulty of travel in those days, the legates were told that,
should they arrive late, they were to investigate carefully everything that had taken
place before their arrival. As time would prove, this was a bit of advice well given.
When the Council opened, most of the bishops present were, once again, from the East.
Africa sent one deacon; at the time it was sorely pressed with attacks from the Vandals
and not many could attend the Council; the same was true in Italy, which sent only the
legates of the Pope. There was a great deal of difficulty involved in getting there on
time. When the appointed day arrived, the papal legates had not yet arrived, and the
patriarch of Antioch, John (who had been appointed by the Emperor to preside), was
also absent. In John's case the delay may have been on purpose. He was a friend of
Nestorius, and may not have wished to take part in the condemnation; at any rate, he
did send on word that they ought not wait too long, should he be delayed.
After waiting sixteen days, Cyril insisted that they go on with the Council; thus the first
session actually got under way on June 22, 431. Nestorius was there with six bishops;
Cyril with about 50 bishops; and Memnon, the bishop of Ephesus, was present with
about 40 of his suffragan bishops and 12 from Pamphylia. At the start there were about
159 bishops who attended the Council, although 198 signatures appear on the final
condemnation. Count Candidian was present as the representative of the Emperor.
All went well that first day. The Council opened in the Church of St. Mary at Ephesus.
Nestorius was offered an opportunity to appear three times, but refused. The letters of
Cyril and of Pope Celestine, in which the teaching of Nestorius was condemned, were
read and approved. A number of other statements taken from the writings of earlier
Fathers were also read; these were offered in support of the teaching of Celestine and
Cyril. Nestorius was then declared to be deposed as bishop of Constantinople and
excommunicated for his heretical teaching.
The people of Ephesus celebrated this great triumph that very night. They passed
through the lighted city, carrying torches and incense in honor of what had been
accomplished. The truth concerning Christ and the honor due His Mother had once
again been affirmed.
But this was not the end. As with many of the other Councils, a storm was yet to arise.
The next day the Council officially notified Nestorius of the sentence; word was also
sent to the priests of Constantinople, informing them that their bishop had been
deposed. Nestorius was angered; so also was Candidian, the representative of the
Emperor. Candidian had opposed the holding of a session until the others arrived. In
the name of the Emperor, therefore, Candidian promptly declared the entire
proceedings null and void.
A few days later, John, the patriarch of Antioch, arrived and showed himself no less
receptive to what had been done. He sided with Candidian, and gathered together with
43 bishops to form a rebel council. They at once issued their own decrees, deposing
Cyril and Memnon ( the bishop of Ephesus ), and excommunicating their followers.
They claimed that they, and not Nestorius, were the real heretics, guilty of Arianism
The Emperor was quite upset by this turn of events and demanded that the bishops all
remain in Ephesus until an investigation could be made. About July 10, the papal
legates finally arrived, and set things in order. Following the directives of Pope
Celestine, they reviewed all that had been done. When the acts had all been read, they
approved and added their signatures to the decrees. They then notified the Emperor
that the East and the West were in accord, and demanded permission to elect a new
bishop of Constantinople.
There were in all six more sessions from July 10 to August 31. In these sessions the
decrees against Cyril and Memnon were declared invalid. John of Antioch and his
party, however, refused to agree to the proceedings. This was to remain a problem even
after the Council.
A number of other decrees were also issued, concerning above all the heresy of
Pelagius which had been upsetting the West in particular during these same years; this
had been one of the chief concerns of the great St. Augustine. He had died in 430, but
had been sent an invitation to attend the Council of Ephesus; those concerned had not
as yet heard of his death. Another decree pronounced that no one could add anything
to the Creed issued at Nicea. This also was destined to play a role in the later disputes
at the time of the Great Eastern Schism. But the chief work was the condemnation of the
error of Nestorius.
When all was finished, the work of Ephesus was essentially a triumph. Nestorianism
was doomed. It marked the beginning, however, of further complications. The Emperor
Theodosius II officially ended the council toward the end of October, 431. Strangely, he
had accepted both the condemnation of Nestorius by the authentic Council and the
condemnation of Cyril by the rebel council. Cyril, however, was able to gain the
approval of the Emperor, and through the help of his friends, Theodosius gave way. In
October of 431, the Emperor permitted Cyril to return to Egypt as the bishop of
Alexandria; he continued to recognize the condemnation of Nestorius.
Nevertheless, John of Antioch and his followers still exercised their influence. A
division had resulted from the Council, and this had to be healed. Neither the Pope nor
the Emperor accepted the condemnation of John of Antioch and his party. By thus
leaving the door open for a peaceful solution, much good resulted. By 433, the
followers of Cyril and John of Antioch had discussed the questions and assured one
another that they both held to the same doctrine, even though their terminology might
differ. All signed the formula of agreement, and the matter rested, for the time being at
least. Ephesus had won over all of those concerned.
CHAPTER VI . . . COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON
THE intervention of Cyril of Alexandria at Ephesus had been tremendously important
in defending the faith against Nestorius. Cyril, however, was a man who spoke and
wrote in a terminology that could be misleading; this was the big problem that had
disturbed John of Antioch. For one thing, Cyril had often spoken of Christ by referring
to the "one incarnate nature of God the Word." To Cyril this indicated especially that
there was but "one person" in Christ. Others understood it to mean but "one nature." As
a result, Cyril finally set this phrase aside, and accepted the phrase of Antioch: "the
union of two natures."
This approach, however, was going to have its effect in what follows. While Cyril
wished to affirm the traditional faith of the Church, the phrase he had used could be
taken to indicate something entirely different. As long as Cyril was alive, such
confusion could be avoided. But, in 444, he died. John of Antioch had already died, as
well as Pope Sixtus, who had reigned at the time of the agreement of 433. By the year
448, therefore, a new crisis was upon the Church, new debates, a new heresy, and
eventually a new Council.
The ordinary catechism today will tell us that Christ is the second "Person of the
Trinity, and that in addition to His divine "nature" He assumed a human "nature" in
order to save mankind. The words "nature" and "person" are technical terms that have
come to indicate something very definite in Catholic teaching. Many years elapsed
however, before everyone agreed upon what precise word to use to express these ideas.
In fact, much of the difficulty in the centuries we are talking about arose from the
unsettled terminology. What made matters even worse, men not only used different
Greek or Latin words when speaking about "nature" and "person," but they sometimes
used the word to mean both things.
There are instances, for example, when the Greek word generally used for person
() was used by some men to mean "nature." The same was true of other
important terms There were no dictionaries to solve the problem; a dictionary has to
wait until men agree on the meaning of a certain word. This, of course, invited great
confusion, and only with the solemn definitions of the great Councils were the
problems finally solved.
When we speak of "nature" we are concerned with exactly what makes something what
it is. Nature is the answer to the question "What is it?" Whatever goes to make a human
being a human being (and not a flower or animal) is his "nature." In this way we can
distinguish between inanimate nature (like rocks), plant nature, animal nature, human
nature, angelic nature, and divine nature-right up the scale.
On the other hand, "person" is the answer to the question "Who is it?" We never speak
of persons, then, except with the last three classes: men, angels, God. That is why we
will not point to a dog and ask "Who is that?" To be a person, one must have a mind. If
one cannot think or if one does not at least have the basic of thinking, he is
not a person. A baby, therefore, or a mentally retarded individual is truly a person,
since he does have that power, even though the use of it is hindered for some reason.
This intellectual power makes it possible for a person to "act" as an intelligent being,
and to be responsible for what he does.
In Christ, therefore, there is only one "person"-one who acts, who is responsible for
whatever is done either in His divine nature or in His human nature. Thus we can truly
say that "God died upon the cross," because it is a who dies. When the human
nature of Christ died it was God (although not in His divine
nature) who died.
This problem became the subject of special debate after the Council of Ephesus.
Nestorius had tended to speak of two "persons" in regard to Christ: a divine and eternal
Person, and a human person. Those who opposed him naturally wanted to stress the
fact that there is only one person in Christ. Whether He acted as God (in His divine
nature) or as man (in His human nature), it was always God, the second Person of the
Trinity who did these things.
In stressing this truth, however, some men went to the opposite extreme. Offering the
phrase of St. Cyril as their defense, they claimed that there was not only one Person,
but also only one nature in Christ. Cyril had spoken of "one incarnate nature ()
of God the Word." For Cyril, the word meant "person"; for these others,
however, it meant "nature." The result was a new heresy known as the Monophysite
heresy. (It comes from the Greek words, mono, which means "one"; and ,
meaning "nature.") It is also known as , from the name of its chief
defendant, Eutyches, abbot of a monastery near Constantinople.
In addition to Eutyches, three other men play a large role in the history of this
controversy: Pope Leo the Great; Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople; and the
Emperor Marcian. The name of Leo in the middle of the fifth century was to be forever
associated with the triumph of the Council of Chalcedon; Flavian was to work in close
association with Leo; and Marcian was the one who insisted on the Council.
The abbot Eutyches was greatly upset by Nestorianism, so much so that he saw signs of
it everywhere he looked. His reaction was the opposite extreme. In emphasizing the
oneness and unity of Christ, he really the two natures. What resulted from
his teaching was something new-a kind of "mixture" of the human and the divine, in
which the human was absorbed, as it were, by the divine. Other Monophysites would
vary the teaching so that the divinity disappeared in the humanity, or was changed into
the human nature. But the end result in every case was only . The example
used by Eutyches has become famous: "As a drop of milk let fall into the ocean is
quickly absorbed, so also was the human nature of Christ entirely absorbed by the
Among those to oppose Eutyches was Theodoret, the bishop of Cyrrhus, his greatest
opponent. He was the man who, so to speak, had taken over the leadership of the
orthodox believers when Cyril of Alexandria died in 444. He was not the great mind
that Cyril had been, but he was a more precise and exact theologian. Thus he was able
to clear up some of the misunderstandings caused by the terminology of Cyril.
On the other hand, Eutyches did more than disturb others; he took the initiative and set
out to attack them. One of those toward whom he directed his wrath was Eusebius, the
bishop of Dorylaeum; Eutyches was certain that this man was teaching heresy. As a
rule, Eutyches was quite secure and able to achieve his goals. He was a powerful and
influential man; as his patron he had the rather sinister patriarch of Alexandria,
Dioscoros. Eusebius, however, was not afraid of Eutyches in any way. He promptly
denounced him to Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople.
Flavian may well have feared Eutyches; when he was openly denounced, however,
Flavian had to act. He summoned Eutyches to a synod at Constantinople in 448; after
several refusals, Eutyches appeared, guarded by the soldiers of the Emperor
Theodosius II ( who had taken kindly to Eutyches and his followers). Eutyches refused
to retract his teaching, and insisted all the more that there are not two natures in Christ,
but only one. Flavian's council of bishops at once deposed him from his office as abbot
and excommunicated him from the Church.
The scene next shifted to Rome. The Emperor had appealed to Pope Leo on behalf of
Eutyches. At the same time, Eutyches' special patron, Dioscoros, went into action at
Alexandria, and declared that the sentences passed on Eutyches were null and void.
Finding such favor from those in high positions, Eutyches asked the Emperor to
convoke a Council and it was agreed; a Council was to open in August of 449 at
Fortunately the Roman Pontiff at the time was truly one of the "great" men of history, as
his name indicates. Leo knew how to deal with people, and he was not inexperienced
in the problems of diplomacy. Above all, he was a skilled theologian, well able to enter
into this controversy. Eventually he had on hand the letter of Eutyches concerning the
trial, the recommendation of the Emperor, and a report from Flavian.
Having considered the entire matter, Leo agreed to the Emperor's plan for a Council at
Ephesus, and named three delegates to represent him. At the same time he wrote the
famous letter to Flavian, expounding the true faith of the Church in regard to Christ; it
is known as the "Dogmatic Epistle" of Leo the Great.
A short time later, on August 8, 449, the Council opened at Ephesus with about 130
bishops present. It took place in the same church where Nestorius had been condemned
in 431, but it turned out to be a vastly different affair! The wily Dioscoros, patriarch of
Alexandria, presided at the command of the Emperor Theodosius. He ignored the
papal legates entirely, and refused to permit the reading of the "Epistle" from Leo. The
Council then went on to do the exact opposite of what had been intended: it acquitted
Eutyches and condemned Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople. Claiming that it was
"Nestorian" to affirm two natures in Christ, the bishops once again took up the
terminology of Cyril of Alexandria-understood, of course, in the sense held by the
Monophysites. Theodoret of Cyrrhus was also deposed; and Flavian was so badly
treated that he soon died.
The full report, however, finally reached Rome. Before he died, Flavian had sent an
appeal, and Theodoret also wrote to Leo; and when the papal legates returned, Rome
understood all. Leo gave to this gathering the name by which it has been known since:
the "Robber Synod of Ephesus." In these proceedings, said Leo, we see no Council, but
a den of thieves (). He at once declared invalid all that had been done.
This was on October 6, 449. With the support of the Emperor, however, it did seem at
the time as though the Monophysites had triumphed.
As had happened in the past, death was soon to intervene and change the entire
picture. On July 28, 450, Theodosius, the emperor, died. His sister, Pulcheria, married a
famous general of the time, Marcian; they became the new rulers. A devout couple,
they set about correcting the evils. The orthodox bishops were recalled, Eutyches was
sent away, and eventually the various bishops rejected the decrees of the "Robber
The suggestion was made of calling another Council, this time to proceed properly. Leo
advised against it for various reasons. For one thing, matters were improving without
open debate, and it seemed best to postpone such a General Council. Moreover, the
barbarians were again attacking in the West, and it would be difficult for Western
bishops to attend.
Before Leo's letter reached the East, however, steps had been taken by Marcian and
Pulcheria to convoke the Council. It was to open at Nicea, this time, on September 1,
451. Again Leo agreed, and appointed other legates to represent him, giving them very
precise instructions on what they were to do.
By a change in plans, the site was moved to another city, so that this Council did not
become II Nicea. At the beginning of September about 500 bishops had gathered at
Nicea, but the Emperor was busy fighting off the Vandals, and could not be there. The
bishops continued their preparations, but grew tired of waiting. Marcian then asked
them to transfer to a city nearer to Constantinople where he would be in closer touch
with the Council, even though he did not attend. The spot chosen was Chalcedon,
directly across from Constantinople (or Byzantium, at it was also known at that time).
The fourth General Council opened at Chalcedon on October 8, 451. It was closed
officially on November 1 of that year, but its greatest work was accomplished by
October 25, when the doctrinal decree was solemnly approved.
Of the first four Councils, Chalcedon stands out as by far the most important and
glorious. It was attended by more bishops (about 600) than any of the previous
gatherings. They came mostly from the East because of the difficulties with the
barbarian invasions in the West. In addition to the papal legates, only two bishops from
Africa were in attendance. The Eastern bishops, however, came from all over, and in
This Council also stands out because of the profundity of the doctrinal decree, which is
a superb summary of all that hadbeen clarified concerning Christ and the Trinity
during these first centuries; it also established firmly the terminology that has remained
with the Church until this very day. In this way it completed the work of these earlier
Councils. It seems, in a way, that the Church had to debate the two extremes of
Nestorius and Eutyches in order to set forth in clear and technical language the
doctrine received from the Apostles. In doing this, Chalcedon became the touchstone of
doctrinal truth in this matter for all succeeding centuries.
The Council opened in the Church of the martyr, St. Euphemia. As with the Council of
Ephesus, we possess far more in the way of records of what took place than we have
from Nicea and I Constantinople. They have come to us both in Greek and Latin, since
both languages had been used. There is still a question of precisely how many sessions
took place. Some have said fourteen or fifteen; others twenty-one. The doctrinal
problems were settled, however, in the first six.
The papal legates presided, although the representatives of the Emperor were also
much in evidence; but they did not interfere with the work of the Council or the
authority of the Roman Pontiff. In fact, apart from the doctrine concerning Christ,
Chalcedon has left to the world the greatest testimony of an Eastern Council to the
primacy of the Pope. At the end of the second session on October 10, after the reading
of the "Dogmatic Epistle" of Pope Leo the Great, the bishops cried out: "Behold the faith
of the fathers, the faith of the Apostles. . . . Thus through Leo has Peter spoken!"
One of the chief tasks of the Council, obviously, was to give a solution to the
disciplinary problems that had arisen. In the course of the sessions, therefore, the acts of
the "Robber Synod" were read; Flavian (now dead) and Eusebius (who had first
denounced Eutyches ) were declared innocent of the charges levied against them at
Ephesus. The bishops who had been active at that illicit synod were then deposed,
including Dioscoros of Alexandria. Eutyches, so roundly condemned by the Council,
was finally sent into exile, along with his patron, Dioscoros; penalties were prescribed
for those who insisted on remaining faithful to Eutyches.
Among the bishops whose cases were discussed at Chalcedon, two are especially
important because of the role their writings will play in the next century. One was Ibas,
the bishop of Edessa; the other, Theodoret of Cyrrhus. These two had been condemned
along with Flavian at the "Robber Synod." They were now reinstated by the General
At first the Council had no intention of issuing any new formula of faith. It seemed
better to settle the problem of Eutyches, and then simply reaffirm the acceptance of the
Creed of Nicea and I Constantinople. In the discussions, however, it appeared that the
doctrinal points were not entirely clear in the minds of all the bishops; this suggested
the need of a further clarifying statement. Moreover, the representatives of the Emperor
were most insistent on this in the interests of rooting out once and for all the confusion
that had previously reigned.
As a result, in the fifth session (October 22), it was decided to name a special
commission to draw up a statement; the papal legates were among those appointed.
What they produced is not so much a new Creed as a commentary on the Catholic faith.
The first part of the decree is more a statement of what the Church opposes to the
teaching of the heresies of the early centuries; the second half is devoted to a more
profound explanation of what this doctrine means.
Whatever hesitancies there had been on the part of some bishops because of certain
phrases, all questions were satisfactorily answered in the discussions, thanks especially
to the explanations of the papal legates. The bishops had all accepted. the "Dogmatic
Epistle" of Leo earlier, and on October 25, they gathered in solemn session, in the
presence of the Emperor and Empress, to sign the dogmatic decree formulated by the
Council. The task of the Council, as far as doctrine was concerned, was then finished.
The remaining sessions were concerned mostly with other disciplinary questions. On
October 31, thirty canons were issued, of which the twenty-eighth was to be most
important. In this canon, the Council of Chalcedon repeated what has been said earlier
concerning Constantinople, now the glorious city of the Eastern Empire: "As in all
things we follow the ordinances of the holy fathers . . . so do we decree the same in
regard to the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, the New Rome.
Rightly have the fathers conceded to the see of Old Rome its privileges on account of its
character as the imperial city, and moved by the same considerations the 150 bishops
[at I Constantinople] have awarded the like privileges to the most holy see of New
Rome judging with good reason that the city which is honored by the imperial power
and the senate, and which enjoys the same privileges as the ancient imperial city of
Rome, should also be exalted in its ecclesiastical relations and hold the second place
In this way the city of Constantine loomed ever larger on the ecclesiastical horizon. It
marks the furthering of the political interests in the East which would contribute
eventually to the great break between the Eastern and the Western churches
The papal legates protested against this canon, but the Council approved. Pope Leo
refused to accept the canon, and wrote a series of letters urging the bishop of
Constantinople to be content with things as they were. Jerusalem, Alexandria, and
Antioch were all more ancient; they were looked upon as apostolic sees, and this canon
violated their rights. It should be enough for Constantinople to know it was the
imperial city, without wishing to make its civil position determine its ecclesiastical
At the root of this spirit of ambition there was another danger, not mentioned by Leo,
that would come to light soon enough in the history of the Church. Rome is the center
of Christianity because of the "chair of Peter," and not because of the civil rank of that
city. If Leo had accepted the position that the civil importance of a city determines its
rank in the Church, the day might come when Rome, having fallen from its lofty civil
position, would be challenged as the center of Christianity. This would be contrary to
the entire tradition of the Church, which recognized the authority of Peter in Rome,
quite independently of the Emperor. Despite Leo's rejection of the canon, however, the
spirit remained, and the difficulties which resulted will concern us in later chapters.
The essential work of Chalcedon was accomplished. The faith of the Church of Christ,
true God and true Man, was secured once again against the attacks of heresy. What had
been achieved in union with Leo was to appear ever more clearly as the work of the
Holy Spirit within His Church. What was done apart from Leo, however, would lead
only to further dissension and division within the Christian world.
CHAPTER VII . . . II AND III CONSTANTINOPLE
THE sixth and seventh centuries are marked by new events that prolonged the dispute
of Chalcedon. We find here new attempts by the Monophysites to sustain their position;
this will bring about two new Councils, and because of their vacillation, will involve
two popes - Vigilius and Honorius - in unusual difficulties.
The second Council of Constantinople opened on May 5, 553, in the patriarchal church
of that city. In many ways, this was a most surprising Council. For one thing, it was
concerned almost entirely with the writings of three men dead for a century and more:
Theodore of Mopsuestia (whose teachings had been one of the starting points of
Nestorianism ); Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa (who had been restored to
their sees by the Council of Chalcedon). Now 122 years after Ephesus and 102 years
after Chalcedon, these three men became the center of attention.
The Monophysites, condemned at Chalcedon, did not die out at once; as with the
Arians after Nicea, they continued to promote their own cause. There was much unrest,
and a feeling among the Egyptians that Alexandria had come out second best in the
debates. This came to the fore especially three years after Chalcedon when Dioscoros,
the exiled patriarch of Alexandria, died in exile. In 457, Marcian, the strong defender of
Orthodoxy at Chalcedon, also died, and the emperors who followed proved less strong
than Marcian. By 475, the Monophysites were once again in power.
Under their influence, a number of decrees appeared which attempted to condemn
Chalcedon, or at least ignore it entirely. The two most important were the
of the Emperor Basiliscus and the of Acacius (the patriarch of
Constantinople). Confusion reigned in the East, and it was to Rome that men looked for
a solution. Unfortunately there was no longer a Leo sitting on the throne of Peter, and
none of the popes of that century succeeded in stamping out the error completely.
In 511, Anastasius, who was over 80 years old, was the emperor; he suddenly decided
to impose Monophysitism on the entire empire. Only his death in 518 solved that
problem. Under his successor, Justin, the Council of Chalcedon was restored to honor,
and men began to speak of a General Council to avoid any further problems. Pope
Hormisdas, however, insisted on nothing more than a signing of the formula he had
drawn up. Unfortunately, this was to prove insufficient.
Justinian became emperor in 527. This marks one of the great dividing lines in Church
history. His wife, Theodora, was to be the cause of further trouble. She was really a
Monophysite at heart, and a woman who delighted in interfering with religious
matters. Through her influence many of the Monophysites returned, and the problem
grew steadily worse. Soon there were Monophysite bishops both at Alexandria and at
About 544 a new attempt was made to discredit Chalcedon. It was a very subtle move,
one that hardly mentioned Chalcedon at all. Excerpts from the writings of the three
men mentioned above were gathered together, and these writings were now to be
condemned. This collection of statements has come to be known as the "Three
Chapters." It concerned the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus
and Ibas of Edessa.
