The reason why the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church ecclesiologically differ is a topic too broad for a simple blog post. Nevertheless, simple common sense may go a long way in pointing out the obvious: recent developments in Roman ecclesiology seemingly contradict pre-schism precedent and ecumenical statements.


11/25/19 Note: This article had a factual error that I was only able to find out after reading the complete minutes of Constantinople II. It will be highlighted and a correction will appear at the bottom of the article. It does not affect the overall argument, but it weakens it a little and so I will retain my old comments and a response to them.


Not being a Roman Catholic, telling Roman Catholics what they believe would be in bad taste. Nevertheless, just like there is no single Orthodox answer to many questions, Roman Catholics (even with their very thorough definitions) are no different. So, I do not claim to contradict every possible Roman Catholic understanding of their own ecclesiology. For our purposes here, the point I am going to take issue with is the “popular” idea that the Roman Catholic Pope can exercise authority unilaterally, apart from the consent of the Church.

Whether or not the Pope (theoretically) can act unilaterally appears to be uncontroversial. The Roman Catholic definition of Papal Infallibility states the following:

The Vatican Council has defined as “a divinely revealed dogma” that “the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra — that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church — is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals; and consequently that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the Church’s consent” (Definition given in Catholic Encyclopedia).

As we can see in the underlined, the Pope can teach doctrines infallibly which cannot be contradicted, nor do they need to be verified by the Church at large via council, reception, or whatever. Granted, this definition was agreed upon in a council. But that’s besides the point. Theoretically speaking, the Pope could have formulated this definition without anyone’s consent or input.

Why is this relevant? Before the schism, even if such a hashed out view of Papal prerogatives did not exist, its development and application were certainly underway. For example, Saint Leo the Great initially resisted the calling of the Council of Chalcedon because he felt that he had settled the issue of dispute definitively. There are more than a few other examples of Popes writing words and betraying actions consistent with what was later defined in Vatican I. Nevertheless, such an idea hit significant road blocks along the way that reveal to us that Papal Supremacy as defined in Vatican I was not adhered to by previous Popes, nor the Church at large.

The Irreformable Creed. When the Church of Rome unilaterally changed the Constantinopolitan Creed in the early 11th century, they were essentially taking part in an innovation condemned beforehand by:

  • Pope Leo III (“they [the fathers] forbade either it or any thing else to be added afterwards…I will not set myself up above [the Ecumentical Councils], but God forbid that I should either equal myself to them”)
  • Pope John VIII (“That we may give you satisfaction touching that addition in the Creed, [and from the Son,] we let you know, that not only we have no such addition, but also we condemn them as transgressors of the direct word, that were the first authors of this addition.”)
  • The Council of Constantinople IV, 879-880 AD, which what ratified by Pope John VIII.

It would seem that by both modern Roman Catholic and Orthodox standards there would be no other way to communicate that changing the Creed (in the words of the council, an “inexcusable assault on the fathers”) was off limits. Nevertheless, Rome went ahead and changed this Creed and would anathematize in multiple councils and other statements (including the 1054 AD excommunication) those who did not ascribe to the changed Creed.

The only way we can avoid considering such actions as schismatic is by presupposing that:

  • The Pope does not require consent as per Vatican I.
  • All the Papal statements/actions just listed somehow failed to meet some elusive criteria for being binding.

Now, I do not doubt that Roman Catholics have excuses where they can say like Spock, “Logic dictates that…” somehow the Roman Catholic Church has not torn the Church into two by ignoring the precedent of not changing the Creed apart from a council. A precedent we just saw was put in no uncertain terms!

Only if it were not for the dubious criteria of what is ex cathedra and what’s not! A criteria, who’s application is so unsure in Roman Catholic circles that there is no certainty over its application. Roman Catholics cannot even give a definitive answer over which councils that Popes have called “ecumenical” are indeed ecumenical. With such looseness, I can easily put on my Roman Catholic cap on and easily dream up excuses all day:

Sure, Leo III took it for granted that a Pope could never take it upon himself to change the Creed when holding a synod to discuss a Council in Aachen, but he was speaking of a “discipline” so when Popes speak on disciplines they are not infallible. What he wrote pretty much means nothing!

