The phenomenon of conciliar reception—the process by which the church accepts the decisions of legitimate councils into her life and thought—has fascinated theologians because it constitutes simultaneously the most mysterious and the most decisive factor in establishing a council’s authority. Assemblies of bishops occurred quite frequently in the early church, but it was soon recognized that not all assemblies were equal. Ecumenical councils enjoyed the highest degree of authority, whereas particular councils enjoyed a lower degree of authority. Still others, such as the so-called “robber council” of Ephesus, held no authority at all. The growing conviction that the church could speak with varying degrees of authority naturally prompted reflection among early theologians on the features distinguishing ecumenical, particular, and false synods.

According to the German Jesuit H.-J. Sieben, one of the most eminent living authorities on the history ecumenical councils, this process of theological reflection eventually yielded eight criteria for recognizing authentic councils, among which “reception” held a unique place. These criteria are, in order of increasing difficulty of empirical verification: (1) imperial convocation, (2) the cooperation of the pope, (3) universality of participation, (4) relevance to the whole church, (5) the observance of due process, (6) freedom from coercion, (7) agreement with the content of previous councils, and (8) reception by the church.[1] If the criterion of universality is treated with some flexibility, Sieben thinks these eight stand, at least in the mind of the church of the first millennium, as the necessary conditions for an ecumenical council. The last four criteria qualify the council qua council, and the first four qualify it qua ecumenical.[2]

Not surprisingly, the application of such criteria turns out to be less than scientific. Hardly any council accepted as ecumenical today meets all eight criteria perfectly, and yet many councils that were later rejected as false or that were qualified as particular appear to have met at least the first seven criteria. History suggests that, all told, what finally reveals the authority of a council is the way in which the whole church receives it—the eighth and the haziest criterion on Sieben’s list. Hence, this criterion, it would appear, is the X factor in determining a council’s standing.

The fact that this mysterious and decisive X factor also turned out to be—at least at first glance—the most egalitarian, made reception an attractive foundation upon which to build a less pyramidal ecclesiology. It seemed both to blunt the Catholic Church’s authoritarian edge and to offer a theological category by which Catholics could positively interpret irreconcilable differences with church teaching; these differences, theologians realized, could be construed not as disobedience to settled doctrine but as the non-reception of proposed doctrine. But one thing stood in the way, at least in Catholic circles: the teaching of the First Vatican Council, which was reiterated at the Second Vatican Council, that papal definitions are “irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church” (ex sese, et non ex consensu Ecclesiae, irreformabiles).[3] Given the interlacing of papal and conciliar authority in the Western church, that clause seemed to rule out any possibility that a council would depend upon popular consent for validity.

Understandably, reflection on the role of reception began rather cautiously, but soon progressed in a parliamentary direction. Alois Grillmeier initiated the conversation in 1970 with his seminal article “Konzil und Rezeption.” He assumed that the aforementioned teaching of Vatican I excludes the possibility that the assent of the faithful could play a constitutive function such that the validity of a doctrine would depend on it.[4] Nevertheless, Grillmeier envisioned a role for the nonmagisterial church that was not reducible to mere passivity and obedience. Because revelation in Christ is itself an event embedded in time and culture, no conciliar statement can be exhaustive or free from historical idiosyncrasy.[5] According to Grillmeier, the intellectual and spiritual engagement of the faithful with such teachings plays a sifting, hermeneutical role. He states, “By fundamental consensus can the limited, time-bound or anachronistic [element] of a definition be brought to consciousness. Only in this way does the reception of a council become ripe and mature.”[6] Reception, therefore, does not “validate” conciliar decisions; rather, it “digests” and “metabolizes” them, discarding not the decisions themselves, but interpretations of them finally unassimilable by the ecclesial organism.

