With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, May 12, 2007

From Schism to the Council of Florence: Part III

III Hard Times

After Lyons, there were few talks between Greeks and Latins about ecclesiastical reunion. Probably the most important suggestion came from the opponent of St Gregory Palamas, Barlaam of Calabria. He suggested that an ecumenical council should be convened; unlike what had occurred at Lyons, he wanted it to be one in which theological dialogue could be had by all representatives of the classical Pentarchy.[1]

Very few were interested in such a council. The cultural and ecclesiastical realities made it impossible. The Greeks were still angered about the sacking of Constantinople, and they feared any official attempts for unity would follow what happened under Michael VIII. The Greeks also believed that their cultural heritage was at stake: they feared unity with Rome would end up with Rome forcing them to become Latins. The West did not believe that the primacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome could be questioned. To convene a council as the Greeks wanted was unacceptable, because it would be seen as a repudiation of Papal claims of authority. There was a stalemate, and no one wanted to give up any claims to the other side. It is by the accidental circumstances of history we can explain why the Council of Ferrara-Florence was convened. They also explain why it, “came near to success: so near, yet so far.”[2]

The Byzantine Empire was weak and indeed, one could say, dying. While it had been able to defend its borders against the West, this drained their resources so much that they were not able to do so against the Turks. Slowly but surely the Turks were advancing upon their lands. By the time of its end, the empire consisted of Constantinople and a few small and scattered territories.[3]John VIII, the emperor, saw the end was near unless something was done to stop the Turks once and for all. He needed Western aid. When he was asked if he were willing to participate in a union council with the Latins, he gave a conditional consent. The West would promise to help the empire, and more importantly, the council would have to follow the normative procedures of earlier ecumenical councils. It would be called by the emperor, and the theological differences which separated the Latins from the Greeks would have to be openly debated. Even though the Greeks would not automatically give way to the Latin arguments, John did imply that he would do what he could to bring about a conclusion to the council which satisfied the Latins.[4]

After Lyons, the West found its own situation deteriorating. The West had endured the internal Great Western Schism; unity was restored by the Council of Constance and the election of Martin V as Pope.[5] More importantly, Constance had issued a decree requiring the frequent convening of general councils.[6] After Constance, conciliarist ideas began circulating in the West. The first council called in wake of Constance was held at Pavia in 1423. It was moved to Siena because of an outbreak of the plague, and then dissolved in March 1424 due to poor attendance. In its dissolution, Pope Martin V declared that there would be a new council convened at Basel in 1431. Martin’s death delayed the start of the council until after Eugene IV was elected as his successor in the March of 1431. Basel begun its proceedings that June, only to have its leaders in an open and bitter fight with Eugene IV. The Pope tried to have the council dissolved by the December of that year. In the early battle between the Pope and the council, the Pope lost, and had to admit its continued existence, even if in doing so, it seemed to put the authority of the council over his own.

As a way to handle this conflict, the fathers of Basel began to suggest inviting the Greeks to their council, because they wanted to turn their council into a full fledged ecumenical council. They thought it would give them that much more credibility if they could establish a consensus with the Greeks over and against Eugene. The Pope, however, also liked this idea. He believed if he could call his own council with the Greeks, under the auspices of the council of Basel, he could effectively transfer the site of the council to a new, favorable location and undermine whatever authority his opposition possessed.[7]

Two different parties approached John VIII calling for the presence of the Greeks with the hope that unity could be achieved with them. Both sides promised to send military aid to protect Byzantium from the Turks. The emperor was pleased with the news. Not sure which side he should follow, he postponed his decision, saying he would make it after his arrival in Venice. He would follow the side which gave him the best offer. Thus, making an official declaration that there would be an ecumenical council, he called for representatives of the Orthodox to go with him or meet him in Italy. After collecting many prominent ecclesiastical authorities to form his entourage, such as Joseph the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bessarion the Metropolitan of Nicea, Mark of Ephesus as well as important laymen like George Scholarius and Gemistos Pletho, the emperor made his way to Italy.[8] At Venice, he decided to join the council led by the Pope, partly because the location the Pope suggested for the council would be easier for the Greeks to attend, but also because the Greeks still believed that it was necessary for the Pope of Rome or his representatives to be at a council for it to be ecumenical.[9] Once his decision was made, Eugene IV issued a Bull in 1438 declaring the Council in Basel to be transferred to Ferrara. All required prelates were told to make their way to the council, and if they did not attend, they would suffer the penalties appropriate for their disobedience.[10]

