The Papacy, Vatican I, and Ecumenical Councils: Can the pope act alone during an ecumenical council without his brother bishops?

On Reason and Theology (one of my favorite channel on Youtube), host Michael Lofton had Timothy Flanders, Erick Ybarra, William Albrecht, and Craig Truglia on earlier tonight. The topic of the show was, “Timothy Flanders on Eastern Orthodox Reactions to His Conversion”. Timothy, Erick, and William are all Roman Catholics and Craig is Eastern Orthodox.  Craig made a comment on the show with regards to the papacy which clearly shows that he has a misunderstanding of what the Catholic Church teaches (specifically with regards to the papacy and its relation to Ecumenical Councils). Starting at 49:19 in the video, Mr. Truglia begins talking about Vatican I and how the council says the pope does not need the consent of the bishops and he applies it to Nicaea II (and Ecumenical Councils in general) and concludes that there is a contradiction between what Vatican I is claiming and what first millennium Christianity taught.. The discussion is picked back up at around 1:12:20 where this time, my question is placed on the video for Mr. Truglia to answer. I would recommend listening to those segments before reading on. You may also follow the live chat to see the correspondence between Mr. Truglia in the video and myself (Elijah Yasi) on the live chat.

So, is there a contradiction?  Spoiler alert: No, there is not.  Let’s begin.

Craig Truglia is taking a quote from Vatican I and applying it to how the structure of an Ecumenical Council should be.  He calls Vatican I a heretical council because in his mind, it contradicts historical Christianity.  Let’s quote the section from Vatican I that Mr. Truglia is talking about so we can dissect the supposed contradiction.

Vatican I states:

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.”

Is this talking about Ecumenical Councils? Because Mr. Truglia thinks it is. What is the context here? Papal Infallibility.  That’s the dogma that’s being decreed in Vatican I.  Ecumenical Councils are not being discussed here.  In fact, the irony that Mr. Truglia seems to be missing is that Vatican I is an Ecumenical Council with bishops being co-judges with the pope! Vatican I is talking about Papal Infallibility and Mr. Truglia is taking this section and applying it to Ecumenical Councils. His point being that during an Ecumenical Council, the consent of the bishops is needed and not just the pope’s stamp of approval. He is absolutely right! The Catholic Church would wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Truglia. An Ecumenical Council requires that the pope (head) and bishops (body) must agree before a decree. One cannot act without the other. The pope cannot decree in an ecumenical council on his own. The pope must act with the bishops and the bishops must act with the pope. This is Catholic teaching 101 and I am appalled that Mr. Truglia (who has been defending Eastern orthodoxy for years) did not know this simple teaching.

During the live show, listeners can ask questions and comment on Youtube’s chat box.  On the live chat, I sent a message stating that the Catholic Church teaches that during an Ecumenical Council, bishops are co-judges with the pope. I mentioned how the pope cannot act alone outside his brother bishops’ consent. I mentioned how Vatican I is talking about Papal Infallibility and that this cannot be applied to the pope’s relationship to the bishops in an Ecumenical Council. Mr. Truglia responded back and said that this is my own personal interpretation. We shall now see if this is truly my “personal interpretation” *or* if the Catholic Church does indeed teach that during an Ecumenical Council, both the pope and the bishops must act together in order for the decree to be valid.

To put it simply, the bishops and the pope must both consent during the council. When the council has completed its voting and the consent of the bishops is there, the pope puts his stamp of approval to the council and promulgates the council. This then becomes a truly collegial act since both head and body are acting together and not separately apart from each other.

Now, the proofs.

Vatican I

Vatican I itself says that the bishops in the council are co-judges.

Vatican I states:

“But now it is our purpose to profess and declare from this chair of Peter before all eyes the saving teaching of Christ, and, by the power given us by God, to reject and condemn the contrary errors.

This we shall do with the bishops of the whole world as our co-assessors and fellow-judges, gathered here as they are in the holy Spirit by our authority in this ecumenical council, and relying on the word of God in scripture and tradition as we have received it, religiously preserved and authentically expounded by the catholic church.”

The irony is so deafening!

