Papalism and Synodality – Historical and Modern Considerations


Council of Ephesus (431) – Source

It is often supposed that the Office of St. Peter in governing the universal Church, as understood by Catholics, is diametrically opposed to the collegiality or synodality which certainly marks the era of Ecumenical Councils (325-787 A.D.). Catholics have always attempted to reconcile the two into one coherent model of Ecclesiastical theory. Often enough, those studying into Catholicism from the outside get the sense that Catholics are sort of straining the logic just in order to maintain their novel innovations put down into dogmatic form at the Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439), and Vatican (1870). In other words, Catholics are viewed as trying to say that oil and water actually do mix, and we have all sorts of mental gymnastics that get communicated in psuedo-sophisticated language. It is far better and easier, it is urged, to just recognize that Papalism (oil) and Collegiality (water) are diametrically opposed to one another, and that either the former is true, in which case the Pope dogmatically decides everything by himself, rendering all investigation and question superfluous, or the latter is true, in which case the Bishops form a decree based on majority vote or a reached consensus, and only then can it be recognized as authoritative. However, I want to push-back to this seemingly common sense reaction that characterizes so much of the Protestant and Oriental critiques in the ecumenical dialogue. I think that Papalism and Collegiality do form a tense synergy as willed by God Himself. There is undoubtedly a tension thereby created, for our minds want to say either the Pope is the be-all and end-all, or the consensus of bishops is the be-all and end-all. But tension exists in many theological areas of thought, for which no one thereby forfeits their legitimacy. For example, the tension created by divine sovereignty and providence with human free will. How about the goodness of God and the persevering presence of evil? And yes, even the propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself has a tension inter-related to this. For we know our Lord said, “this gospel will be preached unto all nations” (Matt 24:14), and “you will be My witnesses to me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And yet, what power kept the Apostles from quitting the mission immediately after the Lord ascended into heaven? Was it not possible for them to fear the persecution, and return to their normal lives of fishing and taking care of their families? What impedes that possibility? And yet our Lord knew that this would not be the case, and that His very own mission to be the “Light of the world” and a “hope for the Gentiles” would be successful in that, from the four corners of the earth, the elect children of God would be brought together in one eschatological feast, now symbolized in the Eucharistic supper. There is tension created in the fact that human beings have free will and can, theoretically speaking, abrogate and cease from propagating the Gospel. There is the possibility of apostasy in every one of us, and what is possible in one is possible in every one together. I say this, at least, on the level of theory, for we know with certainty that such cannot happen. And yet how do we have that certainty? It is promised and willed by God is how we know. And this is not simply resolved by either saying that God completely controls our decisions, leaving us as mere automatons, nor that God simply foresees all of human decisions and put all his hope in man to accomplish His end, finding out that human beings managed to be successful, and only then furnishing a basis to promise that salvation will reach the ends of the earth for every tribe, tongue, and nation. It is neither of these. However we explain it, a tension is formed. But a tension we must live with.

I urge that the same might be therefore welcomed on the whole issue of the Papal Office and Collegial Episcopate as to their distinctive, yet inter-related, functions. I wish to make some remarks in consideration of the Council of Ephesus (431), whose history affords a representation of this tension, and then, in my closing, I will give commenary on how this all relates to current events under Pope Francis.

Consider the letter of Pope St. Celestine I, who is venerated equally by the Coptic and Byzantine Orthodox Churches together with the Catholic Church, written to the Council of Ephesus wherein he beautifully articulates the logic of Synodality and Collegiality. And yet, we we will see by other texts, the same holy Pope also understood that He had a ministry of service unto the Church, doctrinal and disciplinary in nature, which carried divine authority over the Council and the Bishops. He writes in his letter to the Council:

Celestine the bishop to the holy Synod assembled at Ephesus, brethren beloved and most longed for, greeting in the Lord.

