Basel, Council of
BASEL, COUNCIL OF
An ecumenical council announced in Siena on Feb. 19, 1423, and convoked at Basel, Switzerland, by Martin V on Feb. 1, 1431, and after his death confirmed by Eugene IV. In 1437, it was transferred to Ferrara; in 1439, to Florence (see florence, council of). The western schism of 1378 to 1417 had provoked the cardinals into summoning the Council of pisa (1409) independently of the papacy. This practical conciliarism had been given theoretical expression in the Council of constance (1414–18), which declared that a general council was the highest authority in the Church with regard to heresy, peace, and reform of both head and members. The conciliarists focused on reform, especially reform of the head, i.e., the pope and the curia. The reform-minded conciliarists had been checked in the Council of Siena, but they asserted themselves at Basel. The events of the Basel Council fell into two periods: that of the council proper (1431–37) and the period of the conciliabulum (1437–49). The matters treated at the council proper can conveniently be described under the three headings of peace, reform, and heresy, which constituted the proper competence of a general council according to the conciliarists.
Peace or Unity. The council was inaugurated on July 23, 1431, but when its president, Cardinal Giuliano cesarini, arrived on September 9 he found very few people present. On December 18, because of the sparse attendance, war, and the prospect of a council with the Greeks in Italy, Pope Eugene prorogued the assembly at Basel with the plan to meet in Bologna after 18 months; this was despite Cesarini's expostulation. The council Fathers refused to disperse, and in the second session (Feb. 15, 1432) adopted the principle of the Council of Constance on conciliar superiority with an even more stringent interpretation. New members joined the council, which they thought stood for much-needed reform against a resisting Roman Curia. Thirty-eight prelates were present by the end of April and Eugene was told firmly to withdraw his dissolution and to come to the council in person or by proxy. The cardinals began to desert him. The secular powers (except England, Venice, Florence, and sigis mund after his coronation as emperor, May 31, 1433) supported the council. Eugene began to make concessions, but not quickly enough for the growing sense of power of the council. With its membership increasing and Eugene yielding, the council became more imperious and threatening still. It refused to accept the five presidents nominated by the pope and imposed the text of a bull withdrawing the dissolution. Eugene, ill and very nearly without supporters, tried to evade the stringency of this proposed formula but finally promulgated the Dudum sacrum (Dec. 15, 1433) saying: "We decree and declare that the said general council from the time of its inception has been and is being legitimately carried on … that it ought to be carried on … for the aforesaid ends [heresy, peace of the Church, reform]." On Feb. 5, 1434 (16th session), seven cardinals, three patriarchs (Latin), 50 bishops, 30 abbots, and 422 other members declared themselves satisfied. But they received the five papal presidents only after they had taken the conciliar oath with a special addition asserting conciliar supremacy (April 26, 1434). In July, three Greek envoys arrived with whom it was agreed to hold a unionistic council in one of certain specified towns (September 7). Eugene, who was at the time an exile in Florence from rebellious Rome, acquiesced even though he had earlier made different arrangements with the Greeks. The next year, June 9, 1435, the council forbade the payment of annates and steadily refused any form of compensation to meet necessary papal expenses. On April 14, 1436, it published a plenary indulgence in favor of the Greek-Latin council, but afraid of the prestige that would accrue to the pope if the council were held in Italy, it insisted on Basel or Avignon as the site, despite the repeated refusal of the Greeks and Eugene's opposition. The council's intransigent attitude on this issue, together with its fierce antagonism to the papacy, lost it its supporters. Cardinals returned to papal allegiance; secular governments, fearing a new schism, counseled moderation. The council itself split, for while the majority favored its being held at Basel or Avignon, a respectable minority voted for one of the towns named in the treaty. On May 7, 1437, both majority and minority parties promulgated decrees simultaneously. The minority, with the Greek delegates, took their decree to Eugene who was in Bologna and he agreed to implement it. Immediately hiring ships to transport the Greeks, Eugene transferred the Council of Basel to Ferrara by the bull Doctoris gentium, Sept. 18, 1437. This bull was confirmed December 30, whereupon the Council of Basel legally ceased to exist. The council, removed to Ferrara, lasted until 1439.