The first problem that had to be addressed before the council could be convened was that of protocol. How should the emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople greet the Pope? Both sides had different expectations. Joseph planned on greeting the Pope with a traditional embrace. But the Pope wanted to be greeted in a way which signified his superior status. Neither wanted to give in, and it seemed that the council would end before it could be begun. Yet a solution was had. For both sides to save face, it was agreed that the meeting would take place in private.[11]

There remained another important question of protocol: how should the delegates be seated at the council? The Pope believed he should have the central seat, indicating his leadership. John VIII thought that he should have it because tradition indicated that position should be given to the emperor. The solution, as it is described by Joseph Gill, shows how both sides found a way to preserve their own honor. “The thrones were arranged in such a way that the Pope’s was a little in advance of an empty one allotted to the Holy Roman Emperor, with the cardinals and the rest of the western prelates and members arrayed in order behind, while the throne of the Byzantine Emperor corresponded exactly with that of the western Emperor, and those of the Patriarch and the rest of the Greeks were placed accordingly.”[12] However, the Pope was not completely satisfied until his throne was elevated higher than the rest. John was given the second highest seat, and the Patriarch of Constantinople was given a chair placed at the same height as the most important Latin cardinal.

The official theological debates did not immediately begin after the council was convened. John wanted more of the Western princes to be present, hoping to talk to them personally to be sure that they would help Constantinople. Also, not all of the Eastern delegates had arrived. Metropolitan Isidore from Kiev would not be able to make it to Ferrara until August.[13] At the request of the emperor, the Pope agreed to wait for four moths before the official debates could commence. To the emperor’s disappointment, not many of the princes attended the council because they wanted to remain neutral between the Pope and the fathers at Basel. It must be said that the expense for this wait was tremendous, and since the council itself was being paid for by the Pope, we must see this as an indication of his own true desire to establish unity with the Greeks. Nonetheless, to speed up the council’s deliberations, it was suggested that those who were already present at the council should have informal theological debates. Eventually, it was agreed by all to debate the teaching of purgatory.[14] Probably because they were the two most important Eastern leaders at the council, Mark of Ephesus and Bessarion were chosen to represent the Greeks. The Pope chose Cardinal Julius Caesarini, Archbishop Andrew of Rhodes, and John of Torquemada to represent the West.[15]

On June 4, 1438, the informal debates began. Caesarini introduced the Western position: at their death, the saints immediately receive their blissful reward, those who die in mortal sin are sent justly to the fires of hell, and all other Christians not in the state of mortal sin need some sort of purification to prepare them for their eventual entrance to heaven. These souls will be purified by the fires of purgatory.[16] He justified the Latin position by references to scripture, patristic authors, and also by a philosophical examination of divine justice.[17]

Mark of Ephesus gave a brief, preliminary response, on June 14th. But it was Bessarion who would give the first official rebuttal. He denied the Latin position, but did not offer a positive statement on what it was that the Greeks believed.[18] He suggested that the Latin view was tainted by Origenism. As for what the patristic sources said, he acknowledged that they showed that prayers could be said for the dead, but this did not prove that their souls were purified by a literal fire. He also admitted that Latin fathers like Sts Augustine and Ambrose believed such souls were purified by a literal fire. However, Bessasrion pointed out that when they did so, they were only giving their own private opinion about the afterlife, and so should not be seen as offering a dogmatically binding teaching.

John of Torquemada was to make the next reply. He said purgatory should not be seen as Origenist, because the West also detested Origenism as much as the East. He also pointed out that the Latin fathers could not be so easily dismissed as Bessarion tried to do. Like the Greek fathers, they were guided by the Holy Spirit. In fact, Augustine’s authority was recognized by many councils. Having been shown that the teaching was ancient, and its theology was sound, the Greeks should either accept it or provide a superior alternative.

