On Bekkos and Catholicism

March 21, 2009

The following are two sets of miscellaneous notes on Alexandra Riebe’s doctoral dissertation, Rom in Gemeinschaft mit Konstantinopel: Patriarch Johannes XI. Bekkos als Verteidiger der Kirchenunion von Lyon (1274) (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2005). (The title means: Rome in Communion with Constantinople: Patriarch John XI Bekkos as Defender of the Ecclesiastical Union of Lyons.) The notes were written at different times; they are tied together mostly by the question of whether, and how far, John Bekkos can be thought to have converted to Catholicism.

Historiographical assessments of the Union of Lyons have tended to be given along sharply contrasting confessional lines. John Bekkos, the main Byzantine defender of Lyons, is portrayed either as a hero (by Catholics) or as a villain (by Orthodox). In the process of defending him or demonizing him, Bekkos’s actual thought has tended to be overlooked. Alexandra Riebe’s study of John Bekkos (Rom in Gemeinschaft mit Konstantinopel: Patriarch Johannes XI. Bekkos als Verteidiger der Kirchenunion von Lyon (1274)) is more balanced than most. She attempts to give a genuinely theological appraisal of Bekkos’s work. And, in the process, she raises the question whether better terms of union could reasonably have been envisaged than those which the Greeks accepted at the Second Council of Lyons.

Even to state things thus is to misrepresent what she is saying. The situation was very complicated. To some extent, both the emperor and his patriarch John Bekkos were presenting different pictures of the terms of the union to a home audience and to the West. E.g., the bishops at Constantinople, when they agreed to support Michael’s overture to Rome in 1273, explicitly accorded the Bishop of Rome no greater authority than what was traditionally ascribed to him; the Emperor Michael, in his personal correspondence with Rome, represents things more according to the Roman point of view. Some (e.g., H. Evert-Kappasowa [1]) have seen this as duplicity on the emperor’s part. Riebe argues otherwise. She thinks that Pope Gregory X, at least, was aware of the Greeks’ limited acceptance of the papal terms, and nevertheless didn’t press the point; he also wanted the union to go through for political reasons (his desire for a crusade). It was when the movement for a crusade fell through in the West that the popes also began to back out of the agreement, applying conditions that the Greeks could not meet. Riebe argues that the failure of the union cannot be ascribed to Greek duplicity, or to worldly, political-minded popes succeeding upon an idealistic one. The union was a marriage of political convenience, on both sides, from the start.

It is in the context of this general environment of a failed marriage of political convenience that Dr. Riebe attempts to assess the theological significance of the work of John Bekkos, who, by all accounts, was sincerely convinced that the Union of Lyons embodied an important theological truth, and who made defense of that truth his life’s work.

Dr. Riebe does not think that the truth John Bekkos was defending can be rightly described as Catholicism. Her claim is that to call him “the Catholic patriarch of Constantinople” is a misnomer. That claim seems to me largely a matter of semantics. Bekkos believed that the Latin and Greek churches taught different, but equally valid, expressions of the same truth about God; their differences, he was convinced, lay at the linguistic and cultural level, not at the level of the things believed in. Because of this, he did not regard the union of the churches as necessitating that the Greek Church change either its traditional doctrine or its traditional practices. Far from relativism, this was, in Bekkos’s view, merely an application of the fathers’ own teaching about the relationship between doctrine and culture.[2]

* * *

On the whole, Alexandra Riebe’s monograph, Rom in Gemeinschaft mit Konstantinopel (Wiesbaden 2005) deserves to be regarded as the most in-depth theological study of John Bekkos that has appeared.

Riebe situates Bekkos’s theological work in its historical context, tracing the dependencies of his thought upon the writings of predecessors like Nikephoros Blemmydes, Niketas of Maroneia, and Hugo Etherianus.

Equally, she analyzes Bekkos’s thought in comparison with that of his contemporary, Gregory of Cyprus, and shows Bekkos to be at least as cogent a thinker as the latter. That is to say, she successfully puts to rest Aristeides Papadakis’s claim that Bekkos is not a theologian, but an “anthologist” (Crisis in Byzantium, 2nd ed., [Crestwood, NY, 1997], p. 50).

That being said, there are things in Riebe’s analysis that I find questionable.

