Christian Councils | 3. Medieval Councils


3. Medieval Councils

After the death of Theophilus, the last iconoclastic emperor, in 842, controversy in mid-9th century Constantinople over the manner of reinstating the veneration of images led to the forced abdication of the patriarch Ignatius (c. 798-877) in 858 and to the appointment of the learned civil servant Photios (c. 810-893), a layman, as his successor.

A local synod of 861, attended by 2 representatives of Pope Nicholas I, confirmed Photios’s elevation and declared that the election of Ignatius had been uncanonical; the pope, however, was persuaded by Ignatius’s followers to break communion with Photios 2 years later.

Tension between Rome and Constantinople grew, both over the role of the pope as a source of legitimation and a court of appeal for Eastern bishops and over competing missionary activities of the two churches in Bulgaria.

A synod summoned by the Greek emperor Michael in 867 condemned Roman incursions in the East, as well as the Roman church’s introduction of the word Filioque into the creed; it asked the Frankish emperor Louis II to depose Pope Nicholas.

Another council in Constantinople, summoned by the new Greek emperor, Basil I, in 869-870, deposed Photios in an effort to win the pope’s support,

but Photios became patriarch again after Ignatius’s death in 877 and was recognized by the pope in a council of reunion held in Constantinople in 879-880.

This last meeting annulled the decisions of the council of 869-870, but Western canonists in the 12th century included the earlier gathering among the ecumenical councils, as Constantinople IV,

because its 22nd canon, forbidding the appointment of bishops by laypeople, provided a precedent for their own case against lay investiture. None of the Photian councils is recognized as ecumenical by other churches.

After the synod of 879-880, Eastern and Western bishops ceased to meet over common concerns for almost 4 centuries. Local and regional Synods, however, continued to play an important role in civil and ecclesiastical life.

In Constantinople, the “residential synod” of the patriarch functioned as the administrative cabinet of the Byzantine communion.

Synods in North Africa in the early 5th century (especially at Carthage in 418) and in southern Gaul in the early 6th century (especially at Orange in 529) made important formulations of the Western Church’s doctrine of grace.

And provincial synods, attended by both bishops and secular lords, became an increasingly important instrument of government in the Frankish kingdoms of the 6-7th centuries.

In Visigoth Spain, 18 synods were held at Toledo between 589 and 702, dealing with both church and civil discipline and with the doctrinal issue of later Arianism.

The Celtic and Roman traditions of church order in Britain were unified by the Synod of Whitby in Northumbria in 664.

For the Carolingian Empire, national synods were an important instrument for fostering political and doctrinal unity.

It was only in the time of the “Gregorian reform,” however, in the 11-12th centuries, that the Popes, as part of their program of strengthening the power and independence of the ordained clergy in ruling the church, thought again of convoking councils with a more than regional representation.

Gregory VII (c. 1015-1085), in his canonical summary known as Dictates of the Pope, insisted that only the bishop of Rome has the right to convoke an ecumenical council - a principle preserved ever since by Western canon law.

Corresponding to his vision of the Papacy as the active centre of a universal and politically independent church,

Gregory and his successors began to invite bishops and abbots from other parts of Europe to participate in Roman Synods and also took the lead in mobilizing European forces to regain the Christian holy places in Palestine from Muslim occupation.

Three 12th century Roman synods - the Lateran councils of 1123, 1139, and 1179 - demonstrated the concern of the popes of this period to assert the independence of the hierarchy from lay control by enacting a variety of measures that insured the moral and social integrity of the clergy.

The council of 1179 also condemned the emerging Cathar or Albigensian heresy (a Western form of Gnosticism), regulated the activities of monastic and military orders,

and established the lasting rule that a Pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority of the senior Roman clergy, who were known as “cardinals.”

These 3 Lateran synods, increasingly international in membership and deliberately modelled on the councils of the early church, were and are regarded as ecumenical councils by the Roman Catholic Church.