Reform. When the council met in 1431 the Church unquestionably needed reform, both in head and members. Members were plentifully represented at Basel but each section—bishops, princes, religious orders, cathedral chapters, universities—resisted reform of itself. Attention, therefore, was concentrated on the head. The reforms imposed, though few in number, were all theoretically good. Some, however, were impracticable, at least to the drastic degree envisaged by the council. On July 13, 1433, it limited papal provisions to benefices; on Jan. 22, 1435, it forbade clerical concubinage and regulated excommunication; on June 9 it banished every form of payment except bare administrative expenses upon the conferment of benefices, including annates to the pope and, of course, simony; on March 24, 1436, it established new norms for papal elections, and for the conduct, number, and qualities of cardinals. Those reforms advantageous for France and Germany survived for a time, but the rest lapsed. During its six years the council's main occupations were opposition to the papacy and reform of and controversy with the hussites and the Greeks.
Extirpation of Heresy. The heresy of wyclif had been condemned both in England and in the Council of Constance where Hus and Jerome of Prague had died at the stake. But it was the basis of the Hussitism, intermingled with legitimate aspirations for reform, with which the Council of Basel was concerned. The Hussites insisted on four points: communion under both kinds, punishment of mortal sin by the secular power, unrestricted freedom to preach, and evangelical poverty for all clergy. Negotiations between the council and the Bohemians began with the "Accord of Eger" (May 18, 1432) making the Scriptures, councils, and doctors "the most reliable and impartial judge." Fifteen Hussite delegates with a suite of 300 came to Basel on Jan. 1, 1433. Council envoys went to Prague with the delegates, returning to Basel with three Hussites in August. Subsequently, the Council of Basel sent its same long-suffering representatives to Prague (November 18), Regensburg (Aug. 21, 1434), Brünn (July 1, 1435), Stuhlweissenburg (Dec. 20), and Iglau. An agreement, the Compacts, had been reached in Prague in 1433 when the council conceded to the Bohemians the use of the chalice at Communion. Subsequent meetings were occupied with the interpretation of the four points, especially poverty. At Iglau (July 5, 1436), the Compacts were solemnly promulgated, largely because the Emperor Sigismund guaranteed their fulfillment. In spite of pressure the Czechs never joined the Council of Basel and did not loyally observe the Compacts. The agreement lapsed under Pius II in 1458.
Basel 1437–49: the Conciliabulum. With very reduced numbers, the "Council of Basel" defied Eugene's decree of translation to Ferrara. It sent its fleet to bring the Greeks from Constantinople, but they preferred the papal fleet. On Jan. 24, 1438, it declared Eugene suspended and deprived of all spiritual and temporal power. It sent strong delegations to the various French and German diets but resisted dissolution in favor of a third council. On May 16, 1439, it declared the principle of superiority of a council over the pope a truth of Catholic faith, and on June 25 it deposed Eugene. On November 5 it elected an antipope, Felix V. Thereafter it wrote long answers to papal bulls, but passed no legislation. In February of 1448 Frederick of Austria withdrew his safe-conducts and the council members joined Felix in Lausanne. Charles VII of France sponsored an arrangement whereby the "Council of Basel" would dissolve—Felix, who resigned, and its chief members being honorably treated. On April 19, 1449, the council elected the reigning nicholas v to succeed Felix and solemnly reenacted the principle of conciliar supremacy. Then, on April 25, it decreed its own dissolution.
Significance of the Council. The council at its height had some 500 members, divided into four deputations. There were, however, never more than about 100 bishops and abbots present and they alone, by tradition, had a deliberative vote. But in Basel every member had a vote. Several of the most important measures were passed by relatively few bishops plus a mass of others. Basel signified the height and defeat of conciliarism, which, despite the sincere motivation of several of the leading conciliarists, degenerated in the circumstances into antipapalism. The duplication at Basel of most departments of the Papal Curia, the refusal to compromise over annates and the site of the council with the Greeks, and the determination to abase the pope and his office, alienated princes, cardinals, and the moderate-minded, and led to the reconciliation of Eugene and such one-time conciliarists as Cesarini and Nicholas of Cusa. When the Council of Basel broke its pact with the Greeks rather than allow a council in Italy, it made possible the Council of Ferrara-Florence whose success and definition of papal supremacy were a grievous blow to Basel and conciliarism.
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