Theologians following on Grillmeier’s essay, however, tended to emphasize the act of reception as more constitutive to the doctrinal resolutions of the church’s councils. In “Reception as an Ecclesial Reality,” Yves Congar, a twentieth-century French Dominican, described the receptive effect of an ecumenical council much as Grillmeier does, that is, as enhancing credibility rather than conferring validity.[7] However, he broadened the notion of reception to include not just the responses to councils but to doctrinemore generally, and he also suggested that “some doctrine or maxim received for a fairly long time might cease to be accepted.”[8] His subtle departure from Grillmeier, thus, manifest itself most when Congar suggested that possible cases of nonreception include both the teaching on papal infallibility at Vatican I and the more recent nonconciliar teaching of Humanae Vitae, the so-called “birth-control encyclical.”[9]

About twenty years after the pioneering essays of Grillmeier and Congar, theologians began to advocate more explicitly for the right of the laity to refuse reception. Wolfgang Beinert has identified opposition to Humanae Vitae not as case of insubordination but as a case of non-reception.[10] Herman Pottmeyer has cited the general antipathy of the Christian faithful toward the nonconciliar teaching of Humanae Vitae as an example of “qualified non-reception,”[11] valorizing the refusal as a case of legitimate “role reversal of the teaching and learning church.”[12] Moreover, the Australian theologian Ormond Rush has more recently taken up Pottmeyer’s baton—at least inasmuch as he has appealed to reception as a model for closing the distance between the teaching and learning church.[13] Toward this end, Rush has recommended reconceiving of the “teaching office of the church in terms of a dialogic reception between the three authorities of the sensus fidelium, theology, and magisterium.”[14] This second generation appeals to the “sense of the faithful,” classically embodied in the reception of early church councils, as both precedent and justification for doubting that widely resisted teachings ultimately bind. By according theological significance to the widespread rejection, such reception theories hope to identify a mechanism by which the learning churchmaytrade roles with the teaching church.

However, Sieben, already noted for his extensive studies of the idea of ecumenical councils, sees factual accuracy and historical disanalogy as significant barriers to the idea that conciliar reception, as it was actually practiced by the early church, could serve as a basis for overcoming this basic division. In terms of factual accuracy, Sieben notes that the historical sources do not attest to a practice of lay reception in the strict sense. One finds countless records of bishops “receiving” a teaching, but the only nonordained persons recorded as having “received” such teaching were those invested with a quasisacral status, such as emperors and the occasional monk. As a general rule, laity were entitled to “receive” only through representation by their bishop.[15] Sieben also notes that there is little evidence that framers of conciliar canons awaited the approval of the lay faithful. Despite the fact that many councils were not in fact received, he notes, “What emerges unambiguously . . . from the sources is the claim to reception that the councils make as soon as [the council fathers] have made and publicized their decisions.”[16] In the eyes of conciliar fathers, what broad reception added to their decree was not juridical validity but prestige.[17]

With respect to historical disanalogy, Sieben has argued that the early church conceived the inner act of reception differently than contemporary ecclesiologists imagine. Reception for Christians of the first millennium, he asserts, was essentially an act of “tradition” (Latin: traditio,Greek: parádosis). Indeed, this was already evident in the earliest sustained reflection on Nicaea, which Sieben has traced back to St. Athanasius. Although he was aware that the church held many synods both before and after Nicaea,[18] Athanasius somehow came to recognize—though only in retrospect—that Nicaea enjoyed a qualitatively higher authority. And although he initially rated the Symbolum Nicaeum as a mere “ecumenical condemnation” of Arius, Athanasius later came to esteem it as a positive touchstone of orthodoxy and—at least from around the time of his third exile (ca. 360 CE)—as a council sufficient for all time, beyond which no further definitions would be necessary.[19]