Catholic Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a piece on this written in 1883 (13 years after Vatican I). I will quote from it to prove even further what Catholicism teaches with regards to the pope and his relation to his brother bishops in an Ecumenical Council.

It states:

“The principles hitherto set forth supply a complete solution to the controversy. General councils represent the Church; the pope therefore stands to them in the same relation as he stands to the Church. But that relation is one of neither superiority nor inferiority, but of intrinsic cohesion: the pope is neither above nor below the Church, but in it as the centre is in the circle, as intellect and will are in the soul. By taking our stand on the Scriptural doctrine that the Church is the mystical body of Christ of which the pope is the visible head, we see at once that a council apart from the pope is but a lifeless trunk, a “rump parliament”, no matter how well attended it be.”

Elsewhere it states (forgive me for the length of the quote but every word and point is crucial):

“Papal and conciliar infallibility are correlated but not identical. A council’s decrees approved by the pope are infallible by reason of that approbation, because the pope is infallible also extra concilium, without the support of a council. The infallibility proper to the pope is not, however, the only formal adequate ground of the council’s infallibility. The Divine constitution of the Church and the promises of Divine assistance made by her Founder, guarantee her inerrancy, in matters pertaining to faith and morals, independently of the pope’s infallibility: a fallible pope supporting, and supported by, a council, would still pronounce infallible decisions. This accounts for the fact that, before the Vatican decree concerning the supreme pontiff’s ex-cathedra judgments, Ecumenical councils were generally held to be infallible even by those who denied the papal infallibility; it also explains the concessions largely made to the opponents of the papal privilege that it is not necessarily implied in the infallibility of councils, and the claims that it can be proved separately and independently on its proper merits. The infallibility of the council is intrinsic, i.e. springs from its nature. Christ promised to be in the midst of two or three of His disciples gathered together in His name; now an Ecumenical council is, in fact or in law, a gathering of all Christ’s co-workers for the salvation of man through true faith and holy conduct; He is therefore in their midst, fulfilling His promises and leading them into the truth for which they are striving. His presence, by cementing the unity of the assembly into one body — His own mystical body — gives it the necessary completeness, and makes up for any defect possibly arising from the physical absence of a certain number of bishops. The same presence strengthens the action of the pope, so that, as mouthpiece of the council, he can say in truth, “it has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”, and consequently can, and does, put the seal of infallibility on the conciliar decree irrespective of his own personal infallibility.

Some important consequences flow from these principles. Conciliar decrees approved by the pope have a double guarantee of infallibility: their own and that of the infallible pope. The council’s dignity is, therefore, not diminished, but increased, by the definition of papal infallibility, nor does that definition imply a “circular demonstration” by which the council would make the pope infallible and the pope would render the same service to the council. It should however, be borne in mind that the council without the pope has no guarantee of infallibility, therefore the conciliar and the papal infallibilities are not two separate and addible units, but one unit with single or double excellence. An infallible statement of Divine truth is the voice of Christ speaking through the mouth of the visible head of His mystical body or in unison, in chorus, with all its members. The united voice of the whole Church has a solemnity, impressiveness, and effectiveness, an external, circumstantial weight, which is wanting in simple ex-cathedra pronouncements. It works its way into the minds and hearts of the faithful with almost irresistible force, because in the universal harmony each individual believer hears his own voice, is carried away by the powerful rhythm, and moved as by a Divine spell to follow the leaders. Again, the bishops who have personally contributed to the definitions have, in that fact, an incentive to zeal in publishing them and enforcing them in their dioceses; nay the council itself is an effective beginning of its execution or enforcement in practice. For this reason alone, the holding of most Eastern councils was a moral necessity — the great distance between East and West, the difficulty of communication, the often keen opposition of the Orientals to Old Rome made a solemn promulgation of the definitions on the spot more than desirable. No aids to effectiveness were to be neglected in that centre of heresies.”

The last section we will quote from Catholic Encyclopedia will be:

“From the notion that the council is a court of judges the following inferences may be drawn:

The bishops, in giving their judgment, are directed only by their personal conviction of its rectitude; no previous consent of all the faithful or of the whole episcopate is required. In unity with their head they are one solid college of judges authoritatively constituted for united, decisive action — a body entirely different from a body of simple witnesses.