Mark’s reply is interesting. He was forced to say that Church Fathers could in fact err, and he showed St Gregory of Nyssa to be one who was prone to follow the errors of Origen.[19] The debates did not progress much further than this, and after six weeks of debate, neither side had changed their position.[20]

Meanwhile, things were terrible in Florence that summer. An outbreak of the plague worsened the mood of those within the city. Many of the Latin clerics left the city, and the council meetings were put on hold until the situation improved. Many of the Greeks wanted to leave and go to Venice until the council could be restarted. The emperor did not accept many of those requests. Instead, he wanted the delegates to remain in the city and work with those Latins who remained to resolve many procedural questions. The most important of them was how voting was going to be done at the council. If it were to be merely a matter of counting votes, the West had a significant advantage. The Latin clerics easily outnumbered the Eastern delegates. Finally an agreement was made. The Latins would debate amongst themselves, and vote amongst themselves, and what they agreed to would represent the Latin position at the council. The same applied to the Greeks, and consensus would be declared if both the sides reached the same conclusion. They also determined that, when the dogmatic sessions of the council opened, that the filioque would be up for debate. However, both sides wanted to approach the question differently: should the debates begin on the theological merits, or on the question of whether or not the Latins had the authority to add it to the Nicene Creed? The Greeks won this battle, and so on the eighth of October, when the council was back in session, they debated on whether or not the filioque could legitimately be added to the creed.[21]

Why could the West make no addition to the Nicene Creed? Because, Mark of Ephesus pointed out, the declaration of the Council of Ephesus had forbidden any tampering with the creed; it also forbade the creation of any new creeds.[22] Even if the teaching was legitimate, which Mark did not believe, the canons did not allow any private party to change the creed outside of the authority of an ecumenical council. This was the central position that the Greeks consistently pressed upon the Latins. To emphasize his point, on the sixteenth of October, Mark read through the complete decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and showed how they continued the norm established at Ephesus. After he read from the decree of II Nicea, to the surprise of the Greeks, the Latins provided an old copy of the decree, in Latin, where the filioque could be found.[23] The Greeks could only respond by suggesting that the text had been tampered with.[24]

Andrew of Rhodes then opened up with the Latin position, stating that the filioque should not be seen as a literal addition to the creed. Rather, it was only an explanation for what was already contained within it.[25] The Council of Ephesus had rejected the creation of a new symbol of faith, but did not forbid its translation. Thus they allowed this kind of alteration to the text, because a translation required the translator to interpret the text in its original language and determine how best to restate it in the new tongue. More importantly, the words of the creed had been changed. The creed of Nicea was different from the creed of I Constantinople. Was this to be seen as a fundamental change to the creed? If not, if it is to be seen as explaining what was implied by the creed of Nicea, then the filioque is to be seen in such a light. The Latins needed it to confront a particular heresy which the Greeks did not face. Since it still taught the same faith, it was not what was rejected at Ephesus.[26] Certainly one of the questions which came up was whether or not the Pope had the authority to add such an explanation to the text, but the question of the limits of papal authority, while important, would only be discussed briefly much later.[27]

As the debate continued, both sides talked past each other. The Latins wanted to talk more about the theological content implied by the filioque, while the Greeks thought their strongest case was based upon the canonical question. Finally, on the thirteenth of December, when it could be seen that neither side would budge, it was agreed that the theological merits of the filioque could also be addressed. But this would have to happen later. Many other problems had to be addressed.

The Greeks were growing impatient, and they feared that Constantinople might be taken while they were away. To make matters worse, the plague which had swept through the city during the summer had not been put under control; while it eased off in the winter, it was expected to return in full force in the spring. It was suggested that the council move to another city, and, after many arguments, both sides agreed that the council would move from Ferrara to Florence. When the Medici offered to transport and house the Greek delegation in Florence, the Greeks agreed to the transfer.[28] The city welcomed the council. They saw it would elevate their honor and provide for many important commercial opportunities for its citizens. Moreover, there was a large number of humanist scholars interested in classical antiquity residing in the city, and they believed the Greeks would provide them with copies of many important texts which the West did not possess. [29]

After moving to Florence, debates resumed in the March of 1439. At this time, the emperor was sick, and Patriarch Joseph was in bad health. Joseph would never fully recover, and would die before union was achieved. The question of theological validity of the procession of the Spirit began in earnest, and several important points were made. The Greeks stated unequivocally that the Fathers of the Church had proclaimed the monarchy of God the Father in the Trinity, and that this must be maintained. The Holy Spirit also must be seen to have only one origin for its existence, and this origin comes from the Father. But did not the filioque suggest that the Holy Spirit had two origins for its existence? That was the problem they had with the Latin teaching.

