Brief Commentary on Patriarchal Consensus & The Case of Vigilius


A Monk-Priest friend of mine and a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church sent me this statement made by the Council of Constantinople (553) , and made the point that it clearly supports the model of >collegiality-contra-Vatican1< . A group of voices representing the whole rather than one single infallible voice. I had some immediate thoughts (without looking at any texts other than the one cited) and here they are.

The text from the Council goes:

And because it happened that the most religious Vigilius stopping in this royal city, was present at all the discussions with regard to the Three Chapters, and had often condemned them orally and in writing, nevertheless afterwards he gave his consent in writing to be present at the Council and examine together with us the Three Chapters, that a suitable definition of the right faith might be set forth by us all. Moreover the most pious Emperor, according to what had seemed good between us, exhorted both him and us to meet together, because it is comely that the priesthood should after common discussion impose a common faith. On this account we besought his reverence to fulfill his written promises; for it was not right that the scandal with regard to these Three Chapters should go any further, and the Church of God be disturbed thereby. And to this end we brought to his remembrance the great examples left us by the Apostles, and the traditions of the Fathers. For although the grace of the Holy Spirit abounded in each one of the Apostles, so that no one of them needed the counsel of another in the execution of his work, yet they were not willing to define on the question then raised touching the circumcision of the Gentiles, until being gathered together they had confirmed their own several sayings by the testimony of the divine Scriptures.

And thus they arrived unanimously at this sentence, which they wrote to the Gentiles: “It has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no other burden than these necessary things, that ye abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.”

But also the Holy Fathers, who from time to time have met in the four holy councils, following the example of the ancients, have by a common discussion, disposed of by a fixed decree the heresies and questions which had sprung up, as it was certainly known, that by common discussion when the matter in dispute was presented by each side, the light of truth expels the darkness of falsehood.

Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest when there are discussions concerning the faith, since each one needs the help of his neighbour, as we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: “A brother helping his brother shall be exalted like a walled city; and he shall be strong as a well-founded kingdom;” and again in Ecclesiastes he says: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.”

So also the Lord himself says: “Verily I say unto you that if two of you shall agree upon earth as touching anything they shall seek for, they shall have it from my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

But when often he had been invited by us all, and when the most glorious judges had been sent to him by the most religious Emperor, he promised to give sentence himself on the Three Chapters. And when we heard this answer, having the Apostle’s admonition in mind, that “each one must, give an account of himself to God” and fearing the judgment that hangs over those who scandalize one, even of the least important, and knowing how much sorer it must be to give offense to so entirely Christian an Emperor, and to the people, and to all the Churches; and further recalling what was said by God to Paul: “Fear not, but speak, and be not silent, for I am with thee, and no one can harm thee.” Therefore, being gathered together, before all things we have briefly confessed that we hold that faith which our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God, delivered to his holy Apostles, and through them to the holy churches, and which they who after thorn were holy fathers and doctors, handed down to the people credited to them.” (Source)

This is definitely a thick knot to untie for all sides, including the Conciliarists. Just as we find instances where a ultra-centralization in a single individual is protected by the authority of tradition and consensus, we also find instances where Conciliarism is protected by the authority of a singular Head. Take for example Apostolic Canon 34. If this Canon were to reflect the status of the universal Church, then both the universal Head and body are both equally restrictive to each other, effectively equating their authority when it comes to the decision on matters affecting the Church. An example of the opposite would be the 1st Vatican Council’s insistence on the legal independence of the Pope’s authority in effecting doctrinal decrees binding on the whole Church.

Both sides, at the end of the day, must turn to the Holy Ghost to trust that a certain kind of “balance” is maintained so as to not fall into the extremity of falsification. By “falsification”, I mean, in the case of the Orthodox, where you have a split right down the middle between heads and bodies, rendering the visible Church diminished by the equal restriction AC34 places on the head and the body, paralyzing any conciliar acts whatsoever. And in the case of the Catholic, where you have an individual Pope who isolates himself and attempts to dogmatize heresy against the consensus of the “conscience” and “mind” of the Church. Rather, the trust is that the Orthodox Conciliarity (AC34) balances well so as to accomplish an agreement between Head and Members. For the Catholic, the trust is that the Pope will keep in step with the consensus and mind of the Episcopate (although not being legally bound by it in strict causation).

