Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has faced many circumstances where the bishops, as successors of the apostles, had to gather and collectively resolve the most pressing issues of their times. The first few ones were convoked by emperors, but most were called by popes, who held the primal distinction of being successors of Saint Peter, whom Catholics consider as the head of the apostles.
Joseph Kelly’s book, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, tells the history of the Church through the 21 councils that Catholics recognize as being legitimate gatherings of bishops. Most of these councils, especially the ones prior to the Middle Ages, have been held to resolve mainly doctrinal and theological issues. Such issues are beyond what the ordinary people can understand, yet the councils that resolve them, like the very first one at Nicea in 325, significantly shaped Church doctrine and conduct for the next centuries.
Starting from the Middle Ages, the recurring conflicts between Church and State played important role in councils, such as the First Lateran Council of 1122 that formalized the prohibition on lay investiture. The post-Avignon period, which saw two – and later, three – popes simultaneously holding office, also necessitated the summoning of a council, at Constance in 1414-1418, to heal the schism and elect one unifying pope – Martin V. This fateful council, however, strengthened the resolve among bishops to regularly hold councils to settles issues, thus ushering in a period of heightened tension between the pope and the councils.
As mentioned, the pope enjoys a primacy borne out of the direct succession from Saint Peter. This is a major contention that led to the parting of ways of the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches. And within the Catholic Church itself, Pope Martin V and his successors felt threatened by the possibility of regular councils superseding the pope in his authority. This will be a contentious issue well until the wake of the Reformations.
Perhaps the council that most significantly shaped the Catholic Church – until the 20th century – is the Council of Trent, held intermittently between 1545 and 1563, in response to the Protestant Reformations. The council upheld the privileged status of medieval Scholasticism in the Church theology and philosophy, as well as solidifying the traditions already held by the Church, which are being challenged by the reformers both outside and inside the institution. The Church that emerged out of the Tridentine council would mostly retain its form – in doctrine and in conduct – until the 20th century.
The First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, held over three centuries since Trent, was the rigid and defiant response of a Church that has lost its temporal powers and territories – the Papal States – and felt cornered by the growing tide of “liberalism.” Here, the papal primacy that has been challenged and vaguely defined throughout Church history was pronounced once and for all, in the form of the doctrine of papal infallibility. The act of formalizing the papal privilege of being able to define doctrine without any possibility of error is the defiant answer of a Church pushed even more towards the side of conservatism. The popes of the post-Vatican I world exuded an attitude that rejects – or at least does not fully embrace – modernist and liberal tendencies that have come to define the secular world of their times.
In 1958, Pope John XXIII surprised the world when he announced that he is calling for a new council to help the Church adapt to the modern world, a seemingly different course compared with the inward conservatism of the previous council. The Second Vatican Council; of 1962-1965 was a global spectacle, being the largest such gathering of bishops, and for its duration created a sense that the Catholic Church is ready to modernize its traditions. The council has so significantly shifted the way the Church viewed and conducted itself, that there remains much controversy over whether it truly reversed the doctrines of the past, or simply modified outward appearances but still held on to its centuries-old traditions.
Possibly the most visible change the Vatican II heralded is in the liturgy, held in Latin for almost 1500 years up to that point. The Mass was revamped, with vernacular languages now allowed, the priest was made to face the congregation, among others. Meanwhile, the council upheld the “collegiality” of bishops, where the pope, though retaining its primacy, nonetheless cannot act like a monarch and directly subvert bishops’ local powers unilaterally. Many other “reforms” were enshrined in the Vatican II council, and debates over its legacy continues to this day.
Overall, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church is a great resource for understanding Church history from the lens of its councils. While most of those councils are now forgotten, a few of them – Nicea, Trent, Vatican I and II – have so significantly influenced the Church that their legacies are still discernible to this day. The book was able to present this sweeping history without delving too much on the nitty-gritty of theological debates, nor took a more “apologetic” view. Hence this is objective enough for the general readers not too keen on the finer religious discussions, and is firmly a work of history rather than of theology or apologetics.