The Monophysites now pretended that their greatest complaint against Chalcedon was
that it had restored Theodoret and Ibas to their sees. It is true that these men had earlier
opposed Cyril, and had taught something similar to Nestorianism (the doctrine found
in the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and condemned at Ephesus ) . If the
Monophysites now succeeded in condemning these two in particular, and in
associating them with the heretic of Mopsuestia, they felt that the Council of Chalcedon
would be set in a bad light; it would appear that in restoring Theodoret and Ibas, the
Council had approved two heretics.
Justinian favored the condemnation, and most of the Eastern bishops followed his line
of thought. Among them were certain other bishops who were not so much
Monophysites, but who were now in error because of their revival of the teachings of
Origen (who had died in the third century). They were known as the Origenists, and
possibly they saw this as an opportunity to distract attention from themselves; the
Origenist bishop Askidas was especially active in drawing up the "Three Chapters."
The representative of the Pope at Constantinople, however, refused to sign the
condemnation; he perceived clearly the implications. With some reservations
concerning the subsequent approval of the Pope, however, Menas, the patriarch of
Constantinople, did sign the decree condemning the three men; other bishops followed
All now looked to Pope Vigilius (537-555) to see what he would do. Unfortunately, the
Pope hesitated. He was forced to come to Constantinople, in 547, where every effort
was made to have him sign the condemnation. It had already been realized at Rome
and in northern Africa that this could be understood as an attempt to undermine
Chalcedon and the teaching of Pope Leo. Vigilius also recognized this, and refused to
sign. At a meeting of bishops called to discuss the affair, he broke off negotiations and
demanded a written opinion from each bishop.
But then he once again vacillated, and this was his great failing. A stronger man might
have avoided a crisis, but Vigilius did not. He issued a in 548, a decree
that condemned the "Three Chapters"; then, in 550, he revoked this statement, deciding
with the Emperor to refer the matter to the Council.
His moves were not well received, to say the least. Why he acted as he did is difficult to
say: weakness, ambition, fear. The West, however, was greatly upset. One group of
African bishops met and attempted to excommunicate the Pope in 550. About the same
time, Vigilius decided to excommunicate the leader of the Monophysite group,
Askidas, and found himself in trouble in the East; he barely escaped the soldiers of
Justinian, and took refuge at Chalcedon in the very same basilica where the now
debated decrees had been issued a century before. From here he reorganized his party,
and gradually received back some of the excommunicated bishops.
Plans for the Council were under way, however, and Justinian was anxious to go
ahead. He realized he had gone too far in his treatment of the aging Pope. Vigilius,
however, now disapproved most heartily of the idea of a Council; but he did promise
to send on his own statement concerning the problem.
The Council finally opened in 553 at the Church of Sancta Sophia in Constantinople.
Hence it is known as II Constantinople. About 150 bishops attended, including 14 from
Africa; the final decree bears 164 signatures. We have only the ancient Latin version of
the Acts; the Greek has been lost.
Eight sessions took place, from May 5 to June 2. The Council began with the reading of
the pertinent decrees and a history of the dispute. On May 14 the statement of Vigilius
arrived, the . It was a remarkably well-written theological work,
concerned mostly with the heretical statements of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Vigilius
insisted that he would not agree to a condemnation in any way of Ephesus or
Chalcedon, and for this reason he would not approve of the condemnation of
Theodoret and Ibas. But what was erroneous in Theodore of Mopsuestia he would
agree to condemn.
When the Emperor received this document, he set it aside, and at once sent other letters
and statements to the Council, containing the former condemnation of the Three
Chapters issued by Vigilius. He ordered the bishops to proceed with the conciliar
decree, and true to fashion they did. On June 2, the bishops at this Council, not yet
approved by the Pope, signed the final decree. In it they condemned the person and the
writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the writings of Theodoret and Ibas that
contradicted St. Cyril's teaching and that of Ephesus. The errors of these men were
summed up in fourteen at the end.
Strangely, though the Council spoke much of Chalcedon, it was really concerned with
Ephesus and Nestorianism. What was condemned, however, was truly false. There
was, nevertheless, a great difference between II Constantinople and Chalcedon. The
bishops at Chalcedon had been concerned with the , Theodoret and Ibas. When
the Council was assured that they were now once again orthodox in their teaching, they
were restored to their dioceses. II Constantinople, however, was concerned with their
, which were admittedly heretical. It was most unusual, of course, to begin
condemning men a hundred years after they died, but this is what was done.
Eventually, when Vigilius finally saw that there was now no further danger of seeming
to condemn the actions of Chalcedon, he apparently approved the final decree of this
Council, as did his successors. It thus became an Ecumenical Council. The secondary
purpose of the entire scheme was eventually lost sight of, that is, the attempt to
discredit Chalcedon. It was this question of expediency that was the cause of all the
hesitancy on the part of Vigilius. His doctrinal position was clear and orthodox; but a
stronger man might have taken a definite position from the very start and avoided a
great deal of trouble.
At any rate, even under such confused circumstances, the Spirit of Christ triumphed in
the Church. Another Christian landmark was sculptured out, and a second resounding
condemnation of Nestorianism came forth to guide the Church. Vigilius finally set out
for Rome once again, after nine years away, but died on the way. His role was over, but
the story did not end there.
One last error was to arise in the seventh century, marking the close of these first
disputes about the human nature of Christ. This time the Pope who was to be forever
associated with the problem was Honorius (625-638). This also was not simply a
doctrinal problem; as might only be expected by this time, politics played a large role
in the debates.
In the minds of some, the Council of Chalcedon seemed to have been a triumph of
Constantinople over Antioch and Alexandria, the New Rome over the ancient sees. The
Egyptians and the Syrians, therefore, both figured prominently in this matter. Wars
added to the confusion, as well as new doctrinal disputes among the Monophysites
themselves. They all agreed, however, on one point: they wished in some fashion to
The Council of Chalcedon had attempted to break the force of the Monophysite heresy.
By stating clearly that there are in Christ two natures but one Person, the bishops had
hoped to accomplish this. But a further question remained, and the teaching about
Christ was not finally settled until this had also been debated for a number of decades.
The new error was a combination of many things. The entire question was rephrased.
Men no longer asked whether there were "two natures" in Christ. Outwardly, at least,
they were anxious to appear loyal to the decree of Chalcedon. They now questioned the
"two operations" in Christ-two "activities" in Christ, one human and one divine. Within
a rather short time, their question was narrowed down even more, centering on
something that really summed up the entire approach: "Did Christ, the Son of God,
have one will or two wills?"
This was a very subtle question, and, understood in one sense, it could mean a revival
of the Monophysite heresy. If Christ had only , there would have to be some
kind of mixing or confusion of the two wills proper to each nature. The final answer
was that Christ had two wills, one divine and one human. If He possessed two
complete and perfect natures, Christ would necessarily have had to possess the intellect
and the will that belongs to each one of the natures.
When these Monophysites denied that Christ had two wills, they used as their excuse
the argument that there could be no "imperfection" of any sort in Christ. Christ was
God, and therefore everything must be perfect. Two wills, however, might imply
wills in Christ, and this would be an imperfection in the God-Man.
There is one sense in which this could be understood correctly. There was no
"imperfection" in Christ's human will, since His human will was always in perfect
accord with His divine will. They were "one" in that sense; it is what we today would
call a "moral union" of the two wills-a union, that is, by way of agreement. But
physically there two wills, really distinct from one another; they are "one" only
morally, or by reason of their perfect agreement. To hold that Christ had only one
physical will would be a rephrasing of the Monophysite error. The will belongs to the
nature, and if there is but one will, this can only mean that there is also but one nature.
Thus there were two ways of understanding the phrase "one activity" or "one will." It is
not always such a simple thing to understand other people even when we know the
meaning of the words they use. Words often imply things far beyond the dictionary
meaning. This is what happened in this case.
In the year 610 Sergius became the patriarch of Constantinople; he was to be the
strongest defender of this new heresy. Sergius had more than religious views in mind,
unfortunately. He was, perhaps foremost, a politician, and a crafty one at that. The
Byzantine empire had been divided by the definitions of Chalcedon, and he felt that in
his formula he had a means of reuniting the Catholics and Monophysites, politically as
well as religiously. The only difficulty was that this meant compromise on doctrinal
accuracy, and that means heresy. The viewpoint of Sergius was that if he accomplished
his goal of union, the change in formula was really not so great that anyone should be
disturbed about it. After all, it was accomplishing a great deal of good, and the entire
matter might really be reduced to a dispute over words rather than anything more
Working on this theory, Sergius began to work for Church union. His motto was the
phrase "one operation"-one source of action in Christ. He found acceptance among the
Monophysites, who were quite ready to admit only one will in Christ, since this
followed naturally from their beliefs. Things looked good for reunion; in fact, in 633 a
statement of union was signed between Constantinople and Alexandria.
One man, however, saw through the entire question- Sophronius, a monk at
Alexandria. He attempted to point out the error implied in this formula, but he got
nowhere, until, in his travels, he unexpectedly found himself elected as the patriarch of
Sergius could no longer ignore him. Sophronius was too important a man now. The
patriarch of Constantinople therefore wrote an account of the matter to Pope Honorius;
the question was described, however, in terms carefully chosen by the wily Sergius. His
final bit of advice was that all debate on the matter be forbidden, since further disputes
might cause greater trouble and hinder the work of reunion.
Honorius was not the most brilliant pope to begin with, but now he was also
misinformed. He answered Sergius and unfortunately agreed on the point of allowing
no further debate. This meant that truth was silenced along with error, and that the
error was really free to continue unchallenged. At the same time, the letter of Honorius
indicates that he missed the point entirely. He answered in terms that discussed the
"moral union" of the two wills in Christ: the human was always in perfect accord with
the divine. The Monophysites, however, were teaching something quite different. They
held that there was only in Christ, the result of a mixture of the
human and divine. This is why the present heresy is known as "Monothelitism"; it
comes from the Greek word (one) and (which means "will"): hence
The "studied obscurity" of Sergius misled the Pope; Honorius failed to grasp precisely
what was going on in the East. What the Pope had written from Rome was all perfectly
true, orthodox teaching; but it was not the question being debated between Sergius and
Sophronius continued his defense of the faith, and set forth the true teaching in clearer
fashion, indicating that Christ is one in regard to His Person (since it is always the same
Person who is acting); but that this one divine Person acts in two different natures,
either as God (in the divine nature) or as man (in the human nature.)
Honorius did write a second letter that came close to saying the same thing, but he still
did not strike out against the precise error of Sergius and his followers. As a result,
Sergius continued to gain ground. In autumn of 638, the Emperor Heraclius went even
further, and issued a doctrinal decree (the ) which set forth the doctrine of
the Monothelites as the official teaching of the Church; it had been written most likely
by Sergius himself.
The problem had now been forced into the light so far that it would eventually have to
be solved. Honorius died that same year, and his successors saw the difficulty far more
clearly. Pope John IV issued a letter addressed to the Emperor, explaining the true
teaching of the two wills, and explaining what Honorius had really been trying to say.
But no real progress was made.
Sergius was now dead, as was Pyrrhus, his successor in the see of Constantinople. The
new patriarch, Paul, suggested to the Emperor ( Constans II) that he issue a new
formula to replace the much opposed . Thus in 648 there appeared a second
imperial decree, the ; it was still a vague formula, and it added another
demand of silence. Error received further help in this regard.
In 649 the new pope, Martin I, made the first decisive move. He held a synod of
Western bishops in the Lateran Basilica at Rome. It was not a General Council, but it is
justly famous. From this synod there came forth, on the authority of the Pope, a clear-
cut statement on the teaching of the Church. It was so clear, in fact, that the opposition
to the Catholic party grew vehement; Martin I was rewarded with exile, and died away
from Rome in 655. But despite the fact that Monothelite bishops continued to rule in
Constantinople, a solution was about to appear. The entire debate began to wither
In 668 Constantine IV Pogonatus became the emperor, and he took the initiative in
bringing the matter to a final end. In a letter to Pope Donus he suggested a Council;
Donus died before the letter reached Rome, in 678. The next pope, Agatho (678-681),
agreed to the convocation of the Council. Before sending his representatives on to
Constantinople, Agatho summoned a meeting in Rome to formulate the mind of the
Western bishops; other gatherings were held elsewhere. These discussions occupied the
West until the year 680.
Finally in September of that year, the representatives of the Pope, eleven in all, arrived
in the imperial city. The Emperor at once convoked only the bishops pertaining to the
patriarch of Constantinople and of Antioch. Apparently it was not at first his intention,
nor the intention of the Pope, to summon a General Council; hence the limited call.
Bishops from Alexandria and Jerusalem also appeared, so that, from the first session,
the Council was really a more universal Council; it was accepted as such by both the
Pope and the Emperor. The number of bishops who attended varied somewhat; from
50 at the first session, 174 were present to affix their signature at the signing of the final
decree in the eighteenth session. This Council is known as III Constantinople.
The Council opened officially on November 7, 680, in the grand hall of the imperial
palace; eighteen sessions were held in all, with the Council ending on September 16,
681. The dogmatic letter of Pope Agatho was read and accepted by all the bishops, who
once reflected the acceptance of Pope Leo's letter at Chalcedon: 'lt. is Peter," they cried,
"who speaks through Agatho."
The representatives of the Emperor were the honorary presidents of the gathering, but
it was the representatives of the Pope who directed the debate. The entire history of the
problem was reviewed; the Monothelites were allowed to state their case. The patriarch
of Constantinople received fully the doctrine proposed by Agatho, as did the greater
number of bishops present. The patriarch of Antioch, however, held out for his
erroneous views and was deposed.
The final decree of the Council served as a summary of the debates concerning Christ
during these early centuries. The teaching of Chalcedon was reaffirmed, and to this was
added a more precise statement to the effect that those at this Council "likewise
proclaim according to the teaching of the holy fathers that Christ has two volitions or
wills, and two natural operations without division or change, without partition or co-
mingling. And the two natural wills are not opposed (by no means!) as the godless
heretics have said; but the human will is compliant, and not opposing or contrary; as a
matter of fact it is even obedient to his divine and omnipotent will."
Thus was the question solved. The Council went further in the decree, and censured
those earlier men who had been active in promoting this heresy. Strangely, they
included the misled Honorius in this list. This was to remain a question for many years:
Had the Pope failed the Church? Honorius certainly had failed to grasp the question
being debated, but his teaching was accurate enough in what it said. He never intended
to "define" any position, as we would view the matter today. His answer was just the
opposite: he chose to let matters ride, and avoided even discussing the question.
Agatho had died before the end of the Council, but the next pope, Leo II, approved of
its decrees (including the condemnation of Honorius). His approval, in fact, indicates
the mind of the Council best of all. Leo explained to the bishops of Spain why Honorius
had been condemned: ". . . because instead of estinguishing the incipient flame of
heretical doctrine, as befits the holder of apostolic authority, he rather fanned it ." Had Honorius been less gullible in relying so fully on Sergius, and had
he investigated the matter more carefully, much of the trouble could have been
avoided. As it was, he unwittingly helped spread the error. But out of this came a fuller
understanding of the doctrine concerning Christ, testimony again of the power of God
to triumph over the weakness of men within His Church.
CHAPTER VIII. . . II NICEA
WHILE all of these debates were going on in the East concerning the faith of the
Church in Christ, other equally important events were taking place in the West. Apart
from the Roman pontiffs, a number of Western bishops were involved in the doctrinal
debates concerning Christ, but they did not play a dominant role in the entire
proceedings. The West was beset by its own difficulties.
In the doctrinal field, there was a long debate that went on in the West that is scarcely
mentioned in a history of the Councils: the heresy of the Pelagians and the semi-
Pelagians, This was a heresy concerning grace and free will. In a way, it reflected the
difference in mentality between the East and the West. The theologians in the East were
especially concerned with God Himself, and centered their attention on problems of the
Trinity and Christology; those in the West, following the more legal-minded spirit of
Rome, developed a special concern for man and his relationship to God's grace.
Pelagius was a British monk who lived in the fifth century. He had spent some time in
Rome where he was rather well received as a pious director of souls. After the sack of
Rome in the year 410, however, he and his associate, Celestius, came to Carthage, the
great see of northern Africa.
At that time, his error came to light and brought forth an immediate reaction on the
part of the bishops. Pelagius had overemphasized the power of human nature, and
claimed that fallen man could accomplish by his own free will whatever God expected
of him. The sin of Adam had harmed him in no way; Adam had affected the rest of
mankind only by his bad example. Whatever reward man merited from God, therefore,
was in accordance with man's free will. If God gave man any special grace, it would
only make it for man to accomplish the good; he was still capable of doing
this, however, without grace.
What this amounted to, of course, was a denial of original sin and of the supernatural
order. Man was supreme, and God did nothing more than inspect what man did, and
reward him accordingly. Pelagius and his followers were immediately condemned for
this teaching; the famous bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, was their chief opponent. The
Catholic Church insisted that man is entirely helpless in the supernatural order, and
that, because of Adam's sin, man cannot keep even the requirements of the natural law
for any length of time without God's special grace.
In his defense of grace, Augustine naturally stressed the helplessness of man; this
brought forth a further reaction. A group of monks near Marseilles concluded that
Augustine had not sufficiently safeguarded the of man; they at once began
to attack his position. The Church also condemned their heresy, since in practice it
amounted to almost the same teaching as that of Pelagius; hence today we refer to them
as the Semi-Pelagians. They insisted that man could, by his own free will, perform at
least the "first" act in the supernatural order, the very beginning of faith. After that,
they admitted the need of grace; but they felt that to save free will, this first step must
come from man. It was seen at once, however, that if, without God's grace, man could
perform the act in the way of salvation, it was really man who was saving
himself; it was man who started the work of salvation, and what came afterward was
secondary and nonessential.
As a result, while the Ecumenical Councils were being held in the East, two especially
important local councils were held in the West: the sixteenth Council of Carthage in 418
(which condemned the Pelagians); and the second Council of Orange- in France-in 529 (
which condemned the Semi-Pelagians ) . These were important Councils, not because
they were ecumenical in nature, but because of the special approval of two Popes
which gave their decrees the importance of dogmatic definitions. Pope Zosimus
solemnly approved the decrees of Carthage, and Boniface II approved those of Orange.
These questions of grace were scarcely touched upon by the Ecumenical Councils. The
Council of Ephesus briefly reaffirmed the condemnation of the Pelagians in the West.
They were important, however, in the history of the times, and of extremely great
importance in view of the doctrinal disputes that would arise in later centuries.
In addition to these doctrinal concerns in the West, there was also the problem of the
barbarian invasions. The Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, and all such tribes became the
special scourge of Europe. The Goths had settled along the shores of the Black Sea and
the Danube River, and were perhaps the first to strike. By the beginning of the fourth
century, they had already begun to invade their neighbors, and, while some of them
had become Christian, they had embraced Arianism in large numbers after Nicea. In
this way, the invasions became the means of furthering the error of Arius in Europe.
Some of the tribes passed over into Spain and Italy; others continued on to northern
Africa, bringing new sorrows to the Church during the fifth and sixth centuries. While
eventually the Church was to conquer these barbarian hordes by converting them to
Catholicism, it would not be accomplished at once. Cities were sacked, monasteries
were ruined, and the remains of ancient art and culture were destroyed before their
savagery was tamed.
Even the center of Christianity, Rome itself, came under attack. While the Council of
Chalcedon was getting under way, guided by the "Dogmatic Epistle" of Leo the Great,
this same Pope had to turn his attention to the invasion of the Huns under Attila.
Artists have portrayed ever since the picture of the stanch Leo coming forth to meet the
invader and preserving Rome, at least temporarily.
About the year 600, Rome knew another Pope who ranks among the great men of
history: Gregory the Great (590404). He does not enter into the history of the Councils,
but he is very important in the history of the Church. He came to a Rome that had been
crushed by the barbarians and decimated by the plague. He set about reorganizing the
papal court. He also concerned himself with the conversion of the barbarians who had
brought such destruction; it was the Anglo-Saxons to whom he especially directed his
attention. Also, Gregory did much to codify the laws of the Roman Liturgy,
establishing the pattern we follow down to this very day.
It is interesting to note in passing another important event during these years. About
570 or 580, Mohammed was born at Mecca in Arabia; by 630 he had returned to capture
his home town, and thus became the master of all central Arabia. The event was little
noticed by many within the Church, but this far back the stage was set for greater
problems in the future; those who embraced the Mohammedan faith were to offer great
concern to the popes during the Middle Ages and after.
All of these varied circumstances contributed to bringing about a shift in the center of
Christian life: the East now became the pivotal point. Rome as the great imperial city
was fast fading. It was now the city of the popes, but it did not as yet have the color of
the papal Rome of later centuries. While the triumph of Constantine in 312 had marked
one big dividing point in the history of the Church, writers now search for the
beginning of a new era. From this point on we face two new cultures: that of Byzantine
Christianity in the East, and the start of the Middle Ages in the West. The year 527-the
advent of the Emperor Justinian-has been suggested by some as a convenient peg for
the start of this new era; at any rate, the change was surely accomplished by the
following century. From this period emerges the history of the Byzantine emperors,
who certainly added a new and strikingly different chapter to the story of the Church's
With the rise of the Byzantine empire, a new heresy developed; it has come to be
known as that of the "Iconoclasts," from the Greek word which means "image,"
and meaning "to break." These were the destroyers of images. By the time that
Leo III became the Eastern emperor in the year 717, the use of icons or images, both in
the West and in the East, had long been a part of Christian life. There are traces of such
practices as far back as the first century of the New Testament era. What arose now was
the first large attack on the use of images. A similar attack would be repeated in the
centuries that lay ahead, but in every instance the answer would be the same: the
resounding response of II Nicea, defending the practice and explaining the proper use
For some reason, the emperor, Leo III, developed a conviction that the use of images
meant idolatry. It is difficult to single out the precise reason. Leo was, in general, a man
who fancied himself a great "reformer" in all fields; this was one aspect of that
mentality. The dispute, moreover, was not simply one of a doctrinal nature; it was
surrounded by political overtones. The Byzantine emperors all tended to encroach
upon the life of the Church. They wished to regulate not only civil matters, but
religious questions as well. Thus this controversy was also part of a larger political
struggle. This had been true since the days of Constantine himself, and the emperors of
the East promoted and opposed heresy at will.
The attitude of Leo may also be a reflection of his earlier religious training. In one
instance, he seems to have been associated with a group of Christians who were
Manichaeans at heart, and who shared the Manichaean belief that material things were
evil in themselves. Thus images would be wrong. His opinions may also be a result of
association with the Monophysites. They, too, opposed the veneration of images, since
for many of them the "one nature" of Christ was not a true human nature at all, but only
some kind of nature that is part human and part divine. Thus an image of Christ would
tend to obscure their teaching.
In 726, the Emperor, Leo III, issued the first edict against religious images. This began a
long history of opposition to the imperial designs. By this time the practice was
properly understood by the people, and it was a part of their Christian way of life.
