Catholic Ecumenical Councils include 21 councils over a period of 1700 years. While definitions changed throughout history, in today's Roman Catholic understanding Ecumenical Councils are assemblies of Patriarchs, Cardinals, residing Bishops, Abbots, male heads of religious orders and other juridical persons, nominated by the Roman Pontiff. They meet to discuss matters of faith and Church discipline. Council decisions, to be valid, are approved by the popes. Participation is limited to these persons, who cannot delegate their voting rights.
Ecumenical councils are different from provincial councils, where bishops of a Church province or region meet. Episcopal conferences and plenary councils are other bodies, meetings of bishops of one country, nation, or region, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This article does not include councils of a lower order or regional councils. Ecumenical in the Catholic view does not mean that all bishops attended the councils, which was not even the case in Vatican II. Nor does ecumenical imply the participation of or acceptance by all Christian communities and Churches. Ecumenical refers to "a solemn congregations of the Catholic bishops of the world at the invitation of the Pope to decide on matters of the Church with him". The ecumenical character of the councils of the first millennium was not determined by the intention of those who issued the invitations. The papal approval of the early councils did not have a formal character, which was characteristic in later councils. The Catholic Church did not officially declare these Councils to be ecumenical. This became theological practice. Different evaluations existed between and within Christian communities.
Not all of the twenty-one councils were always accepted as ecumenical within the Catholic Church. For example, the inclusion of the First Lateran Council and the Council of Basel were disputed. A 1539 book on ecumenical councils by Cardinal Dominicus Jacobazzi excluded them as did other scholars. The first few centuries did not know large-scale ecumenical meetings; they were only feasible after the Church had gained freedom from persecution through Emperor Constantine.
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