Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 29 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1990

Papal Authority in the First Ecumenical Councils   by Brian W. Harrison
A Dubious Translation of Ecclesia Dei   by John F. McCarthy

by Brian W. Harrison

"There never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter's successor. And it is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke such councils, to preside over them and to confirm them."
                             - Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium: 22

"The Papacy had laid claim sporadically to the primacy of Christendom in earlier centuries [than the fifth], but these claims had either been denied or ignored by those to whom they had been addressed. ... In the East [the Popes] were confronted by a theory of Church government which had a place for episcopal authority, but none for Roman Primacy."
                             - W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church, pp. 233, 235

        To what extent does the history of the earliest Ecumenical Councils harmonise with either of the above two theses? They may be taken as fairly typical statements of Roman Catholic belief on the one hand, and the viewpoint of many who are sceptical of the traditional Catholic interpretation of history on the other.

        In the records of the great Councils of the fifth century, we can see the Bishops of Rome coming to assume explicitly the dominant position which their successors have continued to exercise ever since in those Councils recognized by the Catholic Church as "Ecumenical." That Roman primacy of jurisdiction was widely accepted in the East at this time is clear from the negotiations before and during the Council of Ephesus. Cyril of Alexandria appeals to Celestine of Rome to deal with Nestorius in Constantinople; and Celestine replies, delegating Cyril to excommunicate Nestorius if he fails to recant within ten days, equating his own judgment with "the divine sentence of our Christ," and stating that he has written in similar terms to four other major Bishops. 1 In the ensuing Council of Ephesus, we find that Cyril presides in the place of Celestine, 2 and that the whole Council accepts as "suitable" 3 and worthy of confirmation by all, the words of the Roman legate Philip, in presenting for conciliar approval (not debate) Celestine's prior condemnation of Nestorius:

"It is doubted by no one, but in fact has been known to all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter ... received from our Lord Jesus Christ ... the keys of the kingdom, and that power was granted to him of binding and loosing sins; who up till this time and always lives in his successors and exercises judgment." 4

        Twenty years later we find Pope Leo the Great speaking in similarly authoritative style to the Council of Chalcedon, and by and large being accepted. Although a rump of 150 Bishops out of the original 600 5 passed the contentious Canon 28, which mentioned only the political basis of Roman primacy, 6 the letter of the Eastern Bishops to Leo, pleading for his acceptance and ratification of the canon, is eloquent testimony to the position of headship which they accorded him, 7 however much they may have subsequently treated his annulment of the canon 8 as a dead letter.

        A papal primacy of jurisdiction, then, was without doubt generally accepted by the mid-fifth century (although, then as now, there was resistance to particular acts of Roman authority on the part of various Bishops). 9 But was this equally the case with the two great Councils of the fourth century, or was there (as Frend maintains) an ancient Eastern tradition which had "no place for papal primacy"? Owing to the relative scarcity of ancient contemporary documents on some of these vital matters, the historian as such cannot always claim to prove the validity of the Catholic Church's position from written sources alone; but we shall argue here that an orthodox Roman Catholic view of the relationship between the Popes and the first Councils is quite consistent with the available documentary evidence.


        There is no doubt that the first Ecumenical Council was convoked by the Emperor Constantine. Did Bishop Sylvester of Rome have anything to do with it? Certainly Ortiz de Urbina does not quite do justice to the evidence in asserting that "Nicaea ... was not convoked on the initiative of the Church." 10 The original documentation of the Council has vanished, but Ortiz omits to tell us that according to the historian Rufinus, who lived shortly afterwards (d. 410), Constantine made his decision "on the advice of the clergy" 11 - a perfectly plausible assertion. We simply cannot prove from written sources whether or not Rome was consulted in any way, but it seems very likely - almost certain - that Constantine's trusted associate, Ossius of Cordoba, who subsequently presided at the Council, was involved beforehand in its preparation.

