I have had many discussions with non-Catholic Christians who say “How can we believe the Catholic Church when their councils have many times contradicted each other.” They are paraphrasing Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms, when he said, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other.” However, when pressed to give proof of these so-called contradictions they fail to actually provide me documentation of which councils or the contradictions claimed.
If one is to make a claim like this, they should be able to back it up with evidence and a quote, paragraph, chapter or whatever from an actual document of whatever council they are claiming contradicts another. What I have found however, that most who make these claims are just regurgitating something they read on a “anti-Catholic” website and not the actual documents from the council. That lends no credibility to the argument. I have read many of these anti-Catholic websites that purport to show “proof” that councils have contradicted one another and what I find, 100% of the time is a twisting, snipping and contorting of what is actually being said from the documents from the councils.
In order to understand the Council’s properly one has to understand why a council was called and the purpose for which it was called.
Aside from the first general gathering of the bishops of the Church — the Council of Jerusalem, which occurred around A.D. 50 (Acts 15) and which is usually not counted as an ecumenical council — there have been 21 ecumenical or general councils of the bishops of the Catholic Church. (The Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize the first seven as ecumenical councils.)
A council is recognized as ecumenical once its works are approved by a pope. The pope does not need to attend a council for it to be an ecumenical council. The earliest councils were held in the East, and the reigning popes usually sent legates to represent them. Later these popes approved the decrees of the councils, thereby verifying that they were ecumenical councils.
Some councils, such as Ephesus, have been mainly doctrinal in their work; others, such as Vatican II, have been mainly pastoral. Doctrinal definitions are capable of being promulgated infallibly; pastoral decisions, although binding, are not subject to infallibility.
Here is a list of the 21 Ecumenical Councils that The Catholic Church has called:
Keep in mind, that no Council ever introduced any “NEW” teachings but always affirmed or reaffirmed a teaching of the Church that had been present since the very beginning of the Church. When a Council is said to have “defined” a teaching, that means they have had to clarify a long standing teaching that at that point has been called into question by a heretical group that claimed something to the contrary. For example at the Council of Ephesus had to “define” that Mary is the Mother of God. The Early Church taught this from the very beginning but the Nestorians were denying the unity of the divinity and humanity Christ. I will continue my series on the Teachings of the Catholic Church in the Early Church Fathers next week. (The Church, from the very Beginning…was Catholic!)
Council of Nicaea I – 325
Pope Sylvester I, 314-335
Decisions: Condemned Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ (elements of Arianism have reappeared in our own time); defined the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son; fixed the date for Easter; began formulation of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Council of Constantinople I – 381
Pope Damasus I, 366-384
Decisions: Re-Condemned Arianism; condemned Macedonianism, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit; completed the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Council of Ephesus – 431
Pope Celestine I, 422-432
Decisions: Condemned Nestorianism, which denied the unity of the divine and human in Christ; defined that Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos), a doctrine denied by the Nestorians and by most of today’s Protestants; condemned Pelagianism, which held that man could earn his own salvation through his natural powers.
Council of Chalcedon – 451
Pope Leo the Great, 440-461
Decisions: Condemned Monophysitism (also called Eutychianism), which denied Christ’s human nature.
Council of Constantinople II – 553
Pope Vigilius, 537-555
Decisions: Condemned the Three Chapters, writings tainted by Nestorianism and composed by Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyr, and Ibas of Edessa.
Council of Constantinople III – 680
Pope Agatho, 678-681
Decisions: Condemned Monothelitism, which held Christ had but one will, the divine (this heresy arose as a reaction to the monophysite heresy); censured Pope Honorius I for a letter in which he made an ambiguous but not infallible statement about the unity of operations in Christ (an episode commonly used by anti-Catholic writers as an argument against papal infallibility, but for the real meaning go here: Papal Infallibility).
Council of Nicaea II – 787
Pope Hadrian I, 772-795
Decisions: Condemned iconoclasm (which was mainly confined to the East), a heresy that held that the use of images constituted idolatry; condemned Adoptionism, which held that Christ was not the Son of God by nature but only by adoption, thereby denying the hypostatic union.
Council of Constantinople IV – 869
Pope Hadrian II, 867-872
Decisions: Re-Condemned Adoptionism; deposed Photius as patriarch of Constantinople, thereby ending the Photian Schism, but this did not completely remove disaffections between the West and the East (in 1054 came the final break, when the Eastern Orthodox Churches broke away from unity with Rome).
