Council of Florence

1438-45. An ecclesiastical assembly noteworthy for its attempt to unite the Greek and Latin churches. While the Council of Basle* was in session, the Greek Empire was under threat from the Turks. The emperor, John VIII Palaeologus, decided to propose to the pope, Eugenius IV, that the Greek and Latin churches unite and thereby offer effective resistance to the infidels. From Basle the council was transferred to Italy by the pope in order to bring it under his control. The sessions began on 8 January 1438 in Ferrara, and three months later the Greek representatives arrived as guests of the pope. They included the emperor, the archbishop of Nicea (John Bessarion*), and the metropolitan of Ephesus (Mark Eugenikos). The latter was an antiunionist.

When the cost of the council became too much for the pope, he accepted the offer of the city of Florence to pay for it, and it was moved there in February 1439. Here the most important discussions and agreements took place. Difficulties were encountered in four areas: the Double Procession of the Spirit, the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the doctrine of purgatory, and the primacy of the bishop of Rome. Of these, the first and the last gave the most problems and were subjects discussed by commissions appointed in the council.

The famous conciliatory discourse by Bessarion on the doctrine of the Spirit, promises of help against the Turks, and the death of the patriarch of Constantinople on 10 June 1439 all helped to make an agreement possible. The union document was prepared by Ambrose Traversari, and the decree of union, beginning with the words Laetentur Coeli, was signed on 5 July 1439. A few, led by Mark Eugenikos, did not sign. On face value it seemed the Latins had won on all points of doctrine, but the Greeks did not believe they had conceded any important points. On 6 July, in the cathedral of Florence, divine service was held to celebrate the union. Cardinal Cesarini read the decree in Latin, and Bessarion in Greek; then the pope celebrated Mass.

In August the Greek emperor left. The fall of his capital was not prevented, however, and in addition the Greek Church renounced the union made at Florence. With the Greeks gone, the council dealt with the continuing irregular Council of Basle and excommunicated its members; also it sought union with other Eastern churches (Mesopotamian, Chaldean, and Maronite). The pope's ascendancy over councils was affirmed in the bull Etsi non dubitemus of 20 April 1441. In 1443 the council was moved to Rome, where it concluded its sessions in 1445. It is regarded as either the sixteenth or seventeenth ecumenical council, due to the fact that the status of Basle (1431-49) is debated.

J.D. Mansi, Concilia (1789), vol. XXXI and Supplement; Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux (1916), vol. VII, part 2; J. Gill, The Council of Florence (1959) and Eugenius IV (1961).