I could easily attempt to provide a historical apologeticum for AC34 or the Vaticanal Primacy (both would come out rough), but since I am a Catholic, I am committed to defend the later. On this footing, I would first note here that, despite how much Papal centralization in the West would appear in our decrees/canons (especially since the schism between the Greeks/Latins), there has never been an instance where a Pope isolated himself against the consensus (I understand this is arguable), and attempted to dogmatize novelty.

A perfect example would be the theology of the procession of the Holy Ghost. We already see many church fathers speaking to an >ad intra< flowing forth of the Spirit from the Father and Son, and many explicitly in the form which is condemned by the unofficial consensus of the Chalcedonian-Orthodox. It was adopted into the Creed in the late 6th century by Spain, and slowly was the consensus of the Western bishops. Interestingly enough, it was the Apostolic See of Rome who was late in coming to be explicitly in support of the addition of “filioque” into the Church’s creed. What I mean here is that the Filioque, both as a doctrine and as a “harmless addition” to the Creed, was not something that the Pope of Rome arrogated to himself, but was the consensus of the Western churches, with the theological support of major Eastern voices.

Likewise, this also applies to the use of unleavened bread, shaved priests, purgatory, the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception, the beatific vision of God’s essence, and a host of other distinctives for which the Eastern Churches accepting of the 7 Ecumenical Councils criticize us for. All of these matters were not that of a Pope arrogating to himself the right of isolation. Even in the subjects standing in-between Catholics and Protestants, particularly on the salvation of the human being, this was left to an Ecumenical Council (Trent), wherein it was clear the Bishops stood as co-judges with the prelate of the Apostolic See. Even Vatican I labels Bishops in a Council co-judges with the Pope (I understand the Eastern critique is that this is illusory, but leave that for another time).

Indeed, all the reunion Councils of the Greeks and the Latins did not consist of the Pope making the decision all by himself. But, despite the irony, the Latin Papalists recognized the need of the Council while also, contrary to what you said above, recognizing the essential role of the Pope in establishing dogmatic decrees. And so it took some thought and development to inquire into just what it is about the Pope’s authority that makes the Council so dependent upon his judgment. What resulted was not the Apostolic Canon 34, per se, where both head and body equally restrict themselves to one another, but that the Head should have peculiar rights and jurisdiction which doesn’t belong to the body, and not just peripheral prerogatives, but those essential to the core of authority. <brief tangent> I say “per se” above because the essence of AC34, i.e. the the agreement of Head and Body, is essentially absorbed into the Catholic doctrine insofar as the latter presupposes that all dogmatic decrees of a Pope necessarily represent the “mind” of the body of the Church across time, and some would argue, across the horizon at the given moment <end of tangent>.

Even in the Ex Cathedra decrees of the 19th/20th centuries on the Virgin Mary (already alluded to), the Popes in both instances sought out the consensus of the Bishops prior to releasing a decree.

And lest I should do them an injustice, I would also bring in the Coptic churches and their voice at the table of this discussion. They heartily remind the Chalcedonian-Orthodox of the violation of “consensus” which took place in the inter-play of Ephesus 449 (which they continue to accept) and Chalcedon 451. To this day, the Coptic episcopate remembers the “injustice” (save this all for a later debate) done towards Dioscorus, thereby eliminating the consensus patrum from Chalcedon. Not to mention that the Chalcedonian-clergy eventually ended up cancelling Chalcedon in the late 5th early 6th centuries for the sake of “consensus” and “unity” with the Eastern episcopates critical of St. Leo’s tome. Who then mandated the Council of Chalcedon 451 to be regularized again for the East? It was under the Emperor Justin and his successor Justinian, and their negotiations with the Apostolic See of Rome, which made clear claims to an individuated infallibility, that the Eastern episcopate came back around to Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo. The famous Formula of St. Hormisdas (519), both signed by the Eastern bishops then, and again at the Council of C’ple 536, and again signed at the Council of C’ple 869 (although abrogated by the Council of C’ple 879, and arguably in agreement with John VIII, with no offensive to Papal power), explains all of this.

