Thursday, 29 March 2012

Vatican II – What is a Council?

Before talking about the Council, perhaps we should put Councils in their context. We have to avoid polemic on either side. Some will say that Councils are or were the way that the Church was run until the rise of the middle ages when the Papacy took over. Others claim that Councils have no real place in the running of the Church and are a minor inconvenience every now and again.

Neither of these in wholly right. They couldn’t be. So what is a Council?

Well, there have been 21 of them. They have often been called to sort out a disputed point of theology (but not just for academic purposes). So, for example, the Council of Ephesus in 431AD decreed that Our Lady could rightly be called ‘Mother of God’ thus stating an eternal truth about the divinity and humanity of her Son. Others settled political questions of the relationship between Church and state, such as the First Lateran Council of 1123AD. Still others condemned heretics and heresies, such as those of Wycliffe and Hus by the Council of Constance in 1414-1418AD.

In truth we have to say that Councils did seem to have a role in the periodic life of the Church. However the last great Council which in practice changed this was the Council of Trent (1545-1563AD). Why do I say that this changed it all? Simply because after that Councils no longer had that same role in the life of the Church.

Now you can argue back and forth about what you think should happen, but the simple reality is that Councils disappeared off the agenda for a good 300 years until the First Vatican Council in 1869. This seemed to seal the fate of the Councils by defining the long believed Dogma of Papal Infallibility. The Pope could teach in ways different from Councils.

Councils really had changed dramatically from a periodically used arm of the Church.

It does not follow, of course that just because we used to do things, like have Councils, that we should have them again all the time. If someone suggests this then I offer them the ancient practice of public confession of sin. They then see the point. Indeed when we resurrect things, we usually change them into something that we like, modifying the original to make it more palatable. A good case in point was the newly written Eucharistic Prayer Two. Said to be based on Hippolytus (though in reality Hippolytus never wrote it) all the nasty references to Hell were cut out.

Just because something happened in the past does not mean that we must revive it. A man dies for a reason – it is foolish to dig up his rotten, mouldering flesh.

So…  in a nutshell, Councils did lots of different things at different times in history but hadn’t for quite a long time.

The important thing about them is, of course, that the Church ignored chunks of them and sometimes simply overturned them.

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