Monday, April 15, 2024

Serge Descy on the 20th Century Historiography of Cyril Tanas' Election

The following is taken from The Melkite Church: An Historical and Ecclesiological Approach, trans. Kenneth J. Mortimer, (Newton, MA: Sophia Press, 1993). The French original of this section is available here. While Descy, a Belgian Melkite Catholic priest, gives a very useful overview of positions taken by various authors, he himself ignores important facts about the Patriarch Sylvester that they mention, including that he was an Arabic-speaker (in addition to Greek), designated as successor by Athanasius III Dabbas, and requested from Constantinople by the people of Aleppo (where all members of the Holy Synod of Antioch, apart from those created by Euthymius Sayfi were located at the time). But more on that in future posts.

Most authors who have striven to grasp the ins and outs of this new Antiochian schism of 724 have, unfortunately, always presented it within the traditional framework of the canonical legality of the patriarchal elections. Thus it is that C.L. Spiessens[1] envisages only two canonical procedures for the patriarchal succession to Athanasius III Dabbas: either election by the Holy Synod of Antioch, presided over by the Metropolitan of Tyre, or the transfer of the election to the Synodos Endemousa of Constantinople.[2] As far as the latter is concerned, it is true that during the period of Ottoman domination the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was once again playing a preponderant role in the internal affairs of the Church of Antioch, proceeding with several depositions and elections of its patriarchs.[3]

After the Byzantine conquest of 969, the patriarchs were nearly all Byzantines, because they were designated by their colleagues of Constantinople. As we have already said in the first chapter, some patriarchs continued to reside at Constaintople during the occupation of the crusaders and even during that of the Ottomans. So there was nothing astonishing or exceptional about the intervention of Constantinople in 1724. But should we not see here an abuse, due to a privileged political situation, of the primatial right accorded to Constantinople once and for all at the Council in Trullo in 692, and a violation of the juridical autonomy of an apostolic see? In any case, in the Arabic Canonical Collection of the Melkites,[4] which has come down to us in the form of numerous manuscripts of the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, there is to be found a paraphrase of the fourth Greek canon of the First Council of Nicaea, which considers the election of a patriarch as the right of the people of his diocese, of the metropolitans, and of the bishops, who should all be present at his installation.[5] It is a matter here of one of many variant texts that allow us to conclude that there was a unique canonical discipline in the Greek Church of Antioch. Although deeply influenced by Byzantine law from the eleventh century onward,[6] this clearly shows a particular form of autonomy[7] in which the election of patriarchs was an element of no mean importance. So of the alternatives proposed by Spiessens, we would rather turn our attention to the designation of the patriarch by the Holy Synod of Antioch, for this procedure seems more in accordance both with local tradition and with the general tradition of the Eastern Churches.[8] But on this basis the election of Sylvester, in which no Damascene and no Antiochian bishop took part, does not induce us to consider him, as Spiessens maintains, the one who “would continue the true line of Chalcedonian patriarchs before and after the Severian schism.”[9]

We are, however, also obliged to admit that neither does the election of Cyril VI satisfy the conditions required for canonical regularity and for his subsequent consecration. There was in fact no bishop present at his election nor any meeting of the Synod.[10] As for his consecration, the same author maintains that it was irregular, in view of the uncanonical nature of the consecrations of Basil Finan and of Euthymios Fadel, the absence of any consent from the bishops of the Synod, etc.[11]

Thus, from a canonical point of view, Cyril VI could hardly be the “legitimate successor of Peter at Antioch” as J. Nasrallah would have it in his well-known doctoral thesis, which takes just the opposite position from that of Spiessens.[12] The documentation that Nasrallah presents is certainly rich, convincing and historically founded, but his polemical method may well leave many a reader bewildered.[13]

In any case, the “canonical” interpretation of the schism is older. Of the many apologists of the Greek Catholic Church who took the side of Cyril VI, P. Bacel is the first Catholic historian we know of who openly questioned the legitimacy of his election, without going so far as to support his rival, Sylvester.[14] He is contradicted by the argument of the papal confirmation, needless to say from an entirely Catholicizing perspective.[15]

More surprising is the contribution of S. Gholam, representing the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch at a theological symposium organized in 1980 at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Chambésy-Geneva.[16] Taking the side of Sylvester, he simply revives the old question without however bringing any new element into the case.[17]