They were not going to cast it aside so easily. It was, of course, not simply a question of
having images of Christ and the saints, but also of showing honor or worship of some
sort to them. The faithful understood, however, that this was a "relative" honor: in other
words, not directed to the images themselves, but ultimately to the person they
In an age when idolatry had not ceased, it is easy to understand how some might
confuse this practice with pagan worship. Undoubtedly there were abuses at the time
of Leo III as there have been since. The Emperor, however, was not concerned with any
abuses; it was the practice itself that he attacked, fearing idolatry.
For the idolater, the stone image is the ultimate thing worshiped; this his god. The
difference between this and the Christian practice lies in the purpose for the image.
Thus in the Old Testament, the same God who said: "Do not make false gods for
yourselves," also directed the Jews to fashion the Ark of the Covenant with two
cherubim of beaten gold, with "their wings spread out above . . . with their faces
looking toward the propitiatory." God had forbidden them to make other "gods" of
gold and silver; these images, however, were not their gods.
In the sixteenth century, some of the Reformers revived this dislike of images. They
have also come to be known by the same name as their eighth-century counterparts:
"Iconoclasts." Zwingli managed to exclude images from the Protestantism of Zurich, on
the grounds that they were unscriptural; he rejected organ music in churches for the
same reason. Carlstadt adopted the same viewpoint in Germany, with the resulting
attacks on statues and crucifixes, smashing them to the floor of the churches. In this, he
was opposed by Luther, who was shocked by these proceedings. The Council of Trent
was also concerned with the problem, and repeated the answer of II Nicea.
Under Emperor Leo III and his successors a violent desecration of images took place.
The icons were broken up; illustrations of Christ and the saints were torn out of
manuscripts; relics were cast into the sea. And when the people resisted these imperial
moves, prison, exile, torture, and death followed. Much of the brutality and savagery
associated with the Byzantine emperors has resulted from their activity in this matter.
Among those sent into exile for refusing to accept the imperial edict on images was
Germanus, the patriarch of Constantinople. He was immediatly replaced with a more
agreeable bishop. With upsets at such a high level, the Pope was naturally involved in
the situation, so that the Emperor was soon faced with the authority first of Gregory II,
and then of Gregory III. Pope Gregory III (731-741) condemned iconoclasm and, like
others before him, Leo made an attempt to kidnap the Pope in Rome and bring him
forcibly to Constantinople. The Emperor failed in this, but did manage, by way of
getting even, to seize some of the papal land in Sicily and Calabria.
In addition to the Pope, the Emperor was also faced with another great theological
opponent, John Damascene. He represents the last of a long line of Greek minds
dedicated to the defense of the Catholic faith in these early centuries. Despite his
efforts, however, Leo's attitude did not change. Leo's successor, Constantine V,
continued the persecution. He took a further step, and convoked a Council of Greek
bishops in 753 at the imperial palace at Hieria. This ranks with the other pseudo-
councils of history, since the Pope was not invited; nor, for that matter, were the other
Oriental patriarchs. Nevertheless, over 300 bishops met and signed the imperial decree
which condemned the use and the honoring of sacred images.
This Council brought a fresh impetus to the struggle between the opposing parties. The
dispute was to be solved only through a General Council, held eventually at Nicea.
Constantine V died in 775, thus opening the way for a settlement. His son, Leo IV,
ruled only five years, and while he did not stop the movement, he did slow down the
progress. When he died in 780, his wife, the Empress Irene, took over the government
as the regent for her young son, Constantine VI. Irene was most favorable to the
traditional Catholic faith, and at once set about restoring the ancient practices.
This chain of circumstances presents us with one of the unusual elements of II Nicea.
What theologians today will call the "material convocation" was accomplished by a
woman, the Empress Irene! She also presided at the final solemn session, and, as
Eastern empress, signed the official document.
In December of 784, Irene named Tarasius as the new patriarch of Constantinople.
Tarasius belonged to the group that favored the use of images, and on the very day of
his election demanded publicly that Irene convoke a General Council to restore unity to
Pope Adrian I (772-795) was invited to attend the Council, and he agreed; he would
send his legates to represent him. He set forth certain conditions, however, under
which he would participate. Above all the Empress was to guarantee the freedom of the
Council. In addition, the pseudo-council of Hieria must be condemned. These
conditions were accepted and fulfilled. The Council was set for August, 786, at
The gathering got off to a bad start, however. The army turned against the Empress,
and an uprising of the Iconoclasts got out of hand. The Council dissolved at once, and
the papal legates set out for Rome. Irene purged the army of disloyal subjects, and thus
assured that there would be no recurrence, the Council met a second time on September
24, 787. This time the meeting was held at Nicea, the city in which the very first General
Council had taken place. Thus it became II Nicea.
About 300 bishops gathered in the Church of St. Sophia, including the papal legates
and the representatives of the Empress. In addition, a large number of monks and
clerics were also present. Tarasius, the patriarch of Constantinople, presided. The
dominant role, however, was played by Pope Adrian I. Just as the "Dogmatic Epistle" of
Pope Leo the Great dominated the scene when it was read at the Council of Chalcedon,
so here did the Epistle of Pope Adrian set the tone of the gathering. At the first session
his letter explaining the traditional faith of the Church was read aloud, and the bishops
voted to accept the teaching of Adrian. For practical purposes, the doctrinal question
was settled from that moment on.
There were in all eight sessions between September 24 and October 23, 787. The
pseudo-council of Hieria was condemned; scriptural texts and statements from the
Fathers were brought forth in evidence of the traditional practice; and finally a
dogmatic decree was formulated stating precisely the Catholic teaching. All the bishops
signed after the papal legates, as well as a number of the Iconoclast bishops who had
been received back after a profession of faith.
The final session was held in Constantinople at the Magnaura Palace. The Empress
presided, and her young son, Constantine, was also present. They both signed the
official decree after it had been read. The Empress thus approved the decisions of the
Council. Now only the Pope's acceptance was needed. Adrian approved of the solemn
decree. But he did not send a letter to the Empress, as was usually the custom, since
there was another matter that had not been solved at the Council. Adrian was conscious
of that fact, and he had directed his legates to attend to it. The earlier emperors had
taken over some of the papal lands, and, even more important, by doing this they had
encroached upon the papal rights. Adrian had already experienced the problems
associated with the Byzantine emperors. He did not want to give the impression, by a
formal letter of approval, that he agreed with this challenge to the spiritual power of
the popes, which underlay the imperial action. He did, however, approve of the
doctrinal decree, and thus II Nicea ranks as an Ecumenical Council.
The honor given to images was settled once and for all. The Council was careful to add
that it is quite proper to light vigil lights before statues of Christ and the saints, or to
burn incense before them, and it explained the reason why:
"We define with all certainty and diligence that as the figure of the precious and life-
giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, both painted and of stone and of
other proper material, should be set up in the holy churches of God.... The more
frequently they are seen by a pictorial representation, the more readily those who
contemplate the images are aroused to a remembrance and desire of those they
represent . . . and are aroused to bestow upon them a respectful devotion-not, however,
true adoration (), which, according to our faith and as is becoming, is bestowed
upon the divine nature alone."
Centuries later the Council of Trent would give the same answer to the Iconoclasts of
the sixteenth century, recalling the words of II Nicea:
"The images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of other saints are to be kept
with honor in places of worship especially; and to them due honor and veneration is to
be paid -not because it is believed that there is any divinity or power intrinsic to them
for which they are reverenced, nor because it is from them that something is sought,
nor that a blind trust is to be attached to images as it once was by the Gentiles who
placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown to them is referred to
the proto-types which they represent."
After II Nicea, the heresy of the Iconoclasts lay dormant for the time. It was to arise
again in 813 under Emperor Leo V. But in 842 another woman ruled in place of her
infant son, this time Theodora. With the help of St. Methodius, who replaced the
Iconoclast patriarch of Constantinople, she was able to give the decrees of II Nicea once
again the respect due them as a Council of the Holy Spirit.
It seemed that finally peace would reign in the East. Almost continually since the time
of Constantine there had been doctrinal problems tearing asunder that part of the
Church; time and again there had been conflict between the emperors and the popes;
the bishops had rejected the Supreme Pontiff and cast their lot with the king. All of this
turmoil, however, was now about to boil over, worse than ever before. What had been
brewing underneath, throughout all these other disputes, was a rejection of papal
authority. This was now to come to the fore and eventually lead to a split in
Christianity that has not been repaired to this day.
CHAPTER IX . . . IV CONSTANTINOPLE
THE controversy with the Iconoclasts began to have a more far-reaching effect both in
Rome and in Constantinople. The Eastern bishops had once again been cut off from
Rome, both because of the persecution and because of their acceptance of heresy. This
had only deepened the tendency to act independently of the Bishop of Rome. The
popes, on the other hand, became increasingly distrustful of the East, and of the Eastern
emperors especially. These rulers had often fostered heresy; some of them now played
a major role in promoting a new error, and had at the same time begun to encroach
upon the rights of the papacy.
As a result, the Roman pontiffs began to look elsewhere for support, and this time they
chose a ruler of the West. The Byzantine kingdom would continue at least until the fall
of Constantinople in 1453, but the close relationship with the papacy ceased after II
Nicea. The new papal liberator was to be Charlemagne, and the year 800, when he was
crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, marks a further dividing point in the history
of the Church.
About the time of II Nicea and the Iconoclast heresy in the East, a struggle for power
was continuing in the West between the Franks and the
Lombards. In 768 Charlemagne had succeeded his father, Pepin, as leader of the
Franks. By 773 he had invaded the Lombard kingdom and was prepared to secure Italy
for himself. By the time Pope Leo III was elected in 795, Charlemagne was well on his
way toward being an important man in Rome. Moreover, when the Pope ran into
difficulties in Rome, he turned to the King of the Franks for assistance. This led, almost
by necessity, to the final step: on Christmas day of the year 800, Charlemagne knelt
before Pope Leo III in St. Peter's at Rome and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
While the papacy was cementing its ties more closely with the West, another situation
was developing in the East which would lead to a final and lasting break with Rome. In
842 the Empress Theodora had come to power and had managed to overcome the last
traces of the Iconoclast heresy. Methodius, the patriarch of Constantinople who had
aided her in this move, died in 846; he was succeeded by Ignatius, a devout man in his
own way, but one who seemed to make enemies easily. Theodora had now retired, and
it was Bardas, her brother, who acted as regent for the young Emperor Michael III.
Bardas was far from a saintly man, and when he continued his scandalous way of life,
Ignatius finally refused to permit him to receive Communion on the feast of the
Epiphany, 857. Bardas was infuriated, and finally managed to banish Ignatius. The see
of Constantinople was taken over by Photius in 858.
It is not easy to determine what sort of man Photius was. He may not have been the
unscrupulous plotter some would have him; on the other hand, his wily ways could not
all have been the result of pure chance. He was a layman, but apparently a devout
person and a truly learned individual. Nevertheless his election was pushed through in
no time at all, and contrary to the demands of Church law. For one thing, there had
been force used in removing the former bishop; the prelate who consecrated Photius
was under a cloud at Rome; and finally the entire move from layman to patriarch was
accomplished in only six days.
In the following year, Photius sent a letter to Pope Nicholas I, asking for his approval,
and remarking how this heavy burden had really been thrust upon him against his
will. Rome, however, was perhaps universally suspicious of moves in the East by this
time; experience had taught them to be cautious. As a result, before approving Photius,
Nicholas decided to send two representatives to Constantinople to investigate. They
were empowered to approve the new patriarch if all went well.
For whatever reasons given them, the two legates agreed to the deposition of Ignatius
and the approval of Photius. In a gathering of over 300 bishops at Constantinople in the
year 861, they signed the proper papers. It appeared later, however, that a large
number of witnesses had been "bought" to testify against Ignatius at this meeting; this
may well explain the error.
By this time, the friends of the ousted patriarch, Ignatius, who had been kept from
reaching Rome, finally got to the Pope and told them his half of the story. The Pope
thereupon refused to recognize the acts of this meeting of 861, or to ratify the decisions
of his legates. In 868 he called a synod at Rome in which Photius was declared as
stripped of all ecclesiastical dignity.
This made little difference to Photius. He supported his position by the actions of the
papal legates, and even went a step further: he set out to attack the Pope directly.
Photius decided to summon a council of his own which would depose Pope Nicholas I.
He contacted the other Eastern patriarchs, writing a letter that violently accused the
Western Church of heresy. As in all of the debates to follow, so now the attention was
centered especially on disciplinary and liturgical matters. It was claimed that the
Western Church looked down on married priests; it made use of unleavened bread; it
advised fasting on Saturdays, and the like.
Among them was an accusation of heretical teaching that was to play a larger role in
later Councils. The West had added the "" to the Creed: a Latin phrase
meaning "and the Son." It was used to explain the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the
other divine Persons. Thus the West now prayed: "We believe in the Holy Spirit . . .
who proceeds from the Father ." This phrase will concern us later on. It
was Photius, however, who especially considered this heretical.
The other bishops failed to co-operate much in the Council of Photius. In the summer of
867 this meeting was held, and a decree deposing the Pope was signed by twenty-one
others. Photius managed to forge another thousand names, however, and the document
seemed quite formidable.
The scene then changed rapidly. In September of that same year, the history of
assassinations that tends to make Byzantine history so colorful added the names of
Bardas and his nephew, Michael III. The victor was Basil, who was now proclaimed
emperor; he promptly took steps to get rid of the former favorites, including Photius.
Basil was especially interested in reuniting the clerics of his kingdom. They had now
been separated into two groups for ten years: the Ignatians and the Photians. The
Emperor immediately recalled Ignatius and cast out Photius; he then asked the Pope for
a General Council. By the time his letters reached Rome, Nicholas I was dead and a
new pope, Adrian II, received them. Adrian agreed to the Council, and as a
preliminary held a synod at Rome in June, 869, in which Photius was condemned and
the decrees of Ignatius confirmed. Basil accordingly convoked the Council to be held
that year at Constantinople, known now as IV Constantinople.
The eighth General Council got under way on October 5, 869. The papal legates arrived
in September with orders to receive signatures on the decree of the Roman synod, and
to reinstate Ignatius. They could also receive back the schismatics who agreed to sign,
but Photius himself was to be punished.
At the opening session there were only twelve bishops admitted to the Church of St.
Sophia. In addition to these, there were the three papal legates, two delegates from the
patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch, and Ignatius himself-a total of eighteen, plus the
representatives of the Emperor. There were reasons for this, of course. After ten years,
the number of bishops appointed by Ignatius had decreased, and the number of
Photian bishops increased proportionately; but the Photian bishops had been
automatically excluded. Among the others, there was the prerequisite of signing the
decree of the Roman synod before entering the conclave, and some hesitated to do this.
It is possibly indicative of the general spirit, however, that in 861 Photius had gathered
together over 300 bishops to depose Ignatius, and now, eight years later, only 102
attended the papal conclave, and this at the final session.
There were eight sessions held between October 1 and November 5. The number of
bishops grew each day as more and more signed. At the fifth session Photius himself
was present, but refused to discuss the matter; when he did speak, it was generally in
imitation of Scripture, adapting, for example, the words of Christ: "My justification is
not of this world."
By request of the Emperor, who attended the sixth session, the Photian bishops were
eventually allowed to enter. They heard the decrees and were given seven days to
decide on their position. There was a three-month interval between the eighth session
and the last two, which were held on February 12 and 28, 870. This was possibly done
to allow time for some of the more distant bishops to arrive.
When the Council came to an end, the teaching of Photius had been condemned, and
his writings burned; many of the bishops had been received back to union with the
Pope; the false witnesses of the illegal council of Photius had been dealt with; and
Photius himself had been sent into exile. At the final session, held in the presence of the
Emperor, twenty-seven canons were issued, as well as a lengthy dogmatic decree. The
work of IV Constantinople was over officially, but-as might be expected-the matter did
not end there.
The papal legates finally managed to get back to Rome in December of 870, having
fallen into the hands of pirates on the way. Pope Adrian II officially confirmed the
Council in 871. But by 877 the characters in this drama had exchanged parts once again.
Ignatius had apparently fallen into disfavor with the next pope, John VIII; this may
possibly have been due to difficulties with the Bulgarian king. In the meantime, Photius
had returned to favor with Basil, the emperor, and by 873 was back in the imperial
palace. When Ignatius died in 877, Photius, strange to say, returned once again to the
throne as patriarch of Constantinople!
It was not known in Rome that Ignatius had died, and John VIII had determined to take
more harsh steps against him. Thus he threatened Ignatius that if he did not manage to
settle affairs between the Greeks and the Bulgarians, he himself would be deposed; in
April, 878, he sent his legates to Constantinople with this message.
The legates were quite astounded to find Photius as the patriarch; they had come to
deal with Ignatius! They attempted to act in a most diplomatic manner, and neither
condemned nor approved Photius; they referred the matter to John VIII. The Pope
decided to recognize Photius, provided the patriarch publicly signified his change of
attitude. This was accomplished at a synod at Constantinople in 879, where the difficult
matters were at least sufficiently well mended to preserve peace for a time. Photius
again fell into disfavor with the next emperor, Leo VI; thus he passes out of history in
886 when Leo became the ruler.
The entire history of Photius was but an episode; the actual separation between
Constantinople and Rome was relatively short. But the case had extremely grave
consequences. For one thing, it brought into the open the antagonisms against Rome
that had been lurking beneath the surface of the Eastern mind. Even more to the point,
however, it marked a change in attitudes. While earlier patriarchs and bishops had
been concerned about defending the East against the "pretensions" of Rome, Photius
had now directly attacked the papacy and accused the West of heresy.
Thus it was the "spirit" of Photius that was to dominate the Eastern Church in later
centuries. While at the time of the break in the eleventh century, his name was scarcely
mentioned, the seed of discord that he had sown came to full growth. As we may note
later, in the discussions concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit at II Lyons and
Florence, it was to Photius that the Greek theologians turned for support. His name
became the rallying cry for those opposed to reunion.
The history of IV Constantinople and the later approval of Photius by John VIII indicate
the vagaries of the time, and the tensions that abounded between the East and the West
in the ninth century. This state of affairs continued throughout the next century, and
led directly to the final break in the century following, the eleventh.
By the time that Michael Cerularius became the patriarch of Constantinople in 1043,
there was practically no contact at all between Rome and the East. The situation has
been best described as that intermediate stage between peace and war, marked by a
break in diplomatic relations. It was to be Cerularius who would take the decisive step
that would upset the balance and force open warfare.
Michael Cerularius tended to look upon himself as a most important man, and, to be
truthful, he was. He easily stands out among the other personages of that period in the
East. He had earlier had contact with the imperial court, but had entered a monastery
from which his old friend, Constantine IX, summoned him when he became emperor.
About 1053, steps were taken to mend the political fences between the East and the
West. Troubled by the invasion of the Normans, Pope Leo IX and the Western emperor,
Henry III, were ready to form an alliance with Constantine IX. This was not particularly
pleasing to Michael Cerularius, however. He fully realized that such political union
among the princes would eventually mean giving up the religious independence that
he enjoyed as patriarch of Constantinople. Cerularius, if he was anything, was
ambitious. He dealt with the Emperor more as an equal power, collaborating in the
achievement of a common goal. He rather entertained the hope of playing the same role
in the East that the Pope enjoyed in the West.
Reading the signs of the time, Cerularius adopted the old principle that offense is the
best defense. In order to preserve his power, it was necessary to attack. What appeared,
then, was a famous letter, presumably written by Leo, the bishop of Achrida in
Bulgaria. It was addressed to John, the bishop of Trani in Italy; but it was easily enough
seen that Cerularius was behind the letter.
The bishop of Trani was a Latin, but the diocese was in Byzantine Italy; as such, he was
a subject of the Byzantine Emperor. The letter speaks of the question of union between
Rome and Constantinople; and it more or less takes for granted that there had been a
break. It is careful to point out, however, that there are obstacles involved. The West
has fallen into heresy-naming again the familiar themes already brought forth by
Photius: the use of unleavened bread, the addition of the "," and so forth.
The letter ends with an exhortation to the bishop of Trani to correct his errors, noting
that Christ wishes not the death of the sinner, but that he repent and live. The tone of
con-descension was apparent; it reflected the spirit of a superior speaking to a
wayward subject. The letter was written in order to discuss the problem of reunion, but
the tone made more than evident that just the opposite was desired. For a diplomatic
note, it could not have been more tactless, and Cerularius was not the man to bungle in
such a manner.
What was said, of course, was not intended just for the bishop of Trani. It was written
especially for the eyes of Rome, and the letter soon arrived there. Cerularius knew the
reaction that might be expected at Rome, and his expectations were fulfilled. In this
way, he had managed to promote a definite break, but he had attempted to maneuver
Rome into a position in which it would appear that had caused the break. This
diplomatic technique is recognized better today than in the eleventh century, despite all
the intrigue of that period.
Correspondence between Rome and Constantinople followed quite naturally. The
answer of Pope Leo IX was drafted by his chief adviser, Cardinal Humbert. Humbert
was a true reformer, a very learned man, but absolutely no diplomat. He was content to
state the truth bluntly, even dramatically, and ignore the obvious reactions. The
Church, however, is a group of human beings, and even in stating the truth, this fact
must be taken into consideration. There are more as well as less diplomatic ways of
stating the same thing with equal force. Humbert usually managed to choose the less
The turn in political and military fortunes of the Pope seemed to indicate to
Constantine IX that reunion was advisable. The Normans had already imprisoned the
Pope at Benevento, and there he received rather conciliatory letters from
Constantinople. It was decided, therefore, to send on a papal legation, headed by
Cardinal Humbert; the representatives were empowered to settle the case.
Again Humbert wrote two letters for the Pope, one to the Emperor and the other to
Michael Cerularius, with the same lack of diplomatic skill. On the eve of a mission of
reconciliation, these letters bitterly attacked the patriarch of Constantinople and his
ambitious manners; they also undertook to defend the Western practices criticized by
the East. Cerularius was simply told what he had to do, in the bluntest possible fashion.
This was his duty to Rome. Should he refuse, he would be justly relegated to the realm
of the heretics and the synagogue of Satan.
The tone of these letters alone would have doomed the mission, but Cerularius became
even more incensed at the preliminary visit of the papal legates to Argyros, the chief
Byzantine official in Italy. Cerularius was most hostile to Argyros, and had even
excommunicated him. Hence he used this visit as an occasion to deny that the papal
legates were the authentic representatives of the Pope. They were only the tools of
The legates had determined to deal with the Emperor first, and when they arrived at
Constantinople in the spring of 1054 they ignored Cerularius and he ignored them.
Matters grew worse in April, when Pope Leo IX died; his successor was not elected
until September, and did not take possession of the see of Rome until April of 1055.
Thus Humbert and his two companions were on their own.