        The Anglican Bishop J.W.C. Wand declares that the Roman legates "certainly" did not preside at Nicaea. 12 But it is quite probable that Ossius himself was in effect a Roman legate of sorts, and did not preside solely in his capacity as the Emperor's favourite. 13 The Eastern priest-historian Gelasius of Cyzicus, who had no Roman axe to grind, affirms that Ossius "held the place of Sylvester of Rome, together with the Roman presbyters Vito and Vincentius." 14 Gelasius was born and bred in the vicinity of Nicaea, and wrote around 475, claiming to base his history of the Council on its original acts (now lost). That Rome was acknowledged as the first of all sees is shown by the fact that the signatures of its undisputed legates, Vito and Vincentius, came immediately after that of Ossius (whose minor see, Cordoba, obviously had nothing to do with his prominence in this context). 15 Luke Rivington's point here is telling: if Ossius had presided solely in virtue of the Emperor's favour, it is hard to imagine that this would never subsequently have been cited as a precedent, especially at Chalcedon. 16 It is quite likely, then, that Bishop Ossius, being a Western prelate and the foremost champion of anti-Arianism, was accepted by Sylvester as an ad hoc representative, and presided by mutual agreement with Constantine. We must be careful not to infer from the lack of conclusive documentary evidence that something did occur to the conclusion that it did not occur, 17 as Bishop Wand does.

        With regard to the attitude of the papacy after Nicaea there is no dispute: Rome enthusiastically endorsed the Trinitarian profession of faith and the disciplinary canons of the Council, and continued to insist on their observance.

        What of the attitude of the Council Fathers toward Rome (apart from the question of Council presidency)? Canon 6 accords to Alexandria a metropolitan authority over Egypt, Libya and Persepolis, and the reason given for this is that "this is also customary to the Bishop of Rome." 18 These words are perhaps somewhat obscure in their precise implications, but they do show that in some way Roman custom was regarded as normative for the wider Church, including the East. Furthermore, the canon is concerned with the normal mode of Church government in the 'patriarchal' areas of Alexandria and Antioch, and if the right of Rome to act as arbiter in extraordinary cases (involving accusations of heresy and the like) was not disputed at the time, there is no reason why it should have been mentioned in this context. The Roman synod of 485 states that the Nicene Fathers "referred the confirmation of things and the authority to the holy Roman Church," 19 although there is no original documentary evidence of this. Constantine seems to have promulgated the creed and canons without seeking Roman confirmation; but quite apart from the fact that the Emperor's attitude cannot necessarily be taken as a yardstick of accepted Christian orthodoxy at that time, his action proves very little, given the absence of the Council's acts. If the Roman legates had made it clear on the Council floor that the end product was in accord with their mandate from Bishop Sylvester, Constantine may well have taken the attitude that there was no need for further confirmation. Indeed, shortly after Nicaea, we find Bishop Julius of Rome appealing to a "Canon of the Church," as well as "custom," against a synod of Bishops which ignored the authority of Rome. 20 Which "canon" he had in mind is not clear, but it seems most improbable that Sylvester, only a few years before, would have taken a contrary view to that of Julius, and felt content for the Nicene Council to make final decisions without in some way gaining his approval.


        Once more we are dealing with a situation in which the acts of the Council are no longer extant. Again it was decreed by the Emperor - Theodosius I. 21 The language of his decree of the previous year certainly suggests that he regarded the Roman see as a yardstick of Christian orthodoxy: he commands all his subjects to practise "that religion which Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans," and which (he says) is observed by the "Pontiff" Damasus and the "Bishop" Peter of Alexandria, "a man of apostolic sanctity." 22 A short edict of January 381 reinforced this by specifying the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit as an essential Christian tenet. 23 Therefore, it seems clear that in calling a Council only a few months later, Theodosius did not envisage the assembled Bishops debating the Roman doctrine as though it were an open question. A letter of Pope Damasus to his associate Ascholius of Thessalonika approves the idea of a Council to settle the disputed succession in Constantinople, 24 so it seems very possible that, through Ascholius, the Emperor consulted Rome beforehand.