I think the contrast she draws, in the English summary at the end of her book, between “union” and “communion” is overstated, or at least, needs to be read in its context (Riebe, p. 341: “Bekkos was an advocate not of union, but of communion of the churches.”). Undeniably, Bekkos sought to preserve the liturgical particularity of the Orthodox Church. Equally undeniable is his complete theological dependence upon the Greek-speaking fathers of the Church; he is not a Latinophron, not at least if that word implies a direct dependence upon Latin theological sources, as seen later, e.g., in the writings of the Kydones brothers. Probably it is best to quote the entirety of her paragraph:

“Bekkos, therefore, is no Latinophron. He is very far from being a Roman Catholic. The union of the churches which he defends is very far from the union the popes envisaged, and it is also very different from the union of the 14th century, which allowed Orthodox churches to retain their liturgical tradition if they submitted to the pope. The union which Bekkos defended was something quite different: It was the reconciliation of two churches which remained two churches, separate, but in full communion with each other, without any structural or institutional consequences beyond mutual acceptance and admittance to the Eucharist. Thus Bekkos was an advocate not of union, but of communion of the churches.” Riebe, loc. cit.

Dr. Riebe’s argument concerning Bekkos’s attitude towards the papacy is based, in large part, on a differentiation she draws between writings of his ad intra and writings ad extra, i.e., writings meant for a Byzantine audience, on the one hand, and official professions of faith sent to Rome, on the other. She stresses that explicit acknowledgments of Roman primacy largely fall in the latter category of writings, and may reflect the necessities of diplomacy rather than Bekkos’s true sentiments. That such a differentiation in the sources can be drawn I would not deny; however, it seems to me that Dr. Riebe may be overstating the degree to which Bekkos restricted his acknowledgment of Roman primacy to a foreign audience. For instance, in the synodal declaration of February 19, 1277 anathematizing opponents of the Union (a text that clearly had implications for a home audience), the bishop of Rome is described in the following terms:

“There was a time when, in a climate of discipline and truth, order, peace, and the voice of authority prevailed among those who bore the name of Christians, and the hereditary throne of the Apostolic, the supreme bishop of the older Rome, the shepherd of shepherds, the father of fathers, the very crown of all the Churches, the excellence of all priests, our common father, the oecumenical Pope, was in possession of all the prerogatives accorded him from of old. But when the enemy and foe of peace, having turned a malignant eye, put an end to this and substituted strife and enmity, which has prevailed now for a long time, deprivation of such privileges ensued for the pre-eminent apostolic throne.” (Cited from J. Gill, “The Church union of the Council of Lyons (1274) portrayed in Greek documents,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 40 (1974), pp. 23-25.)

Riebe (op. cit., pp. 200 f.) sees this language concerning “all the prerogatives accorded him from of old” as largely rhetorical, essentially conceding to the papacy no more than the three traditional prerogatives of primacy (with the important subtext: of honor), right of appeal, and commemoration in hierarchical liturgies. That is to say, she sees the synod of 1277 as acknowledging no more than the three explicit terms that had been agreed to four years earlier as the conditions for union with Rome. Cf. Bekkos’s own letter to Pope John XXI that accompanied this synodal statement: “Conceding to the apostolic throne the primacy, the right of appeal and the commemoration, we promise to preserve these unaltered also for the future, declaring that in no point and in no way at all will we instigate any change in their regard” (Gill, op. cit., p. 37). [3]

At the same time, Bekkos, in his book De unione ecclesiarum, §2 (PG 141, 17D), stresses that the Roman Church has not erred: “For, were we to demonstrate, by citations, that the Church of Rome has not erred in any point of religion, that would suffice to uphold the claim that its detractors are not speaking rightly; and, conversely, by a single demonstration that the partisans of schism have, in support of the schism, argued fallaciously, it would be made known that the Church of Rome has not erred at all in matters of faith.” Further, it seems clear that Bekkos thinks that Photius and his followers have erred in their interpretation of Christian doctrine; when he speaks of “the partisans of schism,” he evidently means them — although he does not, evidently, include in this category the entire Greek-speaking Church of his day. Bekkos also, in that book, uses phrases like “the peace of the Roman Church” and “being united to…” which suggest that self-standing independence might not be quite the ecclesiastical model he has in mind. Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, Dr. Riebe seems unaware of direct testimonies to papal primacy in George Metochites’ Historia Dogmatica I.5 and III.74-75 (cf. my notes on this work) and also in Constantine Meliteniotes’ De processione Spiritus Sancti; e.g., at De processione II.41 (PG 141, 1264B), Meliteniotes speaks of Photius’s “love of power,” φιλαρχία, as having caused him to deny the Roman Church’s traditional prerogatives; likewise, at De processione I.7 (PG 141, 1042D), Meliteniotes exclaims concerning the “inexpressible gifts of God” that are discerned in the Roman Church’s primacy. Metochites and Meliteniotes, Bekkos’s two archdeacons, are virtually always in agreement with their patriarch’s own teaching; would one want to claim that they disagree with Bekkos on this particular issue?