A Synod of priests gives witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit. For true is that which we read, since the Truth cannot lie, to wit, the promise of the Gospel; ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. And since this is so, if the Holy Spirit is not absent from so small a number how much more may we believe he is present when so great a multitude of holy ones are assembled together! Every council is holy on account of a peculiar veneration which is its due; for in every such council the reverence which should be paid to that most famous council of the Apostles [in Jerusalem, A.D. 49] of which we read is to be had regard to. Never was the Master, whom they had received to preach, lacking to this, but ever was present as Lord and Master; and never were those who taught deserted by their teacher. For he that had sent them was their teacher; he who had commanded what was to be taught, was their teacher; he who affirms that he himself is heard in his Apostles, was their teacher. This duty of preaching has been entrusted to all the Lord’s priests in common, for by right of inheritance we are bound to undertake this solicitude, whoever of us preach the name of the Lord in various lands in their stead for he said to them, ‘Go, teach all nations’. You, dear brethren, should observe that we have received a general command: for he wills that all of us should perform that office, which he thus entrusted in common to all the Apostles. We must needs follow our predecessors. Let us all, then, undertake their labours, since we are the successors in their honour. And we show forth our diligence in preaching the same doctrines that they taught, beside which, according to the admonition of the Apostle, we are forbidden to add anything. For the office of keeping what is committed to our trust is no less dignified than that of handing it down. They sowed the seed of the faith. This shall be our care that the coming of our great father of the family, to whom alone assuredly this fullness of the Apostles is assigned, may find fruit uncorrupt and many fold. For the vase of election tells us that it is not sufficient to plant and to water unless God gives the increase. We must strive therefore in common to keep the faith which has come down to us today, through the Apostolic Succession. For we are expected to walk according to the Apostle…..Out of our solicitude, we have sent our holy brethren and fellow priests, who are at one with us and are most approved men, Arcedius, and Projectus, the bishops, and our presbyter, Philip, that they may be present at what is done and may carry out what things have been already decreed be us (quæ a nobis antea statuta sunt, exequantur). To the performing of which we have no doubt that your holiness will assent when it is seen that what has been decreed is for the security of the whole church.” (Session II – Letter of Celestine to the Council)

What had already been decreed by Rome? It is the letter written by the Pope addressed to St. Cyril of Alexandria, and which was the product of the Roman Synod held in August of 430. Recall, no convening of an Ecumenical Council is in view here. This is simply a letter from the Roman See with the expectation that it carried sufficient authority to handle the scandal of Nestorius, once Bishop of Constantinople. In this letter, he wrote:

If he, Nestorius, persists, an open sentence must be passed upon him, for a wound, when it affects the whole body, must be cut away at once….And so, appropriating to yourself the authority (auctoritate) of our See, and using our position, you shall with resolute severity carry out this sentence….we have written the same to our brothers and fellow bishops John, Rufus, Juvenal, and Flavian, so our judgment about him, or rather the divine sentence of our Christ, may be known” (P.L. 50.463; translation taken from E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority: 96-451, page 240).

It is unmistakable here that the Pope, who was appealed to by St. Cyril of Alexandria, the 2nd foremost See of Christendom, understood it to be within his own authority (auctoritas) to openly judge the Bishop of an Eastern jurisdiction, namely Nestorius of Constantinople, and that he could delegate his authority to an Eastern bishop (Cyril) to carry this judgment out in the form of a public and open sentence.

To this, we neither get a rejection nor a repudiation from either St. Cyril, or any of the other Bishops of the Eastern sees. In fact, when John, Bishop of Antioch, read about this letter from the Pope to St. Cyril, he quickly admonished Nestorius to comply with the demand of recanting his error.

It happens to be the case that the Emperors, Theodosius and Valentinian, together with the compliance of some Eastern bishops who desired it to be, convened an Ecumenical Council to be held in the city of Ephesus.

The Pope had no opposition to this, as the care of souls and an even more public and open sentence would be all the more beneficial. However, he did not bury his original decree concerning Nestorius. In fact, as we saw, when the Pope sent legates to the Council, he sent them with the letter quoted from above wherein he most certainly says that the legates were responsible to see that what Rome had already decided is to be carried out.

