The first "ecumenical" Council in Church history was the Council of Jerusalem where the Apostles convened in A.D. 49. The results of this Council can be found in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. After the dispersion of the Apostles throughout the world, an Ecumenical Council would not be possible until the resources of the state under Emperor Constantine were applied to convene the Council of Nicaea (325), commonly recognized as the first Ecumenical Council.
The Orthodox Churches generally recognize only the first seven Councils as ecumenical, though even the eighth Council was held in the East. Subsequent Councils were composed almost entirely of Latin bishops from the West, at the Pope's command. The Lateran Councils in particular were dominated by the Popes. Although a delegation of Greek bishops (including the Patriarch of Constantinople!) assented to a statement of union and theological reconciliation with the West at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39), this action was rejected by their peers in Greece.
The Council of Pisa (1409) attempted to resolve the Great Schism between the papal claimants at Avignon and Rome by electing its own pontiff, but this only created another illegitimate claimant while a lawful Pope (that of Rome, canonists have decided) was living. Thus the Council of Pisa is not ecumenical, as it was never ratified by a legitimate Pope. The Council of Constance ended the Great Schism in the West by receiving the abdications of all three papal claimants and electing Pope Martin V. Many of the Council's acts prior to Pope Martin's election were never recognized by Pope Martin or any subsequent Pope. This includes those canons that would establish the superiority of a Council's authority over that of a Pope, as well as the ignored requirement for Councils to be convened on a regular basis.
The modern Councils have had no major irregularities, as the authority of the Pope was unquestionably established in the West. Although the infallibility of the Pope was defined at the First Vatican Council, to date there has been no conciliar definition of the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils, this fact being simply assumed from the force of their authority and the expectation of obedience to their canons, as well as Christ's promise to protect the Church from error.
© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.