Which Has More Authority: A Pope or an Ecumenical Council?

St. Peter presided at the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles, and the Catholic Church has followed that biblical model ever since.

Pope Pius IX (center, seated on throne) convenes the First Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1869.
Pope Pius IX (center, seated on throne) convenes the First Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1869. (photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-pga-03306)

This article is written in the same format as my book, The One-Minute Apologist (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2007) — vaguely reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, where objections are first brought forth and then the orthodox Catholic position is presented in contrast.

What Our Opponents Say. “The Council is a higher authority than a pope. Rome’s theory of popes presiding over councils is a self-serving late invention.”

Initial Catholic Reply. In the only Church council recorded in Scripture — the Jerusalem council — Peter presided, and the Catholic Church has simply followed that biblical model.

Extensive Catholic Reply. The council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) gives us in an example in God’s revelation, the Bible, of how Church affairs might proceed. The topic at hand was whether the Gentiles had to follow the Mosaic Law completely, including all of its rituals and ceremonies. It seems clear that Peter, the leader of the apostles, presided over this council. It was not without a leader — nor was James, the bishop of Jerusalem, the leader, as some maintain. The internal evidence in favor of this interpretation is as follows:

1) St. Peter was the first to speak definitively, and with authority, “after there had been much debate” (Acts 15:7: RSV).

2) Peter claimed authority in a special way: “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe” (15:7).

3) Peter sternly rebuked the opposing view of strict observance of ceremonial law: “Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (15:10).

4) After Peter spoke, the debate was essentially over, and “all the assembly kept silence” (15:12).

5) Those who talked after Peter did not disagree with his decision, and merely confirmed it (15:12-21).

6) St. James did not hand down the main decree or add anything new to what Peter had already proclaimed. He started out by noting, “Simeon [Peter] has related ...” (15:14).

7) James states, “Therefore my judgment ...” but this does not prove that he presided, as anyone could say that (similar to saying, “my opinion is ...”). The judgment was reached by consensus (“it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole Church” in 15:22; “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord” in15:25; “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” in 15:28; cf. 16:4). This, too, is exactly like Catholic councils throughout history: they decide matters as a group, yet popes preside. Nothing in this text suggests anything other than St. Peter being the leader.

8) St. Paul is not shown as having any special authority in the council. (Many think he had more authority in the early Church than Peter). Instead, we learn that he and Barnabas “were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question” (15:2). Paul and Barnabas merely give report of their experiences (15:12) and then they are sent by the council to report what had been decided (15:25, 30; 16:4).

9) This raises several questions for Protestants. When was the last council held a particular location, with the elders of the entire Church — at that time, Paul and Peter and others — binding for Protestant Christians at large in other locations, far away? Don't Protestants always have the right to say that it was in error, since Scripture alone is their rule of faith? After all, that’s precisely what Luther said (councils can err, so he went by Scripture and plain reason), so why couldn’t Christians reject the decisions of Acts 15 and defy Paul's injunction, described in Acts 16:4? Could or should a Protestant dissent from the decisions of the Jerusalem council (i.e., before portions of it became part of the New Testament? Martin Luther's “councils err” notion doesn't apply to it?

Our Opponents’ Objection. “But the Catholic view of papal infallibility and popes presiding over councils was not made infallible dogma until 1870 and the First Vatican Council, so it was a novelty.”

Catholic Reply to the Objection. That doesn’t mean that this state of affairs was not already in place. It had been explicitly proclaimed and exercised since the early centuries of the Church, and we already see it in the Bible (as above). As just one example of many such statements from Church historians, the Anglican patristics expert J.N.D. Kelly, wrote in Early Christian Doctrines:

“By the middle of the fifth century the Roman church had established, de jure as well as de facto, a position of primacy in the West, and the papal claims to supremacy over all bishops in Christendom had been formulated in precise terms. ... The student tracing the history of the times ... cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and persistence with which the Holy See was continually advancing and consolidating its claims ... it was easy to draw the inference that the unique authority which Rome in fact enjoyed, and which the popes saw concentrated in their persons and their office, was no more than the fulfillment of the divine plan.”

Oxford Church historian R. W. Southern also wrote in Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages:

“No one in the West denied that the pope possessed all the authority of St Peter over the church. The derivation of the pope's authority seemed one of the clearest facts of history. The descent of this authority could be traced step by step from the earliest days without any of the shadows of ambiguity or ignorance that trouble a modern observer. ... From the beginning St. Peter and his successors could be seen at work directing the church, instituting ceremonies, defining discipline, founding bishoprics.”