        The fact that Meletius of Antioch presided at Constantinople, together with the absence of any Roman legates, might appear to be evidence against the Roman primacy. But it must be remembered that this Council was not originally intended to be "Ecumenical" in the same sense as the great Nicene convocation. It included, after all, only about 150 Bishops from Thrace, Asia Minor and Egypt, 25 and was convoked precisely in order to deal with Eastern problems. 26 In fact, it was not recognized as "Ecumenical" by the Council of Ephesus half a century later, and it was left to Pope Gregory the Great to elevate it papally to that status. 27

        The most controversial statement of this Council is the third canon, which states, "The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the Primacy of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome." 28 When this was later cited and confirmed by a rump of the Chalcedonian Fathers, Leo the Great took exception, because it ignored what Francis Dvornik calls the "principle of apostolicity" and overstressed the "principle of accommodation" (of the Church's political geography to that of the Empire). 29 However, as Dvornik points out, the canon was not intended to have anti-Roman overtones, and was concerned only to regulate the relationship of sees in the East. 30 It was not even officially communicated to the West. 31

        This relatively local character of the Council is relevant also to its second canon, which forbids Bishops to intervene in the affairs of churches in other civil dioceses. 32 According to the German church historian W. Ullmann, this canon indicates an "inferior position now accorded to the Roman Church." 33 But it seems that the canon has only Eastern bishoprics in mind, since it spells out the five major regions of the Eastern empire where the Church is established, and does not even mention Rome or any Western diocese. If this canon had been understood to imply that Rome had no jurisdiction over the East, then why was it not cited fifty years later, in protest against Pope Celestine's hard-hitting interventions against Nestorius, through the agency of Cyril of Alexandria?

        Ullmann also makes much of the fact that, in sanctioning the decrees of the Council in July 381, Theodosius "did not even mention Rome." 34 We are asked to accept on the basis of this that "thereby the government made crystal clear that Rome and its church were to be relegated to an inferior place. Rome was to sink to the rank of a historical site." 35 Now this is quite astonishing. In promulgating (amongst other things) a canon which expressly acknowledges Rome's primacy over Constantinople, Theodosius is supposed to be relegating Rome to an "inferior place" in the Church, even when his own law of the previous year, making the faith of Rome mandatory for the whole Eastern empire, remained fully in force! If, as seems most likely, the disciplinary canons were seen as a domestic Eastern affair not requiring Rome's assent, there is no compelling reason why Theodosius should have mentioned Rome in the postconciliar edict, since the dogmatic teaching of the Council was already known by all to enjoy Roman approval.

        After the Council, the West expressed dissatisfaction at its election of Nectarius and Flavian to the sees of Constantinople and Antioch, and Pope Damasus proposed a general synod at Rome to settle matters. The reply of those Bishops who remained at Constantinople is informative: 36 they claim that they had wished to "flee away" to Rome "to be at rest with you," 37 but plead that for practical reasons this has been impossible, so now propose to send three representatives to Rome instead, in order to "show our own peaceful determination, and how we aim at, unity." 38 Is there a touch of hypocrisy here? Even if there is, it is significant that the Bishops do not question the right of Damasus to summon Eastern Bishops to Rome in this manner. Flattery and hypocrisy, after all, are precisely those diplomatic devices used in dealing with persons who are officially acknowledged to enjoy superior authority.

        Finally, it as worth noting that, in the Roman synod of 382, Pope Damasus, while not explicitly mentioning the contentious third canon (which was never officially submitted to him), may well have had it in mind: he emphasised that Rome's claim to primacy was grounded on the succession from Peter, and was in fact the first known Pontiff to call Rome consistently "the Apostolic See." 39


        At first sight it may seem that the imperial initiative in convoking the early Councils is inconsistent with Vatican II's declaration that it is "the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke such Councils." But the wording of Lumen Gentium is cautious. It cites only the Code of Canon Law (canon 227, 1917 Code) in support of this assertion, as if to suggest that this is a matter of positive ecclesiastical law, rather than something absolutely essential. The minimal basic criterion for an Ecumenical Council is specified in the previous sentence: it must be "confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter's successor." These words were probably written with Constantinople I in mind, since, as we have seen, it was not accorded the status of an "Ecumenical" council until a much later date. It may be true, as Ortiz claims, that the precedent set by Constantine in convoking a general council was "objectively ... an abuse of power on the part of the emperor," 40 but it is understandable that after centuries of frequently oppressive pagan rule, with no definite policy or experience when it came to dealing with the hitherto unheard of phenomenon of a Christian secular power the Church would not have been anxious to look a gift Emperor in the mouth, so to speak. 41

