Councils of the Catholic Church
The First Reading at Mass today (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29) recalls the Council of Jerusalem which was the very first Council held by the Church around 50 AD. In this Council we have a very Catholic model of how matters of doctrine and pastoral practice are to be dealt with, and the Church has used this model right up to the present day. The last Council of the Church was the Second Vatican Council held from 1962-1965.
A Council of the Church is a gathering of bishops presided over by the pope where matters are considered and maybe even debated. The Council of Jerusalem, presided over by Peter, the first Pope, decided two things: firstly that circumcision was not necessary for salvation (not included in today’s reading), and secondly, “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication”. It’s true that today we eat blood meat, but the Church makes the distinction between decrees which are binding for all time, like circumcision not being necessary for salvation, and other decrees, where pastoral provisions are specific to a particular time and place, such as to abstain from eating meat with blood in it, because it was offensive to the Jewish Christians who had always obeyed the law of Moses. This part of the Apostolic Decree was never intended to be a universal decree for the whole Church. They didn’t send the letter to all the churches throughout the world, but only to a specific set of churches that were dealing with this particular conflict between Jews and Gentiles. So there is this important distinction. But Peter is the one who arises to settle the matter (Acts 15:7) because the Apostles were divided. This is the charge Peter had received from Our Lord when He prophesied, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, confirm your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32). Peter at the Council of Jerusalem fulfils this text, as he will again in the future, and as will every pope after him. Notice here how the Decree is worded, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and ourselves…” (15:28). So the dogmatic teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals when proclaimed solemnly by the Church come from the Holy Spirit and they are infallible and therefore irreformable. They are for all times and all places.
Although the pope under very strict conditions can pronounce infallibly on matters of faith and morals, this does not mean popes can never make mistakes. In the Bible itself we have Paul’s famous rebuke of Peter in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). All popes are bound by what has been handed down, and we call it Tradition. No pope can ever define a novel doctrine that was never part of the Church’s Magisterium. This is taught by the First Vatican Council (1868-1870): “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by his revelation, but rather that, with his assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain that revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the Apostles.” Novel ideas can have no place for a believing Catholic.
The controversial ideas concerning sexuality and marriage are very alive within the Church today. But on these and other questions on which the Church has already given an answer invoking Apostolic authority, She can never change her answers or contradict what She has previously taught. The reason for this apparent ‘rigidity’ is not because the Church claims too much authority, but because She has no authority to dissent from the teaching of Her Divine Founder, Who is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “JESUS Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (13:8).
Fr Paul Gillham, IC