Proposal to have ecumenical councils every 50 years makes a great deal of sense
By Tony Staley
As the Catholic Church continues to reach consensus about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a prominent Jesuit theologian is calling for a new ecumenical council every 50 years. The idea makes a great deal of sense.
Fr. Francis Sullivan, SJ, a professor of ecclesiology at the Gregorian University in Rome 1956-92, now a professor of theology at Boston College, made his proposal at America magazine's 2001 John Courtney Murray Lecture at Fordham University. He also suggested that national bishops' conferences revise plenary councils.
The purpose of the ecumenical and plenary councils would be to increase participation in church governance by the bishops, and by priests' councils and pastoral councils. That, he said, would enhance the church's magisterium, or teaching authority.
For his lecture, Fr. Sullivan drew from Pope John Paul's apostolic letter, "At the Beginning of the New Millennium," which called for "valuing and developing the forums and structures which ... serve to ensure and safeguard communion."
The pope said the forums and structures he was referring to were the papacy, episcopal collegiality, the Roman Curia, bishops' conferences and synods of bishops, plus further development of other "structures of participation," including priests' councils and pastoral councils.
Although there have been only two ecumenical councils in the last four centuries, such a paucity is not consistent with tradition, Fr. Sullivan said. For example, there were two ecumenical councils in the 4th, 5th, 15th and 16th centuries, three in the 12th and 13th and one in each of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries.
Indeed, part of the problem we face in responding to Vatican II, is that we went too long - three centuries - between the Council of Trent (1545-63) and the First Vatican Council (1869-70). And then, Vatican I decreed that the pope can define dogmas of faith without summoning a council.
The church got so far from the idea of participation that when Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, Bp. Stanislaus Bona of Green Bay asked his staff: "Why is the pope calling a council? Why doesn't he just tell us what he wants us to do?"
Vatican II and developments since then, such as Synods of Bishops, national conferences of bishops, diocesan priests' councils and pastoral councils and even parish councils have returned us to the traditional church practice of participation.
Yes, church councils can challenge us to change, but no change leads to stagnation and death. Plus, more participation and more frequent councils should help us deal more easily with change and lessen the need for major, dramatic changes.