        Frend's claim that the Eastern tradition excluded Roman primacy at this stage of history, and that the "sporadic" papal claims to universal jurisdiction were "denied or ignored by those to whom they were addressed" is at best an argument from silence, and, indeed, does not seem well-supported by the available evidence. No doubt some Easterners (and Westerners) rejected claims of Roman primacy - particularly Arians, semi-Arians, and others who persistently dissented from the Roman faith. On the other hand, it seems entirely plausible - just on the basis of the available documentary evidence - to maintain that the primacy of honour unquestionably accorded to Rome at Nicaea was accompanied by an awareness amongst the Council Fathers that they could not make decisions binding for the whole Church without the agreement of the See of Rome. 42

        We say "plausible," because, although we do not have access to the proceedings of either Nicaea or Constantinople I, we do have other evidence, the most important of which can be summarized as follows: (a) later tradition (including Eastern tradition) accorded to Bishop Sylvester of Rome a leading, though indirect, role at Nicaea, and its sixth canon suggests that Roman "custom" is normative an some way for the whole Church; (b) Theodosius' decree of 380 views the Petrine faith of Rome as similarly normative, and we find no widespread objection to this from the Eastern Bishops at the time; (c) the admittedly small part played by the papacy in Constantinople I could quite well be explained by the fact that it was not at the time seen as a convocation representing the entire Church, on a par with Nicaea; and finally (d) at the first two Ecumenical Councils of which we have ample documentation - Ephesus and Chalcedon - we find a real authority being exerted by Rome and accepted by most of the Eastern Bishops. In view of the obvious conservatism of all Christian groups at this time - that is, the vehement claims of all parties to be resisting innovation and remaining faithful to the original revelation - the burden of proof would seem to lie very much with the historian who wishes to maintain that the idea of papal jurisdiction over the whole Church, recognized so widely by the fifth-century conciliar Fathers, was a novelty which would have been repudiated by their predecessors at Nicaea and Constantinople. Such a historian, we submit, would find it very difficult to discharge this burden of proof successfully.


1. Stevenson, J. (ed.), Creeds, Councils and Controversies (CCC) (London, SPCK, 1978), pp. 279-280.

2. "Caelestini locum (TOPON) obtinebat (Mansi, Ampl. Collectio etc., vol. 4, col. 1123). Here we find that, unlike all the other Bishops, whose names and sees are merely mentioned, Celestine is described - at the head of the list - as "the most holy and most sacred Archbishop of the Roman Church" ("sanctissimi sacratissimique Romanae ecclesiae archiepiscopi"). Elsewhere Cyril is said to have "ruled" (regebat) the Council in place of Pope Celestine (Mansi 4: 1279).

3. "consentanea" - "what is fitting, reasonable" (Mansi 4: 1299).

4. "Nulli dubium, imo saeculis omnibus notum est ... qui ad hoc usque tempus et semper in suis successoribus vivit, et iudicium exercit" (Mansi 4: 1295: emphasis added in translation).

5. Rivington, L., The Primitive Church and the See of Peter (Longmans Green, 1894), p. 447.

6. Stevenson, CCC, p. 333.

7. Ibid., pp. 339-340.

8. Ibid., pp. 342-344.

9. One has only to recall the strained relationship between Rome and certain Bishops - even entire episcopal conferences - since Vatican Council II, for instance, and the attitude of some Bishops towards Humanae Vitae, the question of women's ordination, and other currently disputed doctrinal issues.

10. Ortiz de Urbina, I., Histoire des Conciles Oecuméniques (vol. 1, Paris, 1963), p. 29.

11. "ex sententia sacerdotum" (Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. 1: 218: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, 21: 467).

12. Wand, J.W.C., A History of the Early Church (Methuen, 1963), p. 156.

13. The earliest available lists of the signatories to Nicaea - and they are not primitive - place Ossius first, but enigmatically omit any indication as to whether he presided as papal or imperial representative (Mansi 2: 692, 697).