Not being able to negotiate with Cerularius, Humbert engaged in a learned dispute
with a monk, Nicholas Stethatos, at the monastery of Studios. As usual, the debate was
marked by the violent terms of the Cardinal. In June, a final dispute was held before
the Emperor, and Nicholas submitted; his books were burned and he was reconciled to
During all these months, Cerularius continued to ignore the legates, consistently
refusing to meet with them, despite the Emperor's pleas. The legates came to the
conclusion that not even the Emperor could persuade the patriarch to change, so they
decided to leave Constantinople. Before they left, however, Humbert had one more
card to play. He wished to take his leave with a resounding crash, and he did.
On July 16, 1054, the papal legates went to the Church of St. Sophia at the hour of the
solemn liturgy. They entered the building and publicly protested against the obstinacy
of the patriarch. Then, in view of the clergy and people, they went to the principal altar
and carefully laid upon it the bull of excommunication they had prepared. The bull
included Cerularius and all who followed him. They then walked out of the great
church, and left Constantinople two days later.
There was an attempt to recall them from the port, and they did return to
Constantinople. They left again at once, however, perhaps with good reason. The city
was incensed. Cerularius had made public the bull of excommunication, and once
again Humbert had given vent to his sharp pen. He did state the dogmatic truths
concerning the primacy of the Roman see, but he then went on in most virulent fashion
to attribute practically every heresy of history to the Eastern Church.
The Emperor appeased the city by having the bull of excommunication burned. In July
of that year a synod was called to condemn the acts of the Roman legates. In later
discussions, not only Cardinal Humbert was attacked, but also the entire Western
Church. The position of Cerularius was adopted universally. The Eastern Church had
separated from Rome.
Some of the patriarchs of the other cities tried in vain to appease the wrath of
Cerularius, but to no avail. By 1058, Michael Cerularius was dead, but he lived on as a
symbol of the breach that continues to this day. The break had been developing for
centuries; it might only have been expected. The patriarch of Constantinople, in 1054,
however, took the decisive step, and because of this he became the hero of the East, and
a patron saint of the Byzantine Church.
IV Constantinople had striven valiantly to defeat the process of separation, but God still
permits human weakness to run its course. Nevertheless the Council did draw up the
pattern of what can be accomplished. The solution to the briefer schism of Photius may
yet point the way toward mending the break caused by Cerularius, which has already
existed over 900 years too long.
CHAPTER X . . . I-IV LATERAN
THE Middle Ages have become increasingly important in the eyes of more recent
historians. There had been a time when some men tended to almost write them out of
history, for they were supposedly centuries of ignorance and superstition, and nothing
more. We have come to realize, however, the close relationship they bear to an
understanding of the culture and civilization of the Western world today.
We might divide the entire period into three sections. The early period began at least
with the time of Charlemagne (800) if not before; the high point was reached in the
thirteenth century; and a period of decline set in from the end of that century until the
fall of Constantinople and the rise of Humanism and the Renaissance in the fifteenth
During these ages we meet the first General Councils held in the West, and the first
Councils convoked both formally and materially by the Roman pontiffs themselves.
The story of the Church during these years is very much a tale of the struggle on the
part of the spiritual to overcome the worldly. The Church had to free itself from the
interference of the temporal rulers, both in the East and the West; it had to fight for the
rights which belonged to it as a spiritual organization, the Body of Christ Himself.
On the other hand, this same Church had to struggle against the sinfulness of its own
members. The Church is a group of people, joined to Christ in the work of saving
mankind. But those people, no less than those not yet joined to this Body of Christ, bear
the weakness of Adam. Fallen nature is not destroyed by grace, but perfected. There
always remains, therefore, the danger of man's rejection of grace, and the reappearance
of his all too weak humanity.
When we consider the Councils of the Middle Ages, then, we must look frequently at
these two problems: the struggle against temporal rulers who would draw the Church
away from its spiritual purpose, and the effort to overcome the sinfulness of her weak
members, both high and low. Thus the first Councils of the Middle Ages, and the first
of the West, were largely Councils of reform-reform aimed at a very high level, that of
the bishops and the clergy. They were held in Rome at the mother church of
Christianity, the Pope's own church as bishop of Rome, St. John Lateran. Hence they are
known as the Lateran Councils.
There has always been a danger in the Church of having men attach themselves to
individuals the Church rather than to the Church itself. Even today there are
cases of people who join the Church because of the striking personality of one priest,
and of others who leave it because of the harshness or sinfulness of another. Neither of
these are valid reasons for joining or leaving the Church, for one is to believe in Christ.
Nothing that any Catholic-priest or laymen, bishop or even pope- may do can destroy
the Church which Christ established. It seems that God wanted to emphasize this in the
evils He permitted within His Church; they were singled out for special notice during
The history of the Councils of the Middle Ages is much of a confirmation of this truth.
Had the Church of Christ rested upon the strength of men alone, their human weakness
would long ago have sent it toppling to the ground From a purely human standpoint,
there was nothing that could have happened to ruin the Church that did not actually
take place. Yet the Church survived because it is sustained not by men but by God.
It is important to realize this in order to understand the problems of the Middle Ages.
This was not the only time, of course, when this lesson was taught. Earlier, in the third
century, the followers of Cyprian had been led into error by holding that a man who
did not have faith could not baptize validly. This really implied that the faith came
from the man and not from God; but the Church teaches that the man is simply the
instrument. The same thing would be implied at the time of the Protestant Revolt,
when it was held that a priest in the state of mortal sin could not administer a life-
giving sacrament, implying again that the grace came from the instrument himself
instead of from God. It was not actually an overspiritualized approach to the Church
that led the Protestants of the sixteenth century into error. It came, rather, from a too
human notion of that Church. They tended to identify the spiritual powers of the
Church too closely with the weakness of the men who act as God's instruments. As a
result, they even went further than they themselves had intended at first, and instead of
purifying the human instruments, they ended up by rejecting the visible nature of
Christ's Church on earth.
There were four General Councils held at the Lateran in rather quick succession-four in
about 90 years: 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215. They were all remarkably similar in character,
and were concerned primarily with Church reform. The first three were held during
the Lenten season; the fourth in November. They accomplished their tasks with a small
number of public sessions, with private meetings taking place in between. They also
reflect a typical difference between the Eastern and the Western mind. The earlier
Councils in the East were primarily concerned with dogmatic problems, the doctrine of
faith; they discussed disciplinary problems, but as a more secondary concern. The four
Lateran Councils, however, dealt primarily with canonical and juridical questions;
doctrinal problems play a secondary role in the over-all picture. This difference in
approach was brought on, of course, by the nature of the problems they faced, but it is
also indicative of the Roman mind which tends naturally to a more legal point of view.
The Lateran Basilica had been the scene of ten or more local or Western synods that we
know of. In 1122, Pope Callixtus II announced by way of a letter to the bishops and
princes of the Christian world that he now intended to convoke a "General Council" at
the Lateran in 1123. This Council was to be concerned with the great and diverse
problems which faced the Church at that time.
In point of fact, the most noteworthy act of the Council was the reaffirmation of what is
known as the "Concordat of Worms." Especially after the time of Charlemagne, there
had developed a notion of the "bishop" that included two elements: he was both a
religious pastor and a feudal lord. From this notion there arose the question as to
whether the Pope or the Emperor had the right to confer on the bishop his authority in
the temporal order. What made the problem especially difficult was the general
conviction that the office of bishop was a unified thing; the bishop was simultaneously
priest and temporal ruler.
The emperors argued that just as they confer all civil honors and benefices within their
realm, so also they had the right to confer this civil honor on the bishop. But in practice
it was difficult to see how the Emperor was not also bestowing the spiritual power; this
was emphasized all the more by the fact that the Emperor or prince adopted the
practice of giving the ring and the crosier. What was implied was that once the ruler
had made his choice, the faithful were expected to applaud the move and the clergy
were to proceed with the consecration. This easily led to serious confusion and to
obvious abuses. If the Emperor had such absolute power, he was able to name almost
anyone-fit or unfit-for the office of bishop, and others would have to go along with his
Already in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) had fought for the
spiritual independence of the Church in this regard; the popes who followed him
continued the battle. Things finally came to a head in the dispute between Callixtus II
and the emperor, Henry V. At a meeting held at Worms in September of 1122, a clear
distinction was drawn between the spiritual power of a bishop and his temporal
power. The spiritual power came from the Church only; the temporal ruler granted
only the rights to the temporal rule now associated with the office.
Henry V accepted this position, and a compromise was made. The agreement most
probably represented only a temporary provision insofar as Germany was concerned;
what the Church had been striving for was granted fully in the territories outside of
Germany. Thus, in Germany itself, the Emperor was to preside over the election of a
new bishop, guaranteeing its complete freedom. He was then permitted to bestow the
temporal power on the one so chosen by means of the scepter; he promised to give up
forever the bestowal of the ring and crosier, the special signs of spiritual power. After
this ceremony, the clergy would proceed to the consecration of the new bishop (or
Outside of Germany, however, the Emperor had no part at all in the elections; he could,
moreover, bestow the temporal power by means of the scepter only after the Church
had performed the sacred rights of consecration. This was the ideal, of course, and it is
what we are generally accustomed to thinking of today in regard to the election of
bishops. Thus , as this practice was called, came to an end.
What the I Lateran Council did above all was to confirm the Concordat of Worms.
About 300 or more bishops, perhaps as many as 500, as well as many abbots, gathered
at the Lateran Basilica on the Third Sunday of Lent in 1123 and set about this task. We
have no records of what took place; we have only the canons issued by them. Two or
three other sessions apparently took place after the opening session on March 18; the
Council seems to have been finished by the end of March. There were also some
twenty-two canons issued in regard to Church reform, similar to those repeated in the
In April of 1139, the II Council of the Lateran took place under Pope Innocent II. Again
we know very little of the history of this gathering or of its proceedings; it seems that
no one who took part in the Council left any record of it. The canons issued by the
Council, however, give us an indication of the general problems it faced.
In all of these Councils there was a recurring problem of schism within the Western
Church; it was only a faint hint at the great schism yet to come. In 1118, before the
Emperor Henry V had signed the Concordat at Worms, he had attempted to set up an
antipope, Gregory VIII (just as his predecessor Henry IV, had tried to introduce the
antipope, Clement III). Later on, when Pope Innocent II had been elected in 1130, a new
dispute arose over his election; a number of other cardinals proceeded to elect the
antipope, Anacletus II. This question, then, had to be treated at II Lateran, in 1139.
Pope Innocent II summoned a General Council to consider the general needs of the
Church-the question of the antipope especially, but also the matter of reform, and the
condemnation of heretical teachings. The Council was held in April of 1139. Possibly
500 or 600 bishops and abbots attended, along with many others; a total of about 1000.
The antipope had already died in 1138; at this point his acts were declared to be void.
In addition, those who had rallied about him were also punished; Innocent II was
especially severe in this regard. The center of attention then passed on to the need for
reform, particularly among the clergy. This entire period is marked by failings that
were rooted out only with the greatest difficulty. As long as lay investiture continued,
many men became bishops with the temporal power only in mind; they had no concern
for the spiritual. They engaged in simony-the buying and selling of spiritual favors;
they had no training for their priestly work; they disregarded clerical celibacy entirely.
St. Bernard (who died in 1153) set out to preach against these manifold abuses in his
time, and the Lateran Councils all set down laws intended to eradicate them.
Although the II Lateran Council was a great triumph for Innocent II, it failed to achieve
all of the goals intended; it was one thing to make laws and quite another to enforce
them among unwilling subjects. The Council was not greatly concerned with doctrinal
questions, but it did denounce the teaching of Peter of Bruys who was preaching a form
of Manichaeanism (the basic tenet being that material things are evil in themselves). In
the back of this there was the foreshadowing of the antisacrament and antipriest spirit
that would come to full growth at the time of the Reformation. This was also detected
in the condemnation of Arnold of Brescia. Although he would later become more
extreme, still at this time he so emphasized the fact that the Church ought to possess no
property that he invited the further conclusion that the Church is "not of this world" in
any sense, and thus is really an "invisible body."
The III Lateran Council took place in March of 1179 under Pope Alexander III. This
Pope had also been engaged in conflict with a temporal ruler-Frederick Barbarossa.
This rather changeable character had been crowned emperor in 1155 by Pope Adrian
IV, the only Englishman to have been pope. By 1158, however, he was involved in a
dispute over the relationship of the Christian Emperor to the Pope, a dispute that
reached a crisis with the death of Adrian in 1159. At that time, a schism threatened the
Church, and two men were again contesting for the papal throne: Alexander III, and a
man more favorable to Frederick, who called himself Victor IV.
Frederick attempted to solve this dispute by summoning a Council, after the manner of
the Eastern emperors. Alexander III, however, refused to consent to such a Council.
Nevertheless a small gathering was held at Pavia, and the antipope, Victor, was
accepted officially by the Emperor. Nevertheless, the true pope, Alexander III,
continued to gather more supporters; he eventually excommunicated the Emperor for
his role in the pseudo-council. Frederick attacked Italy, however, and the Pope had to
The triumph of the Emperor continued until 1176 when finally the opposing forces
conquered him at the battle of Legnano; in the following year he recognized Alexander
as pope, kneeling before him to beg absolution. For the first time since he was elected
pope-eighteen long years-Alexander III (one of the greatest personages of the Middle
Ages) was free to settle down in Rome and attend to the works of the Church.
Alexander's first thought was a General Council to correct the evils that this bitter
division had wrought. Thus in March of 1179 the III Lateran Council met to restore the
discipline of the Church. We know little of its history. Somewhere between 300 and 600
bishops and abbots attended; there were three public sessions.
Once again, the acts of the antipopes were annulled; there had been three in all-two
successors of Victor IV. Those who took part in the schism were reconciled after they
recited an oath of loyalty to the legitimate Pope. In order to avoid a recurrence in the
future, the regulations in regard to the papal election were made more precise,
demanding a two-thirds majority of the votes; no mention was made of any approval
by the Emperor nor of any role to be played by the people or the other members of the
The special concern of this Council, as with the other Lateran Councils, was the matter
of reform. Some twenty-seven canons were issued, similar to those of the earlier
gatherings, but more detailed. There had been an attempt to contact the Greek
schismatics, but they reached no agreement at the Council. One of the canons spoke of
the new heresies that had begun to crop up in parts of Europe-that of the Waldensians
and that of the Albigensians. The IV Lateran Council, however, would have to deal
with these in greater detail.
None of the earlier Councils had achieved the sweeping reforms that were needed and
that many had desired, so that in 1213 Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) announced his
intention of calling a fourth General Council at the Lateran. He sent out letters to all the
bishops, princes, and heads of religious orders, setting the Council for November, 1215.
He was most insistent that all attend, and pointed out in advance that an excuse such as
the difficulty of travel would not be valid. Innocent succeeded, The IV Lateran Council
was the greatest of the four-the crowning point of the thirteenth century (which, in
turn, was the crowning point of the entire Middle Ages). To the people of Rome, it
seemed as if the whole world had shown up. Over 400 bishops were there, including
the patriarchs of Jerusalem and of Constantinople, and representatives of the patriarchs
of Antioch and Alexandria; more than 800 abbots and priors attended, plus
representatives of the civil powers.
In the back of his mind, Innocent had the hope of another crusade to free the Holy
Land. The first such crusade had begun in 1096 under Pope Urban II; for the next 175
years these attempts were repeated off and on. In each instance, there were, of course,
political as well as religious considerations; but in no case was the Holy Land set free
from the rule of the Saracens. What benefits the Crusades did bring to Europe were
more indirect: the increase in scientific knowledge, commerce, art, and the like, which
came from contact with the Arab nations.
Despite the earlier failures, Innocent III still hoped for one more such crusade. Thus,
when the Council opened on November 11, 1215, the Pope first spoke, and then the
patriarch of Jerusalem addressed the gathering; he was to describe the difficulties in the
Holy Land. When the Council had concluded, a decree calling for a crusade was issued
December 14, 1215. But Innocent III died in July of 1216, and with him the plans died
also. The notion of a crusade was no longer appealing.
Of greater importance were the decrees of the second and third sessions of the Council,
November 20 and 30. The IV Lateran Council issued the most important disciplinary
legislation of the Middle Ages; it would not be equaled until the Council of Trent in the
sixteenth century. There were the usual canons concerning the reform of the clergy and
the proper education of those to be ordained. The most famous canon, however, was
that which prescribed at least annual confession and Communion for all the faithful.
The greatest decrees were concerned with doctrine. The discussions of the early
Scholastics were bearing fruit, and IV Lateran helped prepare the way for the great
work of Thomas Aquinas ( who was, born ten years after the Council ) . This Council
was the logical outgrowth of the great interest in doctrinal questions that marked the
reign of Innocent III; many such concerns found expression chiefly in the canons
pertaining to the sacraments.
One heretical teaching was condemned by adopting the very words of Peter Lombard,
who had died in 1160 and was still considered theologian of the day. A certain
Abbot Joachim represented the results of bad philosophy in the study of God. He had
made use of the more abstract words of philosophy to discuss the Trinity, but failed to
express the truth adequately. He really ended up by holding that the three divine
Persons were not actually one God; they were "one" only in a vague sense of being
more or less joined together. This was not, however, the faith of the Church, as IV
Lateran was careful to point out in repeating as its own the doctrine of Peter Lombard.
On the other hand, it was not only philosophers who had fallen into error. The
Albigensian heresy ( named after the city of Albi in southern France) took its rise
among the more fanatical groups of simple Christians who set out to seek perfection
apart from the Church. They were, in reality, following the same error as the
Manichaeans at the time of St. Augustine. The material world came from the evil spirit;
nonmaterial things came from God. The penances they performed were dictated more
by a false notion of the body: since it is material, the body is evil; marriage is evil as
well. This fanaticism began to spread on all sides; it was a religion that led only to
despair, frustration. St. Dominic had begun to preach against this error at the start of
the reign of Innocent III, about 1200; IV Lateran now spelled out officially the precise
error the Church was fighting. This was done in the first canon, the so-called
, which is a detailed statement of the true Catholic belief; it is surely the most
valuable statement of the Council.
IV Lateran also had to concern itself with one other group, the Waldensians (named
after Peter Waldo, who first became prominent about 117B). Peter Waldo was a rather
devout layman, but one whose enthusiasm quickly led him to heresy. He and his
followers-all laymen-felt called by God to preach, and they did so, even without the
permission of the local bishops. Pope Alexander III had at once forbidden them to do
this, but they continued. The movement then developed an anticlerical and anti-Church
spirit; priests and bishops were no more important than the laymen. In fact, the only
thing that mattered was living a true apostolic life. If a man did that, he could forgive
sins as well as a priest, or even better than some priests, since they concluded that a
priest in the state of sin could not absolve.
This was, again, a faint foretaste of the Protestant spirit of the sixteenth century, which
identified the spiritual powers of the visible Church with the weakness of the men who
act as God's instruments. These Waldensians had been opposed earlier, and the IV
Lateran Council included in its work a number of decrees aimed against them and
As had been the case in the past, the directives of the IV Lateran Council failed to
achieve fully the goals envisioned. They did, however, set the pattern for the
difficulties which still lay ahead. Actually, this ought not seem especially surprising.
Christ Himself had promised difficulties for His Church, and had foretold that not only
the wheat but also the weeds would flourish in this earthly body. The Church without
spot is the Church of the future. It is not surprising, then, if the Church must continue
to fight; such is its destiny. The Church did not fail really. Its only failure would have
been a refusal to fight, and these Councils of the Lateran are lasting evidence of the
continuing struggle of Christ's Church against the weakness of its members. In its
present state, the Body of Christ is waging a warfare. It is still very much the Church
CHAPTER XI . . . I LYONS-VIENNE
THE question of reform remained a chief concern of the Church during the years
following IV Lateran, but the history of the Councils focuses attention on another
recurring difficulty: the struggle of the Church with temporal rulers. In 1215, Frederick
II (already king of Sicily and Puglia) became emperor of Germany. By 1220 he had
managed to be solemnly crowned by Pope Honorius III. His grandfather, Frederick
Barbarossa, had been a problem to Pope Alexander III and the III Lateran Council.
Frederick II was now to prove an even greater burden to three later popes. But this
struggle with the Hohenstaufen rulers was destined to come to a head under Pope
Innocent IV. The I Council of Lyons ( 1245 ) stands as a witness to the strength of this
Pope in resisting the power of temporal rulers who would challenge the spiritual rule
of the Church.
Frederick soon after showed that he was going to be no special friend of the Church.
His ultimate aim could be nothing more than to make the Church a part of the State. He
had no regard for former promises and did all he could to obstruct the work of the
Church. The popes, on the other hand, withstood him and emerged from the battle
victorious. The man who had been Frederick's tutor became Pope Honorius III in 1216.
He was an old man by then, and hardly a match for the young prince who was
beginning to show the crafty side of his nature. Honorius was much concerned about
the situation in the Holy Land, and he had hoped for another crusade. Earlier,
Frederick had promised to set out on such a crusade, but he never did. He later came
into even closer conflict with the Pope. Honorius saw the conflict brewing, but he died
in 1227 before it became an open battle.
The next pope was Gregory IX, a man who had served under Honorius III. He
recognized the situation that had developed, and he had the strength to act at once.
Gregory almost immediately excommunicated the Emperor for his failure to keep his
promises, especially for his halfhearted attempts to fulfill his crusader's vow. Frederick
ignored the Pope, however, and set out to cement his relations with the Mohammedan
rulers of the East.
Something of an uneasy peace eventually dominated the reign of Gregory IX for some
years, while Frederick did his best to gain control of as much territory as he could. By
1239, however, the Pope's patience gave way, and he again excommunicated the
Emperor. Gregory also attempted to convoke a Council in 1241 to deal with Frederick.
Knowing the difficulty of traveling through land so greatly controlled by the Emperor,
the Pope arranged to have the bishops brought to Rome by the fleet of Genoa. The
Emperor attacked the fleet, however, and captured 100 or more of the bishops and
It seemed that nothing would stop Frederick's new plans to take Rome. As he neared
the city Gregory IX, now an old man, died; this was in August of 1241. By October 25,
the few cardinals left had agreed on Celestine IV; and by November 10 he had died
also. The choice now passed to Pope Innocent IV, although he was not elected for
another year and a half, when Louis IX of France managed to get Frederick to agree to
release the cardinals he held as prisoners, and allow the election to continue.
Innocent IV was elected on June 25, 1243. He knew by now that there could be no
compromise with Frederick. Either the Church became a department of the State, or
Frederick would continue to fight until he made it that. On the other hand, the new
Pope knew that, judging from experience, it would not be easy to outwit the Emperor.
Nevertheless he set about making his plans carefully, with grim determination.
