A Dialogue on Ecumenical Councils

This one is more of just a draft. I probably don’t represent the Catholic side perfectly, but the views of some Catholic apologists are not too far off.

A—According to your church, what makes a council ecumenical?

B—Our theologians have said that a council is ratified by being received by the Church. They’ve also used the term sobornost, I believe, to refer to the loving conciliatory nature of the whole Church in making decisions.

A—I’m sad to hear you say that.

B—Why is that?

A—I’ve heard not a few Orthodox give an explanation like that before, and I was hoping you would give me something different; in other words, something more coherent. It’s simply begging the question to talk about “being received by the Church”: when one party accepts a council, and one party rejects it, both claim to be the Church. So sadly your response and whole talk about the Church’s “loving conciliatory nature” have just confirmed my suspicions that the Orthodox don’t have a rigorous approach to defining ecumenical councils as we do, and so end up having to refer to sentimentality.

B—What is your approach to ecumenical councils, then?

A—It’s simple: the Pope’s support of a general council makes it ecumenical and infallible.

B—A little too simple. Say what you want about reception theory and sobornost: at least they have the advantage of implying that the Church decides on doctrine in a dynamic process.

A—What do you mean?

B—The way you would have it, there is a box to check off: if the Pope agrees with the other bishops, then it’s dogma. But if we look at history, it was never that simple. The Church deciding on even a single doctrine often times did so without any major involvement of the Pope. Instead decisions might be made only after many theological debates, movements of the majority over a long period of time toward one position or another, smaller councils, and later refinements of ecumenical councils.

A—Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail over his Church. But according to you, whenever there is a doctrinal controversy, the Church is thrown into hellish chaos until a decision gradually emerges. Contrast this to the Catholic doctrine, which claims that the Pope, when he speaks in his role as the teacher of the Church, will be guided by God only to speak the truth.

B—But according to the Catholic doctrine, the Church doesn’t know the truth until a Pope makes a declaration of it. That sounds just as much as of a “hellish chaos” as my theory.

A—That is not what I said. The Church always know the truth, the Pope merely clarifies and restates it.

B—You are right to say that the Church always knows the truth, otherwise, what would the point be of esteeming tradition? And we are also agreed that ecumenical councils and Papal proclamations serve more to clarify what has always been believed.

A—That does not sound terribly wrong, but again: how do we distinguish councils that clarify what has always been believed and ones that merely proclaim error? There have been robber synods that have claimed to just be restating Christian tradition. This goes back to my objection that such an approach begs the question.

B—All I can say is that there is no “one size fits all” approach. The approach that our churches use to sift true councils from false ones works, even though it is not a clear-cut process. This is similar to how a person with prudence manages to find the right thing to do, despite never following a straightforward procedure to do so. Someone who lacks prudence will think such a person is being dishonest when they are unable to put into words exactly how they make their decisions, although in truth this is a fault in the former, not in the latter.


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