The Seventeenth Ecumenical Council was, correctly speaking, the continuation of the Council of Ferrara, transferred to the Tuscan capital because of the pest; or, indeed, a continuation of the Council of Basle , which was convoked in 1431 by Martin V. In the end the last-named assembly became a revolutionary conciliabulum , and is to be judged variously, according as we consider the manner of its convocation, its membership, or its results. Generally, however, it is ranked as an ecumenical council until the decree of dissolution in 1437. After its transfer to Ferrara, the first session of the council was held 10 Jan., 1438. Eugene IV proclaimed it the regular continuation of the Council of Basle, and hence its ecumenical character is admitted by all.
The Council of Constance (1414-18) had seen the growth of a fatal theory, based on the writings of William Durandus (Guillaume Durant), John of Paris, Marsiglio of Padua, and William of Occam , i.e. the conciliar theory that proclaimed the superiority of the council over the pope. It was the outcome of much previous conflict and embitterment; was hastily voted in a time of angry confusion by an incompetent body; and, besides leading eventually to the deplorable articles of the "Declaratio Cleri Gallicani" (see GALLICANISM), almost provoked at the time new schisms. Influenced by this theory, the members of the Council of Constance promulgated in the thirty-fifth general session (9 October, 1417) five decrees, the first being the famous decree known as "Frequens", according to which an ecumenical council should be held every ten years. In other words, the council was henceforth to be a permanent, indispensable institution, that is, a kind of religious parliament meeting at regular intervals, and including amongst its members the ambassadors of Catholic sovereigns; hence the ancient papal monarchy, elective but absolute, was to give way to a constitutional oligarchy.
While Martin V, naturally enough, refused to recognize these decrees, he was unable to make headway openly against a movement which he considered fatal. In accordance, therefore, with the decree "Frequens" he convoked an ecumenical council at Pavia for 1423, and later, yielding to popular opinion, which even many cardinals countenanced, summoned a new council at Basle to settle the difficulties raised by the anti-Hussite wars. A Bull of 1 Feb., 1431, named as president of the council Giuliano Cesarini , Cardinal of Sant' Angelo, whom the pope had sent to Germany to preach a crusade against the Hussites. Martin V died suddenly (20 February, 1431), before the Bull of convocation and the legatine faculties reached Cesarini. However, the new pope, Eugene IV (Gabriele Condolmieri), confirmed the acts of his predecessor with the reservation that further events might cause him to revoke his decision. He referred probably to the reunion of the Greek Church with Rome, discussed between Martin V and the Byzantine emperor (John Palaeologus), but put off by reason of the pope's death. Eugene IV laboured most earnestly for reunion, which he was destined to see accomplished in the Council of Ferrara-Florence. The Council of Basle had begun in a rather burlesque way. Canon Beaupère of Besançon, who had been sent from Basle to Rome, gave the pope an unfavourable and exaggerated account of the temper of the people of Basle and its environs. Eugene IV thereupon dissolved the council before the close of 1431, and convoked it anew at Bologna for the summer of 1433, providing at the same time for the participation of the Greeks. Cesarini, however, had already opened the council of Basle, and now insisted vigorously that the aforesaid papal act should be withdrawn. Yielding to the aggressive attitude of the Basle assembly, whose members proclaimed anew the conciliar theory, Eugene IV gradually modified his attitude towards them, and exhibited in general, throughout these painful dissensions, a very conciliatory temper.
Many reform-decrees were promulgated by the council, and, though never executed, contributed towards the final rupture. Ultimately, the unskilful negotiations of the council with the Greeks on the question of reunion moved Eugene IV to transfer it to Ferrara. The embassy sent from Basle to Constantinople (1435), Giovanni di Ragusa, Heinrich Henger, and Simon Fréron, insisted obstinately on holding at Basle the council which was to promote the union of the two Churches, but in this matter the Byzantine Emperor refused to give way. With all the Greeks he wished the council to take place in some Italian city near the sea, preferably in Southern Italy. At Basle the majority insisted, despite the Greeks, that the council of reunion should be convoked at Avignon, but a minority sided with the Greeks and was by them recognized as the true council. Hereupon Eugene IV approved the action of the minority (29 May, 1437), and for this was summoned to appear before the council. He replied by dissolving it on 18 September. Wearied of the obstinacy of the majority at Basle, Cardinal Cesarini and his adherents then quitted the city and went to Ferrara, whither Eugene IV, as stated above, had transferred the council by decree of 30 December, 1437, or 1 January, 1438.
