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The council of Constance was held from 5 November 1414 to 22 April 1418 to solve the so-called Western Schism, in which three popes - John XXIII, Benedict XIII, and Gregory XII - were contending legitimacy. It was summoned by John XXIII under the pressure of the emperor-elect Sigismond. The council accomplished its objective, after having deposed John and Benedict and accepted Gregory’s abdication, electing Martin V. The council dealt also with the heresies of John Wyclif and Jan Hus. The latter was convoked to Constance, condemned and executed. The Hussite heresy, however, persisted and became one of the central problems discussed at the council of Basle. (Gill 1961, 24-30; idem, 1965; Setton 1978, 39-41; Tierney 2003, 168-173).




The council of Basle was summoned by the Pope Martin V in 1431 to discuss ecclesiastical reform and the problem of the Hussites. Martin died before the opening, and was succeeded by Eugene IV. The pope himself did not go to Basle, but sent the Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini to preside the council. Many participants advocated the Counciliar theory, insisting the authority of councils was higher than the pope’s. To prove the superiority, the Fathers of the council of Basle tried to lead the negotiations for the union with the Eastern Church. In the course of strife with the Pope, the council gradually lost supports and numbers of participants. In 1438, Eugene IV ordered the transfer of the council to Ferrara where the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople agreed to come. Some of the participants remained in Basle and continued opposition, deposing Eugene and electing an antipope. Eventually they were chased out from Basle to Lausanne, and in 1449 gave up resistance. (Gill 1961, 39-97; idem 1965; idem 2003a, 133-135; Setton 1978, 52-54)




(Image from Laurent 1971)

Official schism between the patriarchate of Constantinople and the papacy occurred in 1054, when mutual excommunications were issued in response to growing tension over various theological issues, but especially the western addition of the filioque in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. Most historians see this event as one stage in an ongoing drift apart between East and West, partly as a result of political developments and the growing power of a papacy that was increasingly backed by western kingdoms. It is also important to note that the anathemas of 1054 referred only to the immediate participants in this encounter, i.e. the papal legates and the Greek patriarch, and not to the wider Churches. Whereas contemporaries perhaps expected this ‘schism’ to be of short duration, it was not resolved in the following centuries.

The period of the crusades, which was characterised by increasing distrust and even hostility between the eastern and western halves of Christendom, did nothing to heal the schism of 1054. Orthodox patriarchs’ resentment of papal authority and sense of betrayal, especially after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, continued to grow. In spite of such tensions, Byzantine emperors sought union with the papacy on various occasions between the 13th and 15th centuries. The main reason for this endeavour was the Byzantine need for military assistance against the growing power of mainly of the Ottoman Turks. After the reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261, the empire remained in danger not only from the Turks, who in the course of the following two centuries gradually annexed most of Asia Minor, but also from the Slavic kingdoms in the Balkans and the Latin principalities in the Peloponnese and some Aegean islands. Michael VIII Palaiologos thus saw clearly the advantages of seeking reconciliation with the papacy. In 1263 he sent an offer of union which was generally favourable to the Latin theological position, hoping that this would result in sympathy and military support from the West. Finally, in 1274 a council was held in Lyons which was attended by various Byzantine bishops and court officials (but notably not by the Emperor himself or by his Patriarch Joseph who was implacably opposed to union with the Latins). On this occasion, the Byzantines accepted the terms imposed by the papacy fairly unequivocally: this included acceptance of the Creed with the inclusion of the filioque, the seven sacraments, purgatory, the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, and Latin canon law with regard to marriage. The Greek acceptance of union in 1274 thus represented a capitulation to papal primacy in return for the promise of political and military assistance. On their return to Constantinople, and in spite of the best efforts of Michael VIII to enforce the decisions of the council of Lyons, the policy encountered immediate opposition from the incumbent patriarch and many bishops. It was finally repudiated in 1282.

The military situation of the Byzantine Empire became increasingly perilous in the course of the 14th and first half of the 15th centuries. The papacy also experienced difficulties in this period, with pressures from within for reform and schisms caused by rival popes. This situation was to some extent resolved by the Council of Constance (1414-18) during which Martin V was elected and three rival popes were repudiated. Thus, when the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos re-opened negotiations for union, the papacy was in a position to consider another general council which, after much negotiation, was to be held in Ferrara, Italy, in 1438.