In May of 1244 he created twelve new cardinals; there were only nine left by now. He
then transferred himself and his court to Lyons, in France. He had determined to
convoke a General Council to deal with Frederick, and he knew this could not be done
in Rome. He presumably did not make any agreement with the King of France
concerning this move, although he was surely not ignorant of the fact that this saintly
king (St. Louis) would be nearby in case help was needed. He chose Lyons as a more or
less "free city." The French influence was strong, but it was still independent, and was
not strictly within the empire of Frederick II. The city had the added advantage of
being centrally located; it had been an important center in the ancient Roman Empire in
Innocent then installed himself in the fortresslike monastery of St. Just at the beginning
of December, 1244, and made arrangements for the Council. He set the opening for the
feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1245. In January of that year, he sent out his letters
to the bishops and Christian princes. The purpose of the Council was obviously to deal
with the Emperor, but the general concern with reform and with the threat of the
Mohammedans also figured in his plans.
To clarify his position, Innocent IV once again excommunicated the Emperor on April
13, 1245, and on April 18 cited him to appear before the Council. At the beginning of
June, Frederick wrote the cardinals protesting the action of the Pope; nevertheless he
indicated that he would send his representatives to the gathering. In June the bishops
began to arrive at Lyons -about 15O, plus a good number of abbots.
There was a preparatory meeting two days later than the date planned for the opening
of the Council. On June 26, the Pope met with Frederick's representatives in the
refectory of the monastery. They proposed new conditions of peace, but the Pope
would have none of it. The time for diplomacy and compromise was past. Frederick
had shown that he could not be trusted and that he was intent on making the Church a
department of the State. Innocent IV was determined that the matter should now be
cleared up, once and for all.
The first solemn session opened in the Cathedral of St. John on June 28; the second and
third sessions followed on July 5 and 17. Innocent himself preached at the opening
session, comparing to the five wounds of Christ the five problems which grieved him:
(1) the evil conduct of the bishops, the priests, and the faithful; (2) the onslaughts of the
followers of Mohammed in the Holy Land, (3) the Greek schism; (4) the cruelty of the
Tartars who had invaded Hungary; (5) the persecution of the Church by Frederick II.
There was no doubt, however, that this Council had been called almost as a solemn
trial of the Emperor. Frederick had been unfaithful in all ways, had attacked the
Church, had held bishops captive, and had negotiated with the Mohammedans. He
ought now be deposed as Emperor, since he had shown himself unworthy of this
Basically this was a question of the relationship of the Church and State in the Middle
Ages. It touched upon the question of whether any temporal ruler can dominate the
Church, and whether the Christian people owe allegiance to a ruler who scorns the
rights of the Church of Christ All those who attended the Council realized from the
start the true import of the discussions.
Frederick II was represented chiefly by Thaddeus of Suessa, the Archbishop of
Palermo. He tried every line of argument. At first he suggested that it was not fair to
try the Emperor without at least hearing him. This seemed to meet with agreement, and
a delay of ten days was granted. Pope Innocent may not have been too enthused about
Frederick appearing, most likely with his troops. Although he probably never said it,
he is sometimes quoted as remarking: "I feel neither fit nor prepared either for prison or
for martyrdom." This statement sums up the general fear felt by all.
The Emperor, however, indicated that he had no intention of appearing, so that the
second session took place before the ten days were up. By this time, Frederick had lost
whatever support he had had from the bishops. On July 5, he was accused of being
contumacious and rebellious against the Church; a number of bishops rose to elaborate
on the brutality of Frederick which they themselves had experienced. This time
Frederick's representative, Thaddeus, insisted that the Emperor was on his way, and
there should be a delay; he was really fighting for time. Thus the third session was
postponed until July 17.
Actually Frederick had never left Verona, where he was; and he had no intention of
leaving. Therefore, by the 17th all the papers were in order, and the Council proceeded
to the condemnation. Thaddeus finally played his last card. He stated that if the
condemnation took place, the Emperor would simply appeal to the next Pope and to a
General Council, adding that this was no such Council. This brought forth a solemn
statement on the part of Innocent that it an Ecumenical Council, and the
deposition took place. The decree stated that Frederick was deprived of his empire and
his kingdoms, and excommunicated from the Church; all Christians were forbidden to
Innocent IV had exercised the full rights given to him by the social and political
situation of the Middle Ages. The day of judgment had descended. Although we know
little of them, it seems that the Council also issued a number of other canons; they dealt
with the questions mentioned in the opening address of Innocent IV in the first session.
With the singing of a solemn the Council ended. The Dominicans and
Franciscans were assigned the task of making known to the faithful the decision
The Council was a great victory for the Church, at least in the realm of theory. The
Church stood forth as the spiritual body that Christ intended it to be, free from the
domination of temporal rulers. The hopes for another crusade came to nothing; the few
attempts to contact the Tartars were not fully successful. But the Council was a victory
of the papacy over the king, of the "cold-blooded" Innocent (as he has been described)
over the unruly ruler.
Frederick continued to oppose the Pope and the Council; he contended that they had no
right to act as they did. In Frederick's theory, the Pope could only crown the Emperor,
but he had no right to exercise this power over the faithful. He would have attacked
Lyons, but the French king let it be known that, although they were still allies of a sort,
he would have to fight against him. In addition, in June of 1247 Frederick's army
suffered a great defeat at Parma. He died three years later, in December of 1250.
Innocent IV returned to Italy at long last. After staying a year and a half at Perugia, he
entered Rome in October, 1253.
There was to be another General Council at Lyons in this century, II Lyons (held in
1274). This Council would be concerned with the still unsolved question of the Greek
schism, finally stabilized under Michael Cerularius. Since this is closer in spirit to the
Council of Florence (1438-1445), we will pass over it for the present, and return to it in
Thirty-two years after the death of Frederick II, another emperor entered the scene, and
in large measure his intrigues were responsible for the next General Council: the
Council of Vienne (1311-1312). This emperor was Philip the Fair, a ruler who came into
conflict with the strongest Pope of the thirteenth century-Boniface VIII.
In 1294, Celestine V resigned his office as pope; he was one of the relatively few popes
who have done so. After five months he was convinced that he was not the man for the
office. As his successor the cardinals chose a man who knew his way in the world of
diplomacy, and it was a fortunate choice. Just nine years before, Philip the Fair had
become the new French king. He was a man who would tax the patience of the papacy.
Much of what took place was not the result of what Boniface VIII himself had done; he
inherited a difficult situation. He was, however, a strong-minded pope in addition to
being a diplomat, and when he found himself involved in a quarrel with Philip, he
At the beginning Boniface attempted to settle the difficulties by way of compromise; he
possibly came out second best in this maneuver. His last years, therefore, showed a
reawakened interest in proclaiming the spiritual independence of the Roman Pontiff.
He left diplomacy aside, realizing that Philip was actually undermining the Church
and supporting those fanatic Christians who were fast falling into heresy-the Spirituals
and the Albigensians. The letter of December, 1301, written to the King indicated this
new approach. It was entitled , from its opening words: "Listen, O Son."
It breathed the spirit of the medieval situation, in which even the Christian prince, as a
member of the Church, was subject to the papal authority, and pointed out,
accordingly, the effect of Philip's evil ways and bad example.
The King reacted violently to this approach, coached especially by his legal guide,
Pierre Flotte. It was even suggested that Boniface was a heretic because of his
pretensions; the ferment of Conciliarism was already at work in France. A gathering of
bishops was held at Rome, and while there was no deposition of Philip as there had
been of Frederick II, the most famous decree of Boniface's career did result-the of November 18, 1302. It was above all a clear-cut statement of the authority
of the Pope to correct the evil ways of all members of the Church, both high and low.
Although this decree did not mention either Philip or France, it was obviously aimed at
him; he now continued his attacks on the Pope with even greater vehemence. In August
of 1303 the Pope finally determined to excommunicate the King. Before he could do so
publicly, the papal palace was stormed, and Boniface was threatened with prison or
death. The aroused populace saved him for the day, but he was now an old man, about
eighty; the situation was more than he could endure, and within three weeks he was
The next pope, Benedict XI, continued the same line of approach in regard to the King,
but when he seemed about to achieve lasting success, he died very suddenly; he had
been pope for only nine months. The choice then fell on a French bishop who took the
name of Clement V. He remained in France throughout his reign, and began the long
line of men known as the Avignon popes which continued for nearly seventy-five
years. He was crowned at Lyons in November of 1305.
Clement V was not the strong man that Boniface VIII had been. Yet, by his attitude
toward the King, he did manage to avoid any complete break with him. On the other
hand, Philip was still anxious to get even with what he considered the unjust
intervention of Boniface VIII. In his new plans, he contemplated a condemnation of
Boniface. To this he joined the hope of a condemnation of the Order of Knights
Templar, to which he had lately turned his special attention.
For a time, considering the political and military strength of Philip, it appeared that
some sort of trial of the dead Pope Boniface would take place; in fact, such a trial was
already in the making. Pope Clement did manage to ward off any trial of Boniface;
whatever records had already been made were destroyed. By way of compromise, it
was agreed that the Order should be investigated, and the final decision regarding
them sought from a General Council.
In this way the Council of Vienne (a few miles south of Lyons in France) came into
existence. For many years, very little was known about the proceedings of this Council;
even today our information is relatively scant. By a decree of April 4, 1310, Clement
fixed the opening date of the Council for October 1 of the following year; actually the
first solemn session did not take place until October 16, 1311. There were possibly 300
who attended in all, but the number of bishops was smaller. For the first time, a Pope
the bishops who were to attend. Clement's list of 231 names was later
reduced to about 165 under the order of the King, and not all of these attended.
We know that the principal task of the Council was the question of the Order of
Knights Templar. There was also a discussion of help for the Holy Land and questions
of doctrine and morals. We come to our knowledge of the doctrinal decrees, some of
them quite important, only by a study of the official decrees themselves; we still know
little about the actual sessions.
After the Council began with the solemn session on October 16, 1311, nothing more was
done officially until the following spring; Philip himself arrived only on March 20. In
the meantime, the Council reviewed, among other things, the records of the
investigations of the Order of Knights Templar. This had been going on since 1307, and
history has recorded the brutality of the inquiries carried on by the King.
This Order had been founded in the early part of the twelfth century; it was an
outgrowth of the Crusades, and was originally dedicated to protecting the Christian
pilgrims from attack. It had a strong military flavor, and many of the Knights had died
in battle. The three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were also taken, so that it
was a true religious order. In time, however, the Order had acquired large holdings,
and thus became a powerful and a wealthy group. Philip had every reason to fear it.
The charge levied, however, was that this Order had been guilty of all sorts of crime. Its
members supposedly denied Christ, dishonored the cross, practiced unnatural vice.
The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, had been arrested along with the other members,
and they had confessed to all these crimes. History today passes a more mild judgment
upon them than historians of the past. Without affirming that all the Knights were
saints, it seems far more accurate to say that a good amount of torture was inflicted
upon the members; they confessed to anything under these circumstances.
Pope Clement had agreed that the General Council would review all of this evidence.
In the session of April 3 the final decision came forth: the Order would be suppressed,
"for the good of the Church...." With no further discussion, Clement and the Council
solved this debate. It would seem that the Order was something of a peace offering. No
particular Order is essential to the life of the Church; the Jesuits would also be
suppressed for a time due to the political intrigues of the eighteenth century. In this
instance, it seemed the most prudent decision under the circumstances. The large
holdings of the Order, however, did not go to Philip, had he entertained any such
hopes; they were given to the Hospitallers, a similar type of military order (or, in Spain,
to national orders that had fought against the Moors).
The third session of May 6 was apparently concerned with doctrinal questions. One
decree concerned the errors of Peter Olivi, although he is not mentioned by name. He
had been a leader of a group of Franciscan monks known as the Spirituals, and had
apparently fallen into error on certain points concerning Christ. In this decree the
Council made its famous statement concerning the relationship of the human soul to
Throughout this entire period of history, there were other movements that are difficult
to identify as well-organized groups; they represent more of an attitude or an approach
to Christianity. Among the Franciscans, the so-called Spirituals represented this
attitude within religious life. These tendencies, however, led to so great an emphasis
upon the inner life of man and the working of the Holy Spirit, that these people failed
to give the necessary attention to the visible nature of the Church. The attachment to the
spirit of poverty had led to criticism of the possessions of the Church, despite the fact
that a visible Church must obviously possess certain material goods; but this criticism
was not far from indicating a purely spiritual or invisible Church of Christ. Their
interest was also centered on a scriptural theme that frequently preoccupied the
medieval mind: the second coming of Christ, which was thought to be very near at
At the Council of Vienne, the bishops had turned their attention to this general line of
thought. As for the Spirituals, things were put in order rather soon under the next
pope, John XXII (1316-1334). There were, however, far more radical groups of laymen
and laywomen who had adopted some of this spirit; they were a source of great
concern. We speak of them today as the Beghards and the Beguines (the first being the
group of men; the second, the group of women). These were associations of pious
people who did not take religious vows but who banded together to promote their
spiritual perfection; they often engaged in special works of mercy as well. Some of
these people, however, became interested in a type of spirituality not in keeping with
the traditional teaching of the Church. While a large number of true "mystics" appeared
in the Church during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these people marked a
decidedly false mysticism. This has been a recurring problem in the history of the
Church, and the condemnation of these groups at Vienne indicates how far they had
wandered from the truth.
Instead of following the general norms of prayer and fasting as means of drawing
closer to God, these people so stressed "inner union with God," that the external
practices became unimportant. They held that every man is blessed, and that he need
not wait for heaven to "see" God; that is possible on earth. In this way, man can achieve
such perfection during this life that he is entirely one with God; he no longer needs to
pray or fast, since these are only to the goal, and this man has now reached
Even more, because of his great perfection and his union with God, this "perfect man"
can no longer sin. This is a teaching that reappeared in the Quietism of the seventeenth
century; the name indicates the basic principle: "Let God act, and remain quiet under
the hand of God." It is a belief that man need not concern himself with striving for
perfection; if he "opens himself to God," nothing more is required. God alone will make
Reduced to a more practical level, this teaching had also concluded that man need not
concern himself with temptation and sin. Provided he adheres to God, he cannot sin.
The Beghards and Beguines even concluded that if one follows the promptings of
nature in regard to sex, there could be no sin; perfection would not interfere with this.
In fact, the "spiritual" man is so perfect that he can allow free reign to his fleshly
It is more than obvious why the Council of Vienne was called upon to condemn these
teachings. These were most serious matters. In its condemnations, the Council gives us
an insight into the problems of the age. In some of them, especially the criticism of the
possessions of the Church and the tendency to emphasize an invisible Church, we can
see already the faint outline of the teachings of the Protestant Revolt in the sixteenth
century. Before this revolt, however, another crisis faced the Church-the so-called
Western Schism. This dispute between the contenders for the papal throne was solved
by what is perhaps the most unusual of all the General Councils, the Council of
Constance in 1414.
CHAPTER XII . . . COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE
WHEN the disputes between the popes and the emperors had somewhat died down, a
new scandal fell upon the Church in the fourteenth century. After almost 75 years in
Avignon, in 1377 the papacy returned to Rome permanently under Gregory XI. This
was an important move, and there was much to be done in order to re-establish the
papal court in the Eternal City. Gregory XI accomplished little in this regard, however,
for in March of 1378 he died, and the confusion that resulted afterward continued to
plague the Church for almost forty years.
When Gregory XI died, the people of Rome were most insistent that the new pope be
elected immediately and in Rome itself; they also wanted a Roman, or at least an Italian
pope As a result, the cardinals then present in Rome proceeded to elect the first Italian
pope in almost 75 years, even though they were mostly French cardinals. The man
elected was the Archbishop of Bari; he chose the name of Urban VI. The election was a
joy to the Italian populace, but it soon proved a burden to the cardinals. By September,
even the few Italian cardinals had become discontent under the harshness of this
admittedly tactless Pope.
Then a most unheard of thing took place. After much secret planning, the cardinals left
Rome and gathered at Anagni. There they announced that the election of Urban was
invalid, since pressure had been brought to bear upon them. Soon after they elected a
second "pope," Clement VII, as he called himself. This marks the beginning of the Great
It is generally agreed today that there was no reason for calling the election of Urban VI
invalid; it had followed all the prescribed norms. Under these circumstances, however,
there was great confusion. Today, far from the fracas, we can more calmly single out
the true Pope. At the time, there were many who judged the reports to be true, and
who therefore accepted Clement VII as the true Pope. On the other hand, there were
Catholics who continued to accept Urban VI as the validly elected Pope. The end result
was a split in the Christian world that would last from 1378 until 1417.
The difficulty was not whether the Church had a Pope or not; it was simply a question
of who he was. Many sincere people, even some of the saints, were confused and
supported the wrong man. As a result, as each contestant died, a successor was elected
by the cardinals who supported him; thus a line of popes was established on each side.
Today we speak of the "Roman Line," which represents the true popes, following
Urban VI; and the "Avignon Line," indicating Clement VII and the man who succeeded
him, who eventually installed themselves as pope at Avignon:
ROMAN LINE AVIGNON LINE
Urban VI (1378-1389) Clement VII (1378-1394)
Boniface IX (1389-1404) Benedict XIII (1394-1417)
Innocent VII (1404-1406)
Gregory XII (1406-1415)
Confusion was multiplied even more as both of these men continued to name bishops
and cardinals, to assign them to various dioceses, and to punish or excommunicate
certain members of both parties. Obviously, of course, only the true Pope had the right
to do these things; but no one was sure which one he was-perhaps not even the
In time, voices were raised, especially at the University of Paris, suggesting that the
schism could be solved only by having the two men resign, and electing a new pope at
a General Council. This was ultimately to be the solution of the problem, but it was not
an unmixed blessing. Underneath this there was being formulated the teaching of
"Conciliarism," that is, that a General Council is superior to the Pope. This would
destroy the nature of the Church established by Christ on Peter. We describe the
Church as a monarchical society; this means the rule of one man, above all, serving as
the vicar of Christ. The Conciliar Theory would subject the vicar of Christ to the power
of a General Council.
The Avignon Pope at times began to consider accepting these plans, but he died before
any results were achieved. Immediately a successor was elected, Benedict XIII.
Although he was not the true pope, Benedict at least withstood the moves of the
Conciliar Party. He and Gregory XII became the leading figures of what seemed to be a
solution to the schism.
For a time it had seemed as though a meeting of the two parties could be arranged and
an agreement reached. But the preparations proved futile. Political maneuvers
abounded on all sides. The next step only added to the already existing confusion.
Growing more and more disgruntled with the proceedings in both parties, the majority
of cardinals on both sides agreed to abandon both of the contending Popes, and meet in
a Council that would attempt to solve this problem. If the two men would not abdicate,
they would be deposed by this Council, and a new pope elected.
This meeting actually took place at Pisa in 1409, apart from both Popes, and it resulted
in the election of still another Pope. He took the name of Alexander V; he is the first of
the so-called "Pisan Line." He lived less than a year, and was succeeded by another
antipope, John XXIII. Pisa had been a great and well-attended gathering, but it marked
a high point in the Conciliar Movement. The cardinals from both parties had met and
acted without papal confirmation, accepting the theory that a General Council is
superior to the Pope.
There were now men, all claiming to be the lawful vicar of Christ. The final
solution came through the Council of Constance. Despite all the confusion and
misunderstanding that surrounded it, this gathering ranks as an Ecumenical Council of
the Church. If ever the Holy Spirit managed to exert His influence in the Church
through the most unlikely of instruments, it was through this Council.
A new figure entered the scene at this stage: Sigismund of Luxemburg, who was
elected King of the Romans in 1411. He came to Italy to arrange a Council with the
antipope John XXIII (who had held a rather badly attended Council in Rome in 1412).
Sigismund insisted on Constance as the city where the sessions should be held; John
XXIII gave way to his wishes.
The result is a peculiar situation from our point of view. The Council of Constance was
first set in motion by the Emperor and a man who was not actually the true Pope! The
truth is, however, that all three "Popes" at some time came into contact with this
Council; all agreed in some manner to its proceedings; and Martin V, who was to
emerge from the Council as the next pope, approved most of the decrees of the Council.
Thus it was a General Council of the universal Church, even though some of the
decrees issued were out-and-out heresy; these decrees were rejected by later popes. In
this, the gathering was not unlike some of the earlier Councils, which also got out of
hand, and were approved only in part by the Roman Pontiff. But like them, this
Council remained a General Council in the proper sense of the word in those matters
which were approved by the head of the body of bishops.
In October of 1413, Sigismund announced to the Christian world that the Council
would open on November 1, 1414. In December of that year John XXIII, who was at
Lodi, issued a bull of convocation. At that time, John XXIII had many followers,
although his cause would later collapse.
John XXIII arrived at Constance toward the end of October, 1414. The city lies along the
Lake of Constance, a northern city, but one then outside the French rule. The Council
was declared to be opened on November 1 of that year, although the first solemn
session did not take place until November 16. On the following day, the 17th, Peter
d'Ailly, the cardinal bishop of Cambrai, arrived. He was, in large measure, the "soul" of
the entire gathering, even though his own views were more than tainted with the error
of Conciliarism. In December, Sigismund' also reached the city. In number, about 300
bishops and abbots attended, together with a large number of theologians and canon
lawyers. It is almost impossible, however, to determine the exact number associated
with this rather drawn-out Council.
Of the three men then looked upon as "Pope," all had more or less agreed to resign the
office in the interests of the peace of the Church. John XXIII has been greatly discussed
by later biographers, perhaps even calumniated; but he was far from the spiritual type
of ecclesiastic. Nevertheless, he did recognize the need for a solution, and despite the
confusion he caused, he remained more or less faithful to his agreement. He regarded
himself as the lawful pope, of course; he based his claim on the action of the Council at
Gregory XII, whom we recognize today as the lawful pope, was about 87 years old. He
was most insistent that he remain pope, but agreed that he would resign if need be. As
his condition for so doing, he stipulated that John XXIII must not be accepted as the
true pope at all. The Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, preferred to deal directly with the
Emperor; in the long run, this man may have been the least co-operative. He had
retired to Spain, and had avoided all earlier attempts at reunion.
From the start, it was obvious to the Council that the only possible solution was to have
all three contestants resign and elect another man. This would mean, of course, that the
lawful Pope would have to give up his office along with the other two; but this had
been done before, and was perfectly in accord with the laws of the Church.
There were some objections from the cardinals who had taken part in the discussions at
Pisa; they wanted the Council of Constance to recognize this gathering and its
decisions. Peter d'Ailly managed to convince them that this was not the prudent thing
to do; it would only cause greater doubts and confusion. The address in which he
accomplished this feat was overloaded with errors of a conciliar nature; but fortunately
the main goal was achieved, and the matter was dropped.
By January of 1415, the support enjoyed by John XXIII began to falter. There were at
first rather hidden attacks upon him and his office; he had insisted all along that the
Council recognize him as the lawful pope. Finally the suggestion was brought out into
the open that all three, including John, would have to resign. About the same time,
word reached the Council that both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII were agreeable to
such a plan; it was apparent to John that he also would have to oblige. He was not
pleased, however. At first he offered to make a public confession of his faults; the offer
was rejected, and on March 1, 1415, John solemnly promised to resign if the other two
Benedict XIII had asked for negotiations to take place else where in his regard; the
Emperor agreed to this. There was some fear, however, that
the Council might break up. Sigismund, however, refused to allow anyone to leave
Constance. He insisted that the Council remain together until its task was
accomplished. Shortly after that, strange to say, John himself escaped from Constance
during the excitement of a tournament, disguised as a stableman. From Schaffhausen
he did write to the Council, informing them that he would still stand by his promises.
