Some theologians and canonists have been of opinion that the Council of Sardica was Ecumenical and would reckon it as the Second. But besides the fact that such a numbering is absolutely in contrariety to all history it also labours under the difficulty, as we shall see presently, that the Westerns by insisting that St. Athanasius should have a seat caused a division of the synod at the very outset, so that the Easterns met at Philippopolis and confirmed the deposition of the Saint. It is also interesting to remember that when Alexander Natalis in his history expressly called this synod ecumenical, the passage was marked with disapproval by the Roman censors. (Hefele. Hist. Councils. Vol. II., pp. 172 et seqq.)
The ecumenical character of this Synod certainly cannot be proved.10 It is indeed true that it was the design of Pope Julius, as well as of the two Emperors, Constantius and Constans, to summon a General Council at Sardica; but we do not find that any such actually took place: and the history of the Church points to many like cases, where a synod was probably intended to be ecumenical, and yet did not attain that character. In the present case, the Eastern and Western bishops were indeed summoned, but by far the greater number of the Eastern bishops were Eusebians, and therefore Semi-Arians, and instead of acting in a better mind in union with the orthodox, they separated themselves and formed a cabal of their own at Philippopolis.
We cannot indeed agree with those who maintain that the departure of the Eusebians in itself rendered it impossible for the synod to be ecumenical, or it would be in the power of heretics to make an Ecumenical Council possible or not. We cannot, however, overlook the fact that, in consequence of this withdrawal, the great Eastern Church was far more poorly represented at Sardica, and that the entire number of bishops present did not even amount to a hundred! So small a number of bishops can only form a General Council if the great body of their absent colleagues subsequently give their express consent to what has been decided. This was not, however, the case at the Synod of Sardica. The decrees were no doubt at once sent for acceptance and signature to the whole of Christendom, but not more than about two hundred of those bishops who had been absent signed, and of these, ninety-four, or nearly half, were Egyptians. Out of the whole of Asia only a few bishops from the provinces of Cyprus and Palestine signed, not one from the other Eastern provinces; and even from the Latin Church in Africa, which at that time numbered at least three hundred bishops, we meet with very few names. We cannot give much weight to the fact that the Emperor Constantius refused to acknowledge the decrees of Sardica: it is of much greater importance that no single later authority declared it to be a General Council. Natalis Alexander11 is indeed of opinion that because Pope Zosimus, in the year 417 or 418, cited the fifth canon of Sardica as Nicene, and a synod held at Constantinople in 382 cited the sixth as Nicene, the synod must evidently have been considered as an appendix to that of Nicea, and therefore its equal, that is, must have been honoured as ecumenical. But we have already shown how Zosimus and the bishops of Constantinople had been led into this confusion from the defects of their manuscript collections of the canons. Athanasius, Sulpicius Severus, Socrates, and the Emperor Justinian were cited in later times for the ecumenical character of this synod. Athanasius calls it a megalh sunodoj; Sulpicius Severus says it was ex toto orbe convocata; and Socrates relates that "Athanasius and other bishops had demanded an Ecumenical Synod, and that of Sardica had been then summoned.12 It is clear at the first glance that the two last authorities only prove that the Synod had been intended to be a general one, and the expression "Great Synod," used by Athanasius, cannot be taken as simply identical with ecumenical. While, however, the Emperor Justinian, in his edict of 346, on the Three Chapters, calls the Synod of Sardica ecumenical, he yet, in the same edict, as well as in other places, does not reckon it among the General Councils, of which he counts four. To this must be added, first, that the Emperor is not the authority entitled to decide as to the character of an Ecumenical Synod; and secondly, that the expression Universale Concilium was employed in a wider sense in speaking of those synods which, without being general, represented a whole patriarchate.
The Trullan Synod and Pope Nicholas I. are further appealed to. The former in its second canon approved of the Sardican canons, and Pope Nicholas said of them: "omnis Ecclesia recepit eos." But this in no way contains a declaration that the Synod of Sardica was ecumenical, for the canons of many other councils also-for instance, Ancyra, NeoCaesarea, and others-were generally received without those synods themselves being therefore esteemed ecumenical. Nay, the Trullan Synod itself speaks for us; for had it held the Synod of Sardica to be the second General Council, it would have placed its canons immediately after those of Nice, whereas they are placed after the four ancient General Councils, and from this we see that the Trullan Synod did not reckon the Sardican among those councils, but after them. To this it must be added that the highest Church authorities speak most decidedly against the synod being ecumenical. We may appeal first to Augustine, who only knew of the Eusebian assembly at Sardica, and nothing at all of an orthodox synod in that place; which would have been clearly impossible, if it had at that time been counted among the ecumenical synods. Pope Gregory the Great13 and St. Isidore of Seville14 speak still more plainly. They only know of four ancient General Councils-those of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The objection of the Ballerini that Gregory and Isidore did not intend to enumerate the most ancient general synods as such, but only those which issued important dogmatic decrees, is plainly quite arbitrary, and therefore wittiest force. Under such circumstances it is natural that among the later scholars by far the great majority should have answered the question, whether the Synod of Sardica is ecumenical, in the negative, as have Cardinal Bellarmin, Peter de Marca, Edmund Richer, Fleury, Orsi, Sacharelli, Tillemont, Du Pin, Berti, Ruttenstock, Rohrbacher, Remi Ceillier, Stolberg, Neander, and others. On the other hand, Baronius, Natalis Alexander, the brothers Ballerini, Mansi, and Palma15 have sought to maintain the ecumenical character of the synod, but as early as the seventeenth century the Roman censors condemned the direct assertions of Natalis Alexander on the subject.