According to Sieben, by the time Athanasius came to appraise Nicaea as the church’s last word on the person of Christ, he had also arrived at a particular understanding of receiving a council: participating in the authentic tradition of Christ. In the Letter to the African Bishops (ca. 369 CE), to take one of Sieben’s examples, Athanasius approves the resolutions issuing from an obscure local council, presided over by Pope Damasus, on the grounds that they contain “the sound Faith which Christ gave us, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers, who met at Nicaea from all over this world of ours, have handed down” (paradedôkasin).[20] He describes the church’s act of reception as a simple cognizance of this pedigree. Through all subsequent synods, Christians have simply “recognized” (epégn?san) Nicaea and “marveled at” (ethaúmasán) it; in short, they have simply been “reminded” (hypomn?sthéntes) of this unsurpassable event.[21] Those, therefore, who refused to receive Nicaea ended up as theological and spiritual orphans. As Athanasius has stated, “Whose heirs or successors then are they? How can they call those men fathers, whose confession, well and apostolically formulated, they do not receive (apodéchontai)?”[22] Basing his analyses on these kinds of texts, Sieben concludes that, for Athanasius, to “receive a council” comes to mean nothing other than to “incorporate oneself into the parádosis, the handing on of faith, as this takes place in the Church from the preaching of the Apostles down to the end of times.”[23] It is not so much the exercise of power—whether from the top down or from the bottom up—but a recognition of Christ’s mediated authority.

In this aspect, Sieben has found Athanasius’ understanding of the act of reception typical of the church of the first millennium and atypical of certain contemporary understandings thereof. As he concluded,

Indeed, reception is therefore realized in the ancient Church—in its precise sense—not vertically from above to below, from the teaching to the listening Church, but horizontally and along the temporal axis running from those earlier in the faith to those later in the faith. To receive a council does not mean, then, to subject oneself as layperson in obedience to the superior hierarchical authority or, as the newer concept of reception also assumes for the ancient Church, to subject the Church’s decision at the council to critical examination, but, in the sense of 1 Cor. 11:23 and 15:3, to “receive” what one must oneself “hand down.”[24]


Christians of the first millennium, in other words, conceived the practice of reception within a different horizon. They understood it not so much as the mechanism by which the laity ratified or vetoed doctrines proposed by hierarchical authority but as the act by which the whole church—ordained and non-ordained alike—came to recognize in certain authoritative decisions the perennial faith that Christ entrusted to the apostles.

On the basis of Sieben’s studies, it seems that a concern for faithfulness to the early church’s self-understanding would require one to approach contemporary appeals to the reception or nonreception of doctrine with a measure of caution—and this for several reasons. First, the positions of Pottmeyer and Rush, which find in the ancient practice of conciliar (or canonical) reception the precedent for greater power sharing among the various ecclesial estates, may represent something of an anachronism. To press an ancient practice into the service of the post-enlightenment problematic of power runs the risk of retrieving reception’s outer form while subtly altering its inner orientation: it would be to stand the axis of reception on its end, transforming reception from a horizontal act of the whole church’s incorporation-in-apostolic-tradition into a bottom-up act of class conflict within the church herself.

However, the hermeneutical—as opposed to the constitutive—function that Grillmeier and Congar attribute to reception tracks more closely with spirit of conciliar reception in the ancient church. The development of Athanasius’s thought, as well as the history of the councils more generally, suggest that all Christians, in the process of assimilating conciliar teaching into their lives and devotion, participate in its interpretation. Furthermore, over the course of centuries, the church attains a perspective from which it more fully evaluates a decision’s time-bound and unfinished aspects.

Nevertheless, an unresolved tension divides Congar and Grillmeier, a point upon which even I remain undecided. Although Congar stops short of making the validity of a doctrine juridically dependent upon its broad reception, his openness to the legitimacy of unreceiving doctrines—even of doctrines taken for granted for a fairly long time—comes very close to it. Stable reception, Congar would say, accompanies those teachings that, of themselves and prior to reception, possess binding authority. It does not confer validity, in other words, but testifies to it. Despite its unattractive circularity, this interpretation does find quite a bit of warrant in the ancient practice of conciliar reception. The council fathers saw conciliar definitions as immediately binding upon all Christians—except, of course, when those definitions emanated from false councils. And nonreception has sometimes proved the only mark by which pseudocouncils could be recognized as such. The open question remains whether Congar’s model can apply not only to the first millennium, where the channels and prerogatives of ecclesial authority were still being clarified,[25] but also to the Roman Church of the second millennium, where the organs of tradition have attained a much higher degree of articulation. This still strikes me as a significant and open question for Christian theologians today.


