#AskaCatholic – How Authoritative are the Creeds and Councils to Catholics?
NOTE: This column is hosted by and has been updated from it’s original at Spokane Faith & Values. It has graciously been given permission for reposting at MtnCatholic.com.
Q. I was reading the canons of the Synod of Laodicea (363 A.D.) and was particularly stuck on these three:
Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.
It is not lawful to receive portions sent from the feasts of Jews or heretics, nor to feast together with them.
It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews, nor to be partakers of their impiety.
How authoritative are the Creeds & Councils to Catholics? What do you do with their contradictions and condemnations?
A. The word “synod” (pronounced SIN-udd), at least when used with regard to Catholicism, is defined as, “A general term for ecclesiastical gatherings under hierarchical authority, for the discussion and decision of matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline,” (Catholic Encylopedia, Vol. 14). The words “synod” and “council” are generally understood to be synonymous.
To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Councils are, then, from their nature, a common effort of the Church, or part of the Church, for self-preservation and self-defence. They appear at her very origin, in the time of the Apostles at Jerusalem, and throughout her whole history whenever faith or morals or discipline are seriously threatened. Although their object is always the same, the circumstances under which they meet impart to them a great variety.
Within the Church, there are many kinds of synods/councils, and to illustrate those it’s important to first briefly outline the organizational structure of Catholicism.
How the Church is organized
Within the Catholic Church, at the bottom level are parishes, or individual churches. Parishes make up adiocese, and clusters of dioceses make up ecclesiastical provinces (think: counties in relation to states). Above that, each nation’s provinces are grouped together to form the country’s conference of bishops.
A bishop oversees an individual diocese, and a metropolitan archbishop, typically the presiding bishop of the archdiocese in the area, oversees an ecclesiastical province. An archdiocese is more or less just a diocese that’s in a metropolitan area (Denver, Los Angeles, New York, etc.), and for all intents and purposes, the majority of day-to-day operations are conducted within each diocese, rather than in the ecclesiastical province.
Where synods and councils come in
Each one of these distinctive bodies are able to hold synods for the purpose of discussing and deciding “matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline.” Some are held according to what’s best for the faithful in a given time period and/or a specific location, and some to define points to which the faithful are bound to believe from there on out.
The types of synods range from the smallest (diocesan council) to the largest (“General Council” or “Ecumenical Council”), and there are seven different types of synods in all. The Second Vatican Council, for example, falls under the category of an “Ecumenical” or “General” council, meaning all of the world’s bishops were gathered to discuss matters pertaining to the universal church.
Ecumenical councils, of which there have been 21 in the history of the church, are the only kind of council whose decrees “bind all Christians.” All others exist to foster discussion and provide guidance on a regional level, but their decrees aren’t seen as infallible or binding on the whole church.
The Synod (or Council) of Laodicea, held in the 4th Century, appears to have been the equivalent of a “provincial synod”, meaning basically that the bishops in the region surrounding Laodicea were gathered to provide guidance to the faithful under their care.
The church allows for enough freedom of preference, outside of doctrine and dogma, that bishops are able to run their dioceses, in large part, how they see fit. The same holds true for regions and provinces of bishops as well. Any contradictions or problems in faith, morals, or discipline that come to light from a lesser synod or council would be corrected by the highest level within the church — namely the pope or the offices within the church he directly oversees.
In this particular instance, the bishops in the Synod of Laodicea seemingly spoke most commonly on “judaizing”, more specifically, that Christians were forbidden from judaizing if they were to remain in communion with the church. So now we ask, what is judaizing?
Judaizers were a Christian sect in the early church who believed that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Judaizing amounted to following the Old Testament customs of the Mosaic Law instead of the teachings of Christ, effectively walking backward in faith to follow Mosaic custom. Ignoring the fact that Christ’s death brought about a new covenant — literally a “New Testament” — and the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, thus making salvation a matter of faith instead of a matter of following Jewish law, would naturally be rejected by the church Christ founded.
Though these canons in particular were meant for a specific time period and place and thus weren’t binding on the whole church. However, anything decreed by an Ecumenical Council is in fact binding on a Catholic Christian if they wish to stay in full communion with the church.
Just like the pope has a special charism of infallibility, so too does the universal church when Her bishops gather at an ecumenical council and define a dogma of the faith. In fact, this teaching goes all the way back to the first few centuries of the Church. Pope Leo the Great, who reigned as pope from 440 to 461 A.D., once wrote, “whoso resists the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon cannot be numbered among Catholics,” and followed it later in the document by noting that the councils’ dogmatic decrees were framed “instrumente Spiritu Sancto” or “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Thus, to answer your question, a Catholic is bound by dogmas infallibly proclaimed in Ecumenical Councils, and are encouraged to follow direction given in lesser councils by bishops overseeing the place in which they live. Some bishops—don’t misunderstand, it’s been some; not most, not all—have been known to teach error from time to time, so when a perceived contradiction arises, the person should go to the “next level up,” so to speak, and consult with a higher council to see if there exists more clarity on the subject. The same would apply to condemnations. As always though, it is good to first bring concerns about the teachings of the church to prayer or even to seek out spiritual direction from a trusted priest or Catholic layman/woman.
The Scripture references for this practice of the universal church include, but aren’t limited to the following:
- “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth . . .” (John 16:13)
- “Behold I am with you [teaching] all days even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20),
- “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it [i.e. the Church]” (Matthew 16:18)