An Ecumenical Count of Ecumenical Councils
By Benjamin Martin
The Orthodox employ a narrower concept of ecumenical council – even as narrow as (i) a synod of bishops (ii) extraordinarily convened (iii) by the Byzantine emperor (iv) to define doctrine, that gains (v) the approval of the Roman Pope, (vi) the consent of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, (vii) ecumenical reception, and (viii) enumeration as an ecumenical council by a subsequent synod which itself gains ecumenical reception. The third condition – that an ecumenical council must be convened by a Byzantine emperor – appeals to neither Orthodox nor Catholics today, but many of the councils that Catholics call ecumenical councils don’t fulfill conditions (iv), (vi), (vii), or (viii) either. In fact, one council that Catholics call an ecumenical council – i.e. “the Eighth Ecumenical Council” – even has the distinct status of having been suppressed by a subsequent synod that gained ecumenical reception.
The wide discrepancy in both enumeration and semantics constitutes a challenge for Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement. On the one hand, perhaps the issue does not by itself prevent the restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox. On the other hand, its resolution would certainly help to dispel the appearance of divergence in matters of faith.
A Solution Proposed by Pope Paul VI
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there seemed to be a solution at hand. Pope Paul VI referred to the councils that Catholics have historically called ecumenical councils from Constantinople IV to Vatican II as “General Councils of the West.” He thereby seemed to demote the status of these councils and consequently to simplify the process of Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement. But simply re-designating the councils was insufficient, for a few reasons.
First, there was still a need to engage with the doctrine of these councils. Their developments of doctrine remain topics of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogues today.
Second, demoting the councils renders their status ambiguous. This creates problems for Catholics who, to navigate controversy with Protestants and fellow Catholics, continue to look to and to defend the authority of the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. To avoid this consequence, the Papal Synod seems recently to have walked back the policy of Paul VI, making explicit reference to ecumenical councils held “even in the second millennium” in the Preparatory Document of the ongoing Synodal Process (§11).
Third, the doctrinal definitions of ecumenical councils are considered infallible, but a new classification of the later councils calls for an explanation of whether or why Catholic tradition has correctly ascribed to them infallibility. Thankfully, such an explanation is possible.
Catholic tradition does not limit infallibility to the teaching of ecumenical councils. Doctrine set forth definitively by the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium and doctrine defined by papal declarations ex cathedra also enjoy infallibility. These two forms of magisterium exhibit two different criteria for infallibility. The first exhibits ecumenicity. The ecumenical reception of a definitive teaching clearly indicates its infallibility.
The criterion by which a papal declaration ex cathedra is known to be infallible is somewhat obscure. The First Vatican Council taught that when the Bishop of Rome defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church he does so infallibly. Vatican I derived this doctrine, misleadingly called “papal infallibility,” from a more ancient thesis of “Roman indefectibility,” citing the description of the Diocese of Rome by Bernard of Clairvaux as “that place above all where faith can know no failing.” The doctrine does not prevent a Pope from being condemned by a subsequent Pope or by an ecumenical council approved by a subsequent Pope. Nor does it deny the possibility of a Pope falling into heresy. But a Pope who falls into manifest heresy would thereby cease to be Pope; the Church of Rome would not remain in communion with him; he would not remain her Bishop. So the criterion by which Catholics recognize the infallibility of a papal declaration ex cathedra is this: The Pope remains Pope; the indefectible Church of Rome receives his teaching and thereby remains in communion with him.
For the Orthodox, ecumenical councils exhibit both these criteria. As far as I know, the Church in the first millennium did not explicitly treat papal approval of an ecumenical council as sufficient indication of the infallibility of its doctrinal definitions, but the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea did name papal approval as a condition for calling a council an ecumenical council. That they distinguished between papal approval, on the one hand, and the consent of the Patriarchs, on the other – conditions (v) and (vi) above – may indicate a sense of or respect for Roman indefectibility. (Regarding the fact that they drew this distinction, cf. “Serving Communion,” Saint Irenaeus Joint Orthodox-Catholic Working Group, 2018, §7.10). The same Fathers also indicated ecumenical reception as a condition for calling a council an ecumenical council, though they did not clarify whether a council could be considered an ecumenical council before processes of reception were complete.
In any case, in the late Middle Ages and especially after the failure of the Council of Florence to heal the Great Schism, Catholics took greater interest in papal approval of doctrinal definitions as indication of their infallibility. Therefore, by virtue of this criterion, Catholics consider the doctrinal definitions of the later councils infallible.
Having examined the criteria for infallibility, we can reconsider the question: From a Catholic perspective, does the demotion of the later councils implied by Paul VI call into question the infallibility of their doctrinal definitions? This may seem possible because the First Vatican Council acknowledges the charism of infallibility only in relation to doctrinal definitions intended to be held by the whole Church. Therefore, one could call into question the infallibility of a doctrine defined by one of the later councils by demonstrating that the definition was intended only for the West and that the Church of Rome received it according to this condition. However, the fact that Catholic tradition counts the later councils ecumenical councils clearly indicates that it has already received them unconditionally. Therefore, Paul VI’s implicit demotion of these councils cannot be understood as undermining the infallibility of their doctrinal definitions.
This conclusion may seem to vacate the policy of Paul VI of any value for Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement. It dashes any hope for a simple, near-unilateral resolution of the Great Schism, such as a decision by the Catholic Church to strip the Filioque from the Creed – this could happen someday, but the Catholic Church could not thereby renounce her understanding of the Filioque as also orthodox. Rather, the doctrinal developments in the West require deeper study or further development, and less polemical popular presentation, to demonstrate their orthodoxy for the East. Nevertheless, the terminology of Paul VI still has value. We will return to it below.
Infallibility in the West
Because we are presently considering the topic of ecumenical councils, let’s set aside for a moment the specific Catholic doctrines that have for some Eastern Christians the appearance of heresy, e.g. the Filioque. Then, in response to the foregoing, we can ask: Does it matter to Eastern Christians whether Western Christians consider the orthodox doctrinal definitions of their particular councils infallible? In other words, let’s imagine for a moment that the Church of Rome never taught the Filioque, for example, but did independently develop other doctrines more clearly compatible with Orthodoxy, such as Transubstantiation. Should the Christian East be concerned if the Christian West considers doctrines of the latter sort infallible?
If such consideration were only a matter of pious sentiment, I doubt that it would concern the East. However, from their piety, Catholics have distilled an explicit criterion with which to identify infallible doctrine: If a doctrine is held as definitive according to the faith of the Church of Rome, then it is taught infallibly. What are the Orthodox to make of this development?
On the one hand, the Church Fathers of the first millennium clearly exhibit great respect for the faith of the Roman See. On the other hand, the development of this theme, even doctrinal development – naturally of greater interest in Rome – has historically contributed to a weakened understanding and practice of synodality in the Western Church. Consequently, the two criteria that Catholics accept for identifying infallible doctrine – ecumenicity and Roman indefectibility – come into tension. The latter might appear, as it does to many Orthodox and Protestant Christians, as an open invitation to doctrinal innovation at the expense of the former. This trend culminated with the imbalanced ecclesiology of Vatican I.
Vatican II took steps toward rebalancing Catholic ecclesiology, but synodality has become an explicit theme for widespread reflection among Catholics only during the present Synodal Process. The Synodal Process seems to be demonstrating that, despite the historical weakness of synodal practice in the Western Church, Catholics retain a sense of its importance, that they recognize the necessity of coupling ecclesiastical authority with synodality. Perhaps the Catholic Church will arrive at the conclusion that a synod is, by its nature and prima facie, pastorally and gnosiologically superior to the authoritative declaration of an individual prelate and perhaps even that, similarly, a council that finds wider reception, such as across East and West, is, by its nature and prima facie, pastorally and gnosiologically superior to a council that finds narrower reception, such as only in the West.
If the Catholic Church successfully sets her concept of Roman indefectibility and ecclesiastical authority more generally in relation to synodal practice at every level of the Church and across East and West, then belief in Roman indefectibility must appear much less threatening or maybe even orthodox. Then, perhaps even the First Vatican Council may more widely appear as orthodox, having been properly contextualized by such further development.
Yet, the Christian East may still find the concept of Roman indefectibility concerning. The First Vatican Council derived from it the authority of the Roman Pope to obligate the reception of certain doctrinal definitions by all the Christian faithful – an authority that extends to the Christian East. I doubt that the Catholic Church would ever insist on reception of past ex cathedra declarations, of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption for example, as a condition for the restoration of communion with the Orthodox Church. It would likely be sufficient for communion for the Orthodox to recognize these definitions as orthodox or as compatible with Orthodoxy – if Catholics and Orthodox are ever to profess these doctrines together, this would be better accomplished through a future ecumenical council. Nevertheless, the possibility that the Roman Pope could in a reunited Church impose doctrinal definitions upon the East likely appears unacceptable.
Two further points may mitigate the concern of the Christian East over Roman indefectibility and papal infallibility. First, Vatican I links the power of the Roman Pope to define doctrines ex cathedra with his supreme primatial authority. As I argued recently, the Church of Constantinople can understand supreme or extra-territorial primatal authority as demanding obedience, as limited to situations of moral necessity, and as checked by conscience, especially the conscience of the primates of the most eminent sees. Therefore, the Pope’s universal primacy can be understood to apply only to what conscience obligates him to command and what conscience permits those commanded to obey. Analogously, the power of the Roman Pope to obligate belief in the Christian East can be understood to apply only to what conscience obligates the Pope to define and what conscience permits the Christian East to receive.
Second, a similar dynamic of conscience appears whenever Christian doctrine is set forth in a definitive manner, by any prelate or theologian. This is because setting forth doctrine definitively implies that the doctrine in question belongs to the deposit of faith, which the Church teaches infallibly. All such teaching, by its nature, challenges us to receive it – though we are not obligated to do so. No one is obligated to receive the definitive teachings of a prelate or a council to whose jurisdiction one does not belong. But the very fact that definitive teaching is set forth in one local church invites Christians of all the other local churches to assess whether the doctrine reflects the apostolic faith and whether it does so well.
If the doctrine in question contradicts the apostolic faith, then communion is impaired, and a subsequent synod is likely necessary to repair the breach. If the doctrine is just articulated poorly, then a subsequent synod may still be needed. Thankfully, however, the one systematic treatment that we have received from the ancient Church on the topic oikonomia – written by Eulogius of Alexandria and preserved in opuscule 227 of the Bibliotheca of Photius of Constantinople – explicitly notes that poorly articulated doctrine is tolerable and need not impair communion. This dynamic of assessing doctrine among the local churches belongs to the life of the Church. And it is as an extension of this dynamic that we can understand the universal jurisdiction for teaching that Vatican I attributes to the Pope of Rome: When conscience obligates the Pope of Rome to define a doctrine, then all Christians must listen and assess and receive what conscience permits them to receive; whatever isn’t received demands further synodal engagement.
Having just considered the development of the theme of Roman indefectibility and its further development into the doctrine of papal infallibility, we can return to the question of whether the Christian East can accept the ascription of infallibility to particular councils in the West. Given the present efforts of the Catholic Church to restore her understanding and practice of synodality, Catholics cannot insist that the Christian East receive councils in which they did not participate and to whose formulations they have theological objections. Also given the same efforts of the Catholic Church, the East can expect from Rome a deeper respect for and engagement with their positions in the future. These two outcomes would seem to go a long way toward rendering the ascription of infallibility to particular councils in the West inoffensive to the East, though the belief in Roman indefectibility, from which such ascription is derived, and the doctrine of papal infallibility developed from it likely both deserve further consideration.
The foregoing discussion began with setting aside Catholic doctrines that have for some Eastern Christians the appearance of heresy. Although Roman indefectibility and papal infallibility were partially addressed, argument in their favor is moot for as long as Rome appears to Eastern Christians to have fallen away from the apostolic faith in other respects – such as in relation to the Filioque clause and some aspects of Catholic teaching on Purgatory. If, however, Catholics can bring to light for the Orthodox the orthodoxy of these doctrines as well, then Catholics and Orthodox could someday reach agreement on the status of the doctrinal definitions of the councils that Paul VI called “General Councils of the West”: infallible teachings of particular councils definitively received by the Church of Rome, poorly articulated for and therefore not received by the East, but no longer church-dividing.
Revisiting Constantinople IV
If Catholics and Orthodox can achieve a consensus like the above regarding the status of the councils of the second millennium, then the question of how to enumerate ecumenical councils together becomes far easier. Catholics need not count the later councils as ecumenical councils. Rather, to reflect a new respect among Catholics for councils that find the widest reception, across East and West, and to indicate that Catholics would not insist on the reception of councils by the Orthodox in which they did not adequately participate, Pope Paul VI’s designation of the later councils as “General Councils of the West” seems entirely apt – or nearly so.
Nearly so, because unlike the rest of the Councils of the West the first council that might be classed among them – which Catholics call the “Eighth Ecumenical Council” and “Constantinople IV” – did not occur in the West, and it found reception, mixed reception, in the East. Like the ecumenical councils before it, it was convened in the East in the first millennium by the Byzantine emperor and approved by Rome, and it called itself an ecumenical council, the eighth ecumenical council. But because this council, held in 869-870, was poorly received by the Church of Constantinople, it was overturned in 879-880 by a subsequent council, also convened by the Byzantine emperor and also approved by Rome and also at times called an ecumenical council. Immediately after it occurred, it was called the Ninth Ecumenical Council, but it has been more often called the Eighth among the Orthodox. Most often, the Orthodox refer to the latter council as “Constantinople IV” or “the Council Held in the Temple of Holy Wisdom.”
The convoluted history of these ninth century councils has generated much misunderstanding between East and West. Thankfully, in the last century, their history was newly clarified by the work of Fr. Francis Dvornik in The Photian Schism – first published in English in 1948 and available in Ukrainian since 2017. To conclude this article, I will summarize the findings of Fr. Dvornik (italicized below in case the reader would like to skip the historical summary) and then compare a few proposals regarding how Catholics and Orthodox might understand together the ninth century councils in particular and ecumenical councils in general.
The story of the ninth century councils may be appreciated most easily by beginning a few decades earlier. In 843, Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons in Constantinople. By this act, she secured the victory of orthodox Christianity over the heresy of iconoclasm. Personally, Empress Theodora was devout and rigorist, but as a politician she pursued a liberal policy to ensure that former iconoclasts were restored to the Church with gentleness. She therefore appointed only liberal bishops and the liberal Sicilian Patriarch Methodius, thereby offending the rigorist Studite monks whom she so much admired in her private devotion. The Studites soon went into schism.
After the death of Patriarch Methodius, the dispute between liberals and rigorists was so bitter that Empress Theodora dispensed with the traditional synod to elect the next Patriarch and appointed as Patriarch the rigorist monk Ignatius in 847. As Patriarch, Ignatius quickly healed the schism with the Studites. But then liberal partisans led by Archbishop Gregory Asbestas of Syracuse went into schism, for which they were condemned in 853.
When Pope Benedict III became aware of events in Constantinople, he rebuked Patriarch Ignatius for having failed to consult with Rome before the condemnation but allowed Ignatius’s judgment to stand until Rome could retry the case. Benedict asked Ignatius to send delegates for the retrial and also questioned the legitimacy of his appointment as Patriarch. Ignatius ignored the request.
In 856, Empress Theodora’s son Michael came of age. When Patriarch Ignatius refused to bless Theodora’s involuntary retirement to monastic life, he was banished from Constantinople in July 857. In his banishment, Ignatius resigned as Patriarch. At this point, the controversial figure of Photius appears on the scene – and the details of the story merit attention year by year.
The bishops met in synod in 858, restored Gregory Asbestas and his companions, and elected as Patriarch the layman, academic, and government official Photius. Photius was favored by the new government and had connections with both liberals and rigorists. The bishops agreed that Photius would be ordained by Gregory Asbestas and two bishops not of the liberal party and that Photius must promise to show respect for the former Patriarch Ignatius. Photius was quickly ordained in time for Christmas, and all happened as agreed.
Within two months, however, five rigorist bishops convened to declare that Photius had violated his promise to respect Ignatius and that therefore Ignatius was Patriarch again. In response, Photius summoned a council in early 859, but it was interrupted by violence. The imperial government immediately cracked down on the rigorists and sought to force Ignatius to reiterate his resignation. Ignatius refused. The Church clarified later in August that Ignatius was not Patriarch.