[1] Sieben notes that individual criteria began to emerge after Nicaea and that the “criterion-list” emerged as a genre after Constantinople II (553). See H.-J. Sieben, Studien zum Ökumenischen Konzil: Definitionen und Begriffe, Tagebücher, und Augustinus-Rezeption (Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 2010), 70. He elaborates these eight criteria in ibid., 71–84.

[2] Ibid., 86. Sieben calls for a certain flexibility in applying the criterion of universality since even ancient theologians conceded that it could find diverse manners of expression: they emphasized, by turns, the generality of invitation, the generality of participation, and the generality of representation through the pentarchy. The frequency of recurrence of this criterion, moreover, does not imply that the other criteria are less important in the minds of their catalogers. Criteria were often omitted for strategic reasons. The criterion list found in the canons of Nicaea II, for instance, omitted mention of imperial convocation. But this is probably due to the fact that it was drawn up with a view to disqualifying the iconoclast Synod of Hieria, which had been convoked by the emperor and was therefore not defective on this ground (ibid., 105).

[3] Pastor Aeternus ¶9; Lumen Gentium ¶25. These documents are available on the Vatican website.

[4] Grillmeier, “[Gallicanism and Laicism] wanted to accord the assensus and consensus of the bishops vis-à-vis the Pope, or the consent of the faithful vis-à-vis ecclesial doctrine, a constitutive function, in the sense that validity would depend [on consent]. The way for such tendencies had to be once and for all blocked through the ‘ex sese’ of Vatican I”; “Konzil und Rezeption: Methodische Bermerkungen zu einem Thema der ökumenischen Diskussion der Gegenwart,” Philosophie und Theologie 3 (1970): 321–52, at 344. Translation mine here and elsewhere, unless otherwise noted.

[5] Ibid., “As revelation in Christ himself must be understood not as a suprahistorical event, but as an event embedded in time and culture, so is also every conciliar decision is tied to certain epoch of the understanding and proclamation of the truth, without the truth thereby becoming relativized”(348).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Congar, “Reception as an Ecclesial Reality,” Concilium 77 (1972): 43–68, at 68. According to Gilles Routhier, both this article of Congar and Grillmeier’s “Konzil und Rezeption” remain “ever the obligatory points of reference for the study of reception”; see La réception d’un concile, Cogitatio Fidei Series (Paris, France: Éditions du Cerf, 1993), 29.

[8] Congar, “Reception as an Ecclesial Reality,” 57. This is also basically the position of Klaus Schatz: “Reception through the Church is never ratification of an ex cathedra decision valid in itself. This is through the definition of Vatican I expressly excluded. But it may still be witness that or whether one is actually dealing with an ex cathedra decision (“Welche bisherigen päpstlichen Lehrentscheidungen sind ‘ex cathedra’?: Historische und theologische Überlegungen,” in Dogmengeschichte und katholische Theologie , ed. W. Löser, Karl Lehmann, M. Lutz Bachmann [Würzburg, Germany: Echter, 1985], 404–22, at 418. Italics original).

[9] Congar, “Reception as an Ecclesial Reality,” 57–58. Congar remains cautious, however, inasmuch as he declines to diagnose the exact nature of the disagreement: “Is this ‘non-reception’, or ‘disobedience’, or what? The facts are there” (ibid., 58).

[10] “Die Rezeption und ihre Bedeutung für Leben und Lehre der Kirche,” in Glaube als Zustimmung, 15–49, at 20).

[11] Pottmeyer, “Rezeption und Gehorsam—Aktuelle Aspekte der wiederentdeckten Realität ‘Rezeption,’” in Glaube als Zustimmung: Zur Interpretation kirchlicher Rezeptionsvorgänge, ed. Wolfgang Beinert, Quaestiones Disputatae 131 [Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1991], 51–91, at 74.

[12] Ibid., 85.