Although many Greeks remained opposed to the prospect of union, the Emperor and his Patriarch, the aged Joseph II, appear to have been strongly in favour of reconciliation with the Latins. On 27 November 1437, the Byzantine delegation set sail from Constantinople in galleys provided by the papacy. There were about 700 delegates in the Orthodox party, including the Emperor and his officials, the Patriarch, bishops from sees throughout the Byzantine Empire (even though many of these resided in Constantinople due to Ottoman occupation of their territories), officials of Hagia Sophia, hieromonks from important monasteries, and some distinguished laymen including George Scholarios and Gemistos Plethon. Other delegates, from Russia and the other Slavic Churches travelled to Italy by separate routes.

The Byzantine delegation arrived in Venice on 8 February 1438 after a perilous journey which Syropoulos describes vividly in his Memoirs. The Italian galleys encountered storms, Turks, pirates and other dangers in the course of the journey; their progress was not always assisted by the separate needs, or occasionally whims, of the Emperor and Patriarch. After a short stay in Venice, during which they received the honour and hospitality of the Doge, the delegation travelled in barges up the river Po to Ferrara. Here the conditions were less favourable, mainly owing to the more straitened circumstances of the Marquis of Ferrara and to the threat of plague, which afflicted the city at various times during the visitors’ sojourn. This period was also dominated by discussions of the seating arrangements in the cathedral of St George, where the council was scheduled to take place.

At last, however, the proceedings were opened on April 8th, 1438. The council began with the topic of purgatory, followed in October with discussion of the more important, at least in terms of Trinitarian doctrine, subject of the filioque. Whereas the Latins wished to discuss the doctrinal implications of this addition to the Creed, the Greeks were more interested in the patristic authority for such an addition. They appealed to a canon of the Council of Ephesos which prohibited any alteration to the Nicene Creed. With deadlock on this subject, the Pope, by the end of 1438, began to be in financial difficulty and it was decided to move the council to Florence where the wealthy Medici family (who supported the Pope) might support the considerable expenses of the large Greek delegation. When the proceedings reopened in February, 1439, the delegates turned their attention to the doctrinal significance of the filioque. At the request of the Greeks, these discussions first took place in private; later, on 2nd March, they were opened to the public at the insistence of the Pope. Both sides used patristic authorities to support their positions, with the Greek case resting primarily on Epiphanios’s writings and on Basil of Caesarea’s Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit. The meaning of the prepositions ‘ek’ (‘out of’) and ‘dia’ (‘through’) were discussed, along with the question whether the Father and the Son together represent one cause or principle. The Greeks complained of the syllogistic method of argumentation used by the Latins, whereas the Latins objected to the Greeks’ reliance on patristic authority and tradition. Finally, without real resolution of these theological difficulties but with the agreement that neither Greek nor Latin saints ‘can err in faith’, the Greek delegation voted to accept union at the beginning of June, 1439. A concession was granted allowing them to recognise the Latin addition but not to alter the original version of the Creed. The aged patriarch Joseph was aware of this agreement, but died shortly thereafter, on June 10th. He was buried in the church of Sta Maria Novella in Florence, as a Christian who was in communion with Rome. Between Joseph’s death and June 26th various outstanding differences between the Greeks and Latins were settled. These included the use of leavened or unleavened bread, the issue of papal primacy, and various other matters. Finally, on July 6th the council’s definition was read out after the Sunday mass, first in Greek and then in Latin. The tomos was signed (in order of rank) by the Emperor, John VIII, the representatives of the oriental Patriarchs, and all the rest of the Greek bishops apart from two delegates: Isaiah, metropolitan of Stauropolis in Caria (who had left Florence early) and Mark, bishop of Ephesos.

The Byzantines did not sail home from Venice until October of the same year. On their return to Constantinople in February 1440, they encountered opposition to the union by both clergy and laity. The growing rift between pro- and anti-unionists was not helped by the fact that the Emperor failed to support the policy strongly enough or by Mark of Ephesos’s vigorous work against it. When the Crusade of Varna foundered in 1444 and Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the main reasons for supporting an already unpopular union with the Latins had disappeared. It was officially repudiated soon after this and, sadly, the Roman papacy and Orthodox patriarchates remain in official schism (i.e. non-communion) to this day.












The Translation is © Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, IAA, University of Birmingham 2008


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Last updated 19 June 2008