The Council of Florence was a meeting of Catholic and Orthodox churchmen held in the year 1439 in Florence, Italy. Its original name was the Council of Basel (Switzerland), but the council split. A contingent of the churchmen stayed on in Basel and elected antipope Felix V, while the rest moved their meeting to Ferrara, Italy. Then, to avoid an outbreak of the plague in Ferrara, they again removed to Florence. Catholicism regards the Council of Florence as the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council.
The Council of Florence effected a unity between the Western and Eastern branches of Catholicism and even named the document proclaiming the unity Laetentur Coeli or “Let the Heavens Rejoice.” However, this rectifying of the Great Schism dissolved soon afterward and was most likely politically motivated. The Council of Florence met during a turbulent time of poverty, plague and war. Church and state were so closely linked that the unification of the Eastern and Western churches was desirable for strengthening the city of Constantinople against its enemies. Political strength is not the only reason unity was sought, but it seems to have been the most compelling.
Several issues were raised and dealt with at the Council of Florence to achieve the desired unity, including the doctrine of purgatory, the primacy of the Pope, and the Filioque controversy. The word filioque was a point of extreme tension between the Eastern and Western churches. Filioque, in Latin, means “and Son” and was a disputed part of the Nicene Creed. The Western church had added a phrase into the creed that said that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. This was a response to Arianism, which held that the Son was a created being and was therefore not equal to the Father.
The Greek constituents of the Orthodox Church were staunchly against the Filioque clause; and the Latin representatives of the Roman Catholic Church were staunchly for it. After many sessions, the Council of Florence was able to find middle ground on the issue. With careful wording, the council agreed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and also” the Son. Understanding that the Son is of one substance with the Father, the Greeks agreed that the Filioque clause was appropriate and could remain in the creed.
The Council of Florence also hammered out agreements on purgatory, how to consecrate the Mass, and the primacy of the Pope (the Greeks agreed to give him the same privileges he had before the schism). The Laetentur Coeli was published on July 6, 1439. After that, the Council of Florence went on to try to heal the breach between the Roman Church and the other branches of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Council of Florence officially ended in 1445. When news of the union between East and West reached Constantinople, the reaction was negative. The emissaries who had attended the Council of Florence were treated as traitors and heretics; they were shunned, and some were arrested. As a result of the political pressure against uniting with Rome, the schism between East and West continued until 1453, when the Muslims conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire fell.
It is important to note that the Bible never teaches that the church, as an entity, is to hold political power. When Jesus faced Pilate, the governor asked Jesus if He was a king. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). According to Jesus, the church (the servants of Jesus) is to identify with Jesus’ otherworldly kingdom rather than the kingdoms of this earth. If these words had always been obeyed, much of history’s suffering and conflict could have been avoided.