The Council of Florence is one of the most exciting, and in some ways, one of the most tragic, Councils in the history of the Church. It’s one of the so-called “reunion Councils,” which seemed poised to heal the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church.
The first reunion Council was the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. Here’s how OrthodoxWiki describes that Council:
Joos van Cleve (?),
Triptych of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew (1520)Concerning the Union of the Churches, the Orthodox delegation arrived in Lyons on June 24, 1245 and presented a letter from emperor Michael. On Feast of Peter and Paul, June 29, Pope Gregory celebrated a Mass in the Church of St. John in which both sides took part. During the Mass, the Orthodox clergy sang the Nicene Creed with the addition of the Filioque clause three times. The council was seemingly a success. […]
The council did not provide a lasting solution to the schism. While the emperor was eager to heal the schism, the Orthodox clergy did not accept it. Patriarch Joseph I (Galesiotes) of Constantinople, who opposed the council, abdicated and was succeeded by John Bekkos who favored the union. In spite of a sustained campaign by Patr. Bekkos to defend the union intellectually, and with vigorous and brutal repression of opponents by emperor Michael, the Orthodox Christians remained implacably opposed to union with the Latin “heretics”. Michael’s death in December 1282 finally put an end to the union of Lyons. His son and successor Andronicus II repudiated the union. Patr. Bekkos was forced to abdicate. He was eventually exiled and then imprisoned until his death in 1297.
It would be over a hundred and fifty years before the Church would try again at the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council (1438-1449). Although it is known as the Council of Florence, it was convened at Basel. It was moved to Ferrara, due to the Bubonic plague, and then to coastal Florence, for the sake of the Eastern emissaries, who arrived by ship. Meanwhile, to make matters more confusing, a rival Council persisted in Basel, claiming to be the true Ecumenical Council, against the pope’s explicit wishes.
|Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi (1459)
The physical appearance of the Magis and their assistants reflects
Western Europeans’ fascination with the new visitors from the East and Africa.
Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice. For, the wall that divided the western and the eastern church has been removed, peace and harmony have returned, since the corner-stone, Christ, who made both one, has joined both sides with a very strong bond of love and peace, uniting and holding them together in a covenant of everlasting unity. After a long haze of grief and a dark and unlovely gloom of long-enduring strife, the radiance of hoped-for union has illuminated all.
Let mother church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvellous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with mother catholic church. For behold, western and eastern fathers after a very long period of disagreement and discord, submitting themselves to the perils of sea and land and having endured labours of all kinds, came together in this holy ecumenical council, joyful and eager in their desire for this most holy union and to restore intact the ancient love. In no way have they been frustrated in their intent. After a long and very toilsome investigation, at last by the clemency of the holy Spirit they have achieved this greatly desired and most holy union.
For in less than three years our lord Jesus Christ by his indefatigable kindness, to the common and lasting joy of the whole of Christianity, has generously effected in this holy ecumenical synod the most salutary union of three great nations. Hence it has come about that nearly the whole of the east that adores the glorious name of Christ and no small part of the north, after prolonged discord with the holy Roman church, have come together in the same bond of faith and love. For first the Greeks and those subject to the four patriarchal sees, which cover many races and nations and tongues, then the Armenians, who are a race of many peoples, and today indeed the Jacobites, who are a great people in Egypt, have been united with the holy apostolic see.
The Bull of Union with the Armenians succinctly spells out the Seven Sacraments, and their efficaciousness:
Fifthly, for the easier instruction of the Armenians of today and in the future we reduce the truth about the sacraments of the church to the following brief scheme. There are seven sacraments of the new Law, namely baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders and matrimony, which differ greatly from the sacraments of the old Law. The latter were not causes of grace, but only prefigured the grace to be given through the passion of Christ; whereas the former, ours, both contain grace and bestow it on those who worthily receive them.
|Pope Eugene IV|
We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.
