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The Second Council of Constantinople is believed to have been the Fifth Ecumenical Council by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and a number of other Western Christian groups. It was held from May 5th to June 2nd, 553, having been called by Emperor Justinian. Participants were overwhelmingly Eastern bishops; sixteen western bishops were present (including those from Illyricum). It was presided over by Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople.

For the events which led to this council see Pope Vigilius.


The Council was the last phase of the long and tumultuous conflict which began with the edict of Justinian in 543 against Origenism. Justinian had been convinced that Nestorianism continued to draw its strength from the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457), and Ibas of Edessa (d. 457), with the writings of Theodore and Theodoret being highly regarded by many in the Church.

Due to his initial refusal to join in the condemnation of the Three Chapters (i.e the anathema upon Theodore, Theodoret and their writings against St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and also upon the letter written by Ibas of Edessa to Maris, Bishop of Hardaschir in Persia) Pope Vigilius had been forcibly detained in Constantinople since January of 547AD.

While he had condemned the Three Chapters, Vigilius maintained the authority of the Council of Chalcedon (451) at which Theodoret and Ibas had been restored to their places after Nestorius had been condemned. Many in the West saw this weakening of the Church before the civil powers as well as injustice to men long dead; also the ecclesial leaders of the West had no accurate knowledge of the theological situation in the Eastern part of the Church. Vigilius persuaded Emperor Justinian to proclaim a truce on all sides until a general council could be called to decide on these matters. However, in 551 the emperor, with the backing of Eastern bishops, later published an edict renewing the condemnation of the Three Chapters.

Vigilius was virtually imprisoned by the civil authorities and eventually retired to Chalcedonmarker, in the church of St. Euphemia where the great council had been held; from here Vigilius sought to inform the Church of his position. Soon the Eastern bishops sought reconciliation with Vigilius, persuaded him to return to the city, and withdrew their condemnation of the Three Chapters. The new Patriarch of Constantinople, Eutychius, presented (6 January 553) his profession of faith to Vigilius and, in union with other Eastern bishops, urged the calling of a general council. Vigilius was willing to convoke such a council but suggested that it meet either on the Italian peninsula or Sicily, in order to secure the attendance of bishops from the West. However, Justinian would not agree and instead proposed a commission composed up of delegates from each of the patriarchates. Vigilius suggested that an equal number be chosen from the East and the West; but this was not acceptable to the emperor, who convoked the council by his own authority. Eight sessions were held, the result of which was the final condemnation of the Three Chapters by the 165 bishops present at the last session (2 June 553).

Realizing that he was likely to be subject to disciplinary action from the other bishops for his refusal to condemn the Three Chapters and their authors, Vigilius repeatedly ignored summons to attend despite the fact that he was in Constantinople. Meanwhile, Vigilius had sent to the emperor (14 May) a document known as the first "Constitutum," signed by himself and sixteen, mostly Western, bishops, in which sixty propositions attributed to Theodore of Mopsuestia were condemned as being heretical. However, Theodore himself was not condemned, nor were the writings of Theodoret or Ibas.


The decisions of the Council were executed with severity, though the desired reconciliation of the Monophysites did not follow. Vigilius, together with other opponents of the emperor, seems to have been banished, either to Upper Egypt or to an island in the Propontismarker.

During the seventh session of the council, the bishops had Vigilius stricken from the diptychs for his refusal to appear at the council and approve all actions of the council, effectively excommunicating him personally but not the rest of the Western Church. Vigilius was then imprisoned in Constantinople by the emperor and his advisors were exiled. When Rome was freed from the Gothic yoke, the clergy and people requested the emperor to permit the return of Vigilius. After six months in captivity, in February 554, Vigilius agreed to condemn the Three Chapters and their authors, claiming that his hesitation was due to being misled by his advisors. Vigilius's approval of the council was expressed in two documents condemning the Three Chapters, on his own authority and without mention of the council.

In Northern Italy the ecclesiastical provinces of Milanmarker and Aquileiamarker broke communion with the Rome. Milan accepted the condemnation only toward the end of the sixth century, whereas Aquileia did not do so until about 700


The original Greek acts of the council are lost[7888], but an old Latin version exists, possibly made for Vigilius, of which there is a critical edition in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, Tome IV, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1971), and of which there is now an English translation and commentary -- Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553, 2 vols (Liverpool University Press, 2009). In the next General Council of Constantinople it was alleged (probably falsely) that the original Acts of the Fifth Council had been tampered with (Hefele, op. cit., II, 855-58) in favour of Monothelitism. It used to be argued that the extant acts are incomplete, since they make no mention of the debate over Origenism. However, the solution generally accepted today is that the bishops signed the canons condemning Origenism before the council formally opened. This condemnation was confirmed by Pope Vigilius, and its full conciliar authority has only been questioned in modern times. See Price, op. cit., vol. 2, 270-86.


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