The Latins agreed that the Spirit has only one causation. To say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is to say that the Father and Son together form one united origin for the Spirit. In their debates, they said that the Fathers of the Church assented to such a procession. Syllogisms used to support the filioque did not impress the Greeks, but patristic references did. Some, like Bessarion, began to be convinced. Searching through their own materials, they even found confirmation of its teaching in various authors, especially in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor.[30] But they suggested that the best way to word the procession is to say that the Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son. Thus, those who would come to favor of the union believed that the Greek and Latin traditions were saying the same thing. Mark of Ephesus, opposed to the union, and believing that the filioque was heresy, held his ground. He suggested that the texts of the Latin Fathers could not be verified, and that the texts of the Greek Fathers the West used were corrupted. Tired, worn out, and with a schism in the Greek party, Bessarion put forward one final and important suggestion. If it is agreed upon that the Fathers speak through the light and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then they could not be in fundamental disagreement.[31] Thus, if the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers seem to be in conflict, the conflict could only be apparent and not real; the teachings had to be pointing to the same dogmatic truth. It was in this way that the Greeks, grown weary from the debates, slowly agreed to the filioque.

Even by accepting this proposal, there were matters other matters to be worked out. The question on what kind of bread should be used for the eucharist was easily resolved: both sides can follow their own traditions.[32] Of the remaining questions, the most important was the role of the Pope in relation to the other Patriarchs. Here we can see that compromises were made by both sides. The Pope was granted many of the titles which the West had grown accustomed to using, while nonetheless it was stipulated that the rights and privileges of the Eastern Patriarchs would be kept intact, and that the ranking of the Patriarchs would continue along the designation established at Chalcedon.[33] On July 6, 1439, after much careful deliberation, the decree of union was promulgated, and all the Greeks who remained at the council save Mark of Ephesus signed it.

If there was such a success at the Council, why does history designate it as a failure? There were two major reasons for its downfall. The first had to do with the reception of the council by the laity and the clergy who were not at the council itself. Almost immediately, many of them saw the council as heretical and denounced those who supported it. “When the Greek bishops returned to Constantinople, they were stoned.”[34] In Moscow, Metropolitan Isidore was kicked out of his office, briefly imprisoned, and upon release fled out of Russia.[35] It is important to note, unlike in Constantinople, the secular government in Russia clearly rejected the union. The Byzantine situation was more complicated. The emperor and his successors gave their support to the union. Many at the court and the higher clergy accepted it. But the rest of the laity would have nothing to do with it. Until his death in 1444, Mark of Ephesus became the leading opponent of the union. The emperor and other unionists could find no one who could challenge Mark of Ephesus for the sympathies of the people. Indeed, George Scholarius, who once supported the union, changed sides and became Mark’s “successor” after Mark died in 1444.[36] When the city fell to the Turks, Scholarius would eventually be elevated to the position of Patriarch, ensuring that the schism lived on.[37]

However, there was a brief period, before the fall of the city, that the people could have been persuaded to accept the union. After Isidore went into exile, he became a Papal legate and was sent to Constantinople. When he arrived at the city, he had brought with him a contingent of soldiers to help defend the city.[38] The news was welcomed by the people. Their cries against the union had, for a time, been squashed. They believed that perhaps the Pope would actually provide the aid he had promised. Perhaps the fall of the empire could be prevented. But this was not to be. The Pope tried to enlist the aid of Western princes in the defense of Constantinople, but he was never able to get enough to stop the Turks. The city was doomed, and with it, the Florentine union.

At two important times in history the efforts for ecclesiastical reunion failed. The first time it was doomed from the start. The second time, however, had a slight chance of success. After Florence, there was little opportunity for any ecumenical dialogues to take place between Rome and Constantinople until modern times. Moscow, of course, wanted nothing to do with Rome. But to say the councils failed is not to tell the full story. Many positive achievements were made because of these contacts between the East and the West, and it is here we must briefly turn before answering the final question we proposed at the beginning of the essay, which was, what lessons can the ecumenical movement learn from these councils?