This being admitted, the assembled college assumes a representation of their colleagues who were called but failed to take their seats, provided the number of those actually present is not altogether inadequate for the matter in hand. Hence their resolutions are rightly said to rest on universal consent: universali consensu constituta, as the formula runs.

Further, on the same supposition, the college of judges is subject to the rule obtaining in all assemblies constituted for framing a judicial sentence or a common resolution, due regard being paid to the special relations, in the present instance, between the head and the members of the college: the co-operative verdict embodies the opinion of the majority, including the head, and in law stands for the verdict of the whole assembly, it is communi sensu constitutum (established by common consent). A majority verdict, even headed by papal legates, if disconnected from the personal action of the pope, still falls short of a perfect, authoritative pronouncement of the whole Church, and cannot claim infallibility. Were the verdict unanimous, it would still be imperfect and fallible, if it did not receive the papal approbation. The verdict of a majority, therefore, not endorsed by the pope, has no binding force on either the dissentient members present or the absent members, nor is the pope bound in any way to endorse it. Its only value is that it justifies the pope, in case he approves it, to say that he confirms the decision of a council, or gives his own decision sacro approbante concilio (with the consent of the council). This he could not say if he annulled a decision taken by a majority including his legates, or if he gave a casting vote between two equal parties. A unanimous conciliary decision, as distinct from a simple majority decision, may under certain circumstances, be, in a way, binding on the pope and compel his approbation — by the compelling power, not of a superior authority, but of the Catholic truth shining forth in the witnessing of the whole Church. To exert such power the council’s decision must be clearly and unmistakably the reflex of the faith of all the absent bishops and of the faithful.”

Canon Law

Moving on now to the Catholic Church’s Canon Law with regards to the topic.

Can. 336 The college of bishops, whose head is the Supreme Pontiff and whose members are bishops by virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college and in which the apostolic body continues, together with its head and never without this head, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church.

Please note that when the Catholic Church says “College of Bishops”, you may be tempted to think this means the bishops without the pope.  However, the true definition of “College of Bishops” is the pope with his brother bishops *together* and never apart.

Can. 337 §1. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council.

All the bishops exercise power, not just the pope alone.

Can. 341 §1. The decrees of an ecumenical council do not have obligatory force unless they have been approved by the Roman Pontiff together with the council fathers, confirmed by him, and promulgated at his order.

Please note a criteria here that Mr. Truglia would have you believe the Catholic Church doesn’t have in her canon laws: The council fathers must consent in order for the decrees of an ecumenical council to have obligatory force. It doesn’t only list papal promulgation and confirmation, but also the council fathers as well.

Vatican II

Moving on now to Vatican II:

In Lumen Gentium 25, it states: Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.

The bishops are “teachers and judges of faith and morals”.  I don’t know how much more plainly the Catholic teaching can be.

John Paul II’s Encyclical, Ut Unum Sint

We now turn to John Paul II’s encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” which he wrote to the Eastern orthodox and oriental bishops (who are obviously not in communion with Rome). What I am about to quote has to do with the papacy (including Papal Infallibility). Please pay close attention to how he follows up what the ministry of the pope is:

“With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. This primacy is exercised on various levels, including vigilance over the handing down of the Word, the celebration of the Liturgy and the Sacraments, the Church’s mission, discipline and the Christian life. It is the responsibility of the Successor of Peter to recall the requirements of the common good of the Church, should anyone be tempted to overlook it in the pursuit of personal interests. He has the duty to admonish, to caution and to declare at times that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith. When circumstances require it, he speaks in the name of all the Pastors in communion with him. He can also—under very specific conditions clearly laid down by the First Vatican Council— declare ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith. By thus bearing witness to the truth, he serves unity.

All this however must always be done in communion. When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of Bishops, who are also “vicars and ambassadors of Christ”. The Bishop of Rome is a member of the “College”, and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry.”

This suffices for us to drop the mic and walk away.  In fact, I could have just quoted this from the beginning and the discussion would have been over.  But I wanted to show proof from the horse’s mouth and not my own “personal interpretation” as Mr. Truglia conveniently stated.

5 thoughts on “The Papacy, Vatican I, and Ecumenical Councils: Can the pope act alone during an ecumenical council without his brother bishops?

