top of page

Lateran Council I-III: "Pastoral Councils"?

Historical research has often proven to be the death knell for many traditionalist positions. Perusing some recent notes from SSPX high school and looking through some SSPX pamphlets, I was reminded of their position that Vatican II was "only pastoral" and therefore "not binding." Old notes said that councils are only called to address the dominant heresy or error of the time. A quote from one of the SSPX's pamphlets:

How is it possible for an ecumenical council to fall into error? By the fact that Vatican II was the first council to be declared a "pastoral" rather than a "doctrinal" council, as Pope Paul VI himself stated: "In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statement of dogmas that would be endowed with the note of infallibility." [...] Since the Second Vatican Council had no intention to bind Catholics on questions of faith and morals, it was not protected from error by the Holy Spirit[.]"

The first point that must be made here is that Pope St Paul VI's quote is incomplete. The very next sentence says, "but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document." Seems to be some crucial context, no? (It is similar to those who reject the promulgation of the new missal, in spite of the fact that this same pope said of this missal, in a general audience in November 1969, "It is not an arbitrary act. It is not a transitory or optional experiment. It is not some dilettante’s improvisation. It is a law.")

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, from Theological Highlights of Vatican II, p 45:

"Pastoral" should not mean nebulous, without substance, merely "edifying" meanings sometimes given to it. Rather what was meant was positive care for the man of today who is not helped by condemnations and who has been told for too long what is false and what he may not do. Modern man really wishes to hear what is true. He has, indeed, not heard enough truth, enough of the positive message of faith for our own time, enough of what the faith has to say to our age. [...] "Pastoral" should mean, finally, speaking in the language of scripture, of the early Church Fathers, and of contemporary man. Technical theological language has its purpose and is indeed necessary, but it does not belong in the kerygma and in our confession of faith."

"Pastoral" does not mean "not binding." It means, as Pope Benedict says, "positive care," or an approach to the faith that the church deemed more appropriate for the time. Also, note that Pope Paul's statement referred to the pastoral nature of the council. A "pastoral council" is not a type of council recognized by the church. As the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us, the three types of councils are national councils, provincial councils, or general (ecumenical) councils. There is no such thing as a strictly "pastoral" council. As The Pope, The Council, and The Mass tells us on page 35:

The whole point of bringing together at a council all the Catholic bishops around the world was, precisely, to teach and to apply those teachings to the problems Catholics and the Church face today. It would have been nonsensical to convene a council; the results of which would somehow be disregardable at the option of the faithful. What would be the point of having a teaching Church at all if, in a solemn general council, she does not necessarily teach? Or, how could it be said that the Church really ruled in Christ’s stead if the disciplinary enactments of her Twenty-First General Council were similarly to be considered optional for the faithful?

It is interesting that traditionalists never bring this same charge to previous councils. Never once have I heard them suspect, criticize, or reject the declarations of any of the previous 20 councils of the church. But thanks to the FAQ section of Bishop Barron's Vatican II Collection, I was informed that the First, Second, and Third Lateran Councils were also disciplinary in nature, and did not define any new dogmas or pronounce any infallible statements. Let us examine some of the information pertaining to each of these. (Citations taken from the Wikipedia entries for each.)


Lateran I (1122)

It is said that Lateran I "was not very original in its concept, nor...called to meet a pressing theological question. For the most part, Pope Callixtus II summoned the council to ratify the various meetings and concords which had been occurring in and around Rome for several years. [...] It has been argued by some historians that the Concordat of Worms and its reiteration by Lateran I were little more than face saving measures by the Church."

Lateran I dealt more with political struggles, such as the Investiture Controversy (the conflict between church and state about the rights of temporal rulers to select bishops), and issued 22 canons that were primarily disciplinary in nature. These had nothing to do with dogma or doctrine. They forbade such things as ordinations for monetary gain, clerics living with women, and marriages between blood relatives. They excommunicated counterfeiters of money and robbers of merchants and pilgrims.

