Every several hundred years, cardinals, bishops, priests, theologians and other Catholic leaders, get together under the leadership of the Pope to discuss doctrine and the future of the Church. These are called ecumenical councils. So far, there have been 21 councils in the history of the Church since 325 A.D. (Prior to that, serious persecution prevented widespread meetings. There were however, less organized councils.)
In the Bible we have an example of a Church council (Acts 15-16). Paul and Barnabus went to Jerusalem in Israel to settle the circumcision issue." As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules." (Acts 16:3) This is a good example of the Lord using the "Church" to decide on matters of interpretation.
The councils are part of the glue of the Church and are extremely important because it is where the Church settles many issues about what God is saying in Scripture and what he is saying to his Church. They are also where the Church officially responds to doctrinal threats. Sometimes we hear Evangelicals say something like, "Catholics made up the doctrine of [insert your favorite Catholic doctrine] at such and such a council" when, in truth, the Church was simply officially defining something that it had always believed as a response to a challenge from those opposed to the Catholic doctrine.
Catholics believe the Holy Spirit is seriously present, guiding the proceedings at these councils. Jesus said to Peter, "..you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Catholics believe that was Jesus' promise that he would protect the Church from doctrinal error. This doctrinal protection is called "infallibility". It does not mean that Catholics leaders throughout history would not be "indefectible" on issues other than doctrine.
These councils are called ecumenical because there are several rites in the Catholic Church including the Eastern Rite (Byzantine, Antiochene, Armenian, Chaldean, etc). All of these rights recognize the Pope in Rome as their leader. The largest rite is the Latin-Rite (that's the one most people know). Usually the Pope comes from that rite. However, several times in history, the Pope has come from other rites.
Evangelicals sometimes criticize these councils and have a problem with the idea that the Church could get together to decide what God is saying to the Catholic Church as a whole. However, every Evangelical fellowship I've ever been around has had their own types of councils and conferences to assert what they collectively believe God is saying in various passages of Scripture.
For instance, we attended the Canadian Pentecostal Assembly in Ottawa, where many of these kinds of issues were discussed. They believe the Holy Spirit is present, guiding them as they meet, to decide their interrelationships and communications, etc.
I. FIRST COUNCIL OF NICAEA
Summary: The Council of Nicaea lasted two months and twelve days. Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, assisted as legate of Pope Sylvester. The Emperor Constantine was also present. To this council we owe the Nicene Creed, defining against Arius the true Divinity of the Son of God (homoousios), and the fixing of the date for keeping Easter (against the Quartodecimans).
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm
II. FIRST COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Summary: The First General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Damasus and the Emperor Theodosius I, was attended by 150 bishops. It was directed against the followers of Macedonius, who impugned the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. To the above-mentioned Nicene Creed it added the clauses referring to the Holy Ghost (qui simul adoratur) and all that follows to the end.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/04308a.htm
III. COUNCIL OF EPHESUS
Summary: The Council of Ephesus, of more than 200 bishops, presided over by St. Cyril of Alexandria representing Pope Celestine I, defined the true personal unity of Christ, declared Mary the Mother of God (theotokos) against Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and renewed the condemnation of Pelagius.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/05491a.htm
IV. COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON
Summary: The Council of Chalcedon -- 150 bishops under Pope Leo the Great and the Emperor Marcian -- defined the two natures (Divine and human) in Christ against Eutyches, who was excommunicated.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/03555a.htm
V. SECOND COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Summary: The Second General Council of Constantinople, of 165 bishops under Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian I, condemned the errors of Origen and certain writings (The Three Chapters) of Theodoret, of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia and of Ibas, Bishop of Edessa; it further confirmed the first four general councils, especially that of Chalcedon whose authority was contested by some heretics.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/04308b.htm
VI. THIRD COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Summary: The Third General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Agatho and the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, was attended by the Patriarchs of Constantinople and of Antioch, 174 bishops, and the emperor. It put an end to Monothelitism by defining two wills in Christ, the Divine and the human, as two distinct principles of operation. It anathematized Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Macarius, and all their followers.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/04310a.htm
VII. SECOND COUNCIL OF NICAEA
Summary: The Second Council of Nicaea was convoked by Emperor Constantine VI and his mother Irene, under Pope Adrian I, and was presided over by the legates of Pope Adrian; it regulated the veneration of holy images. Between 300 and 367 bishops assisted.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/11045a.htm
VIII. FOURTH COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Summary: The Fourth General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Adrian II and Emperor Basil numbering 102 bishops, 3 papal legates, and 4 patriarchs, consigned to the flames the Acts of an irregular council (conciliabulum) brought together by Photius against Pope Nicholas and Ignatius the legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople; it condemned Photius who had unlawfully seized the patriarchal dignity. The Photian Schism, however, triumphed in the Greek Church, and no other general council took place in the East.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/04310b.htm
IX. FIRST LATERAN COUNCIL
Summary: The First Lateran Council, the first held at Rome, met under Pope Callistus II. About 900 bishops and abbots assisted. It abolished the right claimed by lay princes, of investiture with ring and crosier to ecclesiastical benefices and dealt with church discipline and the recovery of the Holy Land from the infidels.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09016b.htm
