Universal Papal Jurisdiction in the First Seven Ecumenical Councils

These are some passages and stories from the first seven ecumenical councils that I think can be used to defend the universal jurisdiction of the pope. Please let me know what you think, and if there are any other passages that could be cited, please let me know.

The First Ecumenical Council

“[A]ll our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Easter at the same time with the Romans and yourselves [i.e. Alexandrians] and all those who have observed Easter from the beginning.” source

In this passage the Council tells its audience, Alexandrians, that their custom and the Roman custom are to be followed by the whole of the East. The seemingly un-called-for appeal to Roman custom suggests that Rome was recognized as an authority.

There are also several other things that may indicate papal headship at this council. For one, it is my understanding that Pope St. Sylvester specially appointed Hosius of Cordoba (Spain) to lead the council on behalf of Rome. The Catholic Encyclopedia says: "The Council of Nicaea lasted two months and twelve days. Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, assisted as legate of Pope Sylvester." (source) In another article, it says, "The actual president seems to have been Hosius of Cordova, assisted by the pope's legates, Victor and Vincentius." source

In addition, this article cites evidence that First Ecumenical Council explicitly based its decree about the jurisdiction of various churches on a decision of the Roman Church.

The Third Ecumenical Council

Session 1 - “[If] your holiness [i.e. the Patriarch Nestorius] have not a mind to [accept] the limits defined in the writings of [Pope] Celestine, Bishop of the Church of Rome, be well assured then that you have no lot with us, nor place or standing among the priests and bishops of God.” source

This quotation is from a letter from St. Cyril to the heresiarch Nestorius. The letter was accepted by the Council in Session 1. The text of the letter suggests that papal authority can be universally binding, and the historical context of the letter makes this case even stronger. It appears that St. Cyril’s letter to Nestorius was a result of an earlier letter (source) from Pope Celestine to Nestorius. In that letter, the pope instructs Nestorius to recant his heresy or St. Cyril will depose him from the see of Constantionple in the name of the pope. In that light, I think St. Cyril’s letter commanding Nestorius to submit to the pope or be deposed is a slam-dunk in favor of the pope’s authority over the other sees of Christendom, and the fact that this deposition was approved by the Council of Ephesus makes it that much more significant.

Session 2 - “The Apostolic and holy see of the most holy bishop Celestine, has previously given a decision and type in this matter, through the writings which were sent to the most God-beloved bishops... This we have also followed and...we carried into effect the type, having pronounced against [Nestorius] a canonical and judgment.” source

Before the papal legates arrived at the council, the pope gave them these instructions: “We enjoin upon you the necessary task of guarding the authority of the Apostolic See. … [In] the assembly, if it comes to controversy, it is not yours to join the fight but to judge of the opinions [on my behalf]." (Letters 17) source

When they arrived at the council, the legates announced that this was their right and privilege, and the council accepted it:

Session 2 - “[W]hen the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you...you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations.” “[We now] ask that you give order that there be laid before us what things were done in this holy Synod before our arrival; in order that according to the opinion of our blessed pope and of this present holy assembly, we likewise may ratify their determination.” source

Theodotus of Ancyra responded, apparently in the name of the council, saying that this announcement was made “very reasonably.” (ibid.) Later the Council confirms this:

Letter to Pope Celestine - “For it is [Rome’s] custom in such great matters to make trial of all things, and the confirmation of the Churches you [i.e. the Pope] have made your own care. [And] since it is right that all things which have taken place should be brought to the knowledge of your holiness, we are writing of necessity [about our Synod]. … And that you may know in full all things that have been done, we have sent you a copy of the Acts, and of the subscriptions of the Synod. We pray that you, dearly beloved and most longed for, may be strong and mindful of us in the Lord.” source

The Fourth Ecumenical Council

Session 1 - “We received directions at the hands of the most blessed and apostolic bishop of the Roman city, which is the head of all the churches...that Dioscorus is not to be allowed a seat in this assembly, but that if he should attempt to take his seat he is to be cast out.” source

This passage indicates the pope’s headship over the whole Church, his right to command a council, and the subjection of other sees to the Roman see. (Dioscorus was patriarch of Alexandria.)

Session 3 - “Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome...has stripped [Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria] of the episcopate, and has alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.” source

This passage indicates that the see of Alexandria is subject to the see of Rome, that the pope has a right to depose bishops of other sees, and that ecumenical councils are at the pope’s service.

Session 4 calls the pope "Archbishop of all the churches." This indicates his universal jurisdiction. source

Letter to Pope Leo - “[Pope Leo has] been charged with the custody of the vine by the Savior.” source

The Sixth Ecumenical Council

Letter to Pope Agatho - “Christ our true God...gave [us] a wise physician, namely your [self], to drive [heresies] away...by the remedies of orthodoxy, and to give the strength of health to the members of the church. Therefore to you, as to the bishop of the first see of the Universal Church, we leave what must be done, since you willingly take for your standing ground the firm rock of the faith, as we know from having read your [letter] to the most pious emperor: and we acknowledge that this letter was divinely written as by the Chief of the Apostles.” source

By saying that the pope has been given to the Church for the purpose of driving away heresies and giving strength to the Church, this letter supports the view that the pope has a power that is intended by God to be exercised over the whole Church. The letter also calls the pope “O venerable and sacred head” and says, “we pray your paternal sanctity to confirm our decree by your honourable rescript.” source

Session 4 - Calls Rome “[our] spiritual mother and the mother of your God-sprung empire.” Because this affirmation is accepted by an ecumenical council, it follows that the Roman see is over the whole Church as a mother. source

The Seventh Ecumenical Council

Before the Seventh Ecumenical Council, St. Theodore the Studite called upon the pope to call the council, saying, “it is to Peter, that is to say, his successor, that one ought to submit every innovation which is made in the Catholic Church by those who turn aside from the truth… [For the heretics] have dared to convene a heretical Council, while those who follow [the] ancient custom, have not even the right of convoking an orthodox one without your knowledge.” “[Therefore] it seems absolutely necessary, we dare say it to you, that your Divine Primacy should call together a lawful Council, so that the Catholic dogma may drive away heresy...” (To Pope Leo III Written from Prison Against the Iconoclasts)

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