On the claim that some Ecumenical Councils failed

Some of the papal accusers attack Ecumenical Councils by saying that a valid Council can “fail”. In this way, they nullify the authority and teaching of these Councils, whose authority and teaching is from Christ, by the Pope and the body of Bishops, in the Holy Spirit.

No one has the authority to nullify what a Council proposes, except the Roman Pontiff, who is the Vicar of Christ. Once the Pope approves of what the body of Bishops (led by the Pope) decides at an Ecumenical Council, on doctrine and discipline, that decision is binding on the whole Church and on all the faithful. No one has the authority to declare that an Ecumenical Council has failed, and so seemingly authorize the faithful to ignore its teachings and other decisions. Certainly, on a matter of discipline, the Pope or the body of Bishops with the Pope can subsequently change a discipline decided by a Council, or a later Council can do so. But Peter holds the Keys. And only the Bishops and the Roman Pontiff (the Bishop of Rome) are the successors to the Apostles. Those members of the Church who reject any Ecumenical Council, no matter what explanation or excuse they use, commit the sin of schism, by rejecting the authority of the Pope and the body of Bishops. Such persons might also be committing the sin of heresy, if they, in rejecting an Ecumenical Council, they also reject any dogma on faith or morals taught by that Council. Such persons are not faithful to the Church, nor to Christ.

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 15: “It has ever been unquestionably the office of the Roman Pontiffs to ratify or to reject the decrees of Councils. [Pope Saint] Leo the great [I] rescinded the acts of the Conciliabulum of Ephesus [the so-called robber council of Ephesus in 449; not the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431]. [Pope Saint] Damasus [I] rejected those of Rimini [Council of Ariminum], and [Pope] Adrian I, those of Constantinople [Council of Constantinople (692), also called Trullo or Quinisext Council; Council of Constantinople (754), also called the Council of Hieria].”

The Roman Pontiff has the authority to approve of, or reject, entire Councils. No matter how many Bishops gather, why they gather, or what they decide, the Roman Pontiff alone has the full and sole authority to approve the Council, making it a valid Ecumenical Council, or to reject the Council, depriving it of all validity and all authority. The Pope can also decide, in approving an Ecumenical Council, to reject some of its decisions on doctrine and/or discipline, while approving of the rest.

Pope Saint Agatho corrected the Third Council of Constantinople, for accusing Pope Honorius of heresy. His letter was entered into the acts of that Ecumenical Council, and so the teaching of his letter is the teaching of that Council [Actio XVIII]. After Agatho died, Pope Saint Leo II approved of the Council and its decisions, with the exception that the accusation of heresy against Pope Honorius was changed to negligence. This decision by Leo II was repeated three times, once in each of three Latin letters confirming the validity of the Council. It is therefore unmistakable as his definitive decision regarding the matter of Pope Honorius.

And since this decision by Pope Saint Leo II was in accord with the letter of Pope Saint Agatho, in the acts of the Council, so it is all the more clear that these two Roman Pontiffs decided to reject the accusation of heresy against Pope Honorius. As Pope Leo XIII teaches, the Pope has full authority over an Ecumenical Council. Therefore, when Pope Saint Leo II decided that Honorius was only guilty of negligence, in that he did not do enough against the heresy of his day, that decision by Pope Leo II is the decision of the Council. For the same Council accepted the letter of Agatho, on the same point, and made it a part of the acts of the Council approved by Leo.

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 15: “The 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon, by the very fact that it lacks the assent and approval of the Apostolic See, is admitted by all to be worthless. Rightly, therefore, has Leo X laid down in the 5th Council of Lateran ‘that the Roman Pontiff alone, as having authority over all Councils, has full jurisdiction and power to summon, to transfer, to dissolve Councils, as is clear, not only from the testimony of Holy Writ, from the teaching of the Fathers and of the Roman Pontiffs, and from the decrees of the sacred canons, but from the teaching of the very Councils themselves.’ ”

The Roman Pontiff call an Ecumenical Council, transfer it to another location, or dissolve the Council entirely, making it null and void. This implies that the Pope can also do the same for lesser gatherings of the Bishops or Cardinals: calling, transferring, or dissolving any Synod or other gathering. But notice what the Pope did regarding the Council of Chalcedon; he nullified one of its Canons, while keeping the rest of the decisions. So the Roman Pontiff can also intervene directly in the decision-making of an Ecumenical Council, during the Council, as did Pope Saint Agatho, or after it has completed its decisions and documents, as did the papal legates (later approved by the Pope) at the Council of Chalcedon. And this authority, too, can be applied to lesser gatherings, such as local or regional Synods.