[1] Deno J. Geanakoplos, “A New Reading of the Acta, Especially Syropoulos,” in Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438/9 – 1989, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo (Leuven: Leuvem University Press, 1991), 351.
[2] Henry Chadwick, “The Theological Ethos of the Council of Florence,” in Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438/9 – 1989, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1991), 239.
[3] Steven Runcimann, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 4-5.
[4] Although it is clear that the Emperor did not want to be trampled by the Pope or the West, throughout the council he threatened to leave whenever he felt his own honor was impugned.
[5] Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 253 -4.
[6] See the introduction in Nicholas of Cusa, The Catholic Concordance, ed. and trans. Paul E. Sigmund (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), xii.
[7] He even volunteered to fund the council itself, to make sure the Greeks could attend.
[8] Joseph Gill, S.J., The Council of Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 81.
[9] Martin Anton Schmidt, “The Problem of Papal Primacy at the Council of Florence,” in Church History 30 (1961):36.
[10] Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 513 -17.
[11] Ivan N. Oostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, trans. Basil Popoff (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1971), 38-40.
[12] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 107.
[13] John Fennell, A History of the Russian Church to 1448 (New York: Longman, 1995), 174.
[14] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 116.
[15] Ivan N. Oostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, 46.
[16] Ibid., 47.
[17] Scriptural passages used include: II Maccabees 12:46, Matthew 12:32 and I Corinthians 3:11-15. For patristic authority, among those he appealed to were Sts Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Epiphanius of Cyprus. See James Jorgenson, “The Debate Over the Patristic Texts on Purgatory at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, 1438” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 30 (1986):310 – 12.
[18] Ibid., 326-7.
[19] Ibid., 330.
[20] Reading back into the debates with developments of Western theology on the nature of purgatory (and hell), it would seem that a major part of the impasse has to be the fact that both sides were talking past each other. The Western tradition recognizes the fact that descriptions of purgatory need not be taken literally, although they tended to be so during the time Florence.
[21] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 145.
[22] Ivan N. Ostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, 67.
[23] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 148.
[24] At the time of the council this difficulty would consistently hamper dialogue, and yet it was an issue the council was not set up to handle. There were no critical texts of the Fathers to use. Each side had to rely upon the copies that were held in their own possession. When there was a conflict between different copies of a given text, the easy way out was to suggest there was wholesale corruption. Mark of Ephesus would, more than any other, make this claim throughout the council. See John H. Erickson, The Challenge of our Past (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 159 – 160 for the internal dispute between Mark of Ephesus and Bessarion of Nicea that developed concerning this issue. While, as Erickson points out, corrupt texts might have helped foster reunion, nonetheless many of the text cited by the Latins were legitimate and the Greeks did have problems of their own. Textual accuracy was a problem for both sides.
[25] Deno J . Geanakoplos, “A New Reading,” 334.
[26] Ivan N. Ostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, 76.
[27] See Martin Anton Schmidt, “The Problem of Papal Primacy,” 38 which shows how the debates over the primacy of the Pope began on June 16, 1439 and the union between the churches was to occur on July 6. That left very little time for any debate before documents were written, modified, fixed, and accepted by both parties.
[28] Henry Chadwick, East and West, 266.
[29] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 184 - 186.
[30] See Ivan N. Ostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, 126.
[31] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence, 241.
[32] See Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 527.
[33] The Latin of the decree reads, “Renovantes insuper ordinem traditum in canonibus ceterorum venerabilium patriarcharum, ut patriarcha Constantinopolitanus secondus sit post sanctissimum Romanum pontificem, tertius vero Alexandrinus, quartus autem Antiochenus, et quintus Hierosolymitanus, salvis videlicet privilegiis omnibus et iuribus eorum.” Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 528. For the corresponding Greek passage, see Tanner as well.
[34] Laurence J. James, “Byzantine Realpolitik and the Effects of Hesychasm Upon the Eastern Church Following the Council of Florence-Ferrara (1438 – 1445),” in The Patristic and Byzantine Review 11 (1992): 70.
[35] John Fennell, A History of the Russian Church, 179 – 181.
[36] Michael S. Azkoul, “St. Gennadius Scholarius and the Latin Theological Tradition: An Introduction,” in The Patristic and Byzantine Review 10 (1991): 170.
[37] Steven Runcimann, The Great Church in Captivity, 168 – 70.
[38] Steven Runcimann, The Fall of Constantinople, 69.

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  • At 5/14/2007 7:36 AM, Blogger Eric said…

    I like the Dickensian headings for periods of church history. Would the time of Jesus be called Great Expectations?

  • At 5/14/2007 7:41 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Well, actually part IV is "Great Expectations for the Futre." I would say the time of Christ would be called, "A Christmas Carol."

    I came up with the title ideas soon after I heard Dickens would be in Doctor Who; got me into a Dickens kick at the time.


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