Lateran II (1139)

The Second Lateran Council "drew up measures for the amendment of ecclesiastical morals and discipline which the council fathers considered had grown lax. Many of the canons relating to these matters were mostly a restating of the decrees of the Council of Reims and the Council of Clermont." It did excommunicate King Roger II of Sicily and condemn the teachings of the Petrobrusians and the Henricians, and its canons do include the typical language of anathematizing, but again, these are related to disciplinary measures, not dogma. It condemned such things as arson, jousting, the assault of clerics, and the practice of taking concubines when in religious life. It exhorted bishops and priests to dress well and present themselves well. Canon 29 also states, as a matter of mild amusement, "We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on." No canon or declaration of this council was endowed with infallibility; no matter of dogma was discussed.

Lateran III (1179)

Similar to its immediate predecessor, Lateran III was called to restore ecclesiastical discipline after the schism of several antipopes in prior years. It established such laws as giving only the cardinals the right to elect a pope; it required every cathedral to appoint teachers and regulated their licenses; and it excommunicated those who taxed churches without the bishop's consent and who engaged in usury, among others. Again, no article of faith was published and no dogma was defined.


Where is the protest for the authority of these councils? Was the Holy Spirit absent from them as well? Were these any less binding on the faithful than councils that proclaimed articles of faith or establish dogma? Historical context once again introduces some inconsistencies that traditionalists must face. Even if declarations are "merely" disciplinary, this does not diminish the submission owed to them.

Interestingly, several of the canons of Lateran I are directly applicable to the traditionalist position. If they recognize the authority of these councils, what is their justification for their actions against these declarations?

Canon 7 - No archdeacon, archpriest, provost, or dean shall bestow on another the care of souls or the prebends of a church without the decision or consent of the bishop; indeed, as the sacred canons point out, the care of souls and the disposition of ecclesiastical property are vested in the authority of the bishop. If anyone shall dare act contrary to this and arrogate to himself the power belonging to the bishop, let him be expelled from the Church.

Canon 10 - No one shall be consecrated bishop who has not been canonically elected. If anyone dare do this, both the consecrator and the one consecrated shall be deposed without hope of reinstatement.

Canon 18 - Priests shall be appointed to parochial churches by the bishops, to whom they shall be responsible for the care of souls and other matters pertaining to them. They are not permitted to receive tithes and churches from laics without the will and consent of the bishops. If they act otherwise, let them be subject to the canonical penalties.

The declarations of councils are not something that can be accepted or rejected based on one's own judgment. As Pope Leo XIII said, "There can be no doubt that the decisions of the Holy See or those of the General Councils, above all in matters of faith, are by themselves and by their very nature, obligatory on all the faithful."

St Francis de Sales has some very direct words regarding the authority of councils (from The Catholic Controversy):

Consider, I beg you, the importance of the Gospel words: And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican. And when can we hear the Church more distinctly than by the voice of a general Council, where the heads of the Church come together to state and resolve difficulties?
Again, if the legitimate assembly of the pastors and heads of the Church could once be surprised by error, how would the word of the Master be verified: The gates of hell shall not prevail against it?
[W]hen all the ecclesiastical authority is collected into one, who shall dispute the sentence which comes forth?

If we are tempted to resist or reject the declarations of a council, let us recall the words of the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem: “[I]t has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28)

320 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Very Informative video about incultration.

This was a great introduction to Native American Incultration in the Catholic Church in case anyone is interested.


Dec 14, 2023


Great argument, Andrew!! I love your articles!


Dec 13, 2023

Thanks for writing this! As Cardinal Newman said, “to be deep in history is to cease to be a protestant.” One can easily change this to the negative and say “to forget history is to cease to be a Catholic.”

Also when we throw out Vatican II then by logic we will have to throw out Vatican I because Vatican I said “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance…


Tony Alongi
Tony Alongi
Dec 13, 2023

Thank you so much for pointing these important facts out! And I agree: the terms “doctrinal vs. pastoral” council, much like “Mass of the Ages”, are arbitrary lines in the sand conjured up out of thin air to make a square argument fit into a round hole.

Dr. Kwasnieski did this a lot in “The Once and Future Roman Rite”. In comparing the pre- and post- Vatican II liturgy along with the Eastern Rites, he created a lot of nebulous categories (i.e. ”Mystery”, “Elevated Mode”, “Density”) in order to pigeonhole both liturgies and their elements into a predetermined “good vs. bad” ranking system. The deck was so obviously stacked against the revised liturgy that I could not take anything in…

bottom of page