A plenary council, in the Roman Catholic Church, is a term applied to various kinds of ecclesiastical synods, used when those summoned represent the whole number of bishops of some given territory. The word itself, derived from the Latin plenarium (complete or full), hence concilium plenarium, also concilium plenum.
The ecumenical councils or synods are called plenary councils by Augustine of Hippo, as they form a complete representation of the entire Church. Thus also, in ecclesiastical documents, provincial councils are denominated plenary, because all the bishops of a certain ecclesiastical province were represented. Later usage has restricted the term plenary to those councils which are presided over by a delegate of the Apostolic See, who has received special power for that purpose, and which are attended by all the metropolitans and bishops of some commonwealth, empire, or kingdom, or by their duly accredited representatives. Such plenary synods are frequently called national councils.
Plenary councils, in the sense of national synods, are included under the term particular councils as opposed to universal councils. They are of the same nature as provincial councils, with the accidental difference that several ecclesiastical provinces are represented in national or plenary synods.
Provincial councils, strictly so-called, date from the fourth century, when the metropolitical authority had become fully developed. But synods, approaching nearer to the modern signification of a plenary council, are to be recognized in the synodical assemblies of bishops under primatial, exarchal, or patriarchal authority, recorded from the fourth and fifth centuries, and possibly earlier. Such were, apparently, the synods held in Asia Minor at Iconium and Synnada in the third century, concerning the re-baptism of heretics; such were, certainly, the councils held later in the northern part of Latin Africa, presided over by the Archbishop of Carthage, Primate of Africa. The latter councils were officially designated plenary councils (Concilium Plenarium totius Africae). Their beginnings are without doubt to be referred, at least, to the fourth, and possibly to the third century. Synods of a somewhat similar nature (though approaching nearer to the idea of a general council) were the Council of Arles in Gaul in 314 (at which were present the Bishops of London, York, and Caerleon), and the Council of Sardica in 343 (whose canons were frequently cited as Nicene canons). To these we might add the Greek Council in Trullo (692).
The popes were accustomed in former ages to hold synods which were designated Councils of the Apostolic See. They might be denominated, to a certain extent, emergency synods, and though they were generally composed of the bishops of Italy, yet bishops of other ecclesiastical provinces took part in them. Pope Martin I held such a council in 649, and Pope Agatho in 680. The patriarchs of Constantinople convoked, on special occasions, a synodus endemousa, at which were present bishops from various provinces of the Greek world who happened to be sojourning in the imperial city, or were summoned to give council to the emperor or the patriarch concerning matters that required special episcopal consultation.
Still further narrowed down to our present idea of plenary councils are the synods convoked in the Frankish and West-Gothic kingdoms from the end of the sixth century, and designated national councils. The bishops in these synods were not gathered together because they belonged to certain ecclesiastical provinces, but because they were under the same civil government, and consequently had common interests which concerned the kingdom in which they lived or the people over whom they ruled.
As ecclesiastical jurisdiction is necessary for the person who presides over a plenary or national synod, this name has been refused to the assemblies of the bishops of France, which met without papal authorization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These comitia cleri Gallicani were not really plenary councils. The more noted among them were those held at Paris in 1681 and 1682. Convocations of ecclesiastics (Assemblées du Clergé) were frequent in France before the Revolution of 1789. They consisted of certain bishops deputed by the various ecclesiastical provinces of the kingdom, and of priests elected by their equals from the same provinces, to deliberate on the temporal affairs of the French churches, and more particularly on the assistance, generally monetary, to be accorded to the Government.
After the establishment of the empire, Napoleon I held a great convention of bishops at Paris, and is said to have been much incensed because Pius VII did not designate it a national council. Similarly, mere congresses of bishops, even of a whole nation, who meet to discuss common ecclesiastical affairs, without adhering to synodal forms, are not to be called national or plenary Councils, because no one having the proper jurisdiction has formally summoned them to a canonical synod. Such episcopal conventions have been praised by the Holy See, because they showed unity among the bishops, and zeal for asserting the rights of the Church and the progress of the Catholic cause in their midst, in accordance with the sacred canons, but, as the requisite legal forms and proper hierarchical authority are wanting, these congresses of bishops do not constitute a plenary council, no matter how full the representation of episcopal dignitaries may be.
A plenary or national council may not be convoked or celebrated without the authority of the Apostolic See, as was solemnly and repeatedly declared by Pius IX. This has always been the practice in the Church, if not explicitly, at least from the fact that recourse could always be had to the Holy See against decisions of such councils. Now, however, express and special papal authorization is required. He who presides over the council must have the necessary jurisdiction, which is accorded by special Apostolic delegation. In the United States, the presidency of such synods has always been accorded by the Holy See to the archbishops of Baltimore. In their case, a papal delegation is necessary, for although they have a precedence of honour over all the other American metropolitans, yet they have no primatial or patriarchal jurisdiction. It is not uncommon for the pope to send from Rome a special delegate to preside over plenary councils.
Summons to a national or plenary council is to be sent to all archbishops and bishops of the nation, and they are obliged to appear, unless prevented by a canonical hindrance; to all administrators of dioceses sede plena or vacua, and to vicars capitular sede vacante; to vicars Apostolic possessed of episcopal jurisdiction; to the representatives of cathedral chapters, to abbots having quasi-episcopal jurisdiction. In the United States, custom has sanctioned the summoning of auxiliary, coadjutor, and visiting bishops; provincials of religious orders; all mitred abbots; rectors of major seminaries, as well as priests to serve as theologians and canonists.
Only those who have a right to a summons have also a right to cast a decisive vote in councils. The others may give only a consultive vote. The fathers may, however, empower auxiliary, coadjutor, and visiting bishops, as well as procurators of absent bishops to cast a decisive vote. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore allowed a decisive vote also to a general of a religious congregation, because this was done at the Vatican Council. At the latter council, however, such vote was granted only to generals of regular orders, but not to those of religious congregations. At Baltimore, a decisive vote was refused to abbots of a single monastery, but conferred on arch-abbots.
In particular councils, the subject-matter to be treated is what concerns discipline, the reformation of abuses, the repression of crimes, and the progress of the Catholic cause. In former times, such councils often condemned incipient heresies and opinions contrary to sound morals, but their decisions became dogmatic only after solemn confirmation by the Apostolic See. Thus, the Council of Milevis and Council of Carthage condemned Pelagianism, and the Council of Orange (Arausicanum) Semipelagianism.
Such latitude is not allowed to modern synods, and the Fathers are warned that they are not to restrict opinions which are tolerated by the Catholic Church.
Decrees of plenary councils must be submitted, before promulgation, for the confirmation, recognition and revision of the Holy See. Such recognition does not imply an approval of all the regulations submitted by the council.
Bishops have the power of relaxing decrees of a plenary council in particular cases in their own dioceses, unless the council was confirmed in forma specifica at Rome. In like manner, when no specific confirmation of the decrees has been accorded, it is lawful to appeal from these councils.
In modern times, it is not unusual for the Holy See to confirm councils in forma specifica, but only to accord them the necessary recognition. If, consequently, anything be found in their acts contrary to the common law of the Church, it would have no binding force unless a special apostolic derogation were made in its favour.
- C. illa, xi, Dist. 12
- Collect. Lacens., I, 793 sq
- Coll. Lacens., VI, 1024
- Coll. Lacens., V, 1336
- Coll. Lacens., V, 995, 1336
- Nilles, part I, p. 127