14. Gelasius was born and bred in the vicinity of Nicaea and wrote around 475, claiming to base his history of the Council on its original acts. He speaks of "Ossius, holding the place of Sylvester, the Bishop of great Rome, together with the Roman presbyters Vito and Vincentius" (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 85: 1229 - my translation). The citation is from Gelasius' work, Hist. Nic. Conc. II, V.

      Pope Damasus, who admittedly was by his very office an overt spokesman for Rome's claim to universal authority rather than a 'neutral' historical source, asserted together with a Synod of 93 Western Bishops less than half a century after Nicaea (372) that the Nicene Fathers were "directed from the city of the most holy bishop of Rome." It would be rash to dismiss this as mere propaganda, or rather, it would be begging the crucial question. This synodical statement was addressed to Eastern Bishops, who could have been expected to challenge such a claim if it had been palpably untrue. Cf. Mansi 3: 459. There is no record of any such challenge.

      Finally, Rivington draws attention to a firm and long-lasting Eastern tradition of Roman primacy at Nicaea, quoting the Greco-Russian liturgy, in which the Divine Office of St. Sylvester praises this Pontiff in terms which would seem 'triumphalistic' to many modern Western Bishops: "Thou hast shown thyself the supreme one of the Sacred Council, O initiator into the sacred mysteries, and hast illustrated the Throne of the Supreme One of the Disciples" (Rivington, op. cit., p. 164).

15. Mansi 2: 692, 697. The two Roman legates are described as acting "pro venerabili viro papa et episcopo nostro Sancto Sylvestro." Their names, together with that of Ossius, stand separately at the head of the lists. All other Bishops are merely named, together with their sees, and are grouped together according to provinces.

16. Rivington, op. cit., p. 363. Dioscorus of Alexandria was blamed by the Council of Chalcedon for presiding over the "Robber Council" in the presence of papal legates, at the express command of the Emperor.

17. Ullmann is surely guilty of this fallacy when he asserts that, "in the decisions of the first general council the Church of Rome did not even play a minor part" (Ullmann, W., A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages: Methuen, 1974, p. 6). So is Weltin, who says that Sylvester "merely sent two representatives" and "had little to do with this important conclave" (Weltin, E.G., The Ancient Popes: Newman Press, 1964, p. 171).

18. Stevenson, J. (ed.), A New Eusebius (NE) (London, SPCK, 1965), p. 360.

19. Quoted in Rivington, op. cit., p. 164.

20. Stevenson, CCC, p. 8.

21. Ibid., p. 147.

22. Ibid., p. 160. Theodosius commands all his subjects to practise "that religion which Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans," and which as followed by the "Pontiff" Damasus and the "Bishop" Peter of Alexandria, "a man of apostolic sanctity." Ullmann (op. cit., p. 9) is clearly reading his own preconceptions into this decree when he thinks he discerns therein an "equality stipulated" between Rome and Alexandria. The link specified between Rome and Peter, the difference in titles, and the fact that Theodosius felt it necessary to mention the personal merits of the incumbent of Alexandria, all suggest the opposite.

23. Rivington, op. cit., p. 247.

24. Damasus, Epistula V (Migne, Patrologia Latina, 13: 365-369.

25. Dvornik, Francis, Byzantium and the Roman Primacy (Fordham University Press, 1966), pp. 44-45. Also New Catholic Encyclopedia, article, "Constantinople, First Council of."

26. Kreilkamp (NCE article just cited) notes that the Council Fathers spoke of themselves as "ecumenical," but only in the same sense in which that word had been applied to an earlier council at Sardica (343). They contended by this term only to distinguish their gathering from the synodos endemousa - a permanent local council in Constantinople.

27. Rivington, L., op. cit., pp. 256-268.

28. Stevenson, J., CCC, p. 148.

29. Dvornik, op. cit., Chapters 1 and 2.

30. Ibid., p. 45.

31. So we learn from Pope Leo the Great, writing to Anatolius of Constantinople (Mansi, 6: 203). Also, the canon itself (pace Ullmann, op. cit., p. 9) by no means denies, even implicitly, that Roman primacy is linked also in some way to the authority of Peter - an idea that was hardly new at that time (see Stevenson, NE, pp. 118, 242). The political aspect of "Old Rome's" authority is alluded to, surely, only because it was on political grounds alone that Constantinople could hope to claim any special status.

