Councils superseding previous councils

Can a council ever supersede another council in matters of teachings of the faith?

I’m pretty sure it can’t, but if you could provide reasoning for this I’d greatly appreciate it (:

(I’m in a debate right now)

Thank you,


“Teachings” covers a lot of territory. Do you mean in matters of morals, doctrine, dogma, disciplines, definitions, and/or authority perhaps?

Nothing ever defined as a dogma of faith or morals can ever be declared “not” a dogma. For example, it is a dogma that God is Trinity. A future council could never define “God is not Trinity.”

Some councils declared things which were specific to their time. Later councils may appear to declare things which conflict an earlier council but when read in the context of their time and circumstance they actually do not.

The anathemas of Trent are a perfect example. The in which that whole council took place and in which its documents must be read is Martin Luther, John Calvin and the rise of their Churches in opposition to the Catholic Church. Read strictly and out of context, the ignorant go so far as to declare modern popes to be anathemas.

I don’t mean ignorant as an insult. It just means that they are ignorant of the context.

Encyclicals are exactly the same. They are rarely written just because a pope wanted to explain something but are more often a response to some event, circumstance, societal change or challenge to the church or to the faith.


Right. The anathemas by definition fall into the category of disciplines. The Canon Law of 1917 dispelled some of those imposed by Trent. The Canon Law of 1983 in turn dispelled all of the 1917 code.

That said, many of the anathemas were listed on session pages marked as “Doctrina.” There were also items marked “apostolica disciplina,” such as silent tones in mass, vestments, candles, incense and such. Now it doesn’t mean the mass can’t be said loudly or that candles are required, for example, but one can’t remove all these disciplines without undermining the doctrine behind them IMO.

Supersede is an interesting word, and needs to be in context. Doctrine cannot be superseded; doctrine is based on the teaching and revelation of Christ, and to presume that doctrine can be changed is to presume that Christ was wrong, or mistaken.

Doctrine, however, can be nuanced; meaning that we can have a clearer understanding of how doctrine is applied, or we can have a deeper understanding of doctrine. Some are confused by this; usually either because of lack of understanding or training, or occasionally because of what Christ called being “stiff-necked”.

If the Church as part of its Magisterial authority explains a nuance of a doctrine, then IMHO, we are bound to it. Others can debate and attempt to split hairs. When Elephants roar, one is wise to remove oneself from the vicinity.

As to matters which appear to be faith or morals, but are actually discipline, the Church can do an about face (yes, candles; no, candles is simplistic, but may fit) or it can go somewhere new which is seen by many as overturning prior understanding (e.g. the 1983 Code and grounds for a decree of nullity concerning marriage).

Keep in mind that some debaters have more vitriol than knowledge. One’s time is far better spent in prayer than it is in abusing electrons or molecules of oxygen with some debaters. Perhaps an innocent bystander might change their mind, or learn something new from a debate; but in all too many circumstances, minds are not changed; that is why it is a debate rather than a question.

It is theologically possible. An Ecumenical Council MAY teach infallibly, but often does not (just as a Pope MAY teach infallibly, but often does not). There are some who believe that everything taught by an Ecumenical Council is automatically infallible. There are no automatically infallible teachings within Catholic theology, and nobody can cite any authoritative justification for this belief.

HOWEVER, to this date, no Council has ever actually contravened another (just as no Pope has actually contravened another in teachings which are proclaimed with the authority of the Office of St. Peter). The fact that Councils and Popes CAN contradict their predecessors, but have not yet done so, is evidence of a level of protection of the Holy Spirit that even the Church Herself does not claim.

As others have pointed out, this applies only to Doctrine, not to Canons (rules). For most of Catholic history, Canons (rules) were defined by Councils. The very first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea, promulgated one Creed (Doctrine) and twenty Canons (Rules). Canon #20 forbade kneeling on a Sunday. Obviously, this Canon has been contravened.

Any Council which teaches about ANYTHING that is anathema is promulgating law (rules), not Doctrine. An anathema is the same thing that we would call an “excommunication” - it is a judicial act, not a doctrinal act. It may have a foundation in doctrine, but it is not a statement of doctrine.

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