The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History

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There have been twenty-one universal gatherings 'ecumenical councils 'of the Catholic Church. The first opened in 325, the last closed in 1965, and the names of many ring out in the history of the church: Nicea, Chalcedon, Trent, Vatican II. Though centuries separate the councils, each occurred when the church faced serious crises, sometimes with doctrinal matters, sometimes with moral or even political matters, and sometimes with discerning the church's relation to the world. The councils determined much of what the Catholic Church is and believes. Additionally, many councils impacted believers in other Christian traditions and even in other faiths.

In this accessible, readable, and yet substantial account of the councils Joseph Kelly provides both the historical context for each council as well as an account of its proceedings. Readers will discover how the councils shaped the debate for the following decades and even centuries, and will appreciate the occasional portraits of important conciliar figures from Emperor Constantine to Pope John XXIII.

Joseph F. Kelly, PhD, is professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is author of The Origins of Christmas, An Introduction to the New Testament for Catholics, The Collegeville Church History Timeline, and The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels, all published by Liturgical Press.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Kelly makes this important history not only interesting, but also timely and important for every person in the pew. He weaves the issues the councils addressed into their historical context and makes the individuals who were involved come alive.
Liturgical Ministry

Kelly has written quite a bit on topics related to church history and has a very easy to read writing style. In this present volume he offers a brief overview of all the ecumenical councils of the church situating them in their historical periods. He gives information on specific issues dealt with at each council and highlights some of the significant players in each of them.
Emanuel Magazine

Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-level undergraduates; general readers.
Choice Magazine

Terrific. . . . If I were to teach a course on the councils, [Kelly’s] would be the book.
John O’Malley, SJ, Georgetown University, Author of What Happened at Vatican II

In clear and concise language, Kelly describes the political and theological context of the councils that made Catholicism what it is today.
Thomas J. Reese, SJ, Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Joseph Kelly has written a remarkable text on the general councils of the Catholic Church. The work abounds in deft characterizations of major figures in Christian history. It tells an often complicated history with mastery of the salient points, even adding touches of humor. It conveys massive amounts of information in prose easy to read and digest. It sets the councils’ teaching and reform decrees in the vital context of a church caught up in the swirl of cultural and political changes. Best of all, it contributes a concise account, accurately set forth, to the current discussion and argument over the significance of the Second Vatican Council and its work to refashion Catholic life for the present day.
Jared Wicks, SJ, Emeritus professor of theology, Gregorian University, Rome, Consultor, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Joseph F. Kelly has written a history of ecumenical councils—but more than that. His narrative begins before Nicea (325) and continues past Vatican II (1962–65), as he sets the councils in their historical and theological context. In clear and lively style, he traces some of the greatest achievements of the church of Jesus Christ, without neglecting troubled times and stubborn impasses. Readers will not only learn much from this book but also enjoy it as they do so.
Joseph T. Lienhard, SJ, Fordham University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814653760
  • Publisher: Liturgical Press, The
  • Publication date: 9/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 320,191
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph F. Kelly, PhD, is professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. His books include The Feast of Christmas, The Origins of Christmas, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, and others, all published by Liturgical Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction 1

Councils 1

Change and Development 3

History and Theology 5

Mysteries and Heresies 8

Chapter 1 The Trinitarian Councils 11

The Earliest Christians 11

Christians in the Greco-Roman World 12

Councils before Nicea 14

Constantine 16

Trinitarian Theology 19

The First Council of Nicea 21

Nicea's Historical and Ecclesial Significance 24

After the Council 25

The First Council of Constantinople 29

Chapter 2 The Christological Councils 32

The Christian Empire 32

Christology 33

Ecclesiastical Politics 36

The Council of Ephesus 40

The Aftermath of the Council 41

The Council of Chalcedon 44

After the Council 45

Chapter 3 The Byzantine Councils 48

Western Christianity 48

Winning Back the Monophysites 49

Justinian I (527-65) 50

The Second Council of Constantinopie 53

Toward Constantinople III 55

Islam 57

The Third Council of Constantinople 58

From Constantinople III to Nicea II 59

The Second Council of Nicea 63

From Nicea II to Constantinople IV 64

The Fourth Council of Constantinople 67

Chapter 4 The Papal Councils of the Twelfth Century 70

The First Lateran Council 76

The Second Lateran Council 77

Toward Lateran III 78

The Third Lateran Council 81

Chapter 5 The Papal Councils of the Thirteenth Century 85

Toward Lateran IV: Pope Innocent III 85

The Fourth Lateran Council 90

Toward Lyons I 92

The First Council of Lyons 94

After Lyons I 95

Toward Lyons II 95

The Second Council of Lyons 96

Chapter 6 Schism and Conciliarism 99

Toward the Council of Vienne 99

The Council of Vienne 103

The Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism 104

The Council of Constance 108

Afterthe Council 113

The Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome 114

After the Council, West and East 119

Toward Lateran V 121

The Fifth Lateran Council 123

Chapter 7 The Council of Trent 126

The Protestant Reformation 126

The Council of Trent, Period 1 133

The Council of Trent, Period 2 137

The Council of Trent, Period 3 142

After Trent 146

Chapter 8 The First Vatican Council 149

From Trent to Vatican I: Enlightenment and Revolution 149

Gregory XVI 154

Pius IX 156

The Immaculate Conception 157

The Syllabus of Errors 159

Vatican I 161

What If? 163

The Council 165

After the Council 172

Chapter 9 The Second Vatican Council 174

From Vatican I to Vatican II: The Popes 174

Prelude to Vatican II: The Changing World and the Changing Church 179

John XXIII and the Calling of Vatican II 182

The First Session (1962) 185

The Second Session (1963) 191

The Third Session (1964) 194

The Fourth Session (1965) 200

After the Council 203

Epilogue 205

Bibliography 208

Index 213

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  • Posted March 22, 2010

    Entertaining or appalling, but always informative.

    If the actions of some the historical characters were presented as farce, they would at least be highly entertaining. If viewed strictly as historical activities of supposedly deeply religious people, the facts are appalling. Either way, Kelly's writing is always very informative while proving two concepts stated by others. First, while the message is divine, the messengers are human, often all too human. Second, divine protection must be in place for any organization to survive intact after two thousand years of actions on the part of such a collection of saints, thieves, fools, and sometimes absolute scoundrels.
    But if the material can be disturbing at times, the writing by and large is clear, concise, and informative. It only became mind-numbing to me trying to trace all the heracies and their defenders and attackers during those first centuries. The book is suppposedly intended for the general reader and not the academic seeking highly detailed and nuanced accounts, and it is the general reader who both needs and can benefit from this book the most. These are the historical facts - and stories - that were known by many a cleric but kept from the laity at large.
    The historical backgrounds of the councils and the consequences of them are given almost as much attention as the councils themselves, which only makes sense. No group can meet in a vacuum and actions always breed reactions, good or ill or simply apathy. That is as much a part of the story of the councils as the councils themselves, and again something the general reader could use some direction with. The sections on the Emperor Constantine, Martin Luther, and Pope Pius IX simplify things a great deal, I am sure, but I found them to be the clearest, most concise writing on the men and their times I have ever encountered, with much information again obviously well-known in academic circles but not by general readers.
    If only for historical perspective and the source of actions and beliefs put forth today this is a must read book. That it is fine writing makes it all the better.

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