Also, renewing the order of the other patriarchs which has been handed down in the canons, the patriarch of Constantinople should be second after the most holy Roman pontiff, third should be the patriarch of Alexandria, fourth the patriarch of Antioch, and fifth the patriarch of Jerusalem, without prejudice to all their privileges and rights.
Of course, this is an acknowledgement of something significantly larger than a mere “primacy of honor.” And in fact, in the Bull of Union with the Copts, the Council described the Church as the “holy Roman church, founded on the words of our Lord and Saviour.” Florence also condemned the heresy of conciliarism, which held that Ecumenical Councils were more powerful than popes, and could bind them. Florence condemned as heretical and schismatic the conciliarist movement at the robber council in Basel.
|Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi (1459) (detail)
A Magi believed to be modeled off of Emperor John VIII Palaiologos
Lastly, the ambassadors of the Greeks were requested to explain the meaning of some terms contained in their instructions. First, what they understand by “universal synod”. They replied that the pope and the patriarchs ought to be present at the synod either in person or through their procurators; similarly other prelates ought to be present either in person or through representatives; and they promised, as is stated above, that the lord emperor of the Greeks and the patriarch of Constantinople will participate in person. “Free and inviolate”, that is each may freely declare his judgment without any obstacle or violence. “Without contention”, that is without quarrelsome and ill-tempered contention; but debates and discussions which are necessary, peaceful, honest and charitable are not excluded. “Apostolic and canonical”, to explain how these words and the way of proceeding in the synod are to be understood, they refer themselves to what the universal synod itself shall declare and arrange. Also that the emperor of the Greeks and their church shall have due honour, that is to say, what it had when the present schism began, always saving the rights, honours, privileges and dignities of the supreme pontiff and the Roman church and the emperor of the Romans. If any doubt arises, let it be referred to the decision of the said universal council.
He cannot have God as his father If he does not hold the unity of the church. He who does not agree with the body of the church and the whole brotherhood, cannot agree with anyone. Since Christ suffered for the church and since the church is the body of Christ, without doubt the person who divides the church is convicted of lacerating the body of Christ. Hence the avenging will of the Lord went forth against schismatics like Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed up together by an opening in the ground for instigating schism against Moses, the man of God, and others were consumed by fire from heaven; idolatry indeed was punished by the sword; and the burning of the book was requited by the slaughter of war and imprisonment in exile.
Finally, how indivisible is the sacrament of unity! How bereft of hope, and how punished by God’s indignation with the direst loss, are those who produce schism and, abandoning the true spouse of the church, set up a pseudo-bishop! […] Hence, as blessed Jerome declares, nobody should doubt that the crime of schism is very wicked since it is avenged so severely.
As an aside, it’s prescient that the Council should follow Jude 1:11 in comparing schismatics to Korah, Dathan and Abiram. The basis of Korah’s schism (as articulated in Numbers 16:3) was that the Aaronic priesthood was contrary to the priesthood of all believers (Exodus 19:6). Less than a century after this declaration, a monk named Martin Luther argued that the Catholic priesthood was contrary to the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9).
In the Bull of Union with the Copts, a declaration of faith was prepared to explain what the Church held. It included a section on Scripture, listing (by name) each of the 73 Books of the Catholic Bible as canonical. I bolded the seven Books in dispute between Catholics and Protestants:
Jose de Ribera, St. Paul (17th c.)It [the Church] professes that one and the same God is the author of the old and the new Testament — that is, the law and the prophets, and the gospel — since the saints of both testaments spoke under the inspiration of the same Spirit. It accepts and venerates their books, whose titles are as follows.Five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; two books of the Maccabees; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; fourteen letters of Paul, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two letters of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; Acts of the Apostles; Apocalypse of John.Hence it anathematizes the madness of the Manichees who posited two first principles, one of visible things, the other of invisible things, and said that one was the God of the new Testament, the other of the old Testament.
There’s so much more that can be said about this Council. It mentioned Purgatory briefly, affirmed that Jesus “took a real and complete human nature from the immaculate womb of the virgin Mary” (who the Council described as ever-Virgin), explained that the Apostolic prohibition against “food sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” was lifted, etc.