Copts At The Council Of Florence (1439-1443)


The Council of Florence was one of a series of increasingly politically motivated gatherings between the Latin church and individual Eastern churches. Pope IV used the “divide and rule” policy, for the various Eastern churches were invited at different times, and thus they could not form a unified bloc to negotiate with the Latins as equal partners.

After the reunion with the Greeks (6 July 1439), Pope IV sent the friar Albertus a Sarthiano as papal legate to invite the and the to the council. In a letter dated 7 July 1439, he informed the Copts of the reunion with the Greeks and of the Armenians’ acceptance of an invitation to the council and invited the Copts to attend as well. In Jerusalem, Albertus persuaded Nicodemus, abbot of the DAYR AL-SULTAN in Ethiopia, to send a representative to the council. Nicodemus appointed the deacon Peter. In September 1440, in Cairo, Albertus met several times with JOHN XI, Coptic pope and patriarch of Alexandria, who in a letter to dated 12 September 1440 appointed Andreas, abbot of the monastery of Saint Antony, as Coptic representative to the council.

In October 1440, Albertus, Andreas, and Peter arrived in Florence. appointed a negotiating commission consisting of three cardinals: Giuliano Cesarini, Johannes de Turrecremata (Juan de Torquemada), and Johannes Gallicus Marinesis. The assistants were the papal secretary, Biondo Flavio, and a team of theologians including Vespasiano da Bistizzi, Tommaso Parentucelli (later Pope Nicholas V), and Albertus a Sarthiano. The commission used pressure tactics and inquisitorial procedures in collecting “errors” of the Copts and —for example, they did not know about confirmation and “extreme unction”; they omitted the FILIOQUE; they venerated Dioscorus as a saint; they allowed divorce in case of serious crime or leprosy; and they permitted child marriage.

On 31 August 1441 Andreas spoke to the council praising IV as the true successor of and the head and teacher of the universal church. The deacon Peter spoke 2 September, informing Eugenius and the council about his native Ethiopia and about the emperor’s intention to reunite with the Roman church. On 4 February 1442, the bull of reunion with the Jacobites of Egypt, Cantate Domino, was solemnly promulgated in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It was signed by Eugenius, twenty cardinals, and fifty-one prelates, and by Andreas “in the name of the Jacobites and his patriarch.” This bull explained the Latin doctrine of the Trinity, enumerated the books of the Old and New Testament, anathematized heresiarchs, and warned against the above-mentioned errors of the Copts and Ethiopians. These were actually legitimate cultural, liturgical, canonical, and theological differences, incomprehensible at the time to the Latin mind. Furthermore, the bull contained the list of seven ecumenical and the heresies they combated, and of the other legitimate councils.

Attached to the bull were two other bulls, Laetentur coeli (on reunion with the Greeks; 6 July 1439) and Exultate Deo (on reunion with the Armenians; 22 November 1439). The document ended with an additional declaration concerning the sacraments. The bull demanded of Andreas and the Copts “true obedience, to obey always and faithfully the order and commands of the Apostolic See.”

This one-sided union had no roots and was doomed to failure, for theological formulas were interpreted differently by both parties. The Romans understood it as a true submission of the Copts and to the Roman church, whereas the Copts and Ethiopians at first understood it as a reunion of equal partners and in the course of time rejected it along with its Latin interpretation.


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