Can An Ecumenical Council correct the Roman Pontiff?

No, per the dogma of Vatican I:

“Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the Apostolic Primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the Supreme Judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs to an Ecumenical Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

In addition, an Ecumenical Council, by definition, is the body of Bishops gathered with the Roman Pontiff as their head. An Ecumenical Council opposed to the Pope is not an Ecumenical Council; it would be a body without a head.

However, the case of Pope Vigilius and the Second Council of Constantinople is instructive on this topic. The Emperor Justinian I called the Council, and it was presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Vigilius initially approved the Council, then withdrew his approval. The Council was held against his express command. Later, its works were accepted by Pope Vigilius. Now, if they had not been so accepted, the Council would not be counted among the (at present) 21 General Councils. But it was accepted.

And this principle applies to individual teachings of Councils as well. If a Council approves a document, but the Pope rejects it, then the teaching is not of the Council. The Councils of Constance and Florence each tried to assert that a general council is superior to the Pope. These proposed teachings were rejected by the Roman Pontiff, so they are not of the Council.

Similarly, when the Sixth Council attempted to condemn Honorius for heresy, Pope Saint Agatho, who ruled over the Council, rejected this teaching. He wrote a letter to the Council which was accepted into its acts (and is therefore of the Council), saying in part:

Pope Saint Agatho, 680 AD: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council 680 AD]

But after Agatho died, some Council fathers again tried to accuse Pope Honorius of heresy. However, this was rejected by Pope Saint Leo II, who changed the accusation against Honorius from heresy to negligence. Therefore, the condemnation of Honorius for heresy is not of the Council.

Some commentators assert that the Sixth Council only ever intended to charge Honorius with negligence. However, this is contradicted by the Letter of Agatho, which is clearly in response to a first attempt to charge Honorius with heresy. And this is why that particular point had to be highlighted in the very document of Pope Leo which approved of the Council.

Sheer Possibilities

If there ever were a conflict between the body of Bishops and the Pope (a hypothetical that might be impossible under the prevenient grace of God), a Council could meet and draw up agreed upon documents, for consideration by the Roman Pontiff. This would not violate the dogma of Vatican I, as the Council would be submissive to the authority of the Pope, and would reject any or all of its own works, if the Pope so rejects them. The Bishops are Apostles in their own right, and not merely servants of the Roman Pontiff, so they could meet and draw up proposed decisions on doctrine and discipline.

Another situation, where this approach might apply, is if the Church is for a long time without a Roman Pontiff, and some crisis of faith arises. The body of Bishops could call a Council, discuss with the issues of doctrine and discipline, and agree upon some documents. These would have the ordinary non-infallible authority of the Magisterium, unless the next Pope, when he is elected, decides to approve of the documents. Without his approval, the acts would be non-infallible and not of an Ecumenical Council. With his condemnation, the acts would be not of the Magisterium at all.


Here is Saint Thomas Aquinas on the faith and authority of the Roman Pontiff:

“I answer that, As stated above (Objection 1), a new edition of the symbol becomes necessary in order to set aside the errors that may arise. Consequently to publish a new edition of the symbol belongs to that authority which is empowered to decide matters of faith finally, so that they may be held by all with unshaken faith. Now this belongs to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, “to whom the more important and more difficult questions that arise in the Church are referred,” as stated in the Decretals [Dist. xvii, Can. 5. Hence our Lord said to Peter whom he made Sovereign Pontiff (Luke 22:32): “I have prayed for thee,” Peter, “that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” The reason of this is that there should be but one faith of the whole Church, according to 1 Corinthians 1:10: “That you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you”: and this could not be secured unless any question of faith that may arise be decided by him who presides over the whole Church, so that the whole Church may hold firmly to his decision. Consequently it belongs to the sole authority of the Sovereign Pontiff to publish a new edition of the symbol, as do all other matters which concern the whole Church, such as to convoke a general council and so forth.” [Summa Theologica]

The “symbol” is a profession of faith, such as may be devised for a new Ecumenical Council. Such new professions usually include a new expression of belief which contradicts the heresies of the day. St. Thomas says that only the highest authority in the Church may publish such a symbol: the Roman Pontiff.

Note the interpretation of Luke 22:32, that the one faith of the Church is entrusted to Peter and his successors. Therefore, no group of Cardinals, Bishops, or lesser persons can assert themselves above the Pope and presume to judge him, to accuse him of grave failures of truth or of faith, and proclaim him guilty (as is now happening regarding Pope Francis). Those persons who act in this manner contradict the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and Saint Alphonsus Liguori.

Since the Roman Pontiff has the “sole authority” to publish a new profession of faith (with or without a Council), his faith cannot fail, just as Lk 22:32 teaches. If the faith of the Pope could fail, then the profession of faith, the symbol, could be false and the Ark of Salvation would be lost. Since the Church is indefectible, the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops (as a body) are also each indefectible.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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2 Responses to Can An Ecumenical Council correct the Roman Pontiff?

  1. Thomas Mazanec says:

    Is there a provision for large segments of the Church being years away from contact withthe Pope? Such as a colony light years (and thus years) away from the Earth? Or if a region is out of contact with Rome (IIRC Japan was such for several centuries)?

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