The bishops at the Council themselves recognized that the original letter of Pope St. Celestine to St. Cyril, which threatened Nestorius with excommunication, was still in force, and one of two reasons they effected an excommunication of Nestorius. The Council noted that Nestorius refused to appear after being summoned for trial, and thus the canons of the Church give the right to depose such a one. But along with this, they cite the original letter of the Pope (not the one sent to the Council, but the one written before a Council was even thought of). The bishops say:

“As, in addition to other things, the impious Nestorius has not obeyed our citation [summons], and did not receive the holy bishops who were sent by us to him, we were compelled to examine his ungodly doctrines. We discovered that he had held and published impious doctrines in his letters and treatises, as well as in discourses which he delivered in this city, and which have been testified to. Compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter of our most holy father and fellow-servant Celestine, the Roman bishop, we have come, with many tears, to this sorrowful sentence against him, namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, decrees by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.”  (Decree of the Council)

It could not be more clear that the bishops did not repudiate the letter of the Pope, but still saw it in force as governing their own sentence against Nestorius. This is also seen by the fact that in that very letter, the Pope gave to St. Cyril the authority to act on behalf of the Apostolic See, which is testified by the fact that, over and again, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus state in the list of names that St. Cyril “managed the place of the most holy and sacred [Pope] Celestine, Archbishop of the Roman Church” (see this article).

Furthermore, the legates of St. Celestine were very emphatic that their position at the Council was that of representing the successor of St. Peter, who is the Head of the universal Church, and to whom authority had been given to bind and loose over the whole Church. Two statements come to mind which furnish this. After reading the letter of the Pope, the Council agreed with everything stated. Then, Philip, legate of the Apostolic See said:

“We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable Synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members by our [or your] holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the Apostles, is blessed Peter the Apostle”  (Session II)


” There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince (ἔξαρχος) and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation (θεμέλιος) of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod” (ibid, Session III)

And yet, even with all of this, it was the same Pope who wrote the letter we first cited to the Council wherein a beautiful exposition of the common Apostolic succession inherited from the Apostles is had by all the bishops, urging them to convene under the promise and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Was it pure and overbearing Papalism? No, since the Pope was certainly in support of a Council. Was it pure Conciliarism? No, since both the Pope understood his decision as binding, and the Council understood the original decision of Rome still operative in the carrying out of their sentence against Nestorius. The Pope also recognized, as did the Council, that it was their job and duty, not simply to subscribe to the Pope’s letter by immediate and mindless assent, but to come to a common judgment under the authority of the Lord Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Here is a perfect example where the Papal Office, with clear recognition of its divine authority and service to the Church, and the Synodal character of the common commission given to all bishops from the Apostles, come into synergism, and output what is Christ is teaching through them. So while these two principles may seem to be dichotomous or diametrically opposite, the testimony of the Fathers tells us they are harmonious and work effectively together.

I wish to say something else on this, since it will not escape the reader that Pope St. Celestine did think his original judgment was sufficient in itself. Against this, it is often said that the primacy and synodality of the 34th Apostolic Canon is what is acceptable to the Eastern churches. This canon teaches that the Head of the Metropolia puts control on the episcopal members under him, such that they may not do anything without his consent, and then, conversely, the members themselves, likewise, possess a control on the Head such that he may not doing anything without the consent of all.  In the first place, how often do we hear about a glad admission of an orthodox Pope of Rome being the Primate of the universal Church, which privileges exact to this 34th Apostolic canon, from the dialogue between Roman Catholics and the separated Eastern churches (though this is only conceded by a minority of the Orthodox), while also being reminded that the Council of Constantinople (381) felt itself free to convene and pass ecumenical canons without the Pope of Rome? Or how about the Council of Constantinople (553) where the bishops thought it alright to complete their decrees and send them out as ecumenical without the Pope of Rome? It would appear that many Orthodox are happy to cite Apostolic Canon 34 where it affords opportunity to rebut the Papal independence of Vatican I, but then are happy to support Episcopal independence from the Pope in the examples given above. As soon as the Orthodox grant certain conditions where the Bishops can perform what they want without the consent of their Head, they must, as equally soon, be open to grant conditions where the Pope can perform what he wants without their consent. But if mutual consent is the absolute bare minimum requirement, then at least some history needs re-thinking.

