Pope Eugene IV: Taking on the Council in a struggle to the end
Tired of the tough tactics of Pope Martin V, the cardinals sought to elect someone who wouldn't be such a taskmaster, especially on reform. They also wanted the new Pope to be more in concert with what the Council wanted in the aftermath of the Council of Constance. Thus the lot fell on Cardinal Gabrielle Condulmaro who was the nephew of Pope Gregory XII. Little did the cardinals realize the battle they were going to be in for with this 207th successor of Peter who on March 3, 1431 was crowned Pope Eugene IV. One of the first items he had to face was the mandatory Ecumenical Council which was opened on July 23, 1431 at Basle in Switzerland without the chief cardinal Martin had appointed present. In fact the Council was so sparsely attended and mistrust so high that Eugene dissolved it on February 15, 1431, but not before having no choice but to promise he would reconvene the council in a year and a half. He did make one stipulation that had to be an omen to the Council Fathers: the Pope would call it and he would preside over it. With that put on the shelf for awhile, the next move was to rescind the nepotism appointments Martin had made. This also entailed forfeiting vast amounts of property Martin had bestowed. Needless to say this did not sit well with Martin's relatives who rallied others to fight back. Thus Eugene had created his own monster in devoting unwanted time and energy to fending off the retaliation in Florence, Venice and Naples. Even Rome was not immune and when fighting broke out Eugene's advisors convinced him to flee to Florence for his safety. While this was happening the Council Fathers, in an attempt to get the upper hand, sent Eugene a demand that if he didn't heed the Council's wishes he could be deposed and schism could rise its ugly head once again. Though Eugene was not a master diplomat, he was a highly religious and decent man. He sought his counsel through prayer and, after discernment, refused to adhere to the Council's strict and unwarranted ultimatum.
Though his pontificate was troubled by mistrust and cleaning up the messes of his predecessors, he was also a humble man and in this humility was the salvation of the papacy. He had already made many concessions to the Council for the sake of the Church, even to acknowledging the decrees at Constance which ruled that the Council's power is superior to the Pope. Eugene realized that though some of the battles had been lost, the war was not lost and with this spurring him on moved the Council from Basle to Ferrara, Italy. He had been strengthened by the Greek alliance which was precipitated by the call to the West for help to fight the Turks by John VII, Eastern Emperor. This had opened talks of reunion with Rome. Though his crusade against the Turks failed miserably with a bloodbath of papal troops at Varna in Turkey, the Easterners appreciated the effort and agreed to recognize the Pope's primacy, accept the statements on the Filioque which had been a consternation point in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and agreed on the Church's stance on Purgatory and the Holy Eucharist. With this agreement set, many of the Council Fathers abandoned Basle and joined the others at Ferrara where Eugene presided. Those left at Basle, rather than submitting to the Pope and seeking harmony, opted for the other course of action: to depose Eugene and elect a new pope, in effect - another antipope.
Felix was not as enthused about his nomination as those who had elected him and he reluctantly accepted, being crowned on June 24, 1440 after he had abdicated his dukedom. But, just as he feared, he would not get the recognition necessary for this kind of movement to succeed and, though he appointed some eminent, influential men as cardinals, this schism, thank God, never got off the ground. Meanwhile Eugene was gaining steam from the alliance with the Greeks and their power block, along with a growing list of those throwing their support beind Eugene. Yet there was still much to accomplish and those promoting democracy over hierarchy were encouraged by the fact that both France and Germany declared neutrality in the issue of recognizing the Pope as Supreme Pontiff over the Council. An insurrection near Ferrara and subterfuge by those left at Basle prompted Eugene and the Council to agree to move the Ecumenical Council to Florence. Eugene was very familiar with this central region of Italy which was among the leaders in a new form of art called the Renaissance. He introduced the Renaissance artisans to Rome and the Vatican, commissioning them to various projects at the Vatican including the bronze gates at the entrance of St. Peter's and a new chapel there. These would give way to what would become the grand and glorious St. Peter's Basilica and Sistine Chapel a century later. In Florence Eugene held the upper hand and, with more council members joining his camp and fewer to dissent there because the majority of the malcontents and hardliners had remained at Basle in what was called the "rump council," Eugene IV and the papacy were finally triumphant in 1445 when, just before closing, the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council declared the Pope was superior to a Council. Democracy was dead in so far as the Church was concerned and the papacy, as Christ had intended, was preserved for posterity with the successor of Peter being recognized as the Sovereign Pontiff.
Politics puzzled Eugene who had longed to return to his simple, religious atmosphere as an Augustinian monk. France and Germany both tried to play chess with the Holy See in striving to capitalize and garner more power and authority, but Eugene again fell back on God's Will and was able to weather the storms that were brewing. He was quite adroit in not offending anyone, but only offering good things about everyone. This not only helped him win friends at the Council and throughout Christian Europe and beyond, but also prompted Felix V's secretary Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II twelve years later, to return to Eugene asking forgiveness. This final act sealed the doom for the rump council at Basle and Felix basically withdrew from all activities. He would willingly abdicate and reconcile with Eugene's successor in 1449.
The extended fourteen-year council had taken its toll on Eugene and two years after concluding the 17th Ecumenical Council, he died on February 23, 1447 but not without honor and a sense of accomplishment for in the long run, despite the bitter battles that had claimed its share of casualties, he and Holy Mother Church had won the war. The purity of the papacy was preserved.
Next issue: Pope Nicholas V: First in the line of the Renaissance Popes