32. Stevenson, CCC, pp. 147-148.

33. Ullmann, op. cit., p. 30. The record hardly seems to bear out Ullmann's contention that after this Council, "the ecclesiastical centre of gravity was manifestly in Constantinople."

34. Ibid., p. 9.

35. Ibid., p. 10.

36. Rivington, op. cit., pp. 269-271 (quoting Mansi, 3: 583).

37. ibid., p. 270.

38. Ibid., p. 271. It is true, as Ortiz maintains, that in this letter the Eastern Bishops, in telling Damasus and the Westerners of the dogmatic decisions of the Council of 381, are not submitting them for the Pope's judgment, and approval, but are intending only "to communicate them fraternally" (Ortiz de Urbina, op. cit., p. 224). However, that is scarcely a telling point, since they were well aware that the dogmatic issues in question - the single ousia and triple hypostasis of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - were already emphatically insisted upon by Damasus (cf. Stevenson, CCC, p. 149 - canon 5), and had recently been given the force of civil law. To draw a modern parallel: What Episcopal Conference would now send off to Rome a treatise defending, say, the Immaculate Conception, asking for a judgment as to its orthodoxy?

39. New Catholic Encyclopedia, article, "Damasus I."

40. Ortiz de Urbina, op. cit., p. 29.

41. Also, as Weltin observes (op. cit. p. 178), it was natural for both Constantine and his Christian subjects to think of him as Pontifex maximus - "the symbol of the spiritual genius and deified corporateness of Rome." The Hebrew background of Christianity was, of course, well-attuned to theocratic ideas, and St. Paul himself had taught (Rom. 12) that civil power derives from the authority of God.

42. This is a principle of which, it can well be argued, the Vatican I definitions of 1870 are a valid development.


by John F. McCarthy

        Part of what the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei says about traditions in the Church has been difficult to understand and translate. A paragraph of the document reads as follows in the official Latin text:

Necesse tamen est, ut omnes Pastores et reliqui Christifideles plane denuo agnoscant non modo auctoritatem, sed etiam Ecclesiae thesaurum, quae et in charismatum varietate et in rerum spiritalium necnon apostolatus traditionibus innituntur, quaeque et pulchritudinem efficiunt unitatis in varietate: illius nempe "temperationis," quam Spiritus Sancti impulsu ad Caelum effert terrestris Ecclesia.1

        The translators into Italian seem to have had difficulty making grammatical sense out of the Latin wording, so they read "Ecclesiae" in the phrase "Ecclesiae thesaurum" as in the dative rather than as in the genitive case, they saw the "quae" in the clause "quae ... innituntur" as masculine singular ("qui.... innititur"), and they rendered "auctoritatem" as "lawfulness" rather than as "authority" to produce the following translation:

Tuttavia, occorre che tutti i Pastori e gli altri fedeli prendano nuova consapevolezza, non solo della legittimità ma anche della richezza che rappresenta per la Chiesa la diversità di carismi, tradizioni di spiritualità e di apostolato, che costituisce anche la bellezza dell'unità nella varietà: di quella "sintonia" che, sotto l'impulso dello Spirito Santo, la Chiesa terrestre eleva verso il Cielo.2

        The translators into English, working from the Italian version, made the same changes in the Latin text to produce the following rendition:

However, it is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended "harmony" which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit.3

        One could compare this reading with the following literal translation of the Latin text:

It is necessary, nevertheless, that all the Shepherds and the remaining faithful wholly acknowledge once again not only the authority but also the treasury of the Church, which rest upon a variety of charisms and traditions of spirituality and apostolate, and which produce, also, the beauty of unity in variety: namely, of that "blended harmony" which the terrestrial Church raises up to Heaven by the impulse of the Holy Spirit.4

        One can see from this literal translation the grammatical problem faced by the Italian translators. It is clear that the spiritual richness of the Church rests upon a variety of charisms and traditions, but is this true also of the authority of the Church? It is clear also that the moderating authority of the Church should work to produce a "blended harmony" from the variety of charisms and traditions of spirituality of the Church, and in this sense the Italian translators may have produced a good interpretation of an awkwardly worded Latin text.5 But they may also have missed the full message of the Latin text, where it speaks of the "authority of the Church," not the "lawfulness for the Church," where it speaks of the "treasury of the Church," not the "richness for the Church," and where it speaks of the fact that both the "authority" and the "treasury" of the Church "rest upon a variety of charisms and traditions of spirituality and apostolate."