Lastly, how are we to process all of this in light of the current situation of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis? There is not much hope to be had, other than the bare minimum of what our Lord promised, and that is that the Church will not bind its members to any error in faith or morals. It might be akin to the promise of God to Abraham that he would be a Father to a great and innumerable multitude. In the passage of Abraham’s life, however, it would almost appear that he would certainly die without any children. And yet, in the ripe old age of 100, he becomes a father.  So where almost all of what occurred in Abraham’s life might be thought of as good reason to believe he would die childless, the bare minimum of the promise was kept intact, namely, he bore a son named Isaac. In a similar way, perhaps, what we see are reasons to believe the Catholic Church, under the government of its pastors, will turn aside to the world, but in the end, or ultimately, the bare minimum of the promise will remain intact. Whatever the case is, we know that Synodality, often craved for by many conservatives today in response to what appears to be a hyper-Papalism going on with Bergoglio, offers no practical healing to the crisis, for the Bishops all support Pope Francis in his terribly confusing direction with which he is choosing to lead the Church. Both the Head, and the members, are neither a held to control the other, since they both appear to be positively in favor of the liberal direction we see going on. While it would seem no formal heresies are being put into definition, the leanings of the members of the current Magisterium are certainly liberal-ward, and even subservient to a Christ-less secular agenda. Because of this, I don’t think the message offered by those who want to stress the perils of Papolatry are really going to offer any solutions to the current state, unless we also wish to impute something like Episcopalatry or Priestolatry, issuing more interpretive rights to the private individuals of the Church, and enabling them to rise up against all members of the clergy. At this point, we can think a bit less about the poor leadership in Rome, and more on where else the problem exists, in order to see that the campaign against Papolatry is only a part of the battle.

9 thoughts on “Papalism and Synodality – Historical and Modern Considerations

  1. All very nice, but doesn’t Pastor Aeternus render all these musings mute by requiring Catholics to accept unconditionally and without equivocation the immediate, universal and supreme authority of the Pope on all matters related to doctrine and dogma? Done, over, kaput, finito. What’s left to fuss over for Catholics? Isn’t that what you HAVE to believe to be Catholic?

    • Stephen,

      Thanks for your comment.

      While it is true that Vatican 1 taught that Catholics must believe in the immediate, universal, and supreme authority of the Pope over the universal Church, the local bishops have direct, immediate, full, and supreme authority in their own dioceses. That does not mean that everything the local bishop teaches is infallible, or requires the same amount of submission.

      There are conditions where the local bishops of the world teach infallibly, as well as the Pope. This is described in Lumen Gentium.

      The ex cathedra teachings of the Pope could also be perfectly from the context of synodality. In fact, if you read the latest ex cathedra statements, it is a perfect illustration of what I explained in this article.

      • Rather dodgy, frankly. How much variance exists between whatever a local bishop teaches/allows and Rome? The answer – and please correct me if this is wrong – is whatever the Bishop of Rome allows. Paul VI made this point abundantly clear to Arch. Lefebrve, as has Pope Francis (albeit more sub rosa).

        You opened with a very interesting premise. “Often enough, those studying into Catholicism from the outside get the sense that Catholics are sort of straining the logic just in order to maintain their novel innovations put down into dogmatic form at the Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439), and Vatican (1870).”

        This is spot on. My point is, given Pastor Aeternus (which was part of a self-proclaimed dogmatic Council, even if Vatican II technically was not, even though in practice it is), how is this sense about Catholics straining logic NOT true and accurate? Whether officially or in practice?

