The Council of Florence is a nebulous thing. It took place at the climax of two historical epochs—the western struggle through schism and civil war and the eastern struggle through civil war and Turkish invasions. The divisions that these epochs led to—the western division into Protestant and Catholic, and the eastern division into Eastern Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox—persist until today. Not only do they persist, but the historical memories which justify each division continue to cast a haze over the history of the Council of Florence, telling us that a clear historical understanding of the council has still not been reached. Ever since the council, the divisions of Christians have defined how the council was remembered—each divided community looking at it in their own way. In the twentieth century, a new reevaluation of the council began.
It started in the 1930s, when, as the 500th anniversary of the Council approached (1949), the Pontifical Oriental Institute began the immense project of preparing the primary source material for publication. This led to the Epistolae Pontificiae (Papal Letters) published from 1940-46, the Acta Graeca (official Greek acts of the council) in 1953, and the Acta Latina (official Latin acts of the council) in 1955. The editor of the Acta Graeca was Fr. Joseph Gill, a Jesuit scholar.
In 1959 Fr. Gill published The Council of Florence the first full English history. This was followed in 1961 with Eugenius IV, Pope of Christian Union which was a sympathetic portrayal of the pope who presided over the council. Finally, in 1964, Fr. Gill released a collection of historical essays entitled Personalities of the Council of Florence. A year later the Second Vatican Council closed, having opened the Roman Catholic Church to Ecumenism in an unprecedented way and vigorously stimulated the Ecumenical work of Christians throughout the world.
Fr. Gill’s work, accomplished as it was with a scrupulous study of the primary sources, has not been duplicated since then, but has remained the standard reference source for the council. At the time of its publication, the Jesuit scholar was praised for his objectivity, seeing as how he made extensive use of the only other primary source to the council—the memoirs of an anti-union Greek Deacon named Syropoulos. Fr. Gill made clear that Dcn. Syropoulos’ memoir should be taken with caution, but should not at all be dismissed as ahistorical. The basic points of the council that Fr. Gill points out—and that everyone has since agreed upon—are as follows.
As the Latin Christians were attempting to resolve the tensions of the disastrous 14th century (with the Western Schism and Conciliarism), they reached out to the Greek east as part of their reform efforts. The Greek east, who had also experienced a terror-filled 14th century (with the Hesychast controversy and numerous civil wars) had been surrounded by the Muslim Turks since 1365, when Constantinople became a virtual vassal of the Ottomans. The Greeks had begun to believe that western military aid was the only way to save them from falling under the dominion of Muhammad like the rest of eastern Christendom. After the siege of 1422, when the Turks nearly took Constantinople, the Greek Roman Emperor was determined to received military aid from his brothers in the west or perish against the Turks.
A council was finally convened at Ferrara (and later moved to Florence) in 1438—where the Greeks and the Latins met.. It seems quite clear that both sides genuinely desired union but both also had political concerns—the Latins desired to reestablish papal monarchy against the Conciliarists while the Greeks wanted Latin swords to defend the walls of Constantinople. From the primary sources, Fr. Gill presents a picture of the council as a difficult and tedious process in which both sides failed in many ways to respect the other and genuinely meet in Christian fraternity. Despite this, after nearly a year and a half of debates and arguments, an agreement was reached based on an important principle: unity in doctrine and diversity in cultural tradition. One of the most crucial of these (which took seven months to hammer out) was the agreement on the Filioque. Despite a significant linguistic barrier, the pro-union Greeks and the Latins were able to agree that the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers used different terminology for the same doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This principle of unity in diversity would be a crucial one for years to come.
The Union was proclaimed in 1439. However, the anti-union Greek party (led especially by Markos of Ephesos, the only Greek prelate who refused to sign the union) quickly gained strong support among the Orthodox east, and especially in Constantinople whose population held on to bitter hatred for the Latins who had conquered them over two hundred years before. The anti-union Greeks revolted against the two pro-union Greek Patriarchs, Metrophanes I and Gregory III, who fled the city to the west.