This act of John upset those at Constance, of course; this time, it was Sigismund who
kept them all there. A delegation was sent to John, but everything he said continued to
annoy those taking part in the gathering. It is significant that during these days the
bishops formulated the now famous "Articles of Constance," the heretical statements,
declaring that a General Council is superior to the Pope. These were approved in the
fourth and fifth sessions (March 30 and April 6, 1415). The vote was taken up according
to nations, as had been previously agreed. This had been one of the perplexing
problems of the Council. To allow each individual a vote might have permitted a
majority from a larger country to control the decisions. As a result, the nations voted in
one bloc: the Italians, Germans, French, English, and somewhat later the Spanish. What
was agreed on by the nations () would then be set forth solemnly by the
Between April 17 and May 29 the formula of abdication for John XXIII was drawn up
and he was solemnly deposed. He was invited to come back to the Council; he chose to
send his representatives. They could accomplish nothing in his behalf, so that at the
tenth session, John was declared suspended, and at the twelfth session (May 29) he was
solemnly deposed. John was, by now, a broken man; he accepted the decree with no
protest. He was kept under guard nearby. Later, after Martin V had been elected the
new pope, John returned to union with him. He died in 1419 as a cardinal under Martin
V. Since he was not the true pope, the present pontiff assumed the name John XXIII
when he was elected in 1958.
What some of the members of the Council may have they were doing is an
interesting question. Many were surely convinced that they were deposing the lawful
Pope; this was the man they had accepted as such. Their conciliar notions led them to
such an action. In point of fact, however, they had not deposed the Pope; there was
only one true vicar of Christ. It was, then, to Gregory XII that the Council now turned
It is both interesting and important to note that Gregory insisted to the end that he was
the only lawful pope, and that everything done by the Council was accomplished in a
manner that would safeguard his claims. In January, 1415, the delegates of Gregory had
notified the Council of his willingness to abdicate; in June of that year, his
representatives arrived at Constance, empowered to act with full authority in his name.
These representatives first went to the Emperor, since Gregory did not admit this as a
lawful Council. Because of this position, the Emperor acceded to their desires and
presided at the fourteenth session(July 4, 1415). The representatives thereupon read the
abdication of Gregory, and also the decree which authorized them to convoke this
Council, by reason of the resignation; it was accordingly authorized to act as a General
Council and proceed to the election of a new pope. Gregory had taken this step "for the
union and the reform of the Church, and to destroy heresy." He died two years later,
October 18, 1417.
The problem of Benedict XIII had to be solved before a new pope could be elected. This
required more negotiating. Benedict did finally agree to give up his claims, but only on
the condition that all of the sentences levied against him be removed, especially those
issued by the gathering at Pisa. In February of 1416 the Council ratified this agreement;
in October of that year, Spain was granted its vote along with the other nations. Not
until July 26, 1417, however, were all the preliminaries finished; the final decree was
then accepted, deposing Benedict.
The final problem was the election of a new pope, and this also brought forth
disagreements. There was first of all the question of who ought to elect him. For over
350 years, only cardinals had been entrusted with this task; yet some did not trust the
cardinals after all these experiences. In addition, the Emperor wanted the Council to
decree reforms at once, before the election; most of the cardinals, however, insisted that
the new pope be chosen first. The problem had begun to be discussed in June of 1417,
even before Benedict XIII had been deposed. By October, a compromise was reached,
mostly through the efforts of the English Cardinal, Henry Beaufort.
The Council would first declare that as soon as the Pope was elected, the matter of
Church reform had to be treated; at the same time, it would immediately issue a list of
reforms on which all were now agreed; and finally, a special commission would be
established to determine the manner in which the pope should be elected.
Of the decrees issued at this time, the most famous is the , which
established the need of frequent Councils. One was to be held five years after
Constance, the next one seven years after that, and then every ten years. Another decree
provided that is a schism should occur again, a Council would meet within the year to
settle the question.
It was finally decided that the twenty-three cardinals would take part in the election,
along with thirty other delegates (six from each of the five nations); this procedure
would hold true only for this election. So it was that, after a short conclave of three
days, Martin V appeared as the new and undisputed Pope on November 11, 1417.
Questions of reform and the new matter of concordats (or agreements) with the nations
occupied the Council until it finally ended on April 22, 1418; this was in the forty-fifth
session, some three and a half years after the Council began.
The most important work of the Council was naturally the ending of the schism and the
election of a new pope. The problems related to this, however, continued to trouble the
Church in the years that followed. The conciliar notions had not yet died out, and it
was the uneasy task assigned to Martin V to weave in and out of the maze of
difficulties without upsetting things and causing a new schism; the independent spirit
that had caused these problems was unfortunately not smothered by his election.
Pope Martin V approved the acts of the Council, with the exception of those which
proposed Conciliarism. Some have questioned whether this was really a General
Council because of the difficulties involved, but in the light of many earlier Councils,
there should be no doubt. The sessions which took place after Martin V had been
elected raise no problem at all, but his acceptance of the earlier decisions would be
sufficient to make them of equal force.
Among the other decrees of the Council, the most important were the condemnations of
the teachings of John Wyclif and John Hus. Wyclif had died in 1384, but his teaching
was still alive. He had been an Oxford theologian, condemned in England in 1382. In
that same year, the English King had married the sister of the King of Bohemia, thus
opening an exchange of interest and ideas between the two countries. One on the
results of this union was that the teaching of Wyclif gradually found its way to Prague,
where, about the beginning of the fifteenth century, it captured the mind of John Hus
(1370-1415), the rector of the University of Prague and a well-known preacher.
The doctrine of Wyclif and of Hus is surprisingly like that which is to appear a
hundred years later at the time of the Protestant Revolt; it is an important indication
that the mentality which formed the Revolt was already being created long before the
time of Luther. Wyclif had challenged the visible structure of the Church, rejected the
Sacrifice of the Mass, and emphasized Scripture as the sole rule of faith.
Wyclif, as we have said, was dead at the time of the Council of Constance; thus only his
doctrine was condemned. Hus, however, was brought to Constance and condemned for
teaching the errors of Wyclif; he had already been excommunicated by the Archbishop
of Prague and then by the antipope, John XXIII. The Council declared him a heretic,
and when he refused to reject these beliefs, he was handed over to the civil authorities
for execution. This was the manner of dealing with all heretics at the time; as late as
1553 the Geneva Calvinists would inflict the same penalty in the famous case of
Michael Servetus, who had attacked the doctrine of the Trinity. The death of Hus,
however, became something of a national symbol in Bohemia where his followers
formed the Hussite party.
Among his many problems, Martin V was still faced with the question of Conciliarism,
and it is this that leads us to the next General Council. The Council of Constance
decreed that a General Council should be held five years after the close of this
gathering, i.e., in 1423-the worst possible time for a Council. Wars were raging on all
sides, and it was soon apparent that few bishops would be able to attend. Nevertheless,
Martin arranged for a Council to open at Pavia in April of that year; in June the plague
struck in Pavia and the legates moved the gathering to Siena. It was not until
November that enough bishops were present for any kind of Council; even at that,
there were only about twenty-five. The discussions which did take place indicated the
danger that was still very much present: Conciliarism. Nothing was accomplished by
this feeble effort, and in March of 1424 the legates dissolved the Council, agreeing to
hold the next gathering at Basel in 1431 (seven years later, as stipulated at Constance).
Pope Martin V had come through safely with one "required" Council; not enough
bishops attended nor enough was done to constitute a General Council. He would
possibly have preferred no more Councils at all, and with good reason; the spirit of
Conciliarism remained a constant threat to the peace of the Church. As the year 1431
approached, however, little notices were tacked on the papal walls, reminding him and
the people of the need to proclaim the next Council. The implications were clear
enough: if he failed to do so, others could convoke the Council for him. Again Martin
decided it was better to go along with the plans, in the hope of keeping the gathering
under control. He announced the next Council in February of that year, but he died
three weeks later.
The next pontiff, Eugene IV, confirmed the decree summoning the Council at Basel, in
Switzerland. Once more, the gathering got off to a bad start; hardly anyone showed up.
In July, the discussions started, but the hall was still almost empty. As more and more
delegates did arrive matters started to get confused. On December 14, 1431, the first
session was held, but at that very moment, a decree was on its way from Rome,
empowering the legates to dissolve the Council; four days later a second document was
signed by Eugene actually dissolving it. The reports he had received indicated that this
might well become another unruly gathering; his fears were not unfounded.
Regardless of what the spirit had been from the start, the bishops who had gathered at
Basel were angered when they heard that the Pope had dissolved the Council. They
reissued the heretical decrees of Constance, stating once again that the General Council
is superior to the Pope, and that he has no power to dissolve such a gathering.
This series of misunderstandings continued. For a time it seemed the Pope would once
again enter into negotiations with the Council; but he refused to accept the decrees
concerning the supremacy of a General Council. The disputes dragged on and on for
years, always much the same. At long last, on January 1,1438, Eugene IV gave up the
practice of struggling for time by diplomacy and discussion, and ordered a fresh start
This marked the final break. The bishops who embraced the Conciliar Theory refused
to yield; they continued in open schism until 1449, electing once again an antipope.
This time, however, they were clearly a minority. The position of Pope Eugene was
stronger, and the Council he called at Ferrara was well attended: we speak of it today
as the Council of Florence. Its main concern was to be an attempt at reunion with the
Greek schismatics. During the calmer years at Basel, the first steps were taken to contact
the Greeks in the hope of bringing them back to the Church. The discussions with the
Greeks actually took place at Ferrara and Florence.
Strangely, the world was now faced with the spectacle of not only two popes again, but
of two contending Councils. But this time there was to be no repetition of the Great
Western Schism. What was done at Basel had no lasting effect. Basel was never
recognized as a General Council, although in later disputes with the Roman Pontiff the
heretical decrees of both Constance and Basel were cited as definitions of the Church;
this was especially true in the so-called Gallican Liberties affirmed in the seventeenth
century by a large body of French clergy.
As had happened often in the past, out of much confusion the Holy Spirit managed to
set forth clearly and firmly the unchanging truth. Not only was the immediate problem
solved, but the doctrine concerning the papacy was greatly clarified. Today, the role of
the vicar of Christ is perceived more clearly because of the unruly disputes carried on
during this period of the Church's life.
CHAPTER XIII . . . II LYONS-FLORENCE
EVER since the eleventh century, the problem of reunion with the East has been a
special concern of the Church. The Council of Florence in the fifteenth century stands as
a testimony to this concern. Before going on with a discussion of this gathering,
however, we ought to turn back the wheels of time for a momentary consideration of a
similar attempt in the thirteenth century-II Lyons. Both of these Councils failed to
achieve the goal sought, but they did witness the desire of Rome for such reunion. In
addition, they resulted in our clearest doctrinal statements regarding the Holy Spirit as
the third Person of the Trinity.
After a vacancy of nearly three years following the death of Clement IV, Pope Gregory
X was finally elected in September of 1271. He was crowned at Rome in March of 1272,
and he immediately announced the convocation of a General Council. He later named
Lyons in France as the city where the Council would be held.
As with the Lateran Councils of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, II Lyons was to be
concerned with the need of reform within the Church. In calling it, Gregory was also
troubled about the loss of a large part of the Holy Land as well as with what this
implied-the continuing progress of Mohammedan belief. This non-Christian religion
was a constant threat to the Christian world during these ages, both politically and
religiously. If the Turks conquered the West, both the Christian faith and Western
civilization would be seriously challenged.
Gregory's special concern, however, was for reunion with the Greeks. As soon as he
called the Council, he notified Joseph, the patriarch of the Greeks, of his intention. At
the same time, he communicated with Michael VIII Paleologus, the Greek Emperor,
inviting him to attend either personally or through his legates (granted full power to
act in his name).
The Pope had chosen Lyons as the city for the Council because he himself had been a
canon of Lyons, and had also taken part in I Lyons; hence he knew its resources for
such a gathering. By way of preparation, he named five new cardinals who would play
important roles at the gathering. Among them was the then bishop of Lyons, Peter of
Tarentaise (later Pope Innocent V), and St. Bonaventure, the Superior-General of the
The Pope himself arrived in November of 1273 to preside, and soon afterward the other
members of the Council gathered. II Lyons is noteworthy for the personages who did
attend. In addition to Pope Gregory himself, three future popes were present and
another was active in the preparations; St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great were
both present, and eventually the representatives of the Greek Emperor also appeared.
St. Thomas Aquinas was to have attended, but he died on the way to the Council. In all,
about 500 bishops and cardinals attended together with more than 1000 other members
of the clergy. While the Pope actually presided, the dominant role was played by St.
Bonaventure and Peter of Tarentaise.
The Council opened officially on May 7, 1274, in the Cathedral Church of St. John. The
Pope spoke of the three-fold purpose of the Council: reunion with the Greeks, general
reform, and the problem of the Holy Land. Early in the proceedings word came that the
legates of the Greeks were to attend. The second and third sessions (May 18 and June 7)
were especially concerned with preparations for that meeting, but some disciplinary
decrees were also formulated at that time.
The Greek representatives finally arrived at Lyons on June 24; among them were the
patriarch of Constantinople himself and the metropolitan of Nicea. They met with the
Pope and presented letters from the Emperor and the Greek prelates, testifying their
willingness to accept the faith of Rome. On June 29, the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, the
Pope celebrated a solemn Mass in the cathedral, during which the Epistle, Gospel, and
were chanted both in Latin and in Greek. In the Credo, the Greeks repeated
three times, in their own language, the controversial phrase concerning the Holy Spirit:
"Who proceeds from the Father and the Son" ().
At the fourth session (July 6), there was a solemn profession of faith. George
Acropolita, the special representative of Michael Paleologus, recited it in the name of
the Emperor; the others did likewise, all accepting the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. A
solemn of thanksgiving was intoned by the Pope, sung both in Latin and in
Greek. The work of reunion was apparently achieved. The Council then turned its
attention to the remaining problems, above all the matter of papal elections. Gregory X
wished to be sure that no three-year vacancy would ever recur; his suggestions,
however, met with opposition. In the end, he won out, and it was decreed that the
conclave should begin ten days after the Pope's death. Those present should remain
until the Pope is elected, and to hurry them along, the regulation was added that if a
Pope were not chosen in three days, only one dish is to be served for the cardinals'
dinner and supper. If the election continued eight days, only bread, wine, and water
should be served until the election is completed.
As for the hopes of reunion, they were stillborn. The break resulted largely from
political considerations, and so also did the reunion; hence it could not be lasting. The
third canon of I Constantinople and the twenty-eighth of Chalcedon had set the spirit of
competition between Constantinople and Rome; Cerularius had brought the final
break. While there were many, even in the thirteenth century, who did not think of it as
a lasting break, nothing was done effectively to bridge the gap until Pope Gregory X.
Politically, there was the fear that union with Rome would mean the end of the Eastern
empire and the re-establishment of the Roman. Religiously, there were objections above
all because of the "" (". . . and the Son") which by now had become a major
concern. The unwillingness of the Eastern patriarch to be considered anything less than
an "equal" with the Roman Pontiff also entered into the picture.
Pope Urban IV and Pope Clement IV had both made some vague moves for reunion
immediately before Gregory; they had been careful to insist, however, that a future
Council would not be for debate, but for acceptance of the Roman faith. Despite this,
one doctrine was discussed at II Lyons. The First Canon proclaimed that the Holy Spirit
proceeded or came forth from the Father "as from one principle." There
were not two eternal sources of the life of the third Person; the life of the Trinity was
communicated to the Spirit by the Father and the Son as though from only one
principle or source.
This manner of expression satisfied the Greek representatives; moreover, this was an
important declaration of Catholic belief. Michael VIII Paleologus, however, had most
probably consented to the Council more because of political motives than religious
ones; he was fearful of Charles of Anjou, the king of Sicily, who threatened his power.
Union with Rome was the one sure way of tying the hands of Charles.
In addition, the people of the East were strongly opposed to union with Rome for
emotional reasons. When, after II Lyons, attempts were made to put the reunion into
practice, the populace split violently into two parties-some in favor, some against.
Above all, opposition arose among the monks, who were particularly influential with
the people. A good number finally reached the position where they would rather see
the kingdom perish than consent to destroy what they considered the purity of their
faith by the "heresy of Rome."
From the Roman side, the change in popes during the years immediately following II
Lyons hampered further success. As one writer comments, during these crucial years a
series of popes passed over the papal throne like meteors; there were five popes
between 1276 and 1285. This made it difficult to give stability to the plans.
As a result of this lack of success, relations cooled again between Rome and
Constantinople. Paleologus had realized that union with Rome would not be the
political help he had hoped for. Even though he continued diplomatic relations with
Rome, he began arranging a military offensive against the West. All of this finally
resulted in the excommunication of Paleologus by Pope Martin IV. The Emperor died
in 1282. Under his son, Andronicus, the anti-Roman reaction took over completely, and
the hopes of II Lyons were crushed entirely.
In the fifteenth century, a second fruitless attempt was made to secure union of the East
and the West. As we have already noted in Chapter XII, this union had its first start at
Basel, which resulted in a repetition of the worst days of Constance. The Council had its
real start, then, at Ferrara in 1438, and later moved to Florence and finally to Rome.
When the Council of Constance (1414-1418) had cleared up the papal schism and
elected Martin V, there was still much to be accomplished in the way of reform. In fact,
few popes had ever been elected with more perils at hand. The final acts of the Council
of Constance gave rise to perhaps the most grave problem of all-the challenge to the
primacy of the Roman Pontiff. As we have seen, this challenge did not die at Constance;
it was revived at Basel, and continued to trouble the popes for many years.
When Eugene IV finally broke completely with the Council of Basel, he did so by a
decree issued in January, 1438, transferring the Council to Ferrara, in Italy. Many
bishops followed this decree; they set out for Ferrara, leaving behind a clearly
schismatical group that continued its strivings for eleven more years.
The Council of Florence was in reality, a fresh start. It is divided into three periods:
Ferrara (January 8, 1438 - January 10, 1439); Florence (February 26, 1439 - April 26,
1442); Rome (April 26, 1443 - August 7, 1445). Florence was a city more acceptable to
the Greeks to begin with, and they were now on the way; they had at least insisted on
some place in Italy for the meeting, so Ferrara would also have been acceptable.
As at II Lyons, unfortunately, we are faced here with conflicting motives. There was in
the Western Church a sincere desire for religious union, shared by many in the East.
The emperor, John VIII Paleologus, however, could feel the breath of the Turks on his
neck, and, as at II Lyons, we can perceive politics and military security as the chief
motive of the Emperor in agreeing to reunion with Rome. Many of the Greek bishops
also failed to share this enthusiasm for reunion, but they went along with it. Some, in
fact, had to-the Emperor eventually forbade them to speak against it any further.
The Roman Pontiff had arranged for the travel of the Greek delegates to Italy. They
landed at Venice on February 8, 1438; they reached Ferrara in early March. While
waiting for them to arrive, the Western bishops had opened the Council as planned on
January 8, 1438. There had been a number of preliminary sessions, suspending the
schismatic group at Basel and making plans for the discussions with the Greeks.
Once they had landed in Venice, however, the division between the Greeks (as well as
their extreme sensitiveness) became quite apparent. Even before they arrived, they
seemed to have chosen their sides, for or against union. They also fell into minor
disputes concerning the manner in which they ought to greet the Pope, the proper
order of precedence among the bishops, and the ever recurring problem at this Council:
the question of the financial reimbursement they were to receive.
They arrived at Ferrara in full splendor; the details of precedence were all solved
somehow, but not without a great deal of fuss concerning the position of the various
thrones and their respective heights. At last, on April 9, a truly fantastic picture was
unveiled in the Church of St. George. The Latins gathered on the Gospel side, and the
Greeks on the Epistle side. The Emperor was present, as well as his son, Demetrius
(who happened to be against the idea of union). The Pope was there also, as well as
Joseph II, the patriarch of Constantinople-a sick, old man who favored the union, and
who had made this long journey for that reason, knowing full well that he would
probably never return home.
Among the Latins the dominant figure was Cardinal Cesarini. For the Greeks, there
was Bessarion, the archbishop of Nicea ( who favored union from sincere motives ),
and Mark of Ephesus (violently opposed to it).
Never had the Western world seen such a magnificent gathering of personages as this.
But then things came to a temporary halt. The Emperor was particularly upset because
none of the Western princes had shown up; he could hardly satisfy his political and
military plans if no one but disputing priests showed up. For this reason, nothing
important was done for the next six months-until October 8, when the temporal princes
arrived. The Emperor went hunting; the cardinals and bishops had dinners; and the
financial resources for supporting them all ran lower and lower. Eventually a
commission of theologians, half Latin and half Greek, was appointed to discuss the
main problems: the Procession of the Holy Spirit, the use of unleavened bread,
Purgatory, and the primacy of the Pope.
At long last, the first important session got under way on October 8, 1438, in the Pope's
chapel; about 200 bishops took part in the proceedings of the Council. In all, sixteen
sessions took place at Ferrara from that date until January 10, 1439. The situation was
somewhat different from that adopted at II Lyons, for in this instance, the theological
questions were debated openly, particularly that concerning the "."
While Photius and Cerularius had mentioned this question, it did not have the import
with them that it later assumed; it was now very central. The II Council of Lyons had,
of course, solved one principal objection: it defined that the Western Church held the
Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son as "from one principle," and not
from two distinct sources. This was a real concern for some of the sincere theologians of
the East. Antiquity noted two phrases that had been used to explain this doctrine. Once
Arianism had been conquered, all agreed that the Son proceeded from the Father; the
attention now centered upon the eternal relationship of the Holy Spirit to these Two.
One phrase-used by some Latin writers, but favored in the -stated that the Spirit
proceeded "from the Father through the Son" ( ) . The other-used
by some Greek writers, but favored in the West-stated that the Spirit proceeded from
the Father "and the Son" (-"que>" being the word for "and," attached to the
end of the word for "Son"). Through the efforts of Bessarion and George Scholarios, a
learned layman, the Greeks at Florence were convinced that the two phrases meant the
same thing. A statement of this fact was incorporated into the final decree.
The argument continued, however, on a more technical point. The Council of Ephesus
had decreed that no one could add anything to the Nicene Creed. Thus the Greeks
insisted that the Church of Rome could not add the "' and the Latins insisted
that it could do so. In the background, of course, was the question of papal authority in
This particular point had been debated ever since the contact with Alcuin and other
Western theologians who attended II Nicea as representatives of Charlemagne (787).
The phrase was certainly added to the Creed, perhaps first of all in Spain; the practice
then spread. The Greeks were fond of citing Pope Leo III who, at the beginning of the
ninth century, refused to admit the phrase into the Creed as recited at Rome. His reason
was actually the , rather than the teaching, although he was now quoted as
also being against the doctrine expressed by the phrase.
