Today in Catholic History – The Council of Basel

On 23 July 1431, the legate of Pope Eugene IV invoked the Council of Basel.

This council was originally called by Pope Martin V as required by the prior Ecumenical Council of Constance. Basel, Switzerland was chosen as the site of the council by the majority of participants who wished to continue the policy of Concilliarism which sought to place the authority of the council over that of the papacy. The Concilliarists wanted a site outside the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire or France in order to avoid being unduly influenced by the rulers of those states.

From the beginning the council was in conflict between the Concilliarist who wished to limit the authority of the papacy and Pope Eugene who wished to reassert papal primacy. Eugene also believed that the council was not sufficiently dealing with the issue of the Hussites – those who followed John Hus, who had been burned at the stake at the previous council of Constance.

Attempting to take a firmer control over the Council, Eugene tried to disband it and move it to Bologna but was strongly opposed by the members of the Council of Basel and was eventually forced to withdraw his order for the councils dissolution.

The desire of Emperor John VIII Paleologus of the Byzantine Empire to have a council discussing the possibility of union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will give Pope Eugene his opportunity to put an end to Basel. While the attendees at Basel were willing to have such a council, they were unwilling to meet in Italy where the Emperor wished to meet. Pope Eugene will take advantage of this difference to offer Emperor John VIII a meeting location in Ferrara, Italy. The Emperor accepted and Pope Eugene declared the end of the Council of Basel on 18 September 1437 and its transfer to Ferrara. At the first session of Ferrara, all the previous decisions of the Council of Basel were declared null and void.

The majority of the attendees at Basel refused to accept the Pope’s actions and declared Pope Eugene deposed on 25 June 1439 and would elect an anti-pope Felix V. This would cause a schism in the Church which would last for ten years. In 1449, anti-pope Felix will abdicate and the remnants of the Council of Basel will dissolve themselves claiming that they believed that Pope Eugene’s successor Nicholas V accepted the superiority of the council over the papacy as defined at Constance and Basel.

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