        That variance (between what Catholics say they believe and expect others to believe to be in communion with them, versus what in fact Catholics actually do believe) is, to expand your original premise, rather large, frothy and widely subject to clerical caprice. Which is dangerous to souls, frankly.

        Where, for example, does the Catholic communion proclaim its faith in the Pope’s claims during its prayer life? Nowhere. So how much credence then do Catholics give the “as we pray, so we believe” nostrum? Answers I have heard are “not much” or “it varies” or “well, there are things that we believe that aren’t in the liturgical life of the Church.” Why not? Shouldn’t the be? Perhaps they aren’t because not everybody believes them????? And if Catholics don’t hold themselves accountable to either their liturgical or extra-liturgical belief sets (the latter being far more changeable by Papal and other clerical ukase), why should anybody else?

      • Stephen,

        Concerning local bishops vis a vis the Pope

        All I was trying to demonstrate here was that the language of supreme or full power and jurisdiction, which is direct and immediate, can be stated of the local bishop over his flock. That just means that the language of pastoral authority can be used for both. Of course, bishops are accountable to the supreme jurisdiction of the Pope.

        As I showed, the Patristic data shows that the supreme authority of the Pope can work with the authority of the bishops in council, such that they both judge and rule on matters.

        To the charge that Catholic ecclesiology is dangerous.

        Well this is a completely gratuitous statement. I could say that conciliar democracy is dangerous because it allows for parts to crystallize into their own beliefs about marriage, divorce, contraception, the meaning of the Lord’s death, and a rejection of an orthodox pneumatology. That danger was there during the rejection of Chalcedon by the 4 Eastern patriarchs within the window of the Acacian schism from 484-519, and which was healed through Papal intervention. But I wouldn’t bring this to bear in a debate on the subject because whether there is a possible danger of x or y is not really the first and foremost important question, which is, rather, did the Fathers teach x or y.

        Lex credendi lex orandi

        Where in the Orthodox Church’s liturgy do we see an exemplification of what is the supreme authority in the Church? What makes a Council finally and irrevocably ecumenical? Where in the Church’s liturgy before the 8th/9th century, does the liturgy speak about the due veneration (proskenesis) that the baptized owe to pictures, images, icons, and statues of Christ, our Lady, and the Saints? Where in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church do we see an application of Apostolic Canon 34 to the universal primate, a point still debated to this day between Moscow and Constantinople (and others)?

        As it turns out, there are items of Orthodox confession which do not clearly show up in the liturgy. I can tell you what does show up, however. There is the hymnography attributed to St. Leo the Great and St. Celestine I, both of who teach emphatically doctrines which only reconcile with the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology, and which has been at odds with Orthodox ecclesiology for centuries.

  2. Ah, now we getting into it, thank you for your reply. Let me phrase it a different way, in the hope that you would be motivated to continue the conversation.

    Imagine a standard bell-shaped distribution curve. Let us define that everything under the distribution curve is intra-liturgical (that is, a point of faith that any visitor to a church can reasonably ascertain is held in common by those in regular attendance, or at least on this day). Now, data points of faith near the “fat” or “meat” of the curve in the middle where the curve is highest are those more regularly declared by the faithful in common prayer. For example, “Trisagion” in the eastern rite, the “Gloria” in the western rite, and the “Our Father” in both. At the margins (the lower portions under the curve to the left and right) would be less frequent but no less commonly held, such as in the east the prayers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy about icons, and perhaps Benediction prayers in the west.

    Above the curve is everything extra-liturgical (that is, a point of faith that a visitor to a church cannot ascertain by what is regularly proclaimed in common by that church’s adherents). These would be for the east much of what has been promulgated by hierarchical and conciliar declarations, and – correct me if this does not apply – would be more or less what the west considers to be the Magisterium.

    Now imagine a second curve above the data points that are extra-liturgical. Let us say that everything under this curve (intra and extra) represent all the data points to which an intellectually honest adherent must give his assent to consider himself a member of that communion today, as well as all days past and future.

