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Pope John Paul II’s Unitatis Redintegratio, § 4, states: “The term ‘ecumenical movement’ indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity.”
But here we focus on ecumenical as the universal Church speaking with one voice to the whole world. Acts 2:5 “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Christ’s most vivid sign of true teaching occurs when the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, teaches in union with all the bishops of the world.
During His mortal life, when Christ wanted to get our attention for something really important, He would begin, “Truly, truly I say to you.” Now He gets our attention through Ecumenical Councils, which have been recognized as acts of the Holy Spirit since Peter had declared at the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:28 “… it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …”
Each Pope, of course, as Vicar of Christ, has supreme authority over the Church. He does not “need” the approval of a Council to issue decrees. However, in practice, a Pope will call a General Council to show that a particular teaching is accepted by the whole Church. Too, a Pope deciding a grave matter of prudential judgment, may wish to gather advice and counsel from the attending bishops.
An Ecumenical Council, also called a General Council, is a collaboration of all the bishops in the world in union with the Vicar of Christ. During the two thousand years of Church history there have been 21 Ecumenical Councils. Each articulated some important truth that Christ wished us to have. Jn 16:14 “[The Holy Spirit] will … take what is mine and declare it to you.”
1. Nicaea I 325 AD Condemned Arianism, defined that the Son of God is consubstantial with the Father, wrote the Nicene Creed.
2. Constantinople I 381 AD Condemned the Macedonians (who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit), confirmed and extended the Nicene Creed.
3. Ephesus 431 AD Condemned Nestorianism, which held that Jesus of Nazareth was two distinct persons, one divine and one human, and defended Mary’s right to be called theotokos, the Mother of God.
4. Chalcedon 451 AD Condemned Monophysitism, also called Eutychianism, by defining that Christ is one divine Person with two distinct natures, one divine and one human, true God and true man.
5. Constantinople II 553 AD Pronounced against certain persons as infected with Nestorianism, including Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa.
6. Constantinople III 680-681 AD Defined against the Monothelites that Christ has two wills, one divine and one human.
7. Nicaea II 787AD Condemned the Iconoclasts (image-breakers) and defined that sacred images may be honored without committing idolatry.
8. Constantinople IV 869-870 AD Condemned Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople.
9. Lateran I 1123 This first general Council in the West. Endorsed the Concordat of Worms regarding the investiture of prelates.
10. Lateran II 1139 Opposed the schism of antipope Anacletus II and issued disciplinary decrees.
11. Lateran III 1179 Legislated against the Waldenses and Albigensians and decreed papal elections by two-thirds majority of cardinals present in a conclave.
12. Lateran IV 1215 Issued reform decrees, ordered annual Confession and Easter Communion as precepts of the Church, approved use of the word transubstantiation.
13. Lyons I 1245 Condemned Frederick II for his persecution of the Church.
14. Lyons II 1274 Set up a temporary reunion of the Eastern Churches with Rome. Decreed that papal elections should begin ten days after the death of a Pope.
15. Vienne 1311-1312 Suppressed the Knights Templar, sought aid for the Holy Land, defined the relation of the human soul and body, and condemned the false mysticism of the Fraticelli, Dulcinists, Beghards, and Beguines.
16. Constance 1414-1418 Issued reform decrees in “head and members,” condemned Wyclif and Hus, and put an end to the Western Schism.
17. Florence 1438-1445 Affirmed papal primacy against the Conciliarists, who said that a General Council was superior to a Pope. Also tried to arrange a reunion of the Eastern Churches separated from Rome.
18. Lateran V 1512-1517 Defined the relation of a Pope to a General Council, condemned philosophers who taught that the human soul is mortal and only one for all mankind, and called for a Crusade against the Turks.
19. Trent 1545-1563 Met the crisis of the Protestant Reformation by defining the Catholic Canon of Sacred Scripture as authoritative for the whole Church, the rule of faith as Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the Missal of Pope Pius V (Tridentine Mass), the sacraments, justification, purgatory, indulgences, invocation of saints, and veneration of sacred images. Trent also decreed decrees on marriage and clerical reform.
20. Vatican I 1869-1870 Defined the nature of revelation and faith, the relation of faith and reason, and papal infallibility. Condemned pantheism, materialism, deism, naturalism, and fideism.
21. Vatican II 1962-1965 Reaffirmed the principles of Catholic faith and morality, and authorized many developments in the Eucharistic Liturgy, including the Missal of Pope Paul VI (Novus Ordo Mass). Also authorized changes in the Church’s administrative structure.
A gathering of the bishops only in a particular region, and not of the whole Church, is a regional council. A local council is a gathering of the bishops in a particular local area. Even with the Pope’s approval, their decrees effect only the region that they represent. To see how Councils work in practice, consider how the Bible came to be.
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