  1. I very much appreciate that you are a regular watcher of the R&T show and that he even helped contribute once. I actually think you did a good job and hope you contribute in the future.

    Nevertheless, I really think this whole “argument” here is really quite silly.

    For one, the fact that you do not admit that the statement: “This we shall do with the bishops of the whole world as our co-assessors and fellow-judges, gathered here as they are in the holy Spirit by our authority in this ecumenical council…” is not a statement about how councils work, which was my point, I believe lacks charity. It is part of an introduction of a dogmatic constitution. Furthermore, just because someone says others are judging with him, that does not imply (by the Roman system) that the judgement of the Pope does not require consent…though I wish I did. Otherwise, the excommunication of Nestorius, which would have been in effect by the time Nestorius received Nestorius’ third letter. Yet, the Council of Ephesus was still held. This gives the RC apologist, here you, a tough decision:

    1. Ephesus had Bishops giving their own judgement on Nestorius and the earlier anathema from Celestine and Cyril was not in effect until they judged it and consented to it.
    2. Celestine’s judgement and excommunication was already in effect, rendering the council immaterial and its consent nice, but ultimately unnecessary.

    You cannot have it both ways.

    I wrote to someone else on this, stating that drawting the distinction that ex cathedra statements do not need consent, but the teaching authority of councils do, poses a major Christological issue (so, consent is needed in all human relationships…but not this one). So, I really do not see how this distinction is really all that useful, but perhaps a game of “gotcha” to divert everyone from the massive, Christological issue staring them right in the face.

    My interest in this matter, as an Orthodox Christian, is the definition given by Nicea II on ecumenicty. Because, for us Orthodox, the Ecumenical Council is the highest teaching institution of the Church. The fifth council explicitly states that even the Pope and Apostles need to act concilliarily, something that the Pope’s first or second constitutim (sp?) makes reference to.

    So, I must cut reply here because I need to get to work, but if you want to argue that ex cathedra statements are binding and require no consent, but everything else does; then at least we know where you are coming from.

    God bless,


    • Craig,

      Thank you for your response and your kind words. I greatly appreciate that.

      You said: For one, the fact that you do not admit that the statement: “This we shall do with the bishops of the whole world as our co-assessors and fellow-judges, gathered here as they are in the holy Spirit by our authority in this ecumenical council…” is not a statement about how councils work, which was my point, I believe lacks charity.

      I’m sorry that you see it that way. That is not the only thing you said on the show. On the show, you took V1’s “no consent” and tried to apply it to Ecumenical Councils. And this blog post was refuting *that point alone*. I also don’t think it lacks charity if I am giving everyone links to the exact timestamp of the show where they can hear your side on it.

      With that said, I concede that you did make that point on the show. But the point is irrelevant to the original question that I posed to you on the show. Since I am not only using Vatican I to show the Catholic side of how Ecumenical Councils are supposed to work. V1’s “co-judges” is not here being used to prove that V1 decreed such a statement. We are in agreement here. But I give ample evidence that shows how the Catholic understanding of Ecumenical Councils require the consent of both head and body as Canon 341 §1 explicitly states (The decrees of an ecumenical council do not have obligatory force unless they have been approved by the Roman Pontiff together with the council fathers, confirmed by him, and promulgated at his order). “Together with the council fathers” is a requirement for the decrees to be obligatory.

      Now, I do think V1’s “no consent of the Church” needs to be addressed. If you were to say that in opposition to Papal Infallibility, I am with you on that all day. The Catholic side does need to address this. But to apply it to Ecumenical Councils is a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of how Catholicism functions. I am planning on making a part 2 of the post addressing the “no consent” controversy to show what the council fathers intended to mean by that. I will also show interpretations from popes, bishops, and scholars at that time which will prove that “no consent” does not mean what you think it means. I think a part 2 would even address the Cyril/Celestine/Ephesus point you bring up. Because if you think that point goes against Catholicism, then I am afraid you have not grasped the papal teachings.

      I appreciate your contributions on the show to the topics, Craig.

      God bless,


  2. Pingback: Papal Supremacy – Nicholas H. Dalbey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s