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The Fifth Ecumenical Council was a Christian Ecumenical Council that was held in 553. It was called by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
In accordance with the imperial command, but without the assent of the Pope, the synod was opened on the May 5, 553, in the Secretarium of the Cathedral Church at Constantinople. Among those present were the Patriarchs, Eutychius of Constantinople, who presided, Apollinarius of Alexandria, Domnus III of Antioch, three bishops as representatives of the Patriarch Eustochius of Jerusalem, and 145 other metropolitans and bishops, of whom many came also in the place of absent colleagues.
The three chapters were the point in question; that is, respecting Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret's writings against Cyril, and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris the Persian. They examined whether that letter had been approved in the Council of Chalcedon. So much was admitted that it had been read there, and that Ibas, after anathematizing Nestorius, had been received by the holy Council. Some contended that his person only was spared; others that his letter also was approved. Thus inquiry was made at the fifth Council how the writings on the Faith were wont to be approved in former Councils. The Acts of the third and fourth Council, those which we have mentioned above respecting the letter of St. Cyril and of St. Leo, were set forth. Then the holy Council declared: "It is plain, from what has been recited, in what manner the holy Councils are wont to approve what is brought before them. For great as was the dignity of those holy men who wrote the letters recited, yet they did not approve their letters simply or without inquiry, nor without taking cognizance that they were in all things agreeable to the exposition and doctrine of the holy Fathers, with which they were compared." But the Acts proved that this course was not pursued in the case of the letter of Ibas; they inferred, therefore, most justly, that that letter had not been approved. So, then, it is certain from the third and fourth Councils, the fifth so declaring and understanding it, that letters approved by the Apostolic See, such as was that of Cyril, or even proceeding from it, as that of Leo, were received by the holy Councils not simply, nor without inquiry. The holy Fathers proceed to do what the Bishops at Chalcedon would have done, had they undertaken the examination of Ibas's letter. They compare the letter with the Acts of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Which done, the holy Council declared- "The comparison made proves, beyond a doubt, that the letter which Ibas is said to have written is, in all respects, opposed to the definition of the right Faith, which the Council of Chalcedon set forth." All the Bishops cried out. "We all say this; the letter is heretical." Thus, therefore, is it proved by the fifth Council, that our holy Fathers in Ecumenical Councils pronounce the letters read, whether of Catholics or heretics, or even of Roman Pontiffs, and that on matter of Faith, to be orthodox or heretical, according to the same procedure, after legitimate cognizance, the truth being inquired into, and then cleared up; and upon these premises judgment given.
What! you will say, with no distinction, and with minds equally inclined to both parties? Indeed, we have said, and shall often repeat, that there was a presumption in favour of the decrees of orthodox Pontiffs; but in Ecumenical Councils, where judgment is to be passed in matter of Faith, that they were bound no longer to act upon presumption, but on the truth clearly and thoroughly ascertained.
Such were the Acts of the fifth Council. This it learnt from the third and fourth Councils, and approved; and in this argument we have brought at once in favour of our opinion the decrees of three Ecumenical Councils, of Ephesus, of Chalcedon, and the second Con- stantinopolitan. The Emperor Justinian desired that the question concerning the above-mentioned Three Chapters should be considered in the Church. He therefore sent for Pope Vigilius to Constantinople. There he not long after assembled a council. He and the Orientals thought it of great moment that these Chapters should be condemned, against the Nestorians, who were raising their heads to defend them; Vigilius, with the Occidentals, feared lest this occasion should be taken to destroy the authority of the Council of Chalcedon: because it was admitted that Theodoret and Ibas had been received in that Council, whilst Theodore, though named, was let go without any mark of censure. Though then both parties easily agreed as to the substance of the Faith, yet the question had entirely respect to the Faith, it being feared by the one party lest the Nestorian, by the other lest the Eutychian, enemies of the Council of Chalcedon should prevail. Vigilius on April 11, 548, issues his "Judicatum" against the Three Chapters, saving the authority of the Council of Chalcedon. Thereupon the Bishops of Africa, Illyria, and Dalmatia, with two of his own confidential Deacons, withdraw from his communion. In the year 550 the African Bishops, under Reparatus of Carthage, not only reject the Judicatum, but anathematize Vigilius himself, and sever him from Catholic Communion, reserving to him a place for repentance. At length the Pope publicly withdraws his "Judicatum." While the Council is sitting at Constantinople he publishes his "Constitutum," in which he condemns certain propositions of Theodore, but spares his person; the same respecting Theodoret; but with respect to Ibas, he declares that his letter was pronounced orthodox by the Council of Chalcedon. However this may be, so much is clear, that Vigilius, though invited, declined being present at the council: that nevertheless the council was held without him; that he published a "Constitutum," in which he disapproved of what Theodore, Theodoret, and Ibas were said to have written against the Faith; but decreed that their names should be spared because they were considered to have been received by the fourth Council, or to have died in the communion of the Church, and to be reserved to the judgment of God. Concerning the letter of Ibas, he published the following, that, "understood in the best and most pious sense," it was blameless; and concerning the three Chapters generally, he ordered that after his present declaration ecclesiastics should move no further question.
Such was the decree of Vigilius, issued upon the authority with which he was invested. But the council, after his Constitution, both raised a question about the Three Chapters, and decided that question was properly raised concerning the dead, and that the letter of Ibas was manifestly heretical and Nestorian, and contrary in all things to the Faith of Chalcedon, and that they were altogether accursed, who defended the impious Theodore of Mopsuestia, or the writings of Theodoret against Cyril, or the impious letter of Ibas defending the tenets of Nestorius: and all such as did not anathematize it, but said it was correct.
In these latter words they seemed not even to spare Vigilius, although they did not mention his name. And it is certain their decree was confirmed by Pelagius the Second, Gregory the Great, and other Roman Pontiffs. These things prove, that in a matter of the utmost importance, disturbing the whole Church, and seeming to belong to the Faith, the decrees of sacred councils prevail over the decrees of Pontiffs, and that the letter of Ibas, though defended by a judgment of the Roman Pontiff, could nevertheless be proscribed as heretical.
At the conclusion of the council, Emperor Justinian confessed his faith in the words of a hymn that is still sung today in the Divine Liturgy of most Eastern Orthodox churches. One translation of that hymn is:
- O only-begotten Son and Word of God, who being immortal didst accept for our salvation to be made flesh of the Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary; and without change became man; and was crucified, O Christ God, trampling down death by death; O thou who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us!