    My first point is that, if “as we pray, so we believe” is a first-principle (i.e. if we don’t pray it, do we really believe it? and, how can we tell?), then everything under the lower curve is weighted higher than everything above the curve (ie. is heavier, denser, less subject to change, more accepted and more identifiably more accepted by adherents at all time, in all places, everywhere).

    Now imagine two such bi-level curves side by side, one representing the west, and the other the east. How are they different in shape? In density? In variance between the two levels of curves?

    My point is, I think it reasonable to say that the space or distance between the upper and lower curves of the western side to be of much greater distance than in the east (among other distinctions). And this greater space (i.e. the extra-liturigical for the west is much larger, greater and denser than for the east) has enabled more clerical innovation by the west, which innovations and their meanings are still being worked and debated in the western ecosystem, precisely because they are extra-liturgical.

    That’s not say, of course, that the eastern side is not unduly muddled. But the potential for variance and big betas are much less, because the top curve is much closer to the bottom curve.

    Does this analogy work in any way????

    • The analogy is a good one. However, I don’t think it bakes any bread, at the end of the day, against Catholicism since lex orandi lex credendi has fluctuated in history in terms of content, and we don’t ever say the Apostolic deposit is subject to influx. In other words, a good rule, but not a rigid sin qua non which cannot allow for exceptions. I mean, if we wish to get that technical, the authority of Peter and the investiture given to him as shepherd of the universal Church is in the gospels. However, that wouldn’t satisfy the Orthodox listener. On the other hand, just because you say its OK to bow and kiss pictures doesn’t mean that the Protestant (i.e. those who have Master and Doctoral level degrees in historical theology) is going to admit it came from Jesus, the apostles, nor the early fathers.

      In other words, there is no one-up that the Orthodox have on this line of thought.

      • I don’t know how representative your view of the rule of faith is dependent on the rule of prayer, but I submit that we differ. Whatever people pray in commor, in public, on a regular basis, is the best way to know what they believe as a faith communion. What other indicators are available that have the same transparency? That’s why the public worship is so important. You don’t have to be able to read, just see and hear. You get to know90%+ of what Orthodox believe just by showing up for services. Catholic, maybe what 65%?
        You don’t pray anywhere anything like “and in the inordinate, supreme and universal jurisdiction of our Holy Father (name), Pope of Rome” anywhere. And I think many Catholics wouldn’t want that in any public declaration.

      • Stephen,

        I’ve essentially said that your critique against Catholicism along the lines of lex orandi lex credenti is a quintessential act of the pot calling the kettle black. Your responses should correspond with my charge, and not repeat your previous point.

  3. Well, if by pot and kettle you mean that both east and west do not include all of what they require of adherents to be expressed in their communal prayer life, than we agree. That begs the same question of both communions – why not? The Nicean Creed was not created out of thin air, but the result of the bishops developing a 4th century Venn diagram of their shared beliefs that could positively state as it conformed with what their respective churches ALREADY professed. Same with anything liturgically – a positive affirmation – in contrast with conciliar declarations/pronoucements, which were negative – this is what we do NOT believe. What we believe is left to be said in the common prayer life of each individual church.

    Here’s a thought – what is publicly proclaimed by Orthodox in our prayer life that would be unacceptable to Catholics? I would say exactly nothing. and, vice versa, the only thing Orthodox would reject is, of course, the filioque addition to the Creed as professed by Catholics in every language except Greek (which, when prayed by the Pope of Rome in Greek, has never to my knowledge included the filioque). Yes, Orthodox are no more happy with the Rite of Paul VI than more traditionally minded Catholics, but most especially because they were imposed via top-down papal ukase, totally in contrast to liturgical development and upending lex orandi lex credendi.

    The extra-liturgical items are the problem – and I would say are magnified out of proportion because extra-liturgical items should NOT be weighted more than intra-liturgical. The extra have inherent problems in their origin, nature and dissemination that should make them less important. We address them in proportion, we might find hope.

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