The Ecumenical Councils

Francis Dvornik





The decision of the Holy Father, John XXIII, to convoke an Ecumenical Council has been greeted with joy and satisfaction by all Catholics who see in this initiative new evidence of the Church’s vitality. It met with a favourable reception also among the Eastern Churches not united with Rome and among other Christian bodies. The need for closer collaboration of all Christians against new and dangerous movements hostile not only to Christianity but to any kind of religion, is increasingly felt, and any reaffirmation of religious strength and determination to face these dangers is welcomed.


The Fathers, gathered around the supreme head of the Catholic Church, will, above all, have to solve problems facing their own Church in doctrinal and disciplinary matters. Many of these problems, however, are the concern of all Christians, and it is hoped that the discussions will prepare the way for a rapprochement between the Christian Churches.


The Holy Father, in convoking this new General Council, is reviving an ancient tradition originating from the early days of the Church, as is shown in the first chapter of this study. This tradition was fully developed by the Eastern Church during the first seven Ecumenical Councils. In these Councils, the Eastern Fathers, united with Rome, defined the fundamental dogmas on the Holy Trinity and on our Saviour, doctrines which are common to all Christians. These Councils form the bond which ties Eastern Christianity to that of the West, and it is for this reason that I have drawn attention to their history.


The Councils of the ninth century which deal with the Photian Schism are controversial both in the East and the West. Because of the difficulties which this problem still presents to the Church historian, I have tried to explain how it came about that Western canonists added to the seven General Councils, an eighth





Council (869-70) which the Eastern Church does not hold as ecumenical.


The conciliar tradition was continued by the Western Church during the Middle Ages and up until the nineteenth century, but differed in many ways from that of the first General Councils. This can best be understood when studied within the framework of European history, which accounts for the several short historical sketches in this book, broadly outlining the often stormy and violent atmosphere in which the Fathers of the Western General Councils, gathered around the popes, endeavoured to solve the new doctrinal and disciplinary problems facing them.


The definition of papal infallibility pronounced by the last Western General Synod, the Vatican Council, was the culmination of the work of Western theologians and canonists who, in the past, had continually stressed the need for a central authority in the Church embodied in the pope who, in his final decisions on matters of faith and morals, by the will of Christ, cannot err.


Because this definition is looked upon as the main obstacle to a rapprochement between the Churches, I have added a short chapter in which I have tried to make clear how very close this definition is to the belief of Orthodox Christians in the infallibility of the Church.


I hope that this brief study will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of the conciliar tradition in the Church.


Dumbarton Oaks, Washington


June 24th, 1960



[Back to Index]