The Ferrara Council opened on 8 January, 1438, under the presidency of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati, whom the pope had commissioned to represent him until he could appear in person. It had, of course, no other objects than those of Basle, i.e. reunion of the Churches, reforms, and the restoration of peace between Christian peoples. The first session of the council took place 10 January, 1438. It declared the Council of Basle transferred to Ferrara, and annulled in advance any and all future decrees of the Basle assembly. When Eugene IV heard that the Greeks were nearing the coast of Italy, he set off (24 January) for Ferrara and three days later made his solemn entry into the city. The manner of voting was first discussed by the members of the council. Should it be, as at Constance, by nations ( nationes ), or by committees ( commissiones )? It was finally decided to divide the members into three estates:
Preliminary discussions brought out the main points of difference between the Greeks and the Latins, viz. the Procession of the Holy Spirit, the azymes, purgatory, and the primacy. During these preliminaries the zeal and good intentions of the Greek Emperor were evident. Serious discussion began apropos of the doctrine of purgatory. Cesarini and Turrecremata were the chief Latin speakers, the latter in particular engaging in a violent discussion with Marcus Eugenicus. Bessarion, speaking for the Greeks, made clear the divergency of opinion existing among the Greeks themselves on the question of purgatory. This stage of the discussion closed on 17 July, whereupon the council rested for a time, and the Greek Emperor took advantage of the respite to join eagerly in the pleasures of the chase with the Duke of Ferrara.
When the council met again (8 Oct., 1438), the chief (indeed, thenceforth the only) subject of discussion was the Filioque. The Greeks were represented by Bessarion, Marcus Eugenicus, Isidore of Kiev, Gemistus Plethon , Balsamon, and Kantopulos; on the Latin side were Cardinals Cesarini and Niccolò Albergati, the Archbishop of Rhodes, the Bishop of Forlì, and Giovanni di Ragusa. In this and the following fourteen sessions, the Filioque was the sole subject of discussion. In the fifteenth session it became clear that the Greeks were unwilling to consent to the insertion of this expression in the Creed, although it was imperative for the good of the church and as a safeguard against future heresies. Many Greeks began to despair of realizing the projected union and spoke of returning to Constantinople. To this the emperor would not listen; he still hoped for a reconciliation, and in the end succeeded in appeasing the heated spirits of his partisans. Eugene IV now announced his intention of transferring the council to Florence, in consequence of pecuniary straits and the outbreak of the pest at Ferrara. Many Latins had already died, and of the Greeks the Metropolitan of Sardis and the entire household of Isidore of Kiev were attacked by the disease. The Greeks finally consented to the transfer, and in the sixteenth and last session at Ferrara the papal Bull was read, in both Latin and Greek, by which the council was transferred to Florence (January, 1439).