The debate over whether or not Bekkos “converted to Catholicism” seems fairly futile and verbal. It is clear that Bekkos did, in fact, change his mind with regard to the orthodoxy of the Roman Church; it also seems clear that that change in mind regarding its orthodoxy entailed some new thinking regarding its authority. It does not seem to me that the very clear and emphatic statements of papal authority that Bekkos gives in his letters to the popes should be taken as insincere or as meant only for foreign consumption; if Bekkos was an honest man, as by all indications he was, then it is altogether unlikely that he would have used duplicity on this point. On the other hand, it is equally clear that Bekkos did not wish to leave his own Church or to deny its ecclesiastical legitimacy; he speaks of the Church in which he was baptized as “the Catholic Church” (De depositione sua orat. I, §10, PG 141, 964A), and it is beyond doubt that he was baptized in the Greek Church long before any reunion was agreed to. The legitimacy of his own Church is seen in the truth of its fundamental theological traditions and, perhaps more importantly, in the reality of Christ’s presence in its sacramental life. Bekkos apparently sees a misunderstanding to have affected both sides, so that the Greeks think of the Latins as heretics, and the Latins think similarly about the Greeks (e.g., at De unione ecclesiarum §2, Bekkos says that the division has resulted from “… a certain petty variance of sound which actually does not impair orthodox belief, but which, all the same, has been taken on both sides to imply a difference of faith”). Bekkos finds evidence of similar misunderstandings having occurred in the past, and he sees it to be his Christian duty to follow the practice of the fathers of the Church by looking past apparent dogmatic disagreements to the substantial core of doctrine, on which, he has become convinced, the Latin and Greek traditions agree. For him, the interpretation of the fathers is key. He thinks Photius the Great has misrepresented them, has interpreted them in such a way as to make any original oneness of mind between the Latin and Greek churches unthinkable; he thinks Photius’s interpretation of the fathers essentially consigns all of Latin patristic tradition to oblivion, and that it does the same to much of the Greek patristic tradition as well. It retroactively excommunicates those who thought differently than him.

Bekkos seems to me to have tried to maintain two beliefs simultaneously: belief in the equal dignity and authenticity, and ultimate reconcilability, of the Greek and Latin theological traditions, and belief in the effective primacy of the pope. In writings like the De unione ecclesiarum, it is the first of these beliefs that is in the foreground, but the latter one is not entirely absent. If there is a tragic aspect to John Bekkos’s life, it must be seen, first of all, in his having to face a contradiction between these two beliefs. He had pledged, in the De unione ecclesiarum, always to say the Creed without the Filioque, although acknowledging the legitimacy of that term within the Latin idiom. He had also vowed to maintain the Greek Church’s liturgical customs, and solemnly cursed anyone who would claim that the Latin tradition is holier or more orthodox than the Greek one (De unione, §4). What was he to think when the series of popes following the death of Pope Gregory X began issuing demands that the Greek Church add the term Filioque to its text of the Creed and adopt unleavened bread in the Eucharist? What was he to think when one of these popes, Martin IV, excommunicated his emperor, Michael VIII (who was doing all he could to maintain the Union), and thereby gave leave to Charles of Anjou to launch a military assault against the Byzantine Empire? I think it is to Bekkos’s credit that, even while acknowledging papal authority, he did not accede to the demands of these popes. His belief in the equal dignity, in Christ, of all believers outweighed his belief in ecclesiastical order, strong as that latter belief was. When Riebe and other scholars discount Bekkos’s statements about papal authority as diplomatically-worded texts geared for an external audience, I think they fail to see that tragic contradiction. Bekkos had thought that one could return to the status quo ante, the state of things before the schism was consummated; he thought one could be Orthodox and Catholic at the same time. Events proved him wrong, or at least, proved him not yet right. As to the ultimate possibility of reconciling this contradiction, the jury is still out.


[1] Author of a series of important articles on the Union of Lyons which appeared in the late ’40’s and 1950’s: “La société byzantine et l’union de Lyon,” Byzantinoslavica 10 (1949), 28-41; “Le clergé byzantin et l’union de Lyon (1274-1282),” Byzantinoslavica 13 (1952-1953), 68-92; “Une page des relations byzantino-latines I: Byzance et le St. Siège,” Byzantinoslavica 16 (1955), 297-317; “Une page de l’histoire des relations byzantino-latines II: La fin de l’Union de Lyon,” Byzantinoslavica 16 (1956), 1-16. For the claim that the Emperor Michael was exercising duplicity, see esp. “Le clergé byzantin et l’union de Lyon,” p. 70:

“From that point on, [Michael Palaiologos] saw the union only as a political measure from which he expected certain advantages, leaving it to time to calm the centuries-old hostility which, at the moment, given the mutual intolerance, could only be augmented. Thus, he did not hesitate to play a double role, for, even while assuring the Roman pontiffs of his docility and his Catholic zeal, he was forced at the same time to deal with the Orthodox feelings of his subjects. Accordingly, to get his clergy to accept the union, he presented it to them under false colors. Infinitely profitable to the state (he said), the union would, all told, amount to three concessions on the part of the Greeks: commemoration of the popes, their right of jurisdiction, and their primacy — simple formalities from which all importance was removed by the great distance separating Constantinople from Rome. This was not true: besides these concessions, the popes required that the Byzantine Church accept Catholic teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit and on the existence of purgatory, and that it also adopt the use of azymes. Nevertheless, far from meeting the papal demands in matters of religion, Michael VIII assured his prelates, on the contrary, that no innovation would be introduced in the teaching and usages of the Greek Church — a promise which he confirmed shortly afterward by a solemn chrysobull.”

[2] The question how far John Bekkos is to be considered a “Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople” was first raised by Evert-Kappesowa, in the article previously cited, p. 75:

“Richly endowed by nature, with a rare intelligence, noble in stature, eloquent, learned — John Bekkos is incontestably one of the most remarkable figures of thirteenth-century Byzantium. A strange personality to whom Catholic writers have pledged their sympathy in view of his zeal for establishing the union, whereas Orthodox writers accuse him of having betrayed his religion for personal ends.

“Neither of these opinions seems to me entirely justified. One should note first of all that Bekkos never became a Catholic in the strict sense of the word: he never recognized the Latin teaching as having a superiority over the Orthodox one. By a close study of the texts, he came to conclude that the differences between the Greeks and the Latins were not essential and that, with mutual good will, they could be disregarded. Therefore, taking into consideration all the benefits of ecclesiastical peace, on the one hand, and all the dangers that would be incurred by its rejection, on the other, he became a supporter of the union. Others besides him did this; but what he was criticized for was his having, of his own free will, gone beyond the boundaries fixed by the emperor, in his maintaining that there was nothing heretical or worthy of condemnation in the Latin teaching concerning the Creed. Now (and this is a most interesting and characteristic trait), neither Bekkos nor his closest friends ever personally professed the Filioque nor attempted to impose it on the Greek Church. Gregoras even reports that he never concelebrated with the Latins (N. Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, vol. 1, cap. V, §2, Corpus Script. Hist. Byz., ed. Bonnæ, 1839). His Catholicism drew its source, not from a conversion, but from a tolerance that was altogether exceptional at that era. As for the longing for power that Orthodox writers claim determined Bekkos’s attitude, they do wrong to accuse him of this. To win the emperor’s good favor, it would have sufficed for Bekkos to have conformed to his orders. The very fact that he went beyond them proves his sincerity.”

[3] It should be added that, in a second letter to Pope John, Bekkos goes much further, acknowledging the Petrine foundations of the Roman claims, and even speaking of τὸ τῆς ἐξουσίας πλήρωμα, an exact Greek equivalent of the Latin phrase plenitudo potestatis. Text of this letter in A. Theiner and F. Miklosich, eds., Monumenta spectantia ad unionem Ecclesiarum græcæ et romanæ (Vienna 1872), pp. 21-28. On this letter, see Riebe, op. cit., pp. 203-206; on p. 207, she speculates that the strong language in this letter might be due to pressure from Roman legates in Constantinople; generally, she notes, Bekkos does not speak in these terms.

3 Responses to “On Bekkos and Catholicism”

  1. Vito Says:

    Thank you for your work, for your posts, and for your erudition.

  2. Vito Says:

    Wanted to ask a question. Is your email address available? vito45@roadrunner.com

  3. Ralf Says:

    Cool, I didn’t know you could read German. And Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll read get this dissertation.

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