The Council of Chalcedon and the Papacy

The Council of Chalcedon & the Papacy

by Mark J. Bonocore

Around 448, the aged Byzantine monk Eutyches, who had been a zealous ally of St. Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus, became rigid and inflexible on his views regarding the Incarnation. He argued that Christ's Divine nature so absorbed His human nature that His human nature ceased to be -- thus giving birth to the heresy of Monophysitism.

This heretical doctrine spread throughout the Eastern Church, and forced St. Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople, to call a local synod to condemn it. However, Eutyches refused to submit to the synod, appealing his case to Pope Leo I. This is what he wrote:

I take refuge, therefore, with you, the defender of religion and abhorrer of such factions. ...I beseech you not to be prejudiced against me by their insidious designs about me, but to pronounce the sentence which shall seem to you right upon the Faith. -- Eutyches to Pope Leo, Ep 21.

Patriarch Flavian also appealed to Rome for a ruling, moving Pope Leo to produced his famous Tome, which totally condemned Monophysitism. And so, responding to Eutyches, St. Peter Chrysologus, Archbishop of Ravenna, writes:

We exhort you, honorable brother, that you obediently listen to what has been written by the blessed Pope of the city of Rome, since blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, offers the truth of faith to those who seek. For we, in our zeal for peace and faith, cannot decide questions of faith apart from consent of the Bishop of Rome. -- Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna to Eutyches, Ep 25

However, Eutyches would not submit. Having the ear of the Eastern Emperor (who, being opposed to the dynasty that supported Nestorius, favored Eutyches' views), the heretical monk persuaded him to call another Council of Ephesus -- the so-called "Robber Council" of 449, in which the Roman teaching was rejected, and Monophysitism declared to be the orthodox doctrine of the Church. At this council, Patriarch Flavian was physically abused; and so writes to Pope Leo in appeal:

When I began to appeal to the throne of the Apostolic See of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and to the whole sacred synod, which is obedient to Your Holiness, at once a crowd of soldiers surrounded me and barred my way when I wished to take refuge at the holy altar. ...Therefore, I beseech Your Holiness not to permit these things to be treated with indifference...but to rise up first on behalf of the cause of our orthodox Faith, now destroyed by unlawful acts. ...Further to issue an authoritative that a like faith may everywhere be preached by the assembly of an united synod of fathers, both Eastern and Western. Thus the laws of the fathers may prevail and all that has been done amiss be rendered null and void. Bring healing to this ghastly wound. -- Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople to Pope Leo, 449

At this same "Robber Council" of Ephesus, several other Eastern bishops were deposed from their sees for refusing to embrace Monophysitism. Among them, were Theodoret of Cyrus and Eusebius of Doryleum, both of whom appeal to Pope Leo, saying...

We hasten to your Apostolic See in order to receive from you a cure for the wounds of the Church. For every reason it is fitting for you to hold the first place, inasmuch as your see is adorned with many privileges. I have been condemned without trial. But I await the sentence of your Apostolic See. I beseech and implore Your Holiness to succor me in my appeal to your fair and righteous tribunal. Bid me hasten to you and prove to you that my teaching follows in the footsteps of the Apostles. -- Theodoret to Pope Leo, Ep 113

The Apostolic throne has been wont from the beginning to defend those who are suffering injustice. I entreat Your Blessedness, give me back the dignity of my episcopate and communion with yourself, by letters from you to my lowliness bestowing on me my rank and communion. -- Eusebius of Doryleum to Pope Leo

Thereafter, Pope Leo succeeded in getting both Emperors to call the Council of Chalcedon in 451. At this Council, attended by about 600 bishops (almost all of the Eastern Church), Pope Leo's Tome against Monophysitism and for the orthodox teaching of the two natures of Christ was embraced with the pronouncement:

"This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo! . . . This is the true faith!'" (Acts of the Council, session 2 [A.D. 451]).

Now, many anti-Catholic scholars have tried to chip away at the significance of this statement. However, when compared to other contemporary writings, the meaning of the Council Fathers becomes abundantly clear:

Blessed Peter, preserving in the strength of the Rock, which he has received, has not abandoned the helm of the Church, which he undertook. ...And so if anything is rightly done and rightly decreed by us, if anything is won from the mercy of God by our daily supplications, it is of his work and merits whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his see. To him whom they know to be not only the patron of this see, but also primate of all bishops. When, therefore, believe that he is speaking whose representative we are. -- Pope Leo, Sermon 3:3-4

Now the Lord desired that the dispensing of this gift should be shared as a task by all Apostles, but in such a way that He put the principal charge on the most blessed Peter, the highest of all the Apostles. He wanted His gifts to flow into the entire Body from Peter himself, as it were from the Head. Thus, a man who had dared to separate himself from the solidity of Peter would realize that he no longer shared in the Divine mystery. -- Pope Leo, Ep 10

Similarly, the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, speak of Leo, saying...

"Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice-blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the Rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him (Dioscorus, Bishop of Alexandria) of his episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness." -- Acts of Chalcedon, Session 3

In the same way, upon concluding their synod, the Council fathers write to Pope Leo, saying...

You are set as an interpreter to all of the voice of blessed Peter, and to all you impart the blessings of that Faith. -- Chalcedon to Pope Leo, Ep 98

For if where two or three are gathered together in His name He has said that there He is in the midst of them, must He not have been much more particularly present with 520 priests, who preferred the spread of knowledge concerning Him ...Of whom you were Chief, as Head to the members, showing your good will. -- Chalcedon to Pope Leo (Repletum est Gaudio), November 451

Besides all this, he (Dioscorus) extended his fury even against him who had been charged with the custody of the vine by the Savior. We refer to Your Holiness. -- Chalcedon to Pope Leo, Ep 98

You have often extended your Apostolic radiance even to the Church of Constantinople. -- Chalcedon to Pope Leo, Ep 98

Knowing that every success of the children rebounds to the parents, we therefore beg you to honor our decision by your assent, and as we have yielded agreement to the Head in noble things, so may the Head also fulfill what is fitting for the children. -- Chalcedon to Pope Leo, Ep 98

So, the Council of Chalcedon clearly recognized Pope Leo as the successor of Peter and the Head of the Church. However, the Council did have one problem. One of its canons, Canon 28, had given Constantinople primacy in the East. The Canon read:

"...we do also enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome. For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the one hundred fifty most religious Bishops gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome...." (Canon 28, Chalcedon)

However, Pope Leo refused to agree to this canon; and employing a kind of "line item veto," ordered it struck from the Council documents. In this, Bishop Anatolius of Constantinople writes to Pope Leo, apologizing and explaining how the canon came to be, saying ...

As for those things which the universal Council of Chalcedon recently ordained in favor of the church of Constantinople, let Your Holiness be sure that there was no fault in me, who from my youth have always loved peace and quiet, keeping myself in humility. It was the most reverend clergy of the church of Constantinople who were eager about it, and they were equally supported by the most reverend priests of those parts, who agreed about it. Even so, the whole force of confirmation of the acts was reserved for the authority of Your Blessedness. Therefore, let Your Holiness know for certain that I did nothing to further the matter, knowing always that I held myself bound to avoid the lusts of pride and covetousness. -- Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople to Pope Leo, Ep 132 (on the subject of canon 28 of Chalcedon).

So, the matter was settled; and, for the next 6 centuries, all Eastern churches speak of only 27 canons of Chalcedon -- the 28th Canon being rendered null and void by Rome's "line item veto." This is supported by all the Greek historians, such as Theodore the Lector (writing in 551 AD), John Skolastikas (writing in 550 AD), Dionysius Exegius (also around 550 AD); and by Roman Popes like Pope St. Gelasius (c. 495) and Pope Symmachus (c. 500) -- all of whom speak of only 27 Canons of Chalcedon.

However, when canon 28 was first rejected by Rome, the Monophysites tried to exploit the situation claiming that Leo had rejected the authority of the entire Council. So, at the urging of the Eastern Emperor, Pope Leo drafted a letter to the bishops, explaining how Chalcedon was doctrinally sound:

I have willingly complied, therefore, with what the most clement emperor thought necessary by sending a letter (Ep 114) to all brothers who were present at the Council of Chalcedon to show thereby that the decisions taken by our holy brothers concerning the tenets of the Faith were pleasing to me. My doing so was naturally on account of those who want the decisions of the council to appear weak and dubious, as an occasion for cloaking their own perfidy, on the grounds that decisions were not ratified by assenting opinion of mine (canon 28), whereas I did dispatch a letter. -- Pope Leo, Ep 117

For an even fuller discussion of the Council of Chalcedon and the Papacy, see David Palm's site for

Luke Rivington's Account The Byzantine Plot

Mark Bonocore