But while the Emperor and other pro-union Greeks were attempting to bring union with their countrymen in Constantinople, Pope Eugenius was attempting to bring military defense to the city. Disastrously, however, the pope was unsuccessful in rallying enough western powers to the aid of their eastern brethren (two dominant powers, England and France, were spending all their resources in fighting each other). The Crusade of Varna which was mustered in support of the Greeks (but also to save the Latins of the Balkans) was terribly defeated in 1444.
After this all seemed hopeless against the Turks. The anti-union Greeks were able to gain the patriarchate in 1450 with Athanasius II, but he resigned soon thereafter. The Greeks of Constantinople were divided over the union until the final moments of 1453, when, in the last liturgy of Hagia Sophia, all Greeks—pro-union or anti-union—(as well as the Latins residing there) all communed together and then went to die in defense of the city. The pro-union Emperor was killed, and an anti-union Patriarch (Gennadios Scholarios) was installed, and pro-union Greeks were suppressed.
Despite this, many eastern Christians revived the union soon after, notably the Antiochians in 1457 and 1460, and Kievan Ruthenians in 1458. Meanwhile anti-union Slavs in Moscow, struggling to establish their church in opposition to the Greek domination of Constantinople (now seen to be destroyed by the wrath of God for its loyalty to the union), bitterly opposed the Slavic reception of Florence. Nevertheless, the number of eastern Christians who accepted the Florentine diversity in unity continued to grow especially following the Union of Brest in 1596. But because of this the Christian east was viciously divided into Eastern Catholics (who accepted Florence), Greek Orthodox (under the Turks) and Russian Orthodox (exalting themselves as the Third Rome).
One of the most interesting thoughts that Fr. Gill brings out is his contemplating whether the Council of Florence’s pro-papal doctrine made the Reformation inevitable. This may be true since the Florentine council was an anti-council of the pro-conciliarist Council of Basel, which also sent representatives to the Greeks. This council, after Ferrara-Florence was convened, eventually condemned Eugenius, elected (yet again) an anti-pope, but faded away and was dissolved by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1447. Florence was held in obedience with the decree of Constance Frequens which mandated frequent Ecumenical Councils. However, because Pope Eugenius’ papal monarchy prevailed at Florence, Frequenswas not followed, and Eugenius’ successors did not implement conciliar reforms. Still, Fr. Gill does show his bias in his dismissal of Conciliarism as a deformity of the legitimate Church of Christ, to which the anti-union Eastern Christians (and Protestants, for that matter) would take umbrage.
The important accomplishment of Fr. Gill was to set forth the primary documents for all to study and also interpret them in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate manner. This allowed the Ecumenical scholarship of the Orthodox and Catholic churches (drawing on the catalyst of Vatican II) to commence and flourish. During the 1970s the North American dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics gained ground, while preparations were being made on the international level for an official dialogue from the episcopal level.
At the same time, a reaction was unfolding among the Orthodox who were skeptical about this new Ecumenism or even condemned it. The schismatic Old Calendarist monastery, Holy Transfiguration in Boston, MA, translated and reprinted an anti-union The History of the Council of Florence in 1971 (originally written by the Russian Ivan N. Ostroumoff in 1847), complete with a lengthy appendix filled with condemnations of ecumenism. Later in 1974, Orthodox scholar Constantine N. Tsirpanlis published Mark Eugenicus and the Council of Florence: A Historical Re-evaluation of his Personality, which defended Markos Eugenikos, the chief anti-union Greek in Constantinople (it was reviewed by John E. Rexine in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review sympathetically but with some caution). Dr. Tsirpanlis argued, in particular, that the assent of the Greeks to the union was not entirely free, while Fr. Gill had contended that it was.
In that same year, however, the International Dialogue began between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church (no Eastern Catholics were represented). They produced three significant documents in the 1980s and were on their way to discussing some substantial issues when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. This set off a firestorm of bitter disputes over church property and past offenses between the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, threatening to stop the international dialogue all together. But two years before the official dissolution of the USSR, an international scholarly conference was held near Florence on the subject of the Council. The scholarship presented at the conference was edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and published in 1991 in English, French, German and Italian. Thus a very diverse perspective was presented.
