Disunion within the Union: The Uniate Church and the Partitions of Poland by Larry Wolff

November 22, 2019
Disunion within the Union: The Uniate Church and the Partitions of Poland by Larry Wolff

Disunion within the Union: The Uniate Church and the Partitions of Poland 
by Larry Wolff
published by Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute 2019 | 156 pp 
ISBN: 9780674246287 (paperback) $18.95

Picture of book: Disunion within the UnionBetween 1772 and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria concluded agreements to annexand finally eradicate the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. As a result of the partitions of Poland, the members of the Uniate Church (later known as the Greek Catholic Church) found their dioceses fractured by the borders of three regional hegemons.

Larry Wolff’s deeply engaging study of these events delves into the politics of the episcopal elite, the Vatican, and the three rulers behind the partitions: Catherine II of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia, and Joseph II of Austria (with their successors). Wolff uses correspondence with bishops in the Uniate Church and ministerial communiques to reveal the nature of state policy as it unfolded.

This detailed study of the responses of common Uniate parishioners, as well as of their bishops and hierarchs, to the pressure of the partitions paints a vivid portrait of conflict, accommodation, and survival in a Church subject to the grand designs of the late eighteenth century’s premier absolutist powers.

Additionally, Wolff adopts methodologies from the history of popular culture pioneered by Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre) and Carlo Ginzburg (The Cheese and the Worms) to explore religious experience on a popular level, especially questions of confessional identity and practices of piety.

“Ukraine has been blessed and damned as a land between the East and the West, as has been the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church, an institution poised between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West. Larry Wolff provides an erudite and fascinating insight into the late eighteenth century, when the Uniates, facing attempts by imperial Russia to destroy them, were able to survive thanks to the enlightened if self-serving policies of Austria’s Habsburg monarchs.”

Paul Robert Magocsi
University of Toronto

Available for purchase through Harvard University Press.

Larry WolffLarry Wolff is a professor of history at New York University long associated with HURI. He has written numerous works on Eastern Europe, including the groundbreaking work, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994). His latest publication is The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon (2016).


Disunion within the Union (Part II, 77-85)


For Love of the Jesuits

From November 1772 to January 1773, Smohozhevs'kyi was in St. Petersburg, courting his new sovereign and attempting to attain assurances of the security of his Uniate diocese of Polatsk, now incorporated into Catherine’s empire. His conscientious courtiership allowed him not only to sample the artichokes and coconuts supplied to the imperial table, but also to make the acquaintance of the great ladies who attended the court of the tsarina. His sociability was sufficiently successful to attract a bevy of countesses from the grandest families—Golitsyn, Razumovskii, Naryshkin—to the liturgies that he celebrated in the Catholic church of St. Petersburg. He reported with satisfaction to Rome that these ladies “left convinced that there exists no essential difference between my masses and those of Russia.” Afterwards, in conversation, he was repeatedly asked about different details of the ceremony— vestments, missals, bells, the Eucharist—and he replied, “joking with modesty,” in such a way as to convince the ladies that any variations did not “damage the essence” of the Greek rite. After these replies, he reported to the Warsaw nuncio, all objections “vanished.”82 This report made the demonstration in St. Petersburg into a double-edged declaration, teaching suspicious and curious Russians that the Uniate rite was reassuringly familiar, while at the same time reminding the Vatican that the Uniates were ritually distinct from Roman Catholics. From its creation in 1596, the mixed nature of the Union—combining Catholic authority and theology with an Orthodox clergