The 21 Ecumenical Councils


There have been 21 Ecumenical Councils in Church History. This does not include the Council of Jerusalem held A.D. 50 by the Apostles as recorded in Acts 15. A council is a gathering of bishops meant to discuss doctrinal and/or pastoral matters of the Church. It becomes ecumenical when its works are approved by the Pope.1

I. The First Council of Nicaea, 325 AD

Council of Nicaea 325, Vatican (1590)

This council was held to combat the Arian heresy and quieten the religious conflict that ensued between Arians and Catholics.2 Arias claimed that Christ was not of the same substance as the Father, denying Christ the title of God.3

Ultimately, the council concluded that Christ was of the “same substance as the Father”, “God of God”, “light of light”, “begotten not made.”

Further, the Church rejected outright any idea that Christ did not exist at one point, was made out of nothing, was not of the same substance of the Father, or was mutable (subject to change). It was here that the Nicene Creed was developed.2

II. The First Council of Constantinople, 381 AD

Homilies of Gregory the Theologian (879 – 883)

This council was held to confirm the Nicene faith with a special emphasis on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This council also dogmatically condemned all forms of Arianism, Macedonianism and Apollinarianism.4

III. The Council of Ephesus, 431 AD

Council of Ephesus in 431 in the Basilica of Fourvière, Lyon, photograph by Philippe Alès, CC BY-SA 3.0

This council was held to combat the Nestorian heresy.5 Nestorius claimed that Christ was two distinct persons, one divine and one human, and that, therefore, God was not born and that Mary was not the mother of God, but mother of Jesus, the human.6

This council successfully concluded that Christ was indeed one person, that God was born of a virgin and that, therefore, Mary was the Mother of God.5

IV. The Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD

Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, Vasily Surikov (1876)

This council was held to reinforce the Catholic doctrine against the Eutychianism heresy, also known as Monophysitism. Eutyches, in his passion to protect the unity of Christ, claimed that Christ had one nature, that His divine nature absorbed His human nature.

It was concluded that the Church teaches ” . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”7

V. The Second Council of Contantinople, 553 AD

Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, Vasily Surikov (1876)

This council was held to combat The Three Chapters, writings by prominent theologians that Nestorians were using to provide foundation to their political power.

Ultimately, The Three Chapters were successfully condemned in a way that also protected the authority of the Council of Chalcedon, so that it was settled that Christ was one person with two natures.8

VI. The Third Council of Constantinople, 680-681 AD

Sixth Ecumenical Council, Miniature 45 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, Constantine Manasses (14 century)

This council was held to restore peace between the East and West churches which had been troubled by Monothelitism (the belief that Christ had only one will instead of two) and the violence imposed by Emperor Constans II to suppress the orthodox truth.

The bishops, by a dogmatic letter by Pope Agatho and a review of Biblical and Patristic writings, affirmed that Christ had two wills, one for each nature, one Divine and one human.

Macarius of Antioch still supported Monothelism and was anathematized as a result. Further review led to some writings by Pope Honorious being anathematized, writings which contributed to the confusion regarding Christ’s two wills.9

VII. The Second Council of Nicaea, 787 AD

Second Council of Nicaea, Menologion of Basil II (11th century)

This council was held in Nicaea to combat Iconoclasm (the belief in the destruction of holy images).

Between 330 and 367 bishops and representatives attended the council and reviewed various Biblical, Patristic and Papal writings that ultimately supported the veneration of holy images. This council also made it a canonical requirement that relics be placed in every church.10

VIII. The Fourth Council of Constantinople, 869 AD

Fourth Council of Constantinople, Cesare Nebbia (1585), source

This council was held to address the power struggles in the Church hierarchy that occurred a decade before. The new emperor, Basil the Macedonian, fixed this situation, restored order and requested a council to enforce these restorations.

Pope Hormisdas, in a letter, indicated that every member of the Church follow and remain in communion with the Holy See to preserve the Christian faith. Photius, a man of division in the Church hierarchy, was questioned during this council and rejected the authority of the Church. He was excommunicated and banished to a monastery where he continued his propaganda.

During this council, the last remnants of Iconoclasm was denounced, and Rome recognized Constantinople as the second place among the five great patriarchates. This allowed Constantinople to claim Bulgaria, which Rome never reclaimed.11

IX. The First Lateran Council, 1123 AD

This council was held to settle certain disciplinary norms in the Church including separating spiritual and temporal affairs, ratifying that spiritual authority only comes from the Church, and removing the claim that emperors could interfere with papal elections. Many considered this council as the beginning of a new era.12

X. The Second Lateran Council, 1139 AD

St. Bernard at the Second Lateran Council in Rome, Cloister of the Cistercian Monastery, Altenberg, probably Master of St. Severin, Cologne (1505-1520)

This council was held to end a schism caused by Anti-pope Anacletus II, to reverse invalid ordinations, to address errors and abuses among the clergy and laity, and to restore ecclesiastical morals and discipline.13

XI. The Third Lateran Council, 1179 AD

This council was held to exterminate the remains of a schism that occurred with two anti-popes and to condemn the Waldensian heresy. Further, to prevent future schisms, it was decided that only cardinals should have the right to elect a pope with a two-thirds majority required. If anyone did not meet that standard but called themselves the pope, they were excommunicated. The minimum age for anyone who had to pastor to souls was 25 and anyone who became bishop had to be at least 30.14

XII. The Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 AD

The Fourth Lateran Council, Cesare Nebia (1215)

This council was held by Pope Innocent III to meet with all the leaders of the Church, including patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, abbots, priors, delegates of related dignitaries and envoys of emperors, kings and princes. Due to its size, it was called the “General Council” or “Great Council”. The Pope announced his desire to celebrate the Mass with all of the attendees and his readiness to suffer for the faith, the Holy Land and the liberty of the Church.

He produced seventy decrees or canons that pertained to dogmatic and moral theology, disciplines, measures against heretics, and conditions of the next crusade. Importantly, the first canon dealt with the theology of the Catholic Faith and of Transubstantiation, and the twenty-first canon, “Omnis utriusque sexus”, commanded all Christians who were past the age of reason to go to confession at least once a year.15

XIII. The First Council of Lyons, 1245 AD

Pope Innocent IV at the Council of Lyon between bishops, MS 1. Syracuse University Library, Department of Special Collections (pre-1278)

This council was held to deal with the threats of Emperor Frederick II against Pope Innocent IV. Spiritual and temporal matters were also discussed such as the institution of the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Mother and that cardinals were to wear a red hat.16

XIV. The Second Council of Lyons, 1274 AD

Saint Bonaventure at the Council of Lyon, Francisco de Zurbarán (1625-1650)

This council was held to discuss the conquest of the Holy Land via the Crusades and the union of the West and East Churches via the ecclesial and royal representatives. It was one of the largest assemblies since the start of the Church.

During the council, they warmly embraced the orders of St. Dominic and St. Francis. Further, two great doctors of the Church passed into God’s eternal embrace, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure.17

XV. The Council of Vienne, 1311-1313 AD

Council of Vienne, Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance, Vatican (1870)

This council was held to discuss the Order of Knights Templar (both its members and their land assets), the Catholic Faith, the Holy Land, and the improvement of the Church’s clerical orders and morals. The invitation came with a request that all attendees bring ideas to improve church life.

A commission was formed to investigate the Templars through which it was affirmed that they needed the right to defend themselves and that there was not enough evidence to charge them with sacrilege and sodomy as King Philip IV of France had accused them of. The Pope unfortunately ceded to the King and declared the suppression of the Templars.

The King promised to lead the next crusade in six years to retake the Holy Land and a tithe was collected by the Church from all its empires to support this future Crusade. King Philip IV instead used the funds to fight a war against the Flanders and the crusade was never carried out.18

XVI. The Council of Constance, 1414-1418 AD

Bishops debating with the pope at the Council of Constance, Ulrich von Richental (1460)

This ecumenical council was held to undo the Western Schism, to reform ecclesiastical and government life, and to repress heresy. It was an unusual council, as the reader will see below, and was attended, in various ways, by well over 50,000 members.

The Western Schism was an incident where, due to politics and human error, three people claimed to be the pope: John XXIII, Benedict XIII and Gregory XII. Historians note that Gregory XII was the real pope.

During the council, it was agreed that all three popes had to step down and a proper successor elected. Because of this extraordinary situation where the Church did not know who was the proper pope, it was decided that any decrees of this council would be voted on by its members and would be deemed the “final depository of supreme ecclesiastical authority”, over and above anyone who claimed to be pope.

John XXIII resigned, was tried and arrested. Gregory XII, though considered by historians as the legitimate pope, resigned in obedience and died as a holy man. Benedict XIII never formally stepped down, but died after escaping to an island. He was declared a heretic and a schismatic.

Sadly, with no one as pope, confusion and disciplinary disorder now threatened the Church. This was further worsened by the fact that the papal seat, for the last few offices, did not rest in Rome, but in Avignon, France, due to the tyranny of the French monarchy who wanted to control the Church.

The council voted in Pope Martin V. Upon being chosen pope, he closed the council and formally returned to Rome, returning the papal chair back to where it belonged.

He then set about, with a new commission of members, correcting the abuses that occurred in Church administration due to temporal interference from the French monarchy and general confusion from the papal absence in Rome. The council also declared tyrranicide (the killing of a tyrant) as illegitimate without a judicial sentence.

This council also addressed the heresies of John Wyclif and John Hus. John Hus, in particular, presented himself to the commission and would not recant his heresies, for which he was convicted. Sadly, he was executed by the German government by burning at the stake. He died loving Christ, saying “Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us!” The same happened to a friend of Hus, Jerome (Hieronymus) of Prague.

Cardinal Guillaume Fillastre wrote as follows “No previous council was gotten together with so much difficulty, or ran a career so unique, marvellous and perilous, or lasted so long.”

Historians recognize this council as the one that closed the medieval age and the modern age. Historians also note that it was in this council where protestant notions (that Luther would later present) started to stir in the Church, especially because of what happened to Hus.19

XVII. The Council of Basle (Ferrara, Florence) 1431-1439 AD

Concile de Basle, extract from “Nouveau traité de diplomatique…”, BM de Reims (1759)

This council was held to accommodate the reunion of the Greek Churches with the Roman Church. The previous council caused a false idea to surface that the council superseded the Pope’s authority, making the the Pope’s job more difficult (first Pope Martin V and then his successor, Eugene IV) and threatening another schism. As a result, this council was dissolved and moved to Ferara, and then moved again to Florence because of a plague.

To unite the Greek and Roman churches, the topics discussed included the manner of the procession of the Holy Spirit, Purgatory and the Primacy of the Chair of St. Peter. Regarding the Holy Spirit, it was taught that the one Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son in one action. Though initially disputed, the Greeks came to accept this teaching and, due to the financial and military support promised by Pope Eugene IV, they came to accept the doctrine of Purgatory and the Primacy of the Pope.

Unfortunately, the Greek clergy and people did not finally accept this teaching, remained in schism and they fell to the advancing armies of the Ottoman Turks before anything could be resolved.20

XVIII. The Fifth Lateran Council, 1512-1517 AD

The Fifth Lateran council, artist unknown (16th century)

This council was held as a matter of course to discuss Church matters. These matters included the formation of pawn shops to help the poor, ecclesiastical liberty, condemnation of any abuse of episcopal dignity, excommunication for anyone printing books not authorized by the diocese, the extent of papal power, and war against the Turks.

This council was spurred on, however, by incidents that occurred beforehand. Prior to this council, because Pope Julius II had not convoked a council as he promised soon after his election, a few cardinals started their own council. The Pope strongly condemned these actions and finally started the council he promised.21

XIX. The Council of Trent, 1545-1563 AD

Council of Trent, Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, photograph by Laurom, CC BY-SA 3.0

This council was held to discuss the various dogmatic truths that were being challenged by the Protestant Reformation. In 1518, Luther asked the Pope for a general council to consider his (heretical) doctrines. Germany also asked for a German national council to temporarily settle the questions Luther had. Pope Clement VII denied the national council, but agreed to the general council.

Unfortunately, due to political reasons among the Roman, German, French, and English monarchs, the council did not take place during the reign of Clement VII (the German protestant princes did not agree to the conditions set out by the Pope for the council, the French King, Francis I, did not want the council, and the English King, Henry XIII, did not care for a council).

The following Pope, Paul III, saw the council as necessary and, with the aid of the cardinals, tried to convoke it in 1534 and 1542 but it was frustrated by the same power players both times. Finally, however, he convoked the general council in 1545 and the first session took place on December 13 of that year.

This council had taken place during the reign of 6 popes: Clement VII, Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV.

The first three sessions, up to 1546, were focused on what topics were to be discussed, who would be allowed to vote and how to conduct the discussions in a manner that protected the dogmatic teaching authority of the Pope. The topics decided on were dogma and Church discipline / reform. The theologians of the council were split into six classes to discuss as exhaustively and objectively as possible all the topics of importance. These included:

  • Scripture and the source of Divine Revelation
    • Regarding faith and morals, both the Tradition of the Church and the Bible were considered the standard of truth and supernaturally revealed.
    • The Vulgate was made the choice text for sermons.
    • The Bible was to be read in light of the Church Fathers and never misused for superstitious purposes.
    • Nothing was mentioned about translating the Bible into other common languages.
  • Original sin, its nature, its consequences and its cancellation by baptism
  • The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (no new dogma was defined here)
  • Justification was discussed in the sixth (and important) session and caused a storm of debate that resulted in 16 chapters and 33 canons.
  • The Sacraments such as Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Mass, Communion under bread and wine, Communion to children, Marriage, Ordination, Penance and Extreme Unction.
  • Veneration and invocation of the saints and their relics and images.
  • Indulgences, fasts and feast days.
  • The Missal, Breviary and a catechism.
  • List of forbidden books.
  • Matters of Church reform such as administration of the Roman Curia, benefices and tithes, orders, training and morals of the clergy, the founding of new parishes and collectors of alms

The decrees were confirmed in 1564 by Pius IV. Despite all the political and spiritual difficulties faced by the Church during this era, the council was successfully executed and demonstrated the pure unchanging truth of Christianity.22

XX. The First Vatican Council, 1869-1870 AD

First Vatican Council, artist unknown (1870)

This council was held to discuss various matters regarding dogma, discipline, orders, the Oriental Churches and Church-state matters.

In 1864, Pope Pius IX announced his intention to convoke a general council. A bull was released in 1868 to convoke the council in 1869 and a call was made to the schimastic Orientals to join the council and to the Protestant denominations to use this time as a chance to think about returning back to the Church.

Though the papal bull that called for the convocation was accepted by the Catholic people, many places in Germany, France and England were not. They feared what dogmas the council would unveil regarding the papacy and papal authority. Many writings were generated against papal infallibility and many Church scholars fought to defend it. The uproar regarding the matter caused a few German bishops to ask to the Pope not to define papal infallibility for the moment. The European protestant governments decided to stay neutral in the matter and Russia forbade its bishops from attending.

The opening of the council occurred in 1869 and was, for the first time, attended by Canadian and American bishops.

Some dogmatic matters included:

  • Catholic doctrine that opposed the errors of Rationalism
  • The Church
  • Marriage
  • Papal Infallibility
  • The definition of the Assumption of Our Lady
  • The elevation of St. Joseph as patron saint of the Universal Church

Some disciplinary matters included:

  • Bishops, episcopal sees, grades of clergy seminaries
  • Philosophical and theological curricula, sermons, the catechism and rituals, list of forbidden books
  • Reasons that would impede marriage, civil and mixed marriages, Christian morals, feast days, abstinence, fasts, dueling, secret societies, alternative beliefs (magnetism and spiritualism)
  • Reform and codification of canon law

Papal infallibility was not initially included in the list of topics to be discussed. However, the majority of the council members wanted the definition to be set forth, while a minority was against it. This created a party split and much of the debates on the listed topics was tainted by this split. The minority even went so far as to assert that the council was only convoked to discuss papal infallibility.

Though not true, the pressure made by power players outside the council on this matter caused the majority council members to push this subject, despite obstacles set forth by the minority. After much discussion, in 1870, it was declared and accepted that “the Roman Pontiff cannot err in defining matters of faith and morals.”

This, obviously, created a firestorm of controversy in Europe as different parties weighed in on the subject and tried to taint the public view of the council. Despite this, the final promulgation on this point was made (there was even a thunderstorm outside). Every member of the minority accepted the definition. Many intellectuals outside the council committed apostasy, but the majority of the Catholic Church accepted the definition with joy.

There were more sessions planned to discuss all of the remaining topics, but an invasion by Piedmontese troops during the Second Italian War of Independence caused the Pope to delay any further sessions.23

Ultimately, the council bore two fruits:

  • A dogmatic defense of Christian truth against Rationalism, Materialism and atheism through an understanding of faith, reason and Divine Revelation.
  • A dogmatic description of the Pope and his primacy on which “the unity, strength and stability of the Church rests” and papal infallibility; this finally settled the misunderstanding produced by the Council of Constance and the Great Schism.

Following the council, several more fruits were born:

  • Pius IX made St. Joseph the patron saint of the Universal Church on December 8, 1870
  • Moral and religious problems and the index of forbidden books were dealt with through the encyclicals of Leo XIII
  • Many of the remaining topics and requests left unsettled by the abrupt end of the council were handled by Pius X

XXI. The Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965 AD

Dispersion of the Fathers Second Vatican Council, photograph by Lothar Wolleh (2012), CC BY-SA 3.0

This council was held to address the acceleration of modernist, secularist and relativist thinking taking over the world. During his office, Pope St. John XXIII had seen the social changes in Rome and knew of great social shifts around the world. Understanding his role as shepherd to the whole Church, he called for an ecumenical council in 1959 to address the needs of the Universal Church, some of which included addressing the errors of modernism, overly strict following of rubrics of the Sacred Liturgy, the effects of World War I and II, the sexual revolution and secular relativism.

The overall goal was to teach the Gospel and the doctrines of the Church in a way that the new world, now exposed to modernism, could understand.

The council was convoked in 1962 and produced many fruits:

  • The four constitutions: Dei Verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Gaudium Et Spes, and Lumen Gentium.
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church
  • The encouragement of everyone to study the Scripture daily and to study the writings of the Church Fathers
  • The personal call to holiness, sainthood and missionary vocation of the laity and every person in the Church
  • The call to a more conscious participation of the laity in the Mass and the re-centering of the Church on Liturgy which included permission to change the texts, forms and languages used in the Mass and in the administration of the Sacraments
  • An understanding of the bishop’s role in matters of Scripture, belief and missionary activity; this was to balance the enlarged focus that was placed on papal primacy in the last council
  • A more clear path for evangelism and how to relate to other Christian denominations and religions

Unfortunately, the Second Vatican Council has been embroiled in controversy. Modernism itself and the personal agendas of powerful people in the Church caused the reforms to be misinterpreted leading to unintended changes in Church life.24, 25, 26

Categorized as History