One of the frescoes of the Ecumenical Councils...

I’ve been looking at The Church in Council by Norman Tanner SJ. Fr Tanner is perhaps the leading authority on ecumenical councils in the English-speaking world. It’s curious, therefore, that he seems keen to get rid of as many as he can. Vatican II, he says, extended the meaning of Church beyond ‘the Roman Catholic community’, and therefore made it a moot point whether any council could be called ecumenical without the participation of ‘other Christian churches and communities’. The Eastern Church, we learn, was not represented ‘in any proper sense’ at any post-1054 council – a fact which would no doubt have surprised the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1439, not to mention the other bishops and patriarchal delegates who had gathered at Florence. Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II don’t even reach the dignity of general councils of the Western Church; since the ‘churches of the Reformation’ were absent, they are better seen as ‘general councils of the Roman Catholic church, rather than of the Western Church’. This ‘removes the necessity of Trent and Vatican I being given an absolute status’ (but apparently not of Vatican II being given it!) So much for the holy Sacrifice and for papal infallibility; they will apparently have to enjoy only a ‘relative status’, whatever that might be.

He is quite keen on the role of the emperor in the early councils, as it provides a precedent for lay involvement. Likewise, in the Empress Irene at Nicaea II, as a precedent for female involvement. Likewise in the fact that the early councils were held in ‘Asia’. And he also likes the fact that Constantine wasn’t baptised at the time of Nicaea I, as this provides a precedent for influences on ecumenical councils from outside the visible church.

I can’t help wondering if his ideal council would be one held in Mumbai under the presidency of a Muslim woman, and which would solemnly condemn Humanae Vitae. But I may be wronging him.

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