Christian Councils | 5. Modern Era


5. The Modern Era

The Roman Catholic Church showed little interest in large-scale conciliar gatherings during the 17-18th centuries.

A regional Synod held in Pistoia in Tuscany in September 1786, under the leadership of Bishop Scipione de' Ricci (1741-1810), demanded a variety of administrative and pastoral reforms in the Church but was rejected by Roman authorities as anti-papal and Jansenist in inspiration.

85 propositions taken from its documents were condemned by Pius VII on August 28, 1794.

As the spirit of political revolution and scientific positivism swept through European culture in the mid-19th century, however,

Catholic interest in a general council that would confront these attacks on religious tradition and give confident expression to the Church’s teaching again grew.

Pius IX appointed a commission to prepare for such a Council in 1865 and opened it solemnly - as the First Vatican Council - on December 8, 1869.

The 774 bishops who attended from around the world discussed prepared drafts on faith and revelation, authority in the Church, reform of the Curia Romana, and other subjects.

On April 24, 1870, the constitution Dei Filius was approved:

It affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason and the necessity of supernatural revelation (contained both in scripture and in the Church’s oral tradition) for a full knowledge of God.

After prolonged debate on the opportuneness of a conciliar statement on papal primacy and infallibility, a constitution on the Church, Pastor aeternus, was approved on July 18,

- declaring the “immediate, universal jurisdiction” of the Pope over all Christians

- and affirming that when he acts solemnly as spokesman for the Universal Church in doctrinal matters, the Popepossesses that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wanted his Church to be endowed in articulating its teaching of faith and morality.”

Because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the French troops that had been protecting the Papal State were withdrawn that same summer, and on September 20 Piedmontese troops occupied Rome.

With most of the delegates gone, Pius IX suspended the council on October 20, 1870, despite the unfinished state of its agenda.

Although a number of subsequent interpretations of Pastor aeternus, recognized approvingly by Pius IX himself,

stressed that Papal infallibility, as the council had envisaged it, was simply a special, highly restricted exercise of the assurance of faith in which the whole Church believed itself to share,

the effect of the Council’s decrees was to widen the gulf between the Roman Church and the other Churches, as well as to emphasize Catholicism’s critical attitude toward secular values.

Vatican I is recognized in the Roman Catholic Church as the 20th ecumenical council.

By contrast with much of previous Christian history, the conciliar principle has come to be used increasingly as a means for fostering unity between Christian groups and mutual understanding between Christians and non-believers.

The modern ecumenical movement began, on the institutional level, with the World Missionary Conference, a meeting of Protestant missionary groups, at Edinburgh in 1910.

2 other cooperative bodies within Protestantism - Life and Work, founded in 1925 to foster common social and political action, and Faith and Order, established in 1927 to discuss doctrinal and liturgical issues - agreed in 1938 to form a World Council of Churches.

Delayed by World War II, the constitutive assembly of the Council was held in Amsterdam in 1948; the International Missionary Council joined it in 1961.

Not a jurisdictional or legislative body, the World Council seeks to facilitate common action and dialogue in faith among all Christian Churches with 10 thousand members or more and to be an intermediate step toward a more formal Christian unity.

Although it is not yet a full member of the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church took its own decisive step toward Christian unity in the documents and reforms of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962- December 8, 1965), which it recognizes as the 21st ecumenical council:

Conceived by John XXIII in January of 1959 as a way of leading the Catholic Church toward spiritual renewal, toward greater cooperation with other Christian Churches and other religions, and toward a more open attitude to contemporary culture,

the Council was attended by between 2 100-2 400 bishops and heads of religious orders from within the Roman communion, as well as by invited observers from other Christian Churches and religious bodies.

Vatican II produced 16 documents on a wide range of pastoral, institutional, and theological issues.

Affirming the ancient principle of the collegial responsibility of bishops for the governance of the whole Church, in union with the Pope,

the Constitution on the Church opened new possibilities for conciliar government in the Catholic tradition, a step that has led to the regular convening of a worldwide synod of bishops in the years since the council.

Vatican Il’s call for liturgical reform, its stress on the centrality of the Scriptures to Christian doctrine and practice, and its recognition of the validity of modern methods of biblical criticism have lessened some of the centuries-old differences between Protestants and Catholics and have given a model for practical reform to other Churches.

The Council’s declaration on Religious Freedom, as well as its decrees on ecumenism, on the Eastern Churches, and on relations with Jews and other non-Christians,

- have greatly altered official Catholic attitudes toward people of other faiths.