Council of Lateran I – 1123
Pope Callistus II, 1119-1124
Decisions: Confirmed the Concordat of Worms (1122), in which the Pope and Emperor sought to end the dispute over investiture (the attempt by the secular powers to assume authority in appointing bishops; this was a main source of Church/state friction during the Middle Ages).
Council of Lateran II – 1139
Pope Innocent II, 1130-1143
Decisions: Ended a papal schism by antipope Anacletus II; reaffirmed baptism of infants; reaffirmed the sacramental nature of the priesthood, marriage, and the Eucharist against Medieval heretics; decreed that holy orders is an impediment to marriage, making the attempted marriage of a priest invalid.
Council of Lateran III – 1179
Pope Alexander III, 1159-1181
Decisions: Regulated papal elections by requiring a two-thirds vote of the cardinals (see in this issue the article by Canon Francis J. Ripley, page 27); condemned Waldensianism and Albigensianism, a form of Manichaeanism (an ancient heresy that held that matter is evil; Albigensians opposed the authority of the state and of the Church, opposed the sacrament of matrimony, and practiced ritual suicide; despite these tenets, many anti-Catholics believe Albigensianism was the continuation of “real Christianity” during the Middle Ages and was a forerunner of Protestantism).
Council of Lateran IV – 1215
Pope Innocent III, 1198-1216
Decisions: Ordered annual reception of penance and the Eucharist; used the term “transubstantiation” to explain the long held teaching, from the very beginning of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; adopted further canons against the Albigensians.
Council of Lyons I – 1245
Pope Innocent IV, 1243-1254
Decisions: Excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II for heresy and crimes against the Church.
Council of Lyons II – 1274
Pope Gregory X, 1271-1276
Decisions: Effected only temporary union of the Eastern Churches with the Roman Church; promulgated regulations for conclaves.
Council of Vienne – 1311
Pope Clement V, 1305-1314
Decisions: Suppressed the Knights Templars; issued decrees on the reform of morals.
Council of Constance – 1414
Popes Gregory XII, 1406-1415
Decisions: Ended the Great Schism, which involved three rival claimants to the papacy (see in this issue the article by Canon Franis J. Ripley, page 27); opposed the teachings of John Wycliffe, who taught sola scriptura, denied the authority of the pope and bishops, denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and wrote against penance and indulgences; condemned as a heretic John Huss, who denied papal authority and taught wrongly about the nature of the Church and who was burned at the stake in 1415 (in 1457 his followers established what became known commonly as the Moravian Church, which was the first independent Protestant church).
Council of Florence – 1438-1443
Pope Eugene IV, 1431-1447
Decisions: Reaffirmed papal primacy against claims of conciliarists that an ecumenical council is superior to a pope; approved reunion with several Eastern Churches, but the reunion was only temporary.
Council of Lateran V – 1512-1517
Popes Julius II, 1503-1513 and Leo X, 1513-1521
Decisions: Opposed erroneous teachings about the soul; reaffirmed the doctrine of indulgences; restated the relationship between popes and ecumenical councils; on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, failed to inaugurate an authentic and thoroughgoing reform of the Church, inadvertently helping Protestantism.
Council of Trent – 1545-1549, 1551-1552, 1562-1563
Popes Paul III, 1534-1549, Julius III, 1550-1555 and Pius IV, 1559-1565
Decisions: Affirmed Catholic doctrines against the errors of the Protestant Reformers; reaffirmed teachings on the role of the Bible and Tradition, grace, sin, justification by faith (but not by “faith alone”), the Mass as a real sacrifice, purgatory, indulgences, jurisdiction of the pope; initiated the Counter-Reformation; reformed the clergy and morals; promoted religious instruction; ordered the establishment of seminaries for the future training of priests.
Council of Vatican I – 1869-1870
Pope Pius IX, 1846-1878
Decisions: Defined papal infallibility and primacy; condemned errors regarding the relationship between faith and reason (the council was cut short by war, its work to be taken up again by Vatican II).
Council of Vatican II – 1962-1965
Popes John XXIII, 1958-1963 and Paul VI, 1963-1978
Decisions: Issued pastoral documents on the renewal and reform of the Church, intending the make the Church more effective in dealing with the contemporary world.
If you really want to read what the councils said you can read ALL the documents for yourself. LIBRARY OF CHURCH COUNCIL DOCUMENTS – EWTN
Here is a good Article on Called to Communion on the often claimed argument: Did the Council of Trent Contradict the Second Council of Orange? By Bryan Cross