At the start of 860, Photius sent a delegation to Rome, including bishops who had been condemned by Ignatius and whose case Rome still intended to retry. Pope Nicholas I questioned them concerning the treatment of Patriarch Ignatius, the election of Photius, and the restoration of Gregory Asbestas and his companions, especially since Rome still considered them condemned. The Pope sent legates to Constantinople to investigate and to report back to him for his final judgment.
The papal legates arrived in 861. Emperor Michael was hoping to hold a council to reiterate the Church’s condemnation of iconoclasm, but the legates insisted on carrying out the Pope’s agenda as well. The emperor agreed to follow the Pope’s agenda only on the condition that the legates exceed their competence to investigate and pass a final judgment on the Pope’s behalf while in Constantinople. Before so profound an acknowledgment of Roman primacy – submitting to a disciplinary trial of her Patriarch initiated by the Pope of Rome, even according to Roman canonical procedures – the papal legates accepted the emperor’s terms. Ignatius refused to attend the synod, and he refused to reiterate his abdication. At the conclusion of the synod of 861, the status of Photius as Patriarch was confirmed, and Ignatius was deposed and allowed to return to quiet monastic life. Among Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians today, the councils of 859 and 861 are known as the First-and-Second Council.
Back in Rome, Pope Nicholas was pleased by the prudence of his legates but disappointed that they did not also secure Rome’s jurisdiction over Sicily, Calabria, and Illyricum. Hoping to secure this concession as well, and ultimately jurisdiction over all of then-pagan Bulgaria, Pope Nicholas delayed his confirmation of the council of 861. The Pope wrote to Constantinople to seek the further concession.
By the summer of 863, no response had arrived from Constantinople, and Pope Nicholas had received a passionate account of events from rigorist partisans of Ignatius who had come to Rome. So Pope Nicholas decided to raise the stakes by convening a synod against Photius in Rome. This synod deposed Gregory Asbestas, Photius, and all ordained by him and restored Ignatius as Patriarch. The synod was unfortunately disingenuous: One of the papal legates returned from Constantionple was publicly deposed but privately rewarded; the other legate refused to go along and was condemned in 864.
In the wake of the Roman synod, Rome and Constantinople were in schism. Then, in 864, the Byzantines allied with Moravia and quickly subdued Bulgaria. Hope in Rome for securing jurisdiction over Bulgaria seemed lost. Pope Nicholas wrote twice to Emperor Michael.
In 865, the emperor wrote back, haughtily. Too ill to respond himself, Pope Nicholas asked Anastasius the Librarian to write a defense of papal primacy on his behalf. The resulting document exceeded earlier tradition and claimed for the Pope exclusive right to convoke ecumenical councils and to try major cases in both the first and second instance and rejected imperial participation in ecclesiastical governance. The letter was poorly received in Constantinople.
In 866, hope in Rome for jurisdiction over Bulgaria was restored. A delegation arrived from Boris, King of Bulgaria, to request that Rome appoint for Bulgaria her own Patriarch, since Constantinople had refused. As a compromise, Pope Nicholas agreed to grant Bulgaria an archbishop. He sent missionaries, provided a legal code, and pushed out Byzantine influence, infuriating both Church and state in Constantinople.
In 867, Pope Nicholas sent a delegation to Constantinople to heal the schism, requesting only the restoration of Ignatius as Patriarch. But the delegation was stopped at the Bulgarian-Byzantine border and permitted passage only on the condition that they recognize Photius as Patriarch and condemn the practices of Frankish missionaries permitting the consumption of dairy during Lent, forbidding the ordination of married men, reserving confirmation to bishops, and teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and Son. Unfortunately, the conditions presented to the papal delegates were also disingenuous: Although personally opposed to use of the Filioque clause, for example, Photius would raise no explicit objection against Frankish practices when he was reconciled with Rome at the Council of 879-880. Unable to proceed, the papal delegates retreated to Rome. Fearing a deeper schism, Pope Nicholas called upon the whole Western Church to oppose Patriarch Photius. At the same time, also in 867, Photius convened a synod to depose Pope Nicholas. But the acts of the synod were never disseminated. Before the year’s end, the Co-Emperor Basil murdered Michael III, recalled the synodal acts, procured the resignation of Photius, and restored Ignatius as Patriarch.
