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According to the recent canon law, national councils are the deliberating assemblies at which all the bishops of a nation are convoked by the patriarch or primate (Cf. Bened. XIV, "De Synodo", I, i), but, in order to include the ancient national synods, it would be more correct to say a legitimate assemblage of the episcopate of a nation, the decisions of which are valid for an entire national Church. For the classic definition is far from being applicable to all the ancient national councils, as it is difficult to apply to all recognized ecumenical councils the present classic definition and conditions for such councils.
Councils are commonly divided into general or ecumenical, or particular; the latter are subdivided into national and provincial according as they assemble the bishops of a whole nation or of an ecclesiastical province. Finally come the assemblies of the clergy of a diocese, which are called diocesan synods rather than councils. But writers point out that this classification is not and cannot be very exact. For instance, to what category belongs the Council of Arles of 314, at which Constantine in agreement with the pope convoked all the bishops, or at least a representation, of the whole episcopate of his empire at that time? So also if we agree with most authors in regarding as national councils the assemblies of African bishops, it may be objected that Africa did not form a distinct nation in the Roman Empire. On the other hand there have been councils which, while they did not assemble all the bishops of a nation, may nevertheless be regarded as real national synods; such were the reform assemblies held at the command of Charlemagne in 814 simultaneously at Arles, Reims, Mainz, Tours, and Châlons. Moreover, if in order to be national a council must be presided over by a patriarch or primate, we must remove from the list of national councils nearly all the episcopal assemblies of the Frankish Kingdom and Empire, for they were convoked at the command of kings and emperors, and the Frankish Church never had any patriarchal or primatial see whose bishop was qualified to convoke or preside over the entire national episcopate. Besides the term "national" was not very widespread in ancient times, it being the custom to speak rather of "universal" or "plenary" councils as in Africa or Spain, but this word was not used as synonymous with ecumenical. It meant plenary for all the provinces of Roman Africa or for the whole Visigothic Kingdom, in the same sense that the plenary Councils of Baltimore were meetings of the episcopate of the United States.
This being understood, the canonical prescriptions regarding national councils are the same, proportionately speaking, as for general and provincial councils. To be legitimate their convocation must proceed from the authority having competent jurisdiction over the national church, either partiarch or primate (provided that these titles be not merely honorary). In default of this authority the convocation should proceed from the Holy See, as was done for the recent national councils enumerated below. It was because the convocation was not competent that the "national council" of Paris of 1811 was not legitimate. To this convocation corresponds on the part of the bishops the obligation to appear in person at the assembly unless they have a legitimate reason. But representation of a numerous episcopate will suffice, as was the case in Africa, according to canon ix of the Plenary Council of Milevis in 402. The presidency rightfully belongs to the delegates of the Holy See, if there are any; if not, to the partiarch or primate, or to the oldest metropolitan, as was the custom in the Frankish kingdoms. A national council freely discusses the ecclesiastical or mixed matters which have been the cause of the meeting; the decisions adopted become a law for the entire nation, but like those of provincial councils, and with much more reason, they must first be submitted to the approval of the Holy See.
No historical or canonical interest of any importance determines which of the ancient councils held at Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople may be classed as national councils. Obviously, the presence and authority of the patriarchs of the various churches rendered this sort of meeting very easy. On several occasions the Patriarchs of Constantinople convoked the whole episcopate of the Byzantine Empire. But these councils have left no very distinct traces in the Greek canonical collections, whereas those of the Nestorian Church of the Persian Empire consist chiefly of canons of the national councils held from 410 to 775 (cf. "Synodicon Orientale", ed. Chabot, 1903). In the West also there was an important series of national councils, the most noteworthy being the assemblies of the episcopate of Christian Africa under the presidency of the Bishop of Carthage, especially the twenty-one plenary councils held during the episcopate of Aurelius (393-427), which form almost the entire canonical collection of Africa. In like manner the Spanish canonical collection is chiefly composed of the canons of the seventeen national councils which the episcopate of the Visigothic Kingdom held, nearly always at Toledo, from 589 to 694. But while the African councils consisted wholly of bishops, the kings and nobles of the kingdom assisted at those of Toledo, without, however, otherwise interfering in matters properly religious. The same was true of the Frankish national councils, where the episcopal assemblies were, as it were, duplicated by an assembly of nobles; occasionally, as at Mainz in 813, there was a third group, composed of abbots and monks. The list opens with three national councils which assembled the episcopate of the three kingdoms into which Gaul was divided at the beginning of the fifth century: Agde (506) for Arian Visigothic Kingdom; Orléans (511), for the Kingdom of the Franks; Epaone (517), for that of the Burgundians. Most of the Frankish councils held under the Merovingians and Carlovingians assembled the episcopate of one, sometimes of several kingdoms. The king often assisted thereat and the conciliar decisions bearing on discipline were the subject of royal ordinances or capitulars. These double assemblies of bishops and comites (counts) were the usual method in the Frankish kingdoms, and Thomassin rightly regards them as the historical origin of parliaments. The acts of these meetings have not been gathered into a uniform complete canonical collection.
In recent centuries Catholic national councils have been resumed in the East and the West at the instance of the popes and under the presidency of their legates. Without going into details, the most noteworthy of these were: the provincial or national councils of Mount Lebanon, for the Maronites, in 1736, confirmed by Benedict XIV; those of 1803 and 1871 for the Albanians; those of Zamosk 1720 and 1891 for the Ruthenians; that of 1841 for the Melchites; that of Sciarfa in the Lebanon (1888) for the Syrians; that of Cairo in 1898 for the Copts; that of Rome in 1911 for the Armenians; in America the three plenary Councils of Baltimore (1852, 1866, 1884), and the plenary rather than national council of Latin America in 1899.
THOMASSIN, Vetus et nov. disc., part II, III, xliii sq.; BENEDICT XIV, De Synodo dioecesana, I, i; HEFELE, Hist. des conciles, I, introduction.