        Pope John Paul II here seems to be drawing a parallel between the ever-present authority of the hierarchy and the inherited values of the Church, taking into consideration that the authority itself is an inherited value, not entirely dependent upon contemporary forces. He seems to be calling upon Bishops and the rest of the faithful to bring back once again clearly into focus the awareness that visible authority and inherited values, under the action of the Holy Spirit, are intended to form a unity in diversity, a "blended harmony," that transcends the respective limits of each of these two factors. He may be affirming that visible authority itself rests upon traditions of spirituality and apostolate that are not entirely subject to innovation but rather stand, to some extent, outside of the competence of the hierarchy to reduce or eliminate them as a practical function of episcopal ministry. What Pope John Paul is saying here seems to be contrary to the widespread, even dominant, feeling today that, once legitimate authority has been persuaded to institute a change, there is no more appeal to tradition. The Pope seems to be saying that certain aspects of tradition and of Catholic devotion are relatively untouchable by the sheer intervention of authority and that, where traditions have been unduly suppressed, they should be brought back.

        The point of this paragraph, seen in context, would seem to be as follows. The Pope had earlier in the document pointed out that the episcopal consecrations effected by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre were an act of disobedience to the authority of the Church, as vested in the Roman Pontiff (no. 3). This schismatic act was also rooted in an imperfect notion of Tradition (no. 4). Nevertheless, the outcome of Archbishop Lefebvre's movement now requires everyone to examine his or her own fidelity to the Tradition of the Church, "by completely removing false interpretations and arbitrary and illegitimate amplifications (not "applications") in matters pertaining to doctrine, liturgy, and discipline."6

        It seems to me that what the Pope is saying in the final analysis is that in the post-conciliar period there has been too much emphasis upon sheer obedience to ecclesiastical authority as an innovating force and too little emphasis upon obedience to tradition as a sustaining force. Therefore, he goes on to say (no. 5b) that "the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council's continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church." One could say "this means that theologians should work to show clearly the continuity of all the approved innovations with the Tradition of the Church." Such an interpretation is narrow, but it may conform with what the Pope had just said about the need to remove "false interpretations and arbitrary and illegitimate amplifications in matters pertaining to doctrine, liturgy, and discipline." On the other hand, it may mean something broader. It may mean that not all the effected amplifications of what the Council said are without appeal to tradition, simply because they have received the approval of the competent authority, seeing that authority too is subject to tradition. It may mean that at times some points of doctrine have not yet been well understood by the innovating authorities themselves. This question of authority versus tradition needs to be clarified, because it will continue to be important in discussion within our changing Church.


1. Pope John Paul II, motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, dated 2 July 1988 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1988), 1495-1498.

2. L'Osservatore Romano (daily edition), 3 July 1988.

3. L'Osservatore Romano (Eng. ed.), 11 July 1988.

4. My translation, verified by an expert in Latin.

5. It is interesting that the Latin word temperatio has two meanings: a) "a due mingling or tempering of ingredients"; b) "the organizing or ordering principle" (Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary). The primary meaning is the first.

6. "... amotis omnino falsis interpretationibus ac arbitrariis et non legitimis amplificationibus de rebus ad doctrinam, liturgiam disciplinamque pertinentibus." The Italian translators read "applicationibus" for "amplificationibus," and the English translators followed suit. Thus the English translation reads: "From this reflection all should draw a renewed and efficacious conviction of the necessity of strengthening still more their fidelity by rejecting erroneous interpretations and arbitrary and unauthorized applications in matters of doctrine, liturgy and discipline" (emphasis added).

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