Pope Nicholas never learned of the attempted deposition, since he died in the spring of 868. Later that year, Emperor Basil dispatched a delegation to Rome. The delegation included representatives of both Ignatius and Photius, so that the new Pope Hadrian II could try their case, but due to the danger of traveling through the winter the representative of Photius died on the way.
The delegation arrived in Rome in 869. They brought an account of the synod of 867 and a request for papal legates to be sent to Constantinople for a council to be held later that year. So that he could try their case properly, Pope Hadrian attempted to persuade the monk Methodius to take up the defense of Photius, but Methodius refused. After much hesitation, Pope Hadrian finally ruled against Photius at a synod in Rome, deposing him and all who participated in the synod of 867. He also specified a condition, to be communicated later, for his recognition of Ignatius as Patriarch: that Ignatius should not interfere with Roman interests in Bulgaria. The Pope then sent legates to Constantinople. Displeased with the severity of the Pope’s sentence and citing the lack of a defense for Photius, Emperor Basil requested a retrial. But, mindful of the fate of the papal legates after the synod of 861, the papal legates refused to compromise and insisted that the Pope’s decision be implemented exactly.
The council continued into 870. Near its end, a delegation arrived from Boris of Bulgaria, to clarify to which patriarchate the new Archbishopric of Bulgaria would belong, since Pope Hadrian had not allowed Boris to choose his own archbishop. Basil had the papal legates excluded from the meeting and had Bulgaria assigned to the jurisdiction of Constantinople. The legates departed in low spirits and, after surviving capture by pirates, returned to Rome. In Constantinople the council was widely resented and found little reception. There soon appeared duplicate hierarchies – Ignatian and Photian – and they cooperated. Missionaries were needed for Bulgaria and were drawn from the deposed Photian clergy. In time, Catholics would come to consider the council of 869-870 the Eighth Ecumenical Council, but not until centuries later once much of its context was long forgotten. After this council, the details thin out, and the story can skip forward more quickly.
In 871, Emperor Basil wrote to Pope Hadrian requesting lenience for the Photians. Hadrian refused. Over the next years, the situation of Photius improved. Basil invited him to tutor his children and to resume his academic work. Ignatius and Photius were reconciled in 876, with Photius gaining the right to succeed Ignatius as Patriarch. In 877, Basil wrote to Pope John VIII to request delegates for a new council to heal the schism in Constantinople. But before the council could convene, Ignatius died, and Photius became Patriarch. Pope John specified new conditions for his recognition as Patriarch, and, although Photius refused to apologize before the council, his status as Patriarch was confirmed at the Council of Constantinople of 879-880 – the Council Held in the Temple of Holy Wisdom.
After a further exchange of letters, Pope John VIII accepted the Council of 879-880. The Roman synods of 863 and 869 and the Constantinopolitan Council of 869-870, all convened against Photius, were suppressed. And a compromise was achieved regarding Bulgaria: The Greek clergy would remain, but Bulgaria’s archbishop would answer to Rome. At last, peace was restored between Rome and Constantinople.
Upon the death of Basil, Photius was pressured to resign, publicly tried, and then banished in 886. Photius died in February 892 and was soon venerated in Constantinople as a saint. Even then some of the Ignatian rigorists remained in schism, appealing to Rome against Photius in 892 and in 899. After the failure of the papal delegation of 892, one of the most extreme members of the schismatic party produced a collection of documents that has come to be known as the “Anti-Photian Collection.” It is most unfortunate that this collection was rediscovered by Cardinal Baronius in the 17th century, who falsely deduced from its distorted account that St. Photius must have died in schism. The reputation of Photius has unjustly suffered in the West ever since.
In a similar fashion, Rome counted only seven ecumenical councils until the canons of the Council of 869-870 were rediscovered at the end of the 11th century and used to defend the Church from the influence of secular authorities. Because the Council of 869-870 called itself the “Eighth Ecumenical Council” and because its suppression by the Council of 879-880 had been forgotten, canonists added the former council to the list of ecumenical councils enumerated by the Western Church.