Far more important, however, was the 4th Lateran Council, convoked in 1215 (November 11-30) by Innocent III:

Innocent invited not only all bishops and heads of religious orders from the Western church, but also bishops of the Armenian, Maronite, and Greek Churches.

Only Latin bishops attended, however, and the council’s 70 canons included a strong assertion of Papal primacy and a complaint against the Greek Church for re-baptizing Latin converts.

The meeting - recognized in the West as the 12th ecumenical council - not only continued the disciplinary reforms of its 3 predecessors

but also issued doctrinal statements on the Trinity and the sacraments (introducing the word transubstantiation into official church vocabulary), forbade secret marriages, and instituted the requirement of annual confession for adult Catholics.

Continued conflict between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen emperors led Innocent IV to convoke a council of some 150 bishops at Lyons in June and July 1245:

Besides calling for renewed efforts to re-conquer the holy places, this synod excommunicated the German emperor Frederick II, absolving his subjects from the moral duty of obeying him.

Western canonists regard this synod as the 13th ecumenical council.

Gregory X summoned a second council at Lyons in the summer of 1274 (May 5-July 17), in the hope of restoring communion between the Eastern and Western Churches, a bond broken by mutual anathemas in 1054.

The Greek emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1223-1282), who had recaptured Constantinople from Latin occupiers in 1261, accepted the invitation to attend, hoping to prevent further Western attacks on his capital.

Delegates of the Mongol khan also attended, as did some 200 bishops and the non-voting representatives of most Western rulers.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), invited to participate as a theological expert, died en route to Lyons.

The Greek delegation participated in the papal Eucharist on June 29, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and agreed to a formal reunion of the churches on July 6,

raising no objection to the traditionally disputed Western doctrines of the procession of the Holy Spirit, purgatory, and papal primacy, or to the new Western understanding of 7 sacraments.

The council is regarded in the West as the 14th ecumenical council.

In 1283, however, a Synod in Constantinople repudiated the union and deposed the patriarch, John XI of Constantinople (c. 1225-1297), who had agreed to it at Lyons.

Michael Palaiologos who had never succeeded in winning Greek support for the council, was excommunicated by Pope Martin IV in 1281, and his own church even denied him a Christian burial on his death in 1282.

In the face of the increasing attempts of Philip IV (“the Fair”) of France to control the church,

Clement V - the first pope to reside at Avignon - summoned a council to meet in the independent French town of Vienne in 1311-1312 (October 16-May 6).

Eager to acquire the wealth of the Knights Templars, Philip had exerted strong pressure on the Pope, even before the council, to suppress the military order on allegations of venality, heresy, and immoral practices.

The Council found no grounds to support these charges, but Clement suppressed the Templars by a bull of March 1312.

The council also discussed plans for a new crusade, issued regulations for the growing number of new religious orders, and condemned the strict interpretation of the poverty of Jesus being advanced by the Spiritual Franciscans.

Attended by 132 bishops and 38 abbots, all from Western Europe, the Council of Vienne was the first to prepare documents in sub-commissions and to delegate a standing committee to finish drafting documents still incomplete at the council’s dissolution.

Western canonists consider it the 15th ecumenical council.

In the Greek Church a series of local synods in Constantinople (c. 1340) took up the controversy between Gregory Palamas, a monk of Mount Athos, and the Calabrian monk Barlaam (c. 1290–1348)

about the value of hesychastic prayer (contemplative prayer prepared for by repetition of a mantra) and the possibility of experiencing the presence of God in this life.

A Synod in July 1351 recognized as orthodox Palamas’s doctrine that God’s “energies” or activities, if not God’s essence, can be experienced in a quasi-visual way by a soul purified through constant prayer, a teaching that has been of central importance for Orthodox monasticism ever since.

In the West, the years of the Avignon papacy (1308-1378) saw continued centralization of Papal authority, as well as increasing opposition to Papal rule by the German emperors, independent cities, and certain charismatic and millenarian groups within the church.

