History of the Catholic Church – Second Council of Constantinople (Story Series Ep9)

The Three Chapters

One hundred years after the bishops gathered at Chalcedon to settle the error of Eutyches, they are summoned again for yet another business. The events leading to the fifth ecumenical council would make one stop his ears if it were read in all the gory details. To enter into the detail will be a separate undertaking. We must attempt to relate the matter in few words. starting from the council itself.

The bishops are gathered in the Secretarium of the Cathedral Church in Constantinople. The Emperor Justinian summoned the council to resolve the case of the Three Chapters. The “Three Chapters” consists of the three separate letters of Theodore, Theodoret and Ibas. Three of them long dead bishops of Mopsuestia, Cyrus and Edessa respectively. Theodore was the teacher of Nestorius (see the Council of Ephesus) and in his letter had written against St. Cyril, in favour of the Nestorian heresy. The letters of Theodoret and Ibas effused similar fumes of heresy. Theodoret and Ibas, after the council of Ephesus, denounced their errors and anathematised Nestorianism. They were received again into communion with the Church before they died. The Council of Chalcedon had effected this and although the Three Chapters were before the council, the fathers did not condemn it.

The Monophysites and the Theologian Justinian

The church in the East was torn between the Catholics and those who held that there was only one nature in Christ, rather than the two – Divine and Human – which is of faith.
Emperor Justinian was then preparing a treatise to win these Monophysites back to the Church when Theodore Askidas, a monk from Palestine then dwelling in the Imperial Court, suggested a “better” alternative to the treatise. Rather than present arguments, it would be better to condemn the Three Chapters. Why? After the council of Chalcedon the Monophysistes were troubled that the council did not condemn the Three Chapters. Led by a monk Severus from Palestine, they went about spreading news that the council of Chalcedon had betrayed St. Cyril by teaching the Two Natures. The people were misled and soon split into factions, with bishops on both sides of the divide.

The newly elected Bishop of Rome, Vigilius recently left Constantinople for Rome. The Empress Theodora had worked his way into the papacy, on an alleged promise to support the Monophysite error upon becoming Pope. Vigilius had other plans and showed his firm orthodoxy when he became Pope. He was celebrating the Holy Sacrifice when some soldiers came and carried him away in a ship headed for Constantinople. A journey he never returned from.

The Judicatum and the Emperor’s Edict

Pope Vigilius was housed with the Emperor in Constantinople. He was in talks with the Emperor, and Mennas, Bishop of the Constantinople. Justinian related the matter of the Three Chapters with Pope Vigilius.The Pope was clear – he would not do anything to taint the name and authority of the fourth ecumenical council. Why condemn men who denounced their errors and died in communion with the Church?

What the emperor requested next was a provincial synod to discuss the issue seeing even the bishops were not agreed on the matter. Pope Vigilius refused to grant this synod and reserved the judgment of the matter to his office. Shortly afterwards, Vigilius published the Judicatum, an encyclical in which he condemned:

  • the writings and the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia
  • the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus
  • the letter of Ibas of Edessa to a certain Persian

“saving in all things the respect due to the Council of Chalcedon”.

He hoped the Judicatum would be a harbinger of peace. Unfortunately, neither side of the divide was entirely pleased with his judgment, and to worsen the imbroglio, the bishops of the West misunderstood him to have marred the authority of Council of Chalcedon.

The Pope Flees to Chalcedon

Emperor Justinian did not help either. He published an edict condemning not just the writings but the persons of the authors of the Three Chapters, and immediately spread it abroad. The Pope fled to Chalcedon and there threatened all who obeyed the emperor’s edict with excommunication. Here, at Chalcedon, Pope Vigilius began to compose the Constitutum – a detailed narration of all that had passed between him and Justinian.

The Emperor sent forces to Chalcedon to sieze the Pope and bring him to the capital city. Pope Vigilius held fast to the pillars of the sanctuary and almost had the altar fall on him during the resistance. The people resisted the soldiers who retreated after the struggle.

Failing to bring the Pope over violently, Justinian wrote to the Pope to summon an Ecumenical Council. The Pope returned to Constantinople. Vigilius agreed on the condition that many of the bishops from the West be in attendance and the council be held in Sicily or somewhere in Italy. Justinian insisted on the council’s holding at Constantinople – and there it held.

The Council – without the Pope

With only a handful of bishops from the West and over one hundred Eastern Bishops, the council sat for its first session without the Pope. He stated clearly that he would not come until a good number of his brothers from the West arrived.

At the second session of the council, the bishops voted that the Pope be called to preside over them. They sent an envoy of the the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Constantinople and Antioch to the Pope to win him over. Pope Vigilius refused, maintaining his former stand. Emperor Justinian was infuriated. Following his lead and in wordings similar to his earlier edict, the council condemned the Three Chapters. This time, excepting the persons of Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa, both of whom renounced their errors before they died.

While the sessions went on, Pope Vigilius published the Constitutum. He had by this time fled – a second time – to the Church of St. Peter, seeing he was ill-treated and surrounded by spies in the court. In the Constitutum, Vigilius refrains from condemning the authors of the Three Chapters, stating that it was not the custom of the Church to condemn men long dead, worse so who died in Communion with the Church. He warned any cleric from going back on the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and orders that nothing further should be deliberated about the Three Chapters.

Open Secrets

Emperor Justinian responded by revealing confidential letters the Pope had written him four years before. First, the Judicatum, in which the Pope actually condemned the Three Chapters; then some letters he wrote to him and the Empress Theodora, promising on oath to condemn the Three Chapters. Justinian even suggested to the council to excommunicate the Pope, craftily stating that his problem was not so much with the Chair of Peter as with the person now occupying it.

The bishops met for four weeks without the Pope. They eventually condemned the Three Chapters, all supporters of it, and the Monophysite heresy – all in 14 carefully worded decrees. Emperor Justinian required them to subscribe the condemnations. The Eastern Bishops signed while the Westerns hesitated. He arrested the counsellors of Vigilius and those who refused to endorse the condemnations. Pelagius, who was later elected Pope after Vigilius was in the number of the arrested.

About six months after the close of the council – December 553 AD, Pope Vigilius published a second Constitutum. In this document he, in a turn of events, ratifies the decrees of the council and accepts the condemnation of the Three Chapters. He also showed that the decrees in no way contradicted the council of Chalcedon. Emperor Justinian finally allows the Pope to return to Rome. Vigilius falls ill on his return journey at Sicily and dies at Syracuse exactly two years after the close of the council.


There is an apparent shiftiness in the Pope’s first condemning the Three Chapters in the Judicatum, and then refraining from doing so in his first Constitutum, only to ratify its condemnation in his second Constitutum.

He published the Judicatum to settle the controversy but seeing it was ill-received and only worsened the situation, he withdrew it.

The wordings of the first Constitutum show his underlying motive – no one is to decree anything contrary to the decrees of Chaldecon.
Theodoret and Ibas renounced their errors before they died. This does not obscure the fact that they had written erroneously before then. Any heretic who says, “but Chalcedon failed to condemn the Three Chapters even though it was presented before them”, we shall respond, “neither did Chalcedon endorse it. The Fathers at Chalcedon condemned the errors contained in the writings without referring to the particular writings themselves. They have been condemned at Constantinople”

The second Constitutum of Pope Vigilius was probably written to persuade the Latins into seeing that nothing contrary to Chalcedon was decreed at Constantinople and although it was not the custom of the Church to spite men who had died in her bosom, it was not the men but their former errors which was there condemned. All the while he strove not to mar the authority of the council of Chalcedon.

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