John VIII condemned additions to the Creed, of course, Roman Catholics concede. But did he then say a Pope in the future could not lift such condemnations and instead condemn those who don’t want additions? Well, no!

Oh, didn’t the eight ecumenical council call the Creed “a sacred and venerable Horos,” the significance of this being that throughout the first millennium Horos “is a technical term for the process of legislating what the Church is required to believe?” Well, they did not invoke the magical words “faith and morals,” so even if the term Horos literally pertained to “faith and morals” at the time it was written, the original Constantinopolitan Creed is non-binding.

And so, I can dream up countless excuses, anyone can make one, because when we can read anything we want in between the lines and have centuries of boiling the frog slowly, anything with enough tangential logic can be made “workable” even though it completely defies common sense.

For that reason, Vatican I’s assertion that “definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the Church’s consent” can theoretically be true even though Pope Leo III and Pope John VIII would have never agreed to it. However, as long as we are invoking common sense, I do not feel obligated to counter theoretical arguments.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council. It is worth bringing up Seraphim Hamilton‘s recent argument against Roman Catholic ecclesiology. In short, he asserted, the fifth ecumenical council rejected the definition in Vatican I. The passage from Constantinople II at question is as follows:

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 fulfil his written promises; for it was not right that tile 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 tile 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.” (The Sentence of the Synod)

The emboldened are relevant for the following reason:

  1. This is not some random minutes to a section of the fifth council that Pope Vigilius “may have not ratified.” This is the sentence which implies within itself that Vigilius concurred with its conclusion and was part of its formulation.* Granted, Roman Catholic apologists will probably only be convinced by a statement like “and Vigilius is sitting right here next to us and he approves of everything in this sentence.” However, I am not trying to fulfill an impossible burden of proof. Rather, I am appealing to “common sense.” I am not obligated to address special pleading.
  2. Conciliar decision making is Apostolic and so must be continued.
  3. Conciliar decision making must be inherently Scriptural, implying the material sufficiency of the Scriptures.
  4. “Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest” other than conciliar decision making. This appears to contradict the Roman position that “definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the Church’s consent.” Again, I’m appealing to common sense here, not lawyer double-speak which can be argued as “technically true” though it obviously does not conform to reality.

Erick Ybarra, a Roman Catholic apologist, writes something revealing in an article of his that indirectly touches on the subject we invoke here:

What I think is even more concerning, however, is the responses of the *Western* churches during this time. Bishops in North Africa (including the Metropolitan of Carthage), Northern Italy, Aquielia, Milan, Spain, and Illyricum had all removed Pope Vigilius from the diptychs for being complicit with the Ecumenical Council at the time (they disagreed with Justinian and the Eastern bishops on the Three Chapters), and this launched a massive schism which lasted, for some churches, up to 100 years (some of the Spanish churches were out of communion w/ Rome for 150 years)…However, when Pope Vigilius ended up condemning the Three Chapters definitively, he did so without reference to the authority of the Council, but on his own authority. 

As we can see, the rest of the Christian world did not take issue with the council short-changing their precious doctrine of Papal Supremacy. Rather, they excommunicated the Pope and the eastern Church because they did not receive the council as authoritative! Ironically, this shows that most of the Christian world explicitly had a conciliar and/or reception-based viewpoint–not the Papal Supremacist view.

Yet, Erick points out that Pope Vigilius wrote somewhere that he condemned the Three Chapters based upon “his own authority.” Does this mean that Pope Vigilius himself can be brought forward as evidence for the Papal Supremecist view? Not necessarily, as such a letter would not mean:

  1. That he did not, by his own prerogative, accede to the conciliar view in the sentence of the fifth council.
  2. That the whole world did not reject a Papal Supremacist view and had no issue with excommunicating the Pope (first the east and then the west…poor Vigilius!)
  3. That appealing to one’s own authority means one views himself as superior to other authorities. One can obviously have authority and invoke it without by necessity viewing oneself as supreme over others (i.e. a Lieutenant can appeal to his authority when issuing an order even though in reality he is under a Colonel, General, etc.)  A historical example of this is with Saint Augustine who saw no issue with having disputes against the Pope being appealed to an Ecumenical Council, even though he held a high view of the Papacy.
  4. Vigilius could not contradict himself before and after the council, as fallible men are known for such contradictions.