[13] Rush, The Eyes of Faith: The Sense of the Faithful and the Church’s Reception of Revelation (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009], 201 and 210. Rush differs from Pottmeyer on significant points, however. First, he looks not to the reception of the early councils but to the formation of the biblical canon as the paradigmatic process for doctrinal definition in the Catholic Church. Second, he seems to recommend recovering this precanonical exercise of the magisterial authority as a way of forestalling the unpleasantness of nonreception, not as a way to “turn the tables” on the hierarchy after the act of pronouncement.

[14] Ibid., 195. Again, “These are the three aspects of the magisterium to which Rush refers when he writes, “The formal teaching of the faith by the magisterium within the one-yet-threefold teaching office of the church will be received as authoritative to the extent that it attends to the de facto living of the faith by contemporary Christians, and the way they are attempting to best [sic] live and make sense of their faith in the concrete circumstances of their time, with all its difficulties” (ibid., 214). Rush also adverts to the teaching of Vatican Iaccording to which papal definitions are ex sese irreformable (ibid., 287). He doubts that his model of reception falls afoul of the dogma because he interprets the latter as applying the Church’s de jure authority alone, which may nonetheless be counterbalanced by the more diffused de facto authority of doctrinal reception (ibid., 209–14).

[15] “It may be taken as a general rule that the reception of councils by the laity was scarcely realized by the laity since the bishops then acted representatively for the churches entrusted to them. This principle finds its classic expression in the dictum of Cyprian of Carthage: Unde scire debes episcopum in ecclesia esse et ecclesiam in episcopo” (Sieben, Vom Apostelkonzil zum Ersten Vatikanum: Studien Zur Geschichte der Konzilsidee [Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 1996], 71.

[16] Ibid., 90. Klaus Schatz, SJ, seconds this observation when he writes, “Wo ausdrücklich mit der Rezeption argumentiert wird, geschieht dies, wenigstens bei Glaubensentscheidungen, nie in eine offene Situation hinein, also so, da? Konzilien noch in der Schwebe gelassen warden, ob die Kirche sie vielleicht annimmt oder nicht” (“Die Rezeption ökumenischer Konzilien im ersten Jahrtausend—Schwierigkeiten, Formen der Bewältigung und verweigerte Rezeption,” in Glaube als Zustimmung,93–123, at 95).

[17]Sieben, Vom Apostelkonzil zum Ersten Vatikanum, 90.

[18] For the pre-Nicene local synods, Athanasius could have had in mind a synod such as Antioch (268 CE), which condemned Paul of Samosata. Many councils intervened between Nicaea and Chalcedon (451), but only Constantinople I (381 CE) and Ephesus (431 CE) qualified as ecumenical and only after they were recognized by Chalcedon (451 CE).

[19] See Sieben, Die Konzilsidee der Alten Kirche (Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 1979), 513. For a fuller exposition of Athanasius’s growing appreciation of Nicaea, see the full chapter dedicated to this theme in ibid., 25–67.

[20] Epistola ad Afros Episcopos 1.1; cited in Die Konzilsidee der Alten Kirche, 57–58. The entirety of the letter can be found in H. C. Brennecke, U. Heil, and A. von Stockhausen, Athanasius: Werke, Zweiter Band. Die “Apologien,” 8. Lieferung (Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, 2006), 322–39.

[21] “The whole world has long ago agreed to [the Nicene faith] and just now everyone, having been reminded of the many past synods . . . recognized it and marveled at the ones who signed it.” Epistola ad Afros Episcopos 1.2.

[22] Epistola ad Afros Episcopos 7.1.

[23] Sieben, Vom Apostelkonzil zum Ersten Vatikanum, 93.

[24] Ibid.

[25] K. Schatz notes the problem this change of ecclesial context poses: “One can not . . . already then deduce from [the reception process of the various ecumenical synods of the first millennium] a permanent (überzeitliche) rule that subsequent reception of the Church stands as an court of appeal (Ratifikationsinstanz) above an ecumenical council, since here the authority of the council itself is still emerging”;“Die Rezeption ökumenischer Konzilien im ersten Jahrtausend,” 94.