Finally, in consideration of C’ple 553, Justinian, Vigilius, and the Eastern Patriarchs who met in the Council. How one thinks this was innocent from Imperial violation is simply beyond my comprehension. Even the Eastern Patriarchs were resistant to Justinian’s initial scheme with the “Three Heads” or “Chapters”, and noted that their signatures, done under compulsion, were only valid if the Pope of Rome had agreed (I understand this is absorbed into your theory, but bear with me). When Vigilius was forced under compulsion to leave Rome and travail to Constantinople to stand under the heights of Imperial domination so as to bend to Justinian’s Edict, he went back and forth on the matter. The span of time here was about 8 years. There was a time in this span where the Eastern bishops went along with Justinian, and then Vigilius excommunicated all of them. Following this, the Patriarchs all recanted, and returned to communion with Vigilius, stating that they accept all the Councils “which are ratified by the Apostolic See“, since Chalcedon was seen as threatened by the Three Chapters Edict. When Justinian himself capitulated from his Ceasaro-Papism and permitted an Episcopal Council to judge the matter, he reneged on the terms and conditions that he and the Pope agreed upon, and, as a result, the Western representation that the Pope had judged necessary was sacrificed, and Justinian plowed through with the opening and commencing of a Council without adequate Western representation. Not that this would be needed, since all 7 Councils lacked Western representation (save for the Pope and his legates, with the exception of the 25 or so elected to this Council, and Hossius of Cordoba at Nicaea I), but since the Head of the West deemed it necessary to have X and Y terms fulfilled, I consider Justinian’s jumping of the gun to lack Western representation. So what we have here is a Regional Synod of the East under the Emperor making decrees. That may square fine with some since C’ple 381 was of this material. However, we should note that all of Byzantine canon law understood that Councils without the approval of the Apostolic See, could never be made “Ecumenical” (c.f. St. Nikiphorus of Constantinople and John the Deacon @ Nicaea II). Thus, C’ple 381 was not fully treated as Ecumenial until the West (5th or 6th centuries) began to count it as #2 instead of Ephesus 431.  Be that as it is, the Patriarchs who wrote out the Conciliarist-sounding statement cited above stood in explicit opposition to the Western bishops who thought the Three Chapters were just fine and consistent with Chalcedon. Therefore, one could argue that the decrees of C’ple 553 have to be judged by the letter exchange 6 months after the close of the Council by Vigilius, Justinian, and St. Eutychios of Constantinople. After all, Vigilius, from beginning to end, simply desired to maintain both the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus 431 and Chalcedon. An extraordinary decree on Christology would need to be handled delicately, and this was not the modus operandi of the 5th Council, to say the least. Therefore, it seems clear Vigilius still retained his understanding of the Papal primacy in a way conformable to the Vatican more so than modern day Constantinople. Consequently, the Papal conciliarity accepted today by Rome still has a place at the table of historical debate.

To summarize, the appeal to “consensus” and “collegiality”, modeled after the Apostles (Acts 15), could be the card laid down by the pro-Three-Chapters-Western-Episcopate, the anti-Chalcedon-Coptic-Episcopate, the Eastern-Episcopate-with-Justinian, or whoever else can muster a significant size to make for contest. The Papal claims, as accepted by East and West throughout history, bears witness to the reality that, despite the mode of collegiality which dominates the form and matter of theological production in Church History, there is a need for a symbolon of unity who can make for the tongue of a conciliar mind when and if it is needed. Now, the above would pose a problem to those Orthodox ecclesiologists who deem the visible unity of the Church essential, but I understand that there are those in the East who have the sort of epistemology which basically says, “We know the truth by the truth” or “The truth is known by those who know it“, and thus the true Church can dwindle in its visible pedigree with no essential harm to its being true. This seems to me a far more modern notion (although it has adherents in the past), and it would take a new article afresh to take head on.

10 thoughts on “Brief Commentary on Patriarchal Consensus & The Case of Vigilius

  1. you know, I’m really questioning the veracity of the orthodox claims. I rejected Protestantism because of its invisible nature. as john 17 rejects the idea of such a church explicitly stating that the unity of the church is a sign to the world. meaning the natural man can know the church as easily as he can look at the sky. a simple and physically occurring sign! I thought eastern orthodoxy obeyed this unity as much as Catholicism But eastern orthodoxy seems to take on an invisible nature as well. its seems its only detectable by natural means when its not in some crisis or some huge church dividing event. with the reception theory taking acts 5:38-39 to its limit it cant be the only way we can know. sure, we know Arianism is false because it was lost to time but that cant be the only reason. as the comminatory states God lets false teachers rise up to test the faithful. How ridiculous it becomes when the faithful cant trust their shepherds in an ecumenical council because it wasn’t accepted or it wont be solved for another 100 years or so.

    reception theory isn’t rejected either. the early church debated often as to which books were canon. but take the book of romans. Paul had a specific audience and a remedy for them. i doubt reception theory was kicked around by the romans when pauls letter was delivered. the church needs remedy for crisis because souls are on the line!

    as it stands, the roman church hasn’t descended into true heresy. sure, liberalism is rampant and weird stuff is going on but the church still retains ecclesiastical continuity and physically demonstrates true unity. not only this, but orthodoxy and Catholicism are so incredibly close in theology.