[2] Spiessens, p. 427

[3] Some examples, among them that of the election of Athanasius Dabbas III, can be found in Delikanis, Patriarchal Writings (in Greek) (Constantinople 1905), vol. 2, pp. 155-159, 165, 172-177, 638-641; cited by Maximos, Metropolitan of Sardis, “Le Patriarcat Oecuménique dans l’Eglise Orthodoxe,” Théologie Historique, 32 (Paris, 1975), pp. 352-353. In fact, close ties had existed between the sees of Antioch and of Constantinople since the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) and even some time before. Later, in 702, under Arab doination the patriarchs of Antioch were forbidden to reside in Islamic territory and had to reside for forty years in the imperial city.

[4] The expression is taken from J. B. Darblade, La Collection Canonique Arabe des Melkites (XIIIème-XVIIème siècle) in Fonti Codif. Can. Orientale, 2nd Series, part 13 (Harissa, Lebanon, 1946).

[5] E. Jarawan, La Collection Canonique Arabe des Melkites et sa physionomie propre, daprès documents et textes en comparaison avec le droit byzantine, Corona Lateranensis, 15 (Rome, 1969), pp. 54-55.

[6] See P. Nabaa, “Influence du droit byzantine sur le droit melkite,” thesis, Oriental Pontifical Institute, Rome, 1947.

[7] Jarawan, p. 49

[8] Duprey, “La structure synodale de l’Eglise dans la théologie orientale,” P.O.C. 20 (1970), p. 4. We also refer the reader to the canonical rules in effect in the Greek Patriarchate of Antioch, for example, canons IV and XIV of Nicea I, and canons XIX and XIII of Antioch.

[9] Spiessens, “Les Patriarches d’Antioche,” p. 433.

[10] Spiessens, p. 428, finds only one precedent for this election of a patriarch by the community of Damascus alone, that of Mark of Saidnaya in 1451. Hoever, the election was subsequently confirmed by the Holy Synod of Antioch.

[11] Spiessens, pp. 428-429. The following studies can be usefully consulted: P. L’Huiller, “La pluralité des consécrateurs dans les chirotonies épiscopales,” Messager de l’exarchat du patriarcat russe en Europe occidentale 11:42-43 (1963), p. 102 ff. L. Mortari, Consacrazione episcopale e collegialita. La testamonianza della Chiesa antica (Florence, 1969).  

[12] See Nasrallah, Sa Béatitude IV et la succession apostolique du siège d’Antioche (Paris, 1963); and “Le Patriarcat d’Antioche est-il resté, après 1054, en communion avec Rome?” Istina 21 (1976), pp. 374-411

[13] The thesis developed by Nasrallah can be summarized thus: Cyril VI Thanas, unlike Sylvester of Cyprus, is the only legitimate patriarch on the throne of Antioch. So there is perfect continuity between the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Chalcedonian Church of Antioch. Throughout its history, this see has never been truly in a state of disunion with Rome. The Greek Orthodox, on the other hand, have the unhappy privilege of being “separated” from the authentic lineage of the see. In this way, since 1724, the Antiochian identity has gradually been lost; one part of the community turned towards Constantinople and became more Byzantine than Antiochian, and the other, subjugated to Vatican policy, became more Roman.

[16] S. Gholam, “Evolution et originalité de l’Eglise locale d’Antioche,” in Eglise locale et Eglise universelle, Etudes théologiques, 1 (Chambésy, 1981), pp. 45-68.

[17] This significant passage is worth quoting: “The first Greek Catholic Patriarch was Cyril Tanas, ordained in 1724 in a way contrary to the canons and laws in force in the Orthodox Church. Despite this, in 1729 Benedict XIII sent him the decree of confirmation accompanied by the pallium [NB: In fact, the 1729 confirmation was informal and the pallium was only sent in 1744. -Samn!]. He took possession of the patriarchal palace by force but had to abandon it when the Sublime Porte became aware of his intentions and of those of his protectors. The Orthodox then had a legitimate patriarch elected in the person of Sylvester I (1724-1766), who came from Mount Athos and was consecrated bishop at Constantinople at the demand of the Orthodox of Damascus [NB: this should be ‘Aleppo’. -Samn!] (Gholam, p. 62.

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