From his study of the history of the ninth century councils, Fr. Dvornik concludes that the memory of Photius ought to be rehabilitated in the West. Despite their disingenuous actions in 863 and 867, respectively, Catholics and Orthodox rightly venerate both St. Nicholas I of Rome and St. Photius of Constantinople and ought to do so together. Fr. Dvornik also argues that the Catholic Church must “revive the tradition which she herself had followed up to the 12th century, and the memory of which was alive in the West up to the 17th century…and recognize only the seven primitive councils, excluding the so-called Eighth.”
At the same time, Dvornik acknowledges the importance of the Council of 869-870 to the Western canonical tradition and even defends the canonists who mistakenly added it to the list of ecumenical councils: “they had a perfect right to use canons voted by a council [and] considered faithfully to express the feelings of the Church,” provided that these canons “were not expressly repudiated either by the Photian Council or by John VIII” (Dvornik, The Photian Schism, 2008, p. 329). In fact, Pope John VIII suggested the same, insisting upon observance of the suppressed council’s fifth canon. Dvornik would seem to see no contradiction between the repudiation of, say, cann. 2, 4, 6, 9, and 25 – all of which attack Photius personally – on the one hand, and the use of cann. 11, 12, 18, 21, and 22 by Western tradition, on the other.
If the Catholic Church were to accept Fr. Dvornik’s recommendation, Catholics and Orthodox might in the future distinguish among: the seven Ecumenical Councils, the councils of the ninth century, and the General Councils of the West. Certainly, in light of the foregoing history, Catholics should never recall the Council of 869-870 without reference to and respect for the Council of 879-880, and perhaps also the First-and-Second Council of 859 and 861.
If Catholics were not to demote the Council of 869-870, then maybe they could instead expand the concept of the Eighth Ecumenical Council, such that the designation “Constantinople IV” might refer to an ecumenical council in multiple parts: the First-and-Second Council of 859 and 861, the Ignatian Council of 869-870, and the Photian Council of 879-880. Thus, Catholics might re-receive canonical resources prominent in the Byzantine tradition.
Most interesting might be the possibility of acceptance of such an expanded concept of the “Eighth Ecumenical Council” by both Catholics and Orthodox together. Even in recent years, some Orthodox theologians have called for the enumeration of the Council of 879-880 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Unfortunately, these theologians tend to employ the Photian Council in a polemical manner against Catholic use of the Filioque, since the council condemned any alteration of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Yet, even if it was implied, the Council made no explicit mention of the Filioque. For any consensus to emerge regarding “Constantinople IV,” it must be acknowledged that the councils of the ninth century did not adequately address the controversy over the Filioque and that the precise question of “the manner of the Spirit’s origin…still awaits full and final ecumenical resolution.”
This article began with a list of conditions, all or some of which Orthodox Christians consider necessary for calling a council an ecumenical council: (i) a synod of bishops (ii) extraordinarily convened (iii) by the Byzantine emperor (iv) to define doctrine, that gains (v) the approval of the Roman Pope, (vi) the consent of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, (vii) ecumenical reception, and (viii) enumeration as an ecumenical council by a subsequent synod which itself gains ecumenical reception. I haven’t engaged with these directly and therefore have hardly brought Catholic and Orthodox understandings of ecumenical councils closer together. At the start, I dismissed the third condition, and now at the end, in the interest of at least a common enumeration of ecumenical councils, I will challenge the fourth.
Traditionally, the Orthodox have objected to enumerating the Council of 879-880 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council because it does not fulfill the fourth condition; it did not define doctrine. Yet, we have seen in the case of the Ignatian Council of 869-870 that defining doctrine was not considered a necessary condition for a council to call itself an ecumenical council in the ninth century. Neither have Catholics considered this a necessary condition.
The Orthodox might further object that without this fourth condition the Church cannot distinguish between ecumenical councils and particular councils that have gained ecumenical reception. However, the Church might still maintain her enumeration of ecumenical councils by virtue of the eighth condition – the status of a council as an ecumenical council is secured only by enumeration as such by a subsequent synod that gains ecumenical reception. In fact, it was the councils of the ninth century that secured the ecumenical status of the Second Council of Nicaea. Perhaps, then, a future synod, in order better to draw together the Christian East and the Christian West, might secure the ecumenical status of an expanded sense of Constantinople IV – as the eighth of eight Ecumenical Councils.