X. SECOND LATERAN COUNCIL
Summary: The Second Lateran Council was held at Rome under Pope Innocent II, with an attendance of about 1000 prelates and the Emperor Conrad. Its object was to put an end to the errors of Arnold of Brescia.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09017a.htm
XI. THIRD LATERAN COUNCIL
Summary: The Third Lateran Council took place under Pope Alexander III, Frederick I being emperor. There were 302 bishops present. It condemned the Albigenses and Waldenses and issued numerous decrees for the reformation of morals.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09017b.htm
XII. FOURTH LATERAN COUNCIL
Summary: The Fourth Lateran Council was held under Innocent III. There were present the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic. It issued an enlarged creed (symbol) against the Albigenses (Firmiter credimus), condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published 70 important reformatory decrees. This is the most important council of the Middle Ages, and it marks the culminating point of ecclesiastical life and papal power.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09018a.htm
XIII. FIRST COUNCIL OF LYONS
Summary: The First General Council of Lyons was presided over by Innocent IV; the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Aquileia (Venice), 140 bishops, Baldwin II, Emperor of the East, and St. Louis, King of France, assisted. It excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II and directed a new crusade, under the command of St. Louis, against the Saracens and Mongols.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09476b.htm
XIV. SECOND COUNCIL OF LYONS
Summary: The Second General Council of Lyons was held by Pope Gregory X, the Patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, 15 cardinals, 500 bishops, and more than 1000 other dignitaries. It effected a temporary reunion of the Greek Church with Rome. The word filioque was added to the symbol of Constantinople and means were sought for recovering Palestine from the Turks. It also laid down the rules for papal elections.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09476c.htm
XV. COUNCIL OF VIENNE
Summary: The Council of Vienne was held in that town in France by order of Clement V, the first of the Avignon Popes. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, 300 bishops (114 according to some authorities), and 3 kings -- Philip IV of France, Edward II of England, and James II of Aragon -- were present. The synod dealt with the crimes and errors imputed to the Knights Templars, the Fraticelli, the Beghards, and the Beguines, with projects of a new crusade, the reformation of the clergy, and the teaching of Oriental languages in the universities.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/15423a.htm
XVI. COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE
The Council of Constance was held during the great Schism of the West, with the object of ending the divisions in the Church. It became legitimate only when Gregory XI had formally convoked it. Owing to this circumstance it succeeded in putting an end to the schism by the election of Pope Martin V, which the Council of Pisa (1403) had failed to accomplish on account of its illegality. The rightful Pope confirmed the former decrees of the synod against Wyclif and Hus. This council is thus ecumenical only in its last sessions (42-45 inclusive) and with respect to the decrees of earlier sessions approved by Martin V.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/04288a.htm
XVII. COUNCIL OF BASLE/FERRARA/FLORENCE
Summary: The Council of Basle met first in that town, Eugene IV being Pope, and Sigismund Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Its object was the religious pacification of Bohemia. Quarrels with the Pope having arisen, the council was transferred first to Ferrara (1438), then to Florence (1439), where a short-lived union with the Greek Church was effected, the Greeks accepting the council's definition of controverted points. The Council of Basle is only ecumenical till the end of the twenty-fifth session, and of its decrees Eugene IV approved only such as dealt with the extirpation of heresy, the peace of Christendom, and the reform of the Church, and which at the same time did not derogate from the rights of the Holy See.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/06111a.htm
XVIII. FIFTH LATERAN COUNCIL
Summary: The Fifth Lateran Council sat from 1512 to 1517 under Popes Julius II and Leo X, the emperor being Maximilian I. Fifteen cardinals and about eighty archbishops and bishops took part in it. Its decrees are chiefly disciplinary. A new crusade against the Turks was also planned, but came to naught, owing to the religious upheaval in Germany caused by Luther.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09018b.htm
XIX. COUNCIL OF TRENT
Summary: The Council of Trent lasted eighteen years (1545-1563) under five Popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV, and under the Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand. There were present 5 cardinal legates of the Holy See, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 235 bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of monastic orders, and 160 doctors of divinity. It was convoked to examine and condemn the errors promulgated by Luther and other Reformers, and to reform the discipline of the Church. Of all councils it lasted longest, issued the largest number of dogmatic and reformatory decrees, and produced the most beneficial results.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/15030c.htm
XX. FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL
Summary: The Vatican Council was summoned by Pius IX. It met 8 December, 1869, and lasted till 18 July, 1870, when it was adjourned; it is still (1908) unfinished. There were present 6 archbishop-princes, 49 cardinals, 11 patriarchs, 680 archbishops and bishops, 28 abbots, 29 generals of orders, in all 803. Besides important canons relating to the Faith and the constitution of the Church, the council decreed the infallibility of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra, i.e. when as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.
Further Reading: www.newadvent.org/cathen/15303a.htm
XXI. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
Summary: Pope John XXIII convoked the council in which 2860 leaders participated. The main business of the council was to explore and make explicit the Church's role in the world, ecumenism, the renewal of religious life, the life and ministry of priests and the role of lay apostles (everyday Christians) as important contributors to the evangelization of the world. Improvements to the liturgy were explored. Vatican II also suggested the Mass be established in the language of its environment. So the Mass is now in many languages instead of just Latin.
Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia (except Second Vatican summary)
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.