The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church

A History

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.

Medieval Christianity

A New History

Medieval Christianity: A New History, by Kevin Madigan, is a general overview of the history and development of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages, AD 600 – 1500.

The Late Antiquity period ended with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in Europe, while Islam dominated North Africa and the Middle East. As the Catholic Church became the most dominant force in the realm of Christendom, it became a more political entity, with secularization intertwining with its supposedly religious nature. Politics in France became a major cause of the papacy’s transfer from Rome to Avignon, and even after the end of this so-called Babylonian captivity, the succeeding popes have acquired a taste for politics that will later culminate in the Reformation scandal.

Meanwhile, the laity became more drawn into the religious life. Monastic orders sprang up, and men and women alike took religious vows and devoted their lives to serving God through renouncement of worldly living. The Crusades called for with the purpose, initially, of taking the Holy Land back from Muslim rule also became a way of religious and penitential life for many, who came to view a holy war as a way of offering their lives to God. 

The practice of Christian faith developed further, and took on forms not too far from our present day Catholicism. The Mass became more elaborate, the cult of saints became widespread and more intense for some, relics and images became central to the prayer life, and devotion to the Virgin Mary developed into a major devotion among Christians. Monastic education gave way to development of theology and philosophy; however, disagreements in the finer points of theology and doctrine lead to the creation and spread of schismatic movements. These were condemned by the Catholic Church, and the need to stop their spread brought forth the institution of the Inquisition, which hunted down and tried the leaders and recalcitrant followers of these movements.

Overall, Medieval Christianity is an excellent resource for understanding Christianity during the Middle Ages. The bibliography is divided by chapter, and provides various other references for deeper study of medieval Christianity, which can be very useful for the more curious readers. I recommend this for everyone wanting to learn more about the Middle Ages but don’t know where to start.

The Rise of Western Christendom

Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000

Within a millennium since the death – and resurrection – of Jesus of Nazareth, the religion that came to be known as Christianity has grown from being a fringe community within the Middle East, into the most dominant religious, political, and social force all over Europe. Since becoming the most favored religion in the empire during Constantine’s reign in the third century, Christianity has – with few interruptions – grown rapidly, taking over both the aristocratic circles and the grassroots of Roman society.

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000, by Peter Brown, provides a general survey of Christianity from the third century until the dawn of the new millennium. It’s a story of triumph, as the religion spread throughout the empire, and displaced paganism by the turn of the millennium. And it’s a story of diversity, as so-called ‘micro-Christendoms’ sprang out, with bishops leading each community, excercising both religious and political powers.

By 400, Christians are everywhere within the empire, from Spain in the west up to Persia in the east. However, as the religion’s adherents are spread throughout such a vast territory, with the bishops as the primary leaders of each community, differences are bound to appear. Debates on biblical interpretations and theology have caused rifts among groups of bishops, especially within a west-east divide.

Constantine’s first Council of Nicaea has settled debate on Arianism, but the divisions that the theological conflict has created remained long after. The barbarians who later took over the Western empire were themselves adherents of the much denounced Arianism. And as Christianity further spread to the northern parts of Europe, it became clear that such differences are bound to deepen, unless authority is centralized – to Rome.

One of the biggest such conflicts centuries after the first Nicaea is the Byzantine Iconoclasm. Eastern emperors such as Leo III and Constantine V denounced the use of icons to represent Jesus, Mary, and the saints. The dissenters – known as iconoclasts – pointed out its violation of the First Commandment (still a major objection to Catholicism in the present day). A volcanic eruption and the near-conquest of Constantinople by Muslim forces were seen by iconoclasts as God’s punishment for the use of icons. Leo III prohibited icons, and Constantine V called a council of bishops in Hiereia to condemn the practice.

However, Constantine’s daughter-in-law, Empress Eirene, supported the veneration of icons, and thus called for a more ecumenical council in Nicaea – the second Nicene council – that definitively upheld the iconophile practice. The council also proscribed the earlier council in Hiereia. These kinds of ecumenical councils serve as significant forces in settling debates among independent-minded bishops, and will remain to be so centuries to come.

Meanwhile, monasticism became a central aspect of Christianity. Monasteries became centres of learning, and communities around them considered monasteries as holy places, where the prayers of monks and nuns are the ordinary Christians’ bridge to heaven. The cult of saints grew, and relics and saints’ tombs became important physical manifestations of faith.

Islam’s rise and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa threatened to check the rapid growth of Christianity. The Umayyad conquest of Iberian peninsula also caused consternation for Rome. Despite this, for centuries Christianity and Islam maintained a mostly peaceful co-existence within the known world. And as the south and east of Rome-controlled Europe remained outside the Pope’s sphere of influence, they looked into the northern regions of Europe for expansion.

The book The Rise of Western Christendom shows how Christianity spread and grew throughout Europe and the East. By 1000, paganism was suppresses within the Christian world, and remained in the outlying regions east of Germania and in most of Scandinavia. This so-called triumph and diversity, as the author asserts, destroys the image of early medieval Christianity as one of “Dark Ages”, which then ushered in a sort of Renaissance. Instead, Christianity within this period was characterized by vibrancy and vitality, as the foundations of what we now see as modern Christianity were laid during these times. After all, a religion that managed to grow this much couldn’t have done so during its ‘darkest’ period.

The Rise of Western Christendom is an excellent book for learning about late antiquity in general, and early medieval Christianity in specific. Peter Brown’s older book, The World of Late Antiquity, is a shorter and more general survey of the period, and also made him the preeminent scholar for Late Antiquity – in fact it was Brown himself who coined the term! I have read both, but I liked The Rise of Western Christendom more, as it’s more comprehensive and more relevant to my preferences: I’m starting to learn about history of Christianity, and I read this book as preparation for going into medieval Christianity. That said, I do suggest reading both, if the reader is interested in learning more about Late Antiquity.