With the beginning of the Great Western Schism in 1378, in which 2 rival Popes claimed the church’s obedience,

support began to grow among canonists and theologians for a more corporate system of church government, by which the Pope would be understood as an executive appointed by and held accountable to the whole Church, represented in a carefully appointed General Council.

This “Conciliarist” theory, first proposed in practical terms by William Durandus of Mende (c. 1230-1296) at the time of the Council of Vienne, was seen by a number of prominent theologians in the last decades of the 14th century as the only way to end the schism.

In 1409, a Council at Pisa attempted to put Conciliarism into practice by deposing both rival Popes and electing a new one (John XXIII).

The result, however, was simply that 3 claimants now vied for the Roman See.

In 1414, the emperor Sigismund allied with John XXIII to convoke another Council at Constance to resolve the issue (November 5, 1414-April 22, 1418).

Following the representative system of the Medieval Universities,

the voting members of the council - who included over 325 bishops, 29 cardinals, more than 100 abbots, several princes, and several hundred doctors of theology

- decided to divide into 4 blocks, or “nations,” each of which would have one corporate vote in the council’s final decisions.

These “nations” were:

1) the Germans (including eastern Europeans),
2) the French,
3) the English (including the Irish and Scots), and
4) the Italians;

5) from July 1415 the Cardinals at the Council were allowed to vote as a 5th unit,
6) and a Spanishnation” was added in October 1416.

Debate was conducted within the “nations,” and the whole council was managed by a joint steering committee, in which each “nation,” as well as the cardinals, was represented.

The Council’s decree, Sacrosancta, enacted on April 6, 1415, declared that the gathering was a General Council of the Church and that it therefore had supreme authority of itself, despite the absence of John XXIII, who had fled 2 weeks earlier.

The council then condemned the reformist teachings of English theologian John Wycliffe (1330?-1384) and his Bohemian disciple Jan Hus, the latter of whom was publicly burned in Constance on July 6, 1415.

The decree Frequens (October 5, 1417) stipulated that another council was to meet 5 years after the dissolution of the gathering at Constance, followed by a 3rd council 7 years later and by subsequent councils at 10-year intervals.

Having devised these limitations on Papal power, the council appointed a joint conclave of cardinals and delegates from the “nations,” who elected Martin V on November 11, 1417.

After further measures for structural reform, the council adjourned in April 1418.

Although Martin had previously rejected some aspects of conciliar theory (including the idea of appeal to a further council) and never formally endorsed Sacrosancta or Frequens,

he did declare, at the closing session, that he would observe what the whole Council had declared on matters of faith.

After an abortive attempt to summon a council at Pavia in 1423, in accordance with the decrees of Constance, Martin convoked another meeting at Basel in 1430.

Eugenius IV, who succeeded Martin in March 1431, hoped once again to effect a reunion with the Greek Church and believed that an Italian setting would be more appropriate for that purpose.

As relations with the delegates at Basel grew more strained, Eugenius ordered the Council transferred to Ferrara in September 1437, although most of the members refused to go and remained in Basel as a rival assembly until 1448.

The Greek delegation arrived in Ferrara in March 1438,

and after preliminary discussions the Council was moved to Florence in January 1439, where the city had offered to underwrite its costs.

Led by Bessarion (1403 -1472), metropolitan of Nicaea, the Greek delegation recognized the legitimacy of the Latin doctrines of the procession of the Spirit, purgatory, and papal primacy without prejudice to the validity of the Greek tradition, which differed on these points.

A decree of union between the Churches was signed on July 6, 1439.

Subsequent decrees of union were signed with the Armenian Church (November 22, 1439) and with the Copts and Ethiopians (February 4, 1442).

The date of closure of the Council is uncertain.

It is regarded by the Western church as the 17th ecumenical council.

In Byzantium, however, strong opposition led by Mark of Ephesus, Metropolitan of Ephesus, who had also been a delegate to the Council, was voiced against the union.

A Synod in Constantinople in 1484 officially repudiated the Florentine decree in the name of the Greek Church.