    Id imagine if the reception theory is utilized right now the only prudent thing the orthodox can really do is wait and see which church falls first to know who is right. hopefully they solve their differences and reunite !

    • As far as I know, reception theory isn’t necessarily the official theory of Orthodoxy, but a fairly modern one.

      Other Orthodox believe that ecumenical councils themselves are always infallible when talking about doctrine, independently on whether or not anyone received it, so there is that…

  2. @Erick Ybarra,

    The most conciliarist sounding statement in the quote is this: “Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest when there are discussions concerning the faith, since each one needs the help of his neighbour,”

    Everything else is consistent with the twin doctrines of Papacy (unijury and infallibility), and only the above statement seems to go against this, stating that there is no way for the truth to be manifest without an ecumenical discussion and mutual declaration of it.

    This would seem to show that Orthodox-like conciliarism was indeed believed by some in the early Chuch – in this case, even by entire bishops in a declaration by an Ecumenical Council! – even if the ultimacy of the Papacy was also believed in as well.

    What do you think?

    • John,

      Thank you for your message.

      The Council fathers here are responding to Pope Vigilius’s desire to make his own profession of faith, so it is clear they intend to directly oppose the idea of a Pope isolating himself in order to make a binding decree on the whole Church. Interestingly enough, a Pope has never done that. The Popes have always sought the consensus of the Church, even more so in the centuries after the Greek-Latin schism.

      But speaking on a matter of principle, we believe nothing could stop the Pope from doing so, if we mean that he doesn’t need to consult with other bishops. So there does seem to be a direct contradiction on that single point.

      On the other hand, what constitutes “help from your brother”? The Council didn’t seem interested in gaining the representation of the West. Therefore, it was an Eastern regional Council under the Ceasaro-Papal authority of Justinian I

      • @Erick Ybarra,

        The Council fathers here are responding to Pope Vigilius’s desire to make his own profession of faith, so it is clear they intend to directly oppose the idea of a Pope isolating himself in order to make a binding decree on the whole Church.

        But speaking on a matter of principle, we believe nothing could stop the Pope from doing so, if we mean that he doesn’t need to consult with other bishops. So there does seem to be a direct contradiction on that single point.

        Actually, when one thinks about this, there does seem to be a way to interpret even that statement as not being necessarily conciliatory. If what the bishops wanted to say was that the Pope shouldn’t make declarations on his own without consulting the opinion of the whole Church, that would be correct and compatible with Catholicism.

        After all, even Vatican 1 or 2 (can’t recall exactly which) stated that the Pope cannot go against the universal consensus of the Church Fathers, so it’s possible the Council Fathers were simply reminding the Pope to be vigilant of the whole Church. The word they used was also “manifest” – I wonder whether or not it is flexible enough to mean simply that the truth is best seen when declared together, since that shows that it comes truly from the Church as a whole, and the Pope being the infallible Head doesn’t contradict that at all, but makes both the Body and Head shine as a whole.

      • A possible partial exception to the claim that no pope ever wished to make a binding decree on the whole Church may be St. Leo the Great’s Tome. It was not sent by St. Leo to the Council of Chalcedon with the attitude of “I think you should consider this and, if you like it, make use of it.”

  3. Dear Erick,
    Thank you so much for what you’re doing here! So much hard work represented here. Could you please send me a list of a half dozen (or so) of your top books on the history and claims of the Papacy.
    Through the prayers of our most Holy Lady, may God bless you and your family.
    In XC,
    Fr. Daniel

    • Hello Erick! I know you’re a super busy man and I’m grateful for all your work. I’d still love a book recommendation per my earlier comment, if you have a moment. Thank you, Sir!

  4. In response to Fr. Daniel, here are some books:

    The Church and the Papacy, by Trevor Gervase Jalland (1944)

    The Eastern Churches and the Papacy, by S. Herbert Scott (1928)

    Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal, by Dom Gregory Dix (1975)

    (Dix’s book was originally published as a series of articles in the Anglican Benedictine quarterly journal Laudate in 1937-38, as a response to and review of The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461, by B. J. Kidd (1936)

    The above authors were all Anglicans. I would add:

    Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity, by Ludwig Hertling, S.J. (1972)

    The Episcopate and the Primacy, by Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger (1962), particularly the chapter by Ratzinger (although the two by Rahner are not without interest).

    You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy, by Olivier Clement (2003)

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