This was the first article in what became Conspiracies and Catholicism; I am now out of repeats. Hopefully I’m writing new material by now.
A popular staple of conspiracy theories that involve the Catholic Church is along the lines of “The Council of Ancient City in Three Digit Date, AD”– no assurance about the date or location being even slightly accurate, or there ever having been a Council at the location.
Partially why this formula is so popular is because it’s exotic. These days even a lot of born and bred Catholics aren’t too clear on councils, what they can do, and their purpose. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably at least an apologetic hobbyist, so you will be familiar with the arguments that go something like ‘Catholics didn’t believe water was wet until centuries after Jesus had died!’ If the person arguing has done good research, or at least gotten his information from a good source, there will actually be a council that answered something like the question. More often, especially in conspiracy theories, the date will be off and the topic will at best be tangential to what’s claimed, such as a rejection of someone who theorized souls existing before the body bringing about reincarnation.
First, what the councils we’re talking about are:
From CCC 981 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…. the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.
Obvious question: what’s the Magisterium?
CCC 888 Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command.415 They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”
CCC 889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”
CCC 890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. the exercise of this charism takes several forms:
(first quote came from here)
So, the “Councils” we’re talking about are (usually, I’ll hit this next) Ecumenical Councils, which are the Bishops and Pope joining to speak on Big Important Deals. There aren’t that many of those. Here’s a list with basic details. They don’t do this for fun. It’s usually to fix a problem; in those conspiracy theories where they actually have the where and what of the Council correct, it’s usually solving a disagreement, for example, “what books are inspired?” led to the Bible. The Bible is actually a pretty good example for this topic– the history could be summed up along the lines of “No, really, we did mean it the last time!”
If you went to that link you’re probably now going “….Foxfier, are you off your meds? There’s no Hippo or Carthage on the list you gave, and that comment about Nicaea II is kind of flimsy!”
Well, you’re sort of right from some angles. It’s an aspect of the Catholic Church that it’s not really pro-active, waiting to be “poked” before it responds. When the Church is ‘poked,’ it responds at the lowest possible level. This means, in modern terms, that you don’t have the Vatican issuing a smack-down, because your parish Priest decided to install a disco ball and playing “Disco Duck,” it’s his Bishop that responds. (And if you see a problem, that’s who you tell if everything is going alright, anyways. It can be rather frustrating, chasing a problem up the chain of responsibility.)
Basically, all councils are just a combination of the authority of the folks involved. At risk of being juvenile, it’s mom and dad having a meeting about what the limits are; the American Council of Bishops has authority, although the specific authority will probably make your head hurt. It does mine. Judicial judgment usually does. (ie., your folks can’t tell you that murder-at-will is OK, but they are quite binding at the time a 16 year old needs to be home.) The Church just deals with bigger deals.
Anyway, this explanation gives you a starting point when someone says “the council of Such and Such in This and That year said Whatever, But”…..
I hope to continue this series, so please, share with me various issues you’ve heard, so I can research them and share with you!