With time, these problems were solved, but not at Ferrara. The plague had come to
Ferrara, and this suggested a move. In addition, the Pope was no longer able to pay for
the food, lodging, and wages associated with the Council. Robbers had continually
interfered with delivery of funds from Rome. The people of Florence, however, agreed
to undertake the support of the Council; and the Greeks, at first somewhat unwilling,
agreed when it was stated that their back wages would be forthcoming in Florence.
At Florence, the Emperor apparently got tired of the priestly debates, and was sorry
that no other princes came; his main desire now was to conclude a union and leave.
Since this demanded unity among the Greek theologians, the Emperor stepped in and
silenced those against union (who were already decreasing in number). This did not
exactly rush matters, but along with a new system of commissions that met separately
rather than in a full session, a final formula of union was worked out. On June 8, 1439,
the Greeks finally accepted the points on the Procession of the Holy Spirit, and between
then and July 5, the other questions were discussed and acceptable formulas devised.
The ailing patriarch, Joseph II, died on June 10. Some of the other Greek bishops (as
well as the learned layman, Scholarios) purposely left the Council about the same time,
before the solemn signing of the decree. One bishop stayed, steadfastly refusing to sign:
Mark of Ephesus. This manner of avoiding the question of signing the decree is quite
significant in view of what happened after the Council had ended.
When the time for the official signing arrived, the Greeks gathered with the Emperor to
place their signatures on the final formula; this occurred on July 5, 1439. In all, thirty-
three Greek representatives signed. At the same time, the Latins met with the Pope at
the Church of St. Maria Novella, where one hundred and seventeen more signed. The
next day, the Pope celebrated a solemn Mass in the Cathedral at Florence, where the
final decree was read aloud.
Soon after, the Emperor and the other Greek delegates were on their way home. Certain
matters were left unsolved-especially the election of a new patriarch, and the problem
of what to do when one city had two bishops, a Latin and a Greek. (This was eventually
solved according to which bishop died first; the diocese then reverted to the other rite.)
The Council of Florence continued after the Greeks left, but we know little about it. The
schism at Basel had to be discussed, and new requests came from other Oriental
bishops seeking union. The Armenians were on their way when the first decree was
being formulated; they arrived as the Greeks were leaving. A formula of agreement
was drawn up for them, although in practice nothing ever came of it; the situation had
changed radically when their delegates returned home. In 1442, a similar decree was
issued for the Jacobites, sent by the King of Ethiopia; again it was not of lasting value.
As with II Lyons, the Council of Florence failed to achieve a lasting union. The mixed
motives involved in achieving a formula of union could not be overcome. Of the
Eastern rites now in union with Rome (the so-called ), all but one group
returned, at various times and in smaller numbers, after the sixteenth century. Only the
Maronites lay claim to having always remained Catholic.
In 1443, Pope Eugene IV left Florence to move the Council a third time, now to the
Lateran Basilica at Rome. There was the danger of the antipope, Felix V, elected at
Basel, as well as the desire expressed by some to transfer the Council to the North
again. It appeared safer to continue the Council in Rome to avoid any such moves; the
transfer had the added advantage of putting the Pope closer to the source of funds for
such a gathering. The Council remained in Rome from 1443 until 1445, the date usually
set for its end. It accomplished nothing important that we know of. We are not even
sure just how or when it ended. The fifteenth-century historian lost most of his interest
when the Greeks departed for Constantinople. Apparently reunion with some other
Oriental groups was effected, but this was done most probably by way of imitation,
and out of fear of the Turks, with no lasting effect.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the work accomplished at Florence was rapidly coming
to naught. The Emperor attempted to adhere to the agreement with the Pope, as did his
successor; but the people were opposed. In fact, thirteen years later the emperors had
not yet dared to publish the decrees signed in Florence; and all the while those opposed
to union were violently attacking the notion. This included Scholarios, who had
apparently undergone a change of heart; he had been in favor of union at first, but not
at the close of the discussions. He had now become a monk and a most violent anti-
unionist. The entire mentality of the period was summed up in the phrase: "Better the
turban of the Prophet than the tiara of the Pope."
The next pope, Nicholas V (1447-1455), insisted that the Emperor publish the decrees,
which he did. Nicholas also sent him what help he could. But it was already too late.
Constantinople was doomed to fall. It fell to the Mohammedans on May 29, 1453, thus
spelling the end of all hopes of lasting union.
Strangely, Mohammed II, who took over the rule, did not crush out the religion, as one
might fear. Instead he chose to give the Greek nation a sort of autonomous organization
under the direction of its religious leader. For this task, the clergy elected none other
than Gennadius the Monk-the religious name of Scholarios. Thus the scene ended.
Gennadius ruled only a few years, returning to his monastery in 1456, but the pattern
was established and has continued until today.
While the Council of Florence, like II Lyons, failed to bring about a lasting union, it is
remarkably indicative of the action of the Holy Spirit in a Council. Out of such a
conglomeration of elements and cross motives, two particularly important results can
be detected. One, the Church received its most clear and explicit statement concerning
the doctrine on the Holy Spirit, a formula worked out in the discussions between the
Eastern and Western theologians. Moreover, the authority of the Roman Pontiff that
had been so challenged after the Council of Constance, now emerged more firmly
established in doctrinal matters than ever before.
Unfortunately, the needed work of reform was never accomplished; it should have
been attended to long before. All of these other concerns sidetracked this particular
problem, however, but with tragic results. Very shortly the Protestant Revolt would
break forth in full fury, to be met finally by the much needed Council of Reform-Trent.
CHAPTER XIV . . . V LATERAN-TRENT
ON THE eve of All Saints' Day, 1517, Martin Luther posted on the door of the Castle
Church at Wittenberg a printed card stating a number of questions that he would
debate in public. Ever since, this has been considered the official beginning of the
Protestant Revolt. The movement, however, did not arise that quickly; it was a long
time coming, centuries long. The nailing of Luther's 95 theses on the door of the Castle
Church is more a symbol of the movement than the actual start of it.
As men now look back on that troubled period of history, they can perceive over the
span of years various causes which contributed to the entire effect. Catholics and non-
Catholics alike will agree today on the over-all situation. One cause was certainly the
corruption in the Church, the corruption above all of the bishops and the popes. It is a
striking fact to realize that the Church could survive such a period in its history, a
period in which it was so often governed by men who had little interest in the lofty
spiritual aims of religion. When popes and bishops become enmeshed in concerns for
temporal goods, in the pleasures of sex, in the political schemes of kings, the entire
Church suffers. The priests, as a result, were not well trained nor particularly pious;
monasteries had fallen from their ideals; and the laity were so neglected that they
scarcely ever heard a sermon.
Nevertheless, throughout that period, great saints did arise and attempt to ward off the
approaching crisis, and God did show that He was able to preserve His Church even
under such conditions. Christ had foretold that the gates of hell would not prevail
against His Church. Human weakness would not prevail either. The difficulty was that
while some good was being accomplished, it was never enough. All the plans for
reform drawn up at the Lateran Councils and afterward never achieved the full-
sweeping reform demanded.
Just before Luther came on the scene the last such effort at reformation within the
Church took place: the V Lateran Council (1512-1517). It is generally looked upon as a
rather "weak" Council, not because of the positive steps it did take, but because of our
overwhelming realization today of how insignificant those steps were.
Possibly those who took part in the proceedings failed to perceive the change in the air.
A new world was in the making, but, in a way, the V Lateran seems to live out its days
with an eye only to the past. The fifteenth century had been a great turning point in
history. The Fall of Constantinople (1453) had brought with it a great influx of Greek
scholars in the West; their influence inspired a new interest in the ancient culture of the
Greeks and Romans-the Renaissance. This Humanism reached its golden age at the
time of Pope Leo X. At this precise moment Luther entered the scene. The so-called
"Renaissance Popes" were often the sponsors of the artistic and cultural works of
Humanism, but this distracted them from their primary religious concerns.
At times, V Lateran gives one the Impression of being an ecclesiastical literary society.
Beautiful sermons were preached, excessive in their praise of the Renaissance popes.
What was accomplished in regard to reform, however, was more or less an
unsuccessful repetition of the other Lateran Councils of the twelfth century.
The immediate occasion for the Council was another schismatic movement, one
associated with the so-called 'Council of Pisa." This city had been an important name in
the history of the Great Western Schism, and this might have been a similar threat.
While the reformation movement was gradually forming itself, the Renaissance popes
were once again engaged in the endless quarrels with Christian princes; this had
marked the entire Middle Ages. This time Louis XII of France became irritated by the
line of action followed by Pope Julius II and he summoned a "council" at Pisa in 1511.
Fourteen or so bishops and four discontented cardinals attended. The meeting, a
repetition of Constance and Basel, declared that the General Council was superior to
the pope. It seems that Julius II had already thought of holding a General Council of his
own; the act of the French King spurred him on. He convoked a Council to be held at
Rome the following year. It was necessary to meet the action of the King and these
bishops with a clear-cut response.
The Council at Pisa had actually never amounted to much; its threat to Rome was soon
extinguished. The V Lateran Council opened on May 10, 1512, but was hindered from
the start by wars, by the interference of kings, and by a general lack of interest in the
Council to begin with. There were never more than one hundred or one hundred and
fifty bishops who answered the summons, and these were mostly Italians. The sessions
were separated at times by months. The first two were held in May, the third and
fourth in December of 1512. When the next session was held in February of 1513, Julius
II was dying, and the Council had to wait to be reconvened by the next pope, Leo X.
Leo did this in April of that year, and a number of other sessions were held: April,
June, and December, 1513; May, 1514; May, 1515; December, 1516; and lastly March of
What the Council did accomplish was the rooting out of the schism at Pisa. The most
important discussions concerned the "Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges." In 1438 the King
of France had issued this edict, affirming that a General Council was superior to the
Pope, and denying the Roman Pontiff the right to nominate bishops in France. A later
king had abolished this decree in 1461, but Louis XII had attempted to reintroduce it.
The V Lateran Council clearly rejected the teaching contained in this edict; it thus
contributed another strong statement concerning the primacy of Peter in the Church. In
addition, a number of decrees were issued concerning certain philosophical errors,
papal charities, and another crusade against the Turks. This last caused real concern
outside of Rome; it was no longer the Middle Ages, and such an appeal met with no
enthusiasm at all. The turn of events was to relegate such a venture to oblivion.
The V Lateran had closed in March of 1517. In October of that year, Luther launched his
attack. As with many others, Luther shared in the spirit of the age that produced the
Revolt. He too was concerned about the needed reform in the Church and upset by the
laxity within it. At the start, he had not intended to leave the Church. But it became
increasingly clear that the positions he adopted meant only one thing: a break with
From the start, the close relationship between Luther's position and that of Wyclif and
Hus was clearly recognized; Luther and John Eck had debated that very point in their
discussions at Leipzig in July, 1519. It was inevitable, since the very same causes had
been operating to form the mind of Hus that produced Luther and the other reformers.
The general laxity of the Church was certainly one of the contributing causes. Luther
finally chose as a solution the denial of the priestly office entirely. From this flowed his
errors in regard to the nature of the Church and the sacraments. Another contributing
cause was the strong emphasis on mysticism-the direct and personal approach to God.
The individualism which so marks Protestantism reflects an exaggeration of the mystic
spirit. The visible Church is considered as no longer necessary; it is even an obstacle,
hindering the soul from its direct contact with God. This approach, accompanied with
the recognition of general moral laxity, can easily lead to a full rejection of the Church.
There is a third cause recognizable in this movement: the decline of philosophy. The
great speculative minds of the thirteenth century were now gone, and second-rate
minds had taken their place; the result was a decadent Scholasticism. The general
philosophy of the sixteenth century was what we now term "Nominalism." It was
concerned more with words or names than with reality, hence the term-it comes from
the Latin , "name." Philosophers had now become tied to the words
themselves, rather than what they stood for. They juggled them back and forth in
various statements; they played a game with words, as it were. This too prepared the
way for the Revolt. Luther is described as a fervent disciple of Ockam-a leader of the
Nominalists. It was this above all that enabled Luther to formulate his teaching that a
man can be sinner and saint at one and the same time. His faulty philosophy also had
much to do with the position he adopted in regard to the presence of Christ in the
On the other hand, the decay of philosophy had introduced another note into the
picture. Things had now become very much codified; philosophy had taken on a
legalistic spirit. This state of affairs helped kill philosophy and tired men's souls. When
the interest of the Humanists presented a new concern for Scripture, and when the
invention of the printing press made more Bibles available, men gladly turned to the
simplicity of Scripture. It was so little codified that it pleased them. Translations of the
Bible were made in most of the modern languages, which by this time had reached a
fair amount of stability. Long before Luther appeared, there were German Bibles in
print. This was all the spirit of the times.
Over in Switzerland a similar movement was under way. Two months after Luther was
born in 1483, Ulrich Zwingli was born in Switzerland. He studied at Vienna and at
Basel; in 1506 he became a priest. Zwingli was also influenced by Humanism, and he
developed an interest in Scripture above all. About 1522 he came into prominence as a
reformer, but he was not following the steps of Luther in this. He had shared the same
spirit but came to his own conclusions. As a result, from the very start, the Revolt was
divided into two parties; this division remains in Protestantism to this day, multiplied
many times over. When, at a later date, Luther and Zwingli did come together to
attempt some agreement, nothing was solved. They were divided especially on the
question of the Real Presence, and they remained divided. Zwingli was also greatly
opposed to images in church; Luther did not share this position.
The great name of the Swiss Reformation, however, was not to appear on the scene for
another decade: John Calvin. He was born a Catholic in 1509, but set aside the faith of
his youth about 1534. The Protestantism that he embraced, however, was more that of
Zwingli than of Luther, to which he added his own special approach.
Lutheranism and Calvinism were thus the big problems of the sixteenth century.
Luther emphasized that one is saved by faith alone, but to him this meant something
more like "trust." Calvin stressed the free choice of God in salvation, so that only the
belong to the Church (those, that is, whom God had chosen for heaven).
In Calvin's system this meant that all others were predestined for hell in the same
fashion. In both movements, however, there was an acceptance of Scripture as the sole
rule of faith; nothing else was needed. They held the conviction that Scripture was so
clear that anyone who read it would immediately grasp the message. The obvious fact
that they disagreed among themselves on certain passages failed to weaken this
conviction; nor did they perceive any difficulty because of their mutual rejection of the
scriptural interpretation of the Anabaptists (the forefathers of present-day Baptists),
who rejected infant baptism.
To this was added also the defection of the Church in England under Henry VIII in
1534. Henry was not a part either of the Protestant movement or the emphasis on
Scripture alone; he rejected papal supremacy because of his quarrel with the Pope over
his marriages. Later on, others in England would introduce more of a Protestant
element into Anglicanism, although even to this day it has not been identified entirely
with the Protestant approach developed by Luther and Calvin. Scotland did adopt a
Protestant faith in the Presbyterianism introduced especially by John Knox; this was
derived directly from Calvinism at a time when Knox was living in Geneva.
Presbyterianism, however, appeared about 1560.
This was the world that the popes of the sixteenth century faced, and it was an
overwhelming problem. The whole Christian world seemed torn asunder, and entire
sections of various countries had rejected the faith of Rome. The need for a reform
within the Church, now far more apparent than ever before, could no longer be side-
stepped. A reform from top to bottom was needed if anything were to be saved. The
Council of Trent was to accomplish this task.
Trent, however, was not concerned solely with disciplinary questions. Doctrinally it
ranks with the great Councils of the first centuries. It added decrees on the nature of
faith and justification that served to emphasize and clarify the primacy of grace that
had been taught in the disputes with the Pelagians in the fifth century. The Council had
set forth in precise terms the Catholic teaching on these matters as a response to the
doctrine of Luther on faith, and of Calvin on predestination. Closely linked to these was
the teaching of Trent on the theological explanation of original sin. The decrees on the
sacraments, above all those on the Eucharist and on the Sacrifice of the Mass, have been
directives for the theological progress of the past 400 years.
In discussing the history of Trent, we are faced with a mass of detail; it would take
volumes to treat all that this Council accomplished. The Council lasted, on and off, for
eighteen years: from 1545 to 1563. There were some lengthy interruptions, however.
Leo X had been pope when Luther began his public preaching in 1517; he did condemn
certain of Luther's teaching's in 1520, but this did not stop the movement. Adrian VI
succeeded him in 1522, but he did not live long enough to do much. The first desire for
the Council was expressed by Pope Clement VII, but he died in 1534 before anything
was done. He reigned during eleven crucial years, but he was not the man to deal with
the situation. He was possibly afraid of calling a Council; he was also by nature a man
not given to making decisions. On the other hand, while he saw the need of a Council,
the political situation may have been too great an obstacle. Clement is not entirely to
blame for the delay.
Under Pope Paul III (1534-1549) the decisive steps were finally taken. Paul III surely
ranks among the great popes of history. From the start of his reign he envisioned a
General Council. He began with a reform of affairs at Rome, particularly in the Roman
Curia (the papal court). From the members of the Curia considerable opposition was to
arise. Even in times of crisis, when the entire world seems poised for collapse, there are
always those selfish souls who think only of themselves and their own interests. This
era was no exception.
In addition, the Christian emperors were to raise their usual difficulties; they continued
to do so throughout the entire Council. Paul III finally did convoke a Council to be held
at Mantua in 1537, but nothing came of it. There was still an interest in having the
Lutherans attend, but they refused. At this time, of course, the lines between Catholic
and Lutheran were still quite vague. Cities joined the Revolt only gradually, and
sometimes almost imperceptibly. Thus one of the chief purposes of the Council was to
seek reunion-a goal never achieved.
This stillborn Council was prorogued until the next year- that is, the Council was
discontinued without being dissolved. The next attempt was to be held at Vicenza in
1538, but again nothing came of it. The Pope could not hold a Council if, after
convoking it, no one showed up; but this is what was happening. The King of France
kept his bishops from attending; the Duke of Mantua, where the first attempt was
made, showed no real interest; and the German bishops were too harassed at home to
leave. The French now also objected to Vicenza as a site for the Council. For much of
this time, only the Pope seemed really interested in a Council at all.
In 1539, further attempts were made to reconcile the Emperor Charles V and the king of
France, Francis I; they had continued warring, and were thus obstacles to the proposed
Council. Attempts were also made to contact the Lutherans, but the many discussions
proved fruitless. All of these negotiations went on and on, while from time to time
equally fruitless attempts were made to convoke a Council. Not until the Peace of
Crespy, in 1544, put an end to the war did the plans for a Council begin to take shape.
In November of that year, Paul III issued a decree calling for a Council to be held at
Trent (in northern Italy).
The Council finally opened officially on December 13, 1545. It had been hoped that the
meetings would start in spring of that year, but it took all these months until a
sufficient number of bishops were present. Even then the number was surprisingly
small-about 30 bishops in all. The largest number at Trent was 199, the number who,
along with other representatives, signed the final decrees 18 years later.
The history of this Council can be studied far better than many of the earlier Councils,
thanks especially to the untiring efforts of Angelo Massarelli, secretary throughout the
entire period. He is a delight to the historian because of his thoroughness, including at
times such small details as a list of the food served at the banquets. The Acts of the
Council also give a close account of the discussions and the voting; further insights are
gained by the day-to-day diaries kept by Massarelli and others. In addition, the
correspondence of some of the bishops has also been preserved.
The Council must really be divided into three periods: (1) under Paul III (1545-1549);
(2) under Julius III (1551-1552); (3) under Pius IV (1562-1563). Because of the extreme
length of the Council, the names that figure prominently change from time to time.
Outwardly, the sessions were far more calm and orderly than some of the earlier
Councils. Massarelli recounts a few small incidents, but nothing too upsetting. The best
known is perhaps the reaction of one bishop to a rather critical remark he had
overheard concerning his supposed ignorance in theological matters. The insulted
bishop turned to his accuser and took hold of his beard with both hands giving it a
good tug and extracting a few hairs in the process. The papal legates descended on
them and put them both out for the time. But considering the upheavals of others days,
this hardly merits mention.
In the first period, three papal legates presided: Cardinal Cervini, Cardinal del Monte,
and Cardinal Pole; actually the first two dominated the proceedings. A manner of
procedure was established by which the bishops (known as the major theologians)
would gather together in groups under each one of the three legates. They would then
discuss the decrees that had been suggested, and the results of these separate
discussions would be reported in a united session later.
If a special problem arose, a vote would be taken. If further discussion was desired, the
bishops could refer the matter to the so-called minor theologians (men trained in
theology, but not bishops and not able to vote). The bishops could attend these
discussions of the minor theologians, and thus gain further insights into the matters
treated. When the decrees were finally formulated, a would be held,
at which they would be formally accepted.
The first period included four solemn sessions in which decrees on doctrine and
discipline were issued. The fourth session concerned Scripture and the apostolic
traditions; the fifth, original sin; the sixth, the problem of justification; and the seventh,
questions about the sacraments, Baptism and Confirmation especially.
Discussions had begun concerning the Eucharist, but other difficulties arose. For one
thing, the Council was transferred from Trent to Bologna in March, 1547. Trent was far
from a comfortable city in those days, and it was hoped that Bologna would be a more
healthful and comfortable location. This move later became the occasion of disputes,
rising from those few members who had not been in favor of the change; the emperor,
Charles V, was strongly opposed to it. Wars and intrigue complicated the situation once
more. Charles even hinted open opposition to the papal Council, with the ever present
fear of schism. Because of these various difficulties, Paul III had decided to suspend the
Council temporarily; his death, in November of 1549, closed this period of the Council.
After Pope Paul died, the Council continued in session long enough to elect the next
pontiff; they chose Cardinal del Monte, the papal legate, who took the name Julius III.
The new Pope soon indicated his intention of continuing the Council, but he too ran
into difficulties. The next period did not get under way until 1551. The question had to
be debated as to whether or not the Council would continue at Trent, and whether it
would be a continuation of the Council of Paul III or a completely new one. Beneath
this debate was the old theme of Conciliarism; the Emperor had challenged the right of
the Pope to transfer a Council. Even in the face of the Protestant upheaval, the Church
had to fight this error among its more faithful members.
Julius III won out, and the Council reconvened as a continuation of the first one.
Cardinal Cervini was now rather ill; he could not continue as papal legate. This role
was assumed by Cardinal Crescenzi, who was designated as the only president; two
others were appointed as what amounted to assistant legates. On May 1, 1551, the first
session of this new period-the eleventh session of Trent-was held. This time a number
of German bishops also appeared, but the total number still remained small.
In this second period, short as it was, there were further discussions on the Eucharist
and the sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction; decrees were issued concerning
them at the thirteenth and fourteenth sessions in October and November of that year.
There was still some hope that the Protestants would attend the gathering; a number of
representatives did actually arrive to attempt to make plans in January of 1552. By this
time, however, not much was to be expected from such discussions; bitterness was
strong on all sides. In addition, wars broke out again. The Emperor Charles had to flee
to Innsbruck for safety, and because of this generally upset state of affairs the Council
came to another end in April of 1552. Ten more years elapsed before it could be
Julius III died in March of 1555, without being able to continue the Council. Cervini
was elected Pope (Marcellus II), but reigned only from April 10 to May 1 when he died.