I am unsure if Erick is referring to Pope Vigilius’ decretal. Nevertheless, if we read the decretal it pretty clearly concurs with my assertion that Vigilius signed onto the sentence of the fifth council:

But since Christ our God, who is the true light, whom the darkness comprehendeth not, hath removed all confusion from our minds, and hath so recalled peace to the whole world and to the Church, so that what things should be defined by us have been healthfully fulfilled through the revelation of the Lord and through the investigation of the truth.

Therefore, my dear brothers, I do you to wit, that in common with all of you, our brethren, we receive in all respects the four synods, that is to say the Nicene, the Constantinopolitan, the first Ephesian, and the Chalcedonian; and we venerate them with devout mind, and watch over them with all our mind. And should there be any who do not follow these holy synods in all things which they have defined concerning the faith, we judge them to be aliens to the communion of the holy and Catholic Church (Decretal Letter).

The reference to how God “hath removed all confusion from our minds” is obviously an appeal to the sentence of the council, claiming that the act of working conciliarly was a decisive factor in the council discerning the truth and issuing infallible definitions. After all, the “things…defined by us have been healthfully fulfilled through the revelation of the Lord and through the investigation of the truth.” These are clear references to the Bishops of the council investigating and defining the truth together.

This means, I am not off my rocker when I say Vigilius approved of a conciliar  ecclesiology. Further, I am more than a little skeptical, after some “convincing” in Constantinople, that he held a view identical with Vatican I. That council would dictate Vigilius could have had all confusion removed from his whole mind and defined things through the revelation of the Lord in isolation and without the consent of the Church–something at contradicts what he actually wrote.

*In fact, the sentence of the council was written without Pope Vigilius’ input. This is only clear if one reads the seventh session, which is not divulged in the abridged minutes available online. If one reads the whole minutes, it is easy to identify this fact. Father Price, who translated those minutes, takes the stance that Vigilius both endorsed the whole counsel and its findings when he capitulated later than year and accepted the council, but also that Vigilius (as Erick asserted) cited his own authority in doing such. Upon reflection, I do not find Vigilius’ response explicit enough to presume that he really capitulated to conciliar authority–though his letter of acceptance does show dependence on the sentence and therefore was probably meant to be understood in this way. Being that when Bishops sign onto councils they often say something along the lines of “in my judgment, I decide …,” it would no be inconsistent for Vigilius to assert both his authority as a Bishop but in doing so also be speaking with the council, therefore conceding to conciliar authority at the same time. Being that his letter speaks of “we” all agreeing about the council findings, this appears to be the case. Lastly, I would like to add, the fifth council did feel it needed the approval of all Bishops. Vigilius’ himself was deposed for not appearing at the council and previous writings of his were used as approval of the Roman Bishop. When Vigilius himself capitulated fully late that year, the using of his writings to mark his acceptance became superfluous.

Conclusion. In this article, I appeal to common sense. You just read what the Popes said about the Creed and what an ecumenical council, with the Pope’s support, said about itself. Ecumenicity requires the consent of the Church at large.

Therefore, the definition we see in Vatican I simply cannot be justified without going into silly syllogisms and lawyer double-speak. The Roman Catholic Church, by excommunicating the eastern Church for not consenting to innovations since Constantinople IV (879-880), broke the bond of charity and clear precedent that began with the Apostles:

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 (Sentence of Constantinople II).

It is my hope and prayer that we do not explain this truth away, but rather admit wrong doing and return to the earliest Biblical consensus of how we settle doctrinal matters.


This article has a polemical tone which is sincerely not intended. I apologize for my limitations as a writer in which I am not quite sure how to communication my disputes with Roman Catholic historiography and their epistemology, which in my mind runs so contrary to how we sit down and think about any other issue we come across. Please read into my tone here as reflective of my own epistemological bias, not a disdain for Roman Catholics or their intelligence.