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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XIV:
The Second Ecumenical Council:  The First Council of Constantinople.: Canon III

Early Church Fathers  Index     

p. 178 Canon III.

The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.


Ancient Epitome of Canon III.

The bishop of Constantinople is to be honoured next after the bishop of Rome.

It should be remembered that the change effected by this canon did not affect Rome directly in any way, but did seriously affect Alexandria and Antioch, which till then had ranked next after the see of Rome.  When the pope refused to acknowledge the authority of this canon, he was in reality defending the principle laid down in the canon of Nice, that in such matters the ancient customs should continue.  Even the last clause, it would seem, could give no offence to the most sensitive on the papal claims, for it implies a wonderful power in the rank of Old Rome, if a see is to rank next to it because it happens to be “New Rome.”  Of course these remarks only refer to the wording of the canon which is carefully guarded; the intention doubtless was to exalt the see of Constantinople, the chief see of the East, to a position of as near equality as possible with the chief see of the West.


In this place the Council takes action concerning Constantinople, to which it decrees the prerogative of honour, the priority, and the glory after the Bishop of Rome as being New Rome and the Queen of cities.  Some indeed wish to understand the preposition μετὰ here of time and not of inferiority of grade.  And they strive to confirm this interpretation by a consideration of the XXVIII canon of Chalcedon, urging that if Constantinople is to enjoy equal honours, the preposition “after” cannot signify subjection.  But on the other hand the hundred and thirtieth novel of Justinian, 230 Book V of the Imperial Constitutions, title three, understands the canon otherwise.  For, it says, “we decree that the most holy Pope of Old Rome, according to the decrees of the holy synods is the first of all priests, and that the most blessed bishop of Constantinople and of New Rome, should have the second place after the Apostolic Throne of the Elder Rome, and should be superior in honour to all others.”  From this therefore it is abundantly evident that “after” denotes subjection (ὑποβιβασμὸν) and diminution.  And otherwise it would be impossible to guard this equality of honour in each see.  For in reciting their names, or assigning them seats when they are to sit together, or arranging the order of their signatures to documents, one must come before the other.  Whoever therefore shall explain this particle μετὰ as only referring to time, and does not admit that it signifies an inferior grade of dignity, does violence to the passage and draws from it a meaning neither true nor good.  Moreover in Canon xxxvj of the Council in Trullo, μετὰ manifestly denotes subjection, assigning to Constantinople the second place after the throne of Old Rome; and then adds, after this Alexandria, then Antioch, and last of all shall be placed Jerusalem.


If we enquire the reason why this Council tried to change the order of rank of the great Sees, which had been established in the sixth Nicene canon, we must first take into consideration that, since the elevation of Constantinople to the Imperial residence, as New Rome, the bishops as well as the Emperors naturally wished to see the new imperial residence, New Rome, placed immediately after Old Rome in ecclesiastical rank also; the rather, as with the Greeks it was the rule for the ecclesiastical rank of a See to follow the civil rank of the city.  The Synod of Antioch in 341, in its ninth canon, had plainly declared this, and subsequently the fourth General Council, in its seventeenth canon, spoke in the same sense.  But how these principles were protested against on the side of Rome, we shall see further on in the history of the fourth General Council.  For the present, it may suffice to add that the aversion to Alexandria which, by favouring Maximus, had exercised such a disturbing influence on Church affairs in Constantinople, may well have helped to effect the elevation of the See of Constantinople over that of Alexandria.  Moreover, for many centuries Rome did not recognize this change of the old ecclesiastical order.  In the sixteenth session of the fourth General p. 179 Council, the Papal Legate, Lucentius, expressly declared this.  In like manner the Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great pronounced against it; and though even Gratian adopted this canon in his collection the Roman critics added the following note:  Canon hic ex iis est, quos Apostolica Romana Sedes a principio et longo post tempore non recepit.  It was only when, after the conquest of Constantinople by the Latins, a Latin patriarchate was founded there in 1204, that Pope Innocent III, and the twelfth General Council, in 1215, allowed this patriarch the first rank after the Roman; and the same recognition was expressly awarded to the Greek Patriarch at the Florentine Union in 1439.

T. W. Allies231

Remarkable enough it is that when, in the Council of Chalcedon, appeal was made to this third Canon, the Pope St. Leo declared that it had never been notified to Rome.  As in the mean time it had taken effect throughout the whole East, as in this very council Nectarius, as soon as he is elected, presides instead of Timothy of Alexandria, it puts in a strong point of view the real self-government of the Eastern Church at this time; for the giving the Bishop of Constantinople precedence over Alexandria and Antioch was a proceeding which affected the whole Church, and so far altered its original order—one in which certainly the West might claim to have a voice.  Tillemont goes on:  “It would be very difficult to justify St. Leo, if he meant that the Roman Church had never known that the Bishop of Constantinople took the second place in the Church, and the first in the East, since his legates, whose conduct he entirely approves, had just themselves authorized it as a thing beyond dispute, and Eusebius of Dorylæum maintained that St. Leo himself had proved it.”  The simple fact is, that, exceedingly unwilling as the Bishops of Rome were to sanction it, from this time, 381, to say the least, the Bishop of Constantinople appears uniformly as first bishop of the East.

Cardinal Baronius in his Annals (a.d. 381, n. 35, 36) has disputed the genuineness of this Canon!  As already mentioned it is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Decretum, Pars I., Dist. XXII, c. iij.  The note added to this in Gratian reads as follows:

Note in Gratian’sDecretum.”

This canon is of the number of those which the Apostolic See of Rome did not at first nor for long years afterwards receive.  This is evident from Epistle LI. (or LIII.) of Pope Leo I. to Anatolius of Constantinople and from several other of his letters.  The same thing also is shewn by two letters of Leo IX.’s, the one against the presumptuous acts of Michael and Leo (cap. 28) and the other addressed to the same Michael.  But still more clearly is this seen from the letter of Blessed Gregory (xxxj., lib. VI.) to Eulogius of Alexandria and Anastasius of Antioch, and from the letter of Nicholas I. to the Emperor Michel which begins “Proposueramus.”  However, the bishops of Constantinople, sustained by the authority of the Emperors, usurped to themselves the second place among the patriarchs, and this at length was granted to them for the sake of peace and tranquillity, as Pope Innocent III. declares (in cap. antiqua de privileg.). 232

This canon Dionysius Exiguus appends to Canon 2, and dropping 5, 6, and 7 he has but three canons of this Synod.



The reader will notice that this is not even an approximately contemporaneous interpretation, but more than a century and a half later, after Leo I. had done so much to establish the power of his see.


T. W. Allies.  The Ch. of Eng. cleared from the Charge of Schism.  (Written while an Anglican) p. 94 (2d Edition).


For some reason this canon does not seem to be any more acceptable to modern champions of the Papacy than it was to the Church of Rome fifteen hundred years ago.  I give as a sample of this the following from a recent Roman Catholic writer:  “The decree which goes by the name of the Third Canon of Constantinople was the germ of the successful mendacity of the arch-rebel Photius.”  (Rivington.  The Prim. Ch., p. 263).  The phraseology seems to suggest warm discontent at the canon.

Next: Canon IV

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