Paul IV (1555-1559) then ascended the throne of Peter. This new Pontiff had no interest
in a General Council; he had determined to reform things himself. His excessive
measures, however, proved at least one thing: that a Council was needed to complete
the work begun.
When Pius IV became pope in 1559, therefore, he began working slowly and patiently
for the reopening of the Council. By April of 1561, the new papal legates were able to
enter Trent. This time Cardinal Gonzaga served as the first president; Hosius,
Seripando, and Simonetta were auxiliary legates. Although the Council was to have
opened in April of 1561, there were not enough bishops present for many more months.
Not until January 18, 1562, did the third period of the Council actually get under way.
It was to prove the most difficult time of all, mostly because of the old problem of the
Conciliar Theory. The discussions on the Mass and Holy Orders had been postponed
time and again; now, as the work neared completion, these questions had to be faced.
In doing this, the matter of the relationship of bishops to the Pope could not be avoided
in the discussions on Holy Orders, which led to further difficulties. The complicated
maneuvers of this period, however, cannot even be summarized here.
By the summer of 1562 the Pope was seriously considering dissolving the Council. By
means of outstanding diplomacy, however, Pius IV placated all concerned, and in
September it looked as though the Council would now hurry on to a peaceful end. Such
was not to be the case. The debates were renewed, and it became apparent that it was
too dangerous to let things go on in such a troubled state. The Pope now sent on
directions that the legates should drop all points on which no agreement could be
reached, and have the bishops vote on those points which caused no trouble.
This did not hurry along the debates, however. Finally, in March of 1563, a change took
place when a number of the leading figures died, including Cardinal Gonzaga, the
papal legate. To replace him there came the hero of the entire session, Cardinal
Morone-a man providentially prepared for this moment. Morone was the soul of
diplomacy, and with the help of a few others, he was able to bring the Council to a
peaceful conclusion, referring to the Pope all other matters over which they dared not
The twenty-second session had taken place in September of 1562; the twenty-third now
took place in July, 1563; the twenty-fourth came in November of the same year; and the
twenty-fifth and final session on December 3 and 4. Throughout all of this confusion,
the third period of the Council still managed to issue an amazing number of important
decrees: one concerning the Eucharist; another treating of the Sacrifice of the Mass; the
much-discussed question of the sacrament of Holy Orders was the topic of a separate
decree. The last two sessions issued teaching on marriage, purgatory, indulgences, and
the use of images.
As Cardinal Morone intoned the of thanksgiving after the final signing,
there was no question about the gratitude in the hearts of those present. In one of the
most troubled periods in the history of the Church, the Council of Trent had effected
the most far-reaching reforms, and this time they took effect. Pius IV solemnly
confirmed the decrees of the Council, and set about completing the remaining tasks: the
reform of the Missal and Breviary; the writing of a catechism based on the decrees of
Trent; the appointing of a commission to issue a more exact edition of the Latin Bible
(the Vulgate). This work was continued by his successor, Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572).
The Church had recovered from the crisis of the sixteenth century, but it was not able to
undo the evil wrought by the Revolt. The sad remembrances are still with us today. The
Western world sees the continued separation of those who rejected the Church 400
years ago. History looks back on the united Christendom that once was, and the
Church of Rome looks to those separated from her with the sincere desire of reunion.
As Pius XII explained, the Church waits for them with open arms to come "not to a
stranger's house, but to their own, their father's home."
CHAPTER XV . . . VATICAN COUNCIL
WHEN the Council of Trent had completed its work in 1563, the world was fast
becoming a new place in which to live. Within less than forty years, the new era would
clearly overtake the human race. Today we speak of this as the Baroque Period
(roughly from 1600 to 1750). A new spirit grew out of the Renaissance-a spirit of unrest,
of progress, of grandiose ideals. It was the period of Louis XIV, of Newton and Galileo,
of Descartes and Spinoza-all men who were to leave their mark upon "modern"
civilization, for better or for worse.
In the life of the Church, this was a period of great reform -the Counter Reformation-
during which men attempted to regain the ground lost by the revolt of the Protestant
countries. It was the age of Bellarmine and Suarez, of Francis de Sales; it was the time
when Milton and Moliere came into prominence, the period of Rembrandt and Rubens,
of Monteverdi and then of Bach. But this was also the age of the religious wars, of
Gallicanism, and of widespread colonization.
Out of this conflict, however, there arose a second era which we now refer to as the
Classic Period (more or less from 1750 to 1820). This came more as a reaction to the
extremes of the post-Reformation period. It was a time of greater calm, when men
turned once again to the ideals of the ancient Greeks- to the objective viewpoint, the
emotional restraint, the clarity of form that they felt was expressed there. With this,
however, there also came a greater emphasis upon man's intellectual strength; reason
became king. Voltaire, Hume, and Kant reigned supreme; Mozart and Haydn
attempted to express this spirit in music. The national spirit began to evidence itself,
signified by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Declaration of
Independence, and the American Revolution.
Even within the Church, this spirit of the "Enlightenment" became apparent. Reason
tended to be overemphasized, and antiquity was idealized far beyond what it
deserved. In 1794 a number of bishops, imbued with this spirit, gathered together at
Pistoia, in Italy. This illegal synod attempted to promulgate decrees that failed to give
due place to the visible Church, and which overemphasized the practices of antiquity; it
was condemned by Pope Pius VI.
Finally, in the past century, we can distinguish the spirit of Romanticism (1820-1900 ), a
further reaction to the cold intellectualism of the Classic Period. Men discovered once
again that man is a living creature with emotions, with a heart. became the
center of interest-the individual, the nation. The imagination took precedence over the
intellect. While Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi gave vent to this spirit
in music, Dickens, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Longfellow, and Poe expressed it in literature;
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Hegel introduced it to philosophy.
This was the Victorian Age but it was also destined to be the age of science. Perhaps the
most convenient peg for this period is the publication of Charles Darwin's in 1859. Science had continued its development, and many felt that Darwin
was the prophet of an entirely new era; some felt that this period marked a turning
point in history: the end of religion and the reign of the scientific. While nothing so
radical actually took place, these advances do exercise a tremendous influence on our
Throughout all of these centuries, the Church had witnessed no other General Council.
The decrees of Trent remained the law of the day, completed by the decrees of the
Roman pontiffs. This last age, however, was to bring forth the twentieth General
Council as an answer to the extreme rationalism and religious doubt that had been
developing ever since the Revolt, and which came to a head in the nineteenth century.
The days of Luther and Calvin, of course, were numbered; Protestantism came rather
soon to look upon them more as of a movement than as religious teachers,
in the accepted sense. The first Protestant creeds (such as the Augsburg Confession)
became the norm or rule of Protestant faith; this is referred to currently as "Protestant
Scholasticism." There was no longer an infallible teaching authority in a visible Church,
but the Protestant notion of an "infallible Bible" had also proved wanting. The
disagreements among Protestant groups were too apparent to be ignored. Thus these
various creeds became the norm for the interpretation of Scripture; they took the place
of the infallible Church rejected in the sixteenth century.
There were many revolts against this tendency, resulting in the formation of newer
Protestant sects who chose as their starting point a return to the Bible itself. After Kant
and the great emphasis upon reason in the Classic Period, however, the picture began
to change more radically. The Enlightenment had so exalted human reason that it felt
able to cast revelation aside; revealed truths were supposedly truths beyond the grasp
of human reason, and this was unacceptable. Kant entered into the dispute in an effort
to save faith and revelation, but his defense sowed the seed of further difficulties.
Kant accepted many of the conclusions of the men he opposed; he set out, therefore, to
make a fresh start. When he had finished, there was no room in his system for the
power of the human mind to know God by reason alone. In place of this, Kant had
introduced the notion of an approach to God from man himself. The inner
experience of man was the important element.
It only remained for Schleiermacher to adapt this teaching to religion, and this came
under the guise of a certain religious "feeling" or "affection." All religion was to be
based primarily on some sort of inner awareness of God and the supernatural. Thus it
was no longer the Church, nor the Bible, nor the Protestant Creeds that would
determine man's belief, but only this inner experience, man himself. When
Schleiermacher died in 1834, the stage was set for the errors of the nineteenth century
that would demand another General Council.
To this notion of inner experience outlined by Schleiermacher, there was added a new
approach to the Bible, known as biblical criticism. The Bible (no less than the teaching
of the Church) was now to appear as an expression of the inner feeling of the Christian
community. Thus the Bible had a gradual history, and upon occasion it even
contradicted itself, depending upon the different "experiences" of the various
communities. When this was combined with the main thought of the nineteenth
century-that of evolution-Protestantism was faced with a full theory of the "evolution of
doctrine" as a purely natural process. Christian faith was, in other words, nothing more
than the end product of this experience of the community; it was a changing thing, and
when the creeds no longer expressed properly the "present experience," the creeds
should be changed. It is this line of thought that leads modern Protestantism to deny
such basic truths as the virgin birth or even the divinity of Christ.
Ultimately this movement was to result in the nineteenth-century Liberalism of
Harnack, for example, and in present-day Modernism. It is difficult to distinguish
between these two. If we can at all, we might say that Liberalism began with the
Christian tradition and made an attempt to adjust it to the new and changing world.
Modernism, however, starts with the scientific method and investigates faith on that
basis, more or less permitting traditional beliefs to take care of themselves as best they
can. In neither instance, however, do we still retain a true Christian faith, a
supernatural revelation of divine truths.
The Vatican Council stands out as the Church's greatest answer to the beginnings of
this Liberal movement. About 1864, Pope Pius IX indicated his intention of summoning
a General Council, the first in 300 years. Shortly after that, he issued an encyclical
() and a "Syllabus of Errors," both condemning the teachings of the
modern rationalists and socialists. These, in turn, reflected earlier condemnations of the
teachings of individual men. Gregory XVI, for example, had condemned Hermes in
1835 for his unwarranted exaltation of human reason, and Beautain, later on, for
teaching that human reason could know about God only after revelation and faith.
In 1857, Pius IX himself had condemned the false rationalism of Gunther, and the errors
that resulted from it; and in 1862 he had condemned Frohschammer for similar
teachings. These were all signs of an unhealthy acceptance within the Church of the
errors developing in the Protestant thought of that day. They had to be stopped, and it
was the Pope's desire that the forthcoming Council complete this task.
More time was needed to prepare this Council, however. In 1865, the Pope sought the
views of a number of bishops concerning the advisability of a Council; the matter was
as yet kept secret. In 1867, however, Pius IX announced his intentions publicly, and a
congregation of cardinals began the work of preparing the decrees to be submitted to
To assist in this work, about 100 theologians from Rome and elsewhere in the world
were associated with the cardinals. Some subcommittees were formed to discuss
particular questions: doctrine; ecclesiastical and political matters; the missions and
church reunion; church discipline; ceremonial; and religious orders. In this, the Vatican
Council differed somewhat from Trent. At Trent the so-called minor theologians
worked at the same time that the bishops held their discussions; it was hoped the work
of the theologians would be finished, as far as possible, before the Council itself began.
In June of 1868, the Pope issued a solemn decree, convoking the Council and declaring
that it should open on December 8, 1869. At this point, there was no special mention of
the definition of papal infallibility. Nevertheless, the question was being debated at
that time, and, long before the Council officially opened, the periodicals of the world
were alive with discussion. The central question was whether such a definition would
make the position of the Church more secure in the modern world, or prove a threat to
Those who the definition were much concerned with the rise of Nationalism
in those days, the ever recurring wars. There was a possibility that the Pope might be
taken captive and exiled. They felt, therefore, that this definition would spell out more
clearly the full authority the Pope would possess regardless.
Others, however, had fears that this was not the thing to do. The world
was so upset that this seemed to be an unwise move, inviting further disputes with the
rationalists of the age. There were also some who apparently did not believe in papal
infallibility-those who later left the Catholic Church when the doctrine was defined by
the Council. The entire world, however, had witnessed the exercise of this papal in
fallibility in 1854, when Pius IX had solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate
Conception; some 576 bishops had responded to the inquiry of the Pope before he took
this step. What was being debated now was mostly a question of the expediency of the
solemn definition of this papal infallibility.
The preconciliar discussion resulted from the "speculation" of the various newspapers
concerning what would be treated at the Council. The result was a heated debate on the
matter of defining this dogma. The foremost leader of those who considered the
definition as not expedient at that time was Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans in France;
Archbishop Deschamps and Cardinal Manning were strong supporters of the
In Germany, however, a professor of history at the University of Munich, Ignaz
Dollinger, was strongly opposed to the definition. He based his position on reason and
history, and in doing so he lost sight of the infallible teaching authority of the Church.
When the dogma was finally defined, Dollinger refused to accept the doctrine, and was
eventually excommunicated. In 1871, he gathered about him a number of similar-
minded men who spoke out against the "impudence and ignorance of Rome"; some of
them set about forming a religious group of their own. They proposed to follow
nothing but Scripture and tradition, and for them "tradition" meant history.
While these disputes continued, the work of the Commissions went on at Rome. The
Council opened, as planned, in December of 1869; more than 700 bishops attended in
all. They came from literally all over the world, so that considering the large number
and the areas the bishops represented, the Vatican Council was surely the most
outwardly "general" Council ever held. The meetings took place in the right transept of
St. Peter's Basilica.
Pius IX had established the procedure to be followed. The preparatory Commissions
were to issue the result of their labor -a so-called , which amounted to a
suggested form for the definitions. These were printed and distributed to all the
bishops. They had from eight to ten days to make in writing any observations they
desired; these were turned in to what were known as the "Deputations." There were
five of these, one which dealt with new topics to be suggested, and four others
concerned with questions of faith, of discipline, of religious orders, and of the missions
and Oriental rites. Actually, only the "Deputation of Faith" came into real prominence
in the sessions; the Council had to be terminated before the other projects could be
discussed. The preparatory work proved valuable, however, in later works of the
Church, especially in the codification of Church Law in 1918.
The "Deputation" would decide if a particular suggestion were necessary or pertinent;
the final decisions of the "Deputation" were ratified by the general assembly. It was in
the so-called "General Congregations" (the ordinary meetings of the bishops), that the
bishops discussed all matters. Every bishop was free to express his view; he had only to
ask for a time when he might talk. As a result, over 420 speeches were given; about one
fourth of them concerned infallibility.
These discussions labored under two handicaps. For one, the acoustics of St. Peter's left
much to be desired. This problem was solved somewhat by the printing of the
schemata and the suggested changes, but it was difficult to hear the speaker at times. In
addition, Latin was the language spoken, and it was soon realized that the Latin
pronunciation of the various nationalities was so varied that many could not
understand the other bishops at all.
What was said at these General Congregations (there were about 89 in all) resulted in
further changes in the decree being discussed. The suggested changes were distributed
to all, and then one of the members of the particular "Deputation concerned would
explain the reasons why the "Deputation" either chose to accept or to reject the
suggestion; after this a vote of the entire assembly would be taken on their decisions. It
was in this regard that Archbishop Gasser became a prominent figure in the Council
since he spoke most often for the "Deputation of Faith."
When all had agreed on the final form, a public session was held. All the faithful were
admitted to St. Peter's for these four public sessions: the opening session, and one for a
profession of faith; and two at which the two decrees of the Council were formally
promulgated-one in April and one in July of 1870.
Soon after the Council opened, the first draft of the decree on faith was distributed to
the bishops. This was a long document, very complicated in nature; it evoked a great
deal of discussion, lasting until January 10. It was then handed over once again to the
"Deputation of Faith" to be revised. Toward the end of February, a greatly shortened
version was ready; it included only the first part of the original version, four chapters
in all. These touched on God the Creator, on revelation, on faith, and on the
relationship between faith and reason. The discussion on this new version began on
March 14, 1870, and lasted until April 12; for the most part, it was a rather calm and
The final vote was taken on April 12, and on the 24th of that month the dogmatic
constitution was solemnly promulgated in the third public session of the
Council. The attention then turned officially to the question of papal infallibility.
Unofficially, it had already become the dominant theme. During the very first months
of the Council, suggestions had been sent to the "Deputations," asking that the matter of
papal infallibility be treated; the discussions of the previous years indicated the need of
this. Public discussion at the Council, however, was sidetracked until the decree on
Faith had been settled.
Nevertheless, in January of 1870, the bishops had been presented with a schema on the
Church. This was also a very lengthy document, treating of the nature of the Church, of
the Pope, and of Church-State relations. This schema was indiscreetly passed on to
certain periodicals, and this further complicated the matter; even the civil governments,
who had not taken part in the Council at all, now became somewhat concerned over
this proposed decree.
In the original schema, there was no mention of a definition of papal infallibility.
Because of the desires of many bishops within the Council, however, a new section
dealing with this question was added to the suggested schema. When the schema
reached the open discussion stage, only one section was actually proposed-that on the
Pope. The Council had broken up before the remainder of the decree on the nature of
the Church could be treated.
Within the Council, the same divisions appeared that had been apparent in the
periodicals. There were those bishops who thought that papal infallibility should be
defined, and those who thought it was inopportune. It is important to remember that,
at this time, papal infallibility was accepted throughout the Church. The heretical
teachings of Constance and Basel were now ignored. The French clergy had issued a
declaration in 1682-the Gallican Decree-which had failed to give due place to the
position of the Roman Pontiff; but by this time the decree had been set aside even in
France. The opposition was based for the most part on the "spirit of the times," claiming
that this made the definition ill-advised, and only invited further troubles. Actually,
when the definition was issued, these effects which had been so feared failed to
materialize generally; it was mostly an error in judgment in this regard.
The disputes continued within the Council both in private and in public; it was often a
heated debate, and eventually a tiresome one also. In January, 1870, some 135 bishops
indicated that they were opposed to placing the question of infallibility in the schema at
that time; 27 of the 40 Americans were included in this group. The majority ruled,
however. The discussions continued from January to April in private, and in the
general sessions from April until July. Some attempts had been made to have the issue
set aside while the Council was still debating the decree on Faith. But Pope Pius IX was
insistent by now that the matter be treated. The reaction of some outspoken individuals
outside the Council only confirmed the opinion of most of the bishops that the question
had to be settled at once.
By March of 1870 it was decided, with the approval of the Pope, that the question be
raised officially. On March 6 the bishops received an addition to the schema on the
Church which proposed the dogma of papal infallibility. On May 9 the final
constitution to be discussed was distributed to the bishops, and the debate began in the
This new version, vastly different from the very first one, contained only the section on
the Roman Pontiff. It consisted of a preamble and four chapters, and included a solemn
definition of papal infallibility. It had been reworked by the "Deputation of Faith" and
the theologians who were serving as consultants.
By June 3, enough bishops wanted to close the debate to bring this about. The other
sections of the decree were then discussed, and the final decree fashioned. By July 13 a
final vote on the matter could be taken. This was the eighty-fifth session of the Council;
601 bishops were present; 451 voted in favor of the decree, 88 voted against it, and 62
voted in favor, provided that suggested corrections were made.
The fact that one fourth of the bishops had voted against the decree, or had at least
limited their approval, caused considerable disturbance. Among this one fourth there
were some very big names. It was clear, however, that the matter would be defined,
and those who thought it inopportune chose the plan of quietly leaving Rome; in this
way, they would not have to vote publicly against the decree.
When the final vote was taken on July 18, there were 535 bishops who voted in favor of
the decree; two voted against it: Bishop Riccio of Sicily and Bishop Fitzgerald of Little
Rock, Arkansas. These two immediately submitted to the new definition of the Church;
the other bishops who had left Rome did so in the months that followed. In this way
the Council answered the rationalists of the nineteenth century. These liberals had
denied faith and stability in belief; the Church defined its precise notion of faith, and
added to that its position on the doctrinal stability associated with the Roman Pontiff.
The next day-July 19-the imperial government in Paris declared war on Prussia, and,
for all practical purposes, this marked the end of the Council. The bishops had to leave,
and only those from distant sees remained, in addition to the Italians. The number at
the sessions went down from 136 to 127 to 104.
On September 20 the city of Rome had been invaded, and on October 9 the city had
voted to join the Kingdom of Italy. Under these conditions, the Council could not
continue, and any suggestions to move it to another city were set aside. Finally on
October 20, 1870, the Council was temporarily suspended without being dissolved until
a later but unspecified date. It was never reconvened after the death of Pius IX in 1878.
The Vatican Council had, nevertheless, achieved its primary goal and strengthened the
Church by establishing a secure line of action for the even more difficult century that
THIS volume ends where it began: with an eye to the Council called by Pope John
XXIII. Within the near future, the world will see this Council come to pass. It would be
foolhardy to speculate on all that it will accomplish; time alone will tell. It will surely
be the most outwardly "universal" of all the Councils, and surpass all others by the
number of bishops who will attend. The progress of the modern world, the growth of
the Church, the ease of transportation will make this possible. Nevertheless, as in the
past, there may be some bishops who, because of political problems, will not be
permitted to attend. The Church is not without such difficulties today.
In its sessions, the forthcoming Council will most probably turn its attention to those
points raised, but never completed, at the Vatican Council. It can hardly avoid
reviewing the doctrinal errors condemned by the popes of this century-that of
Modernism, especially, which was so great a concern for Pope St. Pius X as well as
Pope Pius XII.
Beyond this, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will accomplish that which will most of
all benefit the Church. Those who take part in the Council will have the history of these
earlier Councils to guide them. Past mistakes can be avoided, and past successes
imitated. But the modern world presents its own problems, and these will challenge the
mind of the Council. There may be no easy solution to every problem raised. This was
true in the past, and we have no reason to think that it will not be true in our own time.
Nevertheless, the world has every reason to look forward to this twenty-first Council
with great interest. Viewing the accomplishments of the past, we may be sure that we
are witnessing a great event in history. From this gathering there will come forth the
directives that will guide the Church as it charts its path for the future. Once again,
through the weak men who make up His Church upon earth, Christ will speak to the
world. His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, will once more guide the destinies of that Church
in an extraordinary fashion.
Historians of the future will often look back upon these sessions; theologians will
carefully analyze them. The Council will stand forth as a symbol of the Church in the
twentieth century, that Church of which we ourselves are a part. It will take its place as
the most recent addition to that long line of Christian landmarks erected through the
centuries; it will give eloquent and lasting testimony to the abiding presence of that
Divine Spirit promised by Christ. Through the power of this Spirit the Church has
triumphed over persecution and heresy in the past, and through this same Spirit the
Church will face without fear whatever trials may lie ahead.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 60-8237
Copyright 1960 THE BRUCE PUBLISHING COMPANY
The General Councils of the Church. By John L. Murphy. What constitutes a General
Council? When are they held? Why? What have been their results and their effects on
later times? These are the basic questions which this book answers. It is a brief and
compact yet surprisingly thorough and popular presentation of the personalities,
issues, and results of the twenty General Councils held during the past two thousand