Dr. Alberigo (presumably Catholic) argued that no “organic” and complimentary ecclesiology existed at Florence. Fr. John Meyendorff (Orthodox son of Parisian-Russian refugees who was teaching in New York) agreed on this and so did the Orthodox Metropolitan Damaskinos and Gillian Evans. Fr. Meyendorff added further that at Florence the Greeks and Latins “debated issues without solving them and solved issues without debating them” (referencing the ‘resolution’ of the Filioque debate and the lack of discussion on the Papacy). The Anglican scholar Henry Chadwick further agreed that the ethos of the council was not one of genuine fraternal contact, but of contentious argumentation and bitter triumphalism. He did, however, disagree that a genuine balance was not struck, even ecclesiologically, a position to which at least two other scholars (Halleaux and Doch) agree.
Kallis argued in agreement with Dr. Tsirpanlis (and against Fr. Gill) that the union was signed under duress about the Turkish advance and under pressure from the Latins. The Orthodox scholar Nicholas Lossky, meanwhile praised Markos Eugenikos as a great man. Still, Fr. Meyendorff stated that the Greeks were “uniformed and provincial.” Overall, according to one reviewer, the scholarship edited by Dr. Alberigo presented lessons for contemporary ecumenism by showing the importance of non-theological factors – cultural, linguistic, political; the problems of ‘reception’; the need for humility in ecumenical dialogue; the importance of extending doctrinal agreement to include sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity in the church.
Later in 1994 St. Vladimir’s Seminary published The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D written by Dr. Papadakis and Fr. John Meyendorff. The books section on Florence draws upon a wide range of English, French, German, Italian, and Greek scholarship. It uses the scholarship of Dr. Tsirpanlis and others to challenge some of Fr. Gill’s interpretations, while also using Fr. Gill as a substantial source. Further, it states unequivocally that the signatures of the union were not forced, but at the same time points to the complexity in arguing for its theological success. Thus overall, a very balanced picture is sketched.
In 1999, T. Ferguson published a fascinating article (“The Council of Ferrara-Florence and its Continued Historical Significance”) which argued that the Council of Florence actually formed the basis for the Constantinople-Moscow division which reached even to the 1996 Estonian schism.
In 2001 a provocative book was released by little known French Lebanese Orthodox scholar Lina Murr Nehme (Muhammad II Imposes the Orthodox Schism), which argued that the Council was valid and that the Turks imposed the schism, exalted the anti-unionists, and helped promote an anti-union historical memory. It is undeniable that the Muhammadans played an overwhelming role in the history of Florence especially after the council, and that this history is mostly ignored. Unfortunately there is very little scholarly review of this particular work and its unique thesis.
In 2003, Henry Chadwick’s seminal work East and West was released, which attempted to trace the tension and division of the two churches from the Apostolic times to Florence, arguing (as he had done in 1989) that the ethos of the Council was tense, but real compromise was in fact reached.
Finally more recently was Siecienski’s work in 2010 The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, which has a chapter on Florence, drawing upon Fr. Gill and Mr. Alberigo’s work to tell the story in great detail and with great objectivity, although it is clear that his views lie with the anti-union Orthodox side.
As we have seen, despite a greater amount of study given to this event and the sources, the confessional bias which colors every man still makes itself known in the conclusions drawn (with the notable exception of Nehme). Nevertheless, the objectivity of scholars is sharpened by the ecumenical dialogue which causes every side to speak to each other in an unprecedented way. It would seem, from the opinion of this writer, that from a historical perspective, the greatest failure of Florence was the failure of the western powers to defend Constantinople against the Muhammadans. Whatever the numbers of adherents or opponents to Florence in New Rome, the Turks were no doubt the winning party, who sided against Florence and against Christ. Thus whatever successes Florence may have made, everything was stifled by this political failure.
