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Controversial territory. (Letters).

* I was surprised, not to say a little dismayed, by some of Pat Morrison's statements in her piece on Vatican II, "A Council Primer." When she writes, for example, "an ecumenical council, by definition, is the pope's own council" and that Vatican II "was the 21st ecumenical council," she needs to indicate something that precisely Vatican II helped many to recognize: This is controversial territory, and these are not demonstrable Christian troths but Catholic claims, and ones that are rejected by all other Christian churches, in particular the Eastern Orthodox, whose bishops are recognized by the Catholic church but not included in Catholic councils. No council since the schism of 1054 has been recognized as ecumenical by both Catholics and Orthodox.

Further, it may be noted that it is not clear that either the Catholic or the Orthodox understanding of what makes a council ecumenical can stand up to historical reality, given that Nicaea and the following councils were convoked by neither pope nor bishops but by the emperor--the Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet or George Bush of the day--who also exercised predominant influence on their proceedings. Alternatively--if one may try to peer into the future--if some day the church decided that it was too uncomfortable with the teachings of these councils (so remote from the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels) could it perhaps declare that they were not, after all, ecumenical? Which raises a further question: Does the well-informed Christian have to wait for that day? Again, She writes that the Jerusalem meeting of the community recounted by Luke in Acts 15 was "under Peter's leadership." That is what Catholics might expect, but it is not what we find when we read Acts. Luke does have Peter playing an important role, but James plays a more important one, so if anyone is exercising leadership it is him. And, of course, even James makes no claim to impose his ideas on the assembly.
Madison, Wis.

Pat Morrison replies:

McCarthy is correct that attempting any history of ecumenical councils, and even a simple listing, is dangerous territory. That is precisely why my piece (NCR, Oct. 4) was titled a "primer," by definition a very basic introduction to the subject. Numerous volumes could-be and have been written on. ecumenical councils and what constitutes them--not to mention the decisions they made or doctrines defined.

While certainly not exhaustive, three major reference works that I consulted in compiling the story define an ecumenical council as "the pope's own" in that papal authority convenes the gathering, at least in modern times. As McCarthy notes, this was certainly not the case in the first centuries; several major councils, spanning 500 years (Nicaea I in 325 through Constantinople IV in 869) were convened by emperors rather than popes, or the emperor's authority played the more significant role in calling the council.

McCarthy is correct--as my story does state clearly--that, unfortunately, there is still no agreement between the churches of the East and West on which councils can be said to be ecumenical: "Even today some of the Orthodox churches recognize only the first seven councils ... as valid; others accept only the first two or three."

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor.
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Author:McCarthy, Brian
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 25, 2002
Previous Article:Reflections on Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter.
Next Article:New wine in old skins. (Letters).

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