The seventeenth session of the council (the first at Florence) took place in the papal palace on 26 February. In nine consecutive sessions, the Filioque was the chief matter of discussion. In the last session but one (twenty-fourth of Ferrara, eighth of Florence) Giovanni di Ragusa set forth clearly the Latin doctrine in the following terms: "the Latin Church recognizes but one principle, one cause of the Holy Spirit, namely, the Father. It is from the Father that the Son holds his place in the ' Procession' of the Holy Ghost. It is in this sense that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father, but He proceeds also from the Son." In the last session, the same theologian again expounded the doctrine, after which the public sessions were closed at the request of the Greeks, as it seemed useless to prolong further the theological discussions. At this juncture began the active efforts of Isidore of Kiev, and, as the result of further parleys, Eugene IV submitted four propositions summing up the result of the previous discussion and exposing the weakness of the attitude of the Greeks. As the latter were loath to admit defeat, Cardinal Bessarion, in a special meeting of the Greeks, on 13 and 14 April, 1439, delivered his famous discourse in favour of reunion, and was supported by Georgius Scholarius. Both parties now met again, after which, to put an end to all equivocation, the Latins drew up and read a declaration of their faith in which they stated that they did not admit two "principia" in the Trinity, but only one, the productive power of the Father and the Son, and that the Holy Ghost proceeds also from the Son. They admitted, therefore, two hypostases, one action, one productive power, and one product due to the substance and the hypostases of the Father and the Son. The Greeks met this statement with an equivocal counter-formula, whereupon Bessarion, Isidore of Kiev, and Dortheus of Mitylene, encouraged by the emperor, came out strongly in favour of the ex filio.
The reunion of the Churches was at last really in sight. When, therefore, at the request of the emperor, Eugene IV promised the Greeks the military and financial help of the Holy See as a consequence of the projected reconciliation, the Greeks declared (3 June, 1439) that they recognized the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son as from one "principium" ( arche ) and from one cause ( aitia ). On 8 June, a final agreement was reached concerning this doctrine. The Latin teaching respecting the azymes and purgatory was also accepted by the Greeks. As to the primacy, they declared that they would grant the pope all the privileges he had before the schism. An amicable agreement was also reached regarding the form of consecration in the Mass (see EPIKLESIS). Almost simultaneously with these measures the Patriarch of Constantinople died, 10 June; not, however, before he had drawn up and signed a declaration in which he admitted the Filioque, purgatory, and the papal primacy. Nevertheless the reunion of the Churches was not yet an accomplished fact. The Greek representatives insisted that their aforesaid declarations were only their personal opinions; and as they stated that it was still necessary to obtain the assent of the Greek Church in synod assembled, seemingly insuperable difficulties threatened to annihilate all that had so far been achieved. On 6 July, however, the famous decree of union (Laetentur Coeli), the original which is still preserved in the Laurentian Library at Florence, was formally announced in the cathedral of that city. The council was over, as far as the Greeks were concerned, and they departed at once. The Latin members remained to promote the reunion with the other Eastern Churches --the Armenians (1439), the Jacobites of Syria (1442), the Mesopotamians, between the Tigris and the Euphrates (1444), the Chaldeans or Nestorians, and the Maronites of Cyprus (1445). This last was the concluding public act of the Council of Florence, the proceedings of which from 1443 onwards took place in the Lateran palace at Rome.
The erudition of Bessarion and the energy of Isidore of Kiev were chiefly responsible for the reunion of the Churches as accomplished at Florence. The question now was to secure its adoption in the East. For this purpose Isidore of Kiev was sent to Russia as papal legate and cardinal, but the Muscovite princes, jealous of their religious interdependence, refused to abide by the decrees of the Council of Florence. Isidore was thrown into prison, but afterwards escaped and took refuge in Italy. Nor was any better headway made in the Greek Empire. The emperor remained faithful, but some of the Greek deputies, intimidated by the discontent prevailing amongst their own people, deserted their position and soon fell back into the surrounding mass of schism. The new emperor, Constantine, brother of John Palaeologus, vainly endeavoured to overcome the opposition of the Byzantine clergy and people. Isidore of Kiev was sent to Constantinople to bring about the desired acceptance of the Florentine "Decretum Unionis" (Laetentur Coeli), but, before he could succeed in his mission, the city fell (1453) before the advancing hordes of Mohammed II.
One advantage, at least, resulted from the Council of Florence: it proclaimed before both Latins and Greeks that the Roman pontiff was the foremost ecclesiastical authority in Christendom ; and Eugene IV was able to arrest the schism which had been threatening the Western Church anew (see BASLE, COUNCIL OF). This council was, therefore, witness to the prompt rehabilitation of papal supremacy, and facilitated, the return of men like Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who in his youth had taken part in the Council of Basle , but ended by recognizing its erroneous attitude, and finally became pope under the name Pius II.
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