If we consider that Florence did become the basis for the Uniate movement, and by the bare fact that every Eastern Catholic Church (not including the Maronites and Italo-Albanians who predate Florence) has some relation to Florence either directly or indirectly, we may objectively look at the results here. Since the time of Florence until today, over a long struggle of politics and bloodshed from every side, some number from every single Eastern Christian Church has come into communion with Rome. According to Fr. Roberson in 2008, this entire number is approximately 13,209,516. When compared to the total number of Eastern Churches out of communion with Rome, this may be considered by Rome as a failure of numbers, and by the Eastern Orthodox as a false union. Moreover, the Eastern Catholics have been largely excluded from the ecumenical talks since Vatican II and the whole Uniate movement discredited. This is part of the larger internal struggle among Latin Catholics over the meaning of Vatican II in relation to Fatima and the Conversion of Russia. But from the Eastern Catholic perspective, exemplified in the foremost Eastern Catholic saint—St. Josaphat Kuntsevych—and every soul that has come into communion with Rome from the East, Florence was no failure but an opportunity for every Eastern Christian to unite with Rome. It is unfortunate that the struggle of the Uniates is not respected and given a voice today in the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue. These Eastern Catholics, more than anyone, have been the result of Florence, and their number though small is not insignificant. Moreover for them, union with Rome represents not only ecclesiastical unity, but a sure hope for eternal life since they believe that it is necessary for salvation that every soul be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.
Timothy S. Flanders
Chronological list of works on Florence and their reviews
1959 The Council of Florence (J. Gill. Cambridge University Press.)
Allen Cabaniss. The Journal of Religion,40:3. (July, 1960), 216
Michael Cherniavsky. The American Historical Review, 65:1. (October, 1959), 100-1
Oscar Halecki. Renaissance News, 13:2. (Summer, 1960), 141-5
J. Joseph Ryan. The Catholic Historical Review,46:1. (April, 1960), 59-60
1961 Eugenius IV, Pope of Christian Union, The Popes through History, Volume 1 (J. Gill. Burns & Oates.)
John Hanly. Irish Theological Quarterly,30:3. (September, 1963), 286-7
Richard Luman. Church History, 31:2. (June, 1962), 242-3
Brian Tierney. Speculum, 37:3. (July, 1962), 433
M. Wilks. Journal of Theological Studies,14. (1963), 534
1964 Personalities of the Council of Florence (J. Gill. NY: Barnes & Noble.)
Gerald Christianson. The Journal of Religion, 45:4. (October, 1965), 347-9
Francis Oakley. Speculum, 41:1. (January, 1966), 131-2
1971 The History of the Council of Florence (Ivan Ostoumoff, 1847. Translated by Vasilii Popov. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery)
1974 Mark Eugenicus and the Council of Florence (Constantine Tsirpanlis. Thessaloniki: Center for Byzantine Research.)
John E. Rexine. Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 21:3. (January, 1976), 313-5
1991 Christian Unity. The Council of Ferrara-Florence: 1438/39-1989 (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium) (Edited by Alberigo. Leuven: Leuven University Press, Uitgeverij Peeters.)
Mark S. Burrows. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 30:1. (Winter, 1993), 113-4
Gerald Christianson. The Catholic Historical Review, 79:2. (April, 1993), 326-7
Leo Donald Davis. Theological Studies, 54:2. (June, 1993), 351
André de Halleux. Revue théologique de Louvain, 25:3. (January, 1993), 366-8
John A. Newton. The Expository Times, 103:10. (1992), 314-5
D. M. Nicol. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 43:3. (July, 1992), 472-4
N. Tanner. Journal of Theological Studies, 43. (January, 1992), 822
1994 The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D (Aristeides Papadakis and John Meyendorff. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
1999 “The Council of Florence and its Historical Significance” (T. Ferguson. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly. 43:1. 55-77)
2001 Muhammad II imposes the Orthodox Schism (Lina Murr Nehme. Beirut: Aleph et Taw)
2003 East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (H. Chadwick. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.)
2010 The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (A. Edward Siecienski. NY: Oxford University Press)