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 15: “Indeed, Holy Writ attests that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter alone, and that the power of binding and loosening was granted to the Apostles and to Peter; but there is nothing to show that the Apostles received supreme power without Peter, and against Peter. Such power they certainly did not receive from Jesus Christ. Wherefore, in the decree of the Vatican Council as to the nature and authority of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, no newly conceived opinion is set forth, but the venerable and constant belief of every age (Sess. iv., cap. 3) [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3].”

It is firmly established that any Roman Pontiff has full authority over any Council. And this means that no Council can judge, depose, or otherwise act against any Pope. The Pope can dissolve the Council and nullify its decrees, and the Council can do nothing against the Pope. Then the teaching that the Apostles did not receive supreme authority without Peter implies that nothing is taught infallibly by the Magisterium, under either Conciliar Infallibility or the ordinary universal Magisterium, unless the Pope teaches or approves the same.

Those who propose that the decisions, on discipline or doctrine, of an Ecumenical Council approved by the Pope, can be ignored on the basis of a judgement that the valid Council has supposedly “failed” are committing schism and heresy. They reject the authority of the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops, an authority expressed in Ecumenical Council as well as in other ways, and that is schism. Then the Church has always required that the faithful accept whatever the Pope and the body of Bishops have decided or taught, whether gathered in a Council or dispersed in the world. The Church has NEVER permitted the faithful to label a Council “failed”, and thereby ignore or reject its authority. And this rejection of Ecumenical Councils also implies a rejection of the dogmatic teachings of those Council, which rejection is heresy.

Ronald L Conte Jr

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4 Responses to On the claim that some Ecumenical Councils failed

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Thank you, Ron, for this excellent article. Whether or not ecumenical councils achieve their desired ends is conditioned by many factors. The authority of what ecumenical councils teach, however, does not depend on subjective assessments of success. As you know, some dispute the authority of Vatican II.

    Pope Paul VI, though, confirmed all the documents of Vatican II drawing upon the apostolic power given to him by Christ, and he approved the contents of these documents with his brother bishops “in the Holy Spirit.” Here are the words of Paul VI at the end of Lumen Gentium, which are repeated (adjusting constitution to decree, or declaration) at the end of all the documents of the Council in their Latin original as published in the AAS.

    “Haec omnia et singula quae in hac Constitutione dogmatica edicta sunt placuerunt Sacrosancti Concilii Patribus. Et Nos, Apostolica a Christo Nobis tradita potestate, illa una cum Venerabilibus Patribus, in Spiritu Sancto approbamus, decernimus ac statuimus et quae ita synodaliter statuta sunt ad Dei gloriam promulgari iubemus.”

    “Each and all these items which are set forth in this dogmatic Constitution have met with the approval of the Council Fathers. And We by the apostolic power given Us by Christ together with the Venerable Fathers in the Holy Spirit, approve, decree and establish it and command that what has thus been decided in the Council be promulgated for the glory of God.”

  2. James Belcher says:

    Ron & Robert,
    I am totally in agreement with your assessments on Ecumenical Councils. In my opinion, there are people who oppose the councils due to ignorance and/or do not believe the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. A couple of items that struck me in the early 1970s’ were practicing Catholics at mass would lean and whisper to me “There not so high and mighty anymore”. The reference was concerning priests facing the people during mass and not on the high altar. This is just ignorance. The second and more troublesome matter was a priest who visited our home on Sundays to give my grandmother communion told me and my wife to be – “You should live together before getting married to see if we were compatible”. To this day, I am not sure if this is ignorance or he has a belief where a possible future divorce outweighs the Sacrament of Matrimony. I could be wrong but I truly don’t think either of these examples would occur if it wasn’t for Vatican Council II. The aftermath of Vatican Council II left an impression of somehow free intellectual thinkers of knowing better than the Holy Catholic Church.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think that these examples and that type of behavior occurs due to the influence of modern secular society, and not an Ecumenical Council where the successors to the Apostles teach, as guided by the Holy Spirit. If there had been no Vatican II, the same problems would have occurred in the Church, and that is true even though some persons use Vatican II as the excuse for their sins. Without Vatican II, they would commit the same sins, but with a different excuse.

  3. Erik H says:

    Ron, I’m starting to really see your position play out. I always believed the schism in the church was coming from the left. But I can see clearly now it is coming from both sides. The number of people criticizing everything in the church and every pope since vatican 2, has become quite large.

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