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Why have Popes never been keen on holding councils?

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican Council II, a Papal historian reflects on the Popes' traditional reluctance to convene such gatherings.

  • Michael J. Walsh
  • International
  • October 1, 2012
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It is a useful rule of thumb—and something you can count on—that popes do not like councils. From time to time they feel obliged seriously to consider calling a gathering of the world’s bishops, only to eschew the thought. We know Pope Pius XI toyed with the idea at the beginning of his pontificate but had rejected it by 1925.

In 1948 Pius XII set up a commission to consider whether he ought to convoke an ecumenical council (the suggestion that it might be a good idea had been aired almost a decade earlier at the conclave that elected him), but by 1951 he had put an end to any such radical speculation. Considering the success of the Second Vatican Council just a decade later, it is a relief to us all that he did so. A council during the pontificate of Papa Pacelli would have been a very different animal.

There are many reasons why popes do not like councils. They are a logistical nightmare: where to hold it, who is going to pay. They also demand a mammoth amount of preparatory work: studying precedents, seeking opinions, analyzing responses from bishops. But the biggest worry is who is going to come out on top? The popes have much to lose.

Pope John XXIII’s namesake, Pope John XXIII (there were indeed two popes with that name, which rather makes up for the fact that there was never a John XX), fled from the Council of Constance in the early 15th century and had to be dragged back by the Emperor Sigismund.

Canon 338 claims that calling a council and setting its agenda “is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff.” Yet the assertion flies in the face of the historical evidence. Councils have often been forced upon recalcitrant pontiffs, not least the aforementioned Council of Constance. The fathers at Constance demanded, and Pope Martin V reluctantly agreed, that councils should meet at regular intervals to govern the church.

It took many years before popes managed to wriggle out of what still is, to the best of my knowledge, an abiding conciliar decree. But wriggle out of it they did. Papal power was not to be fettered by having to listen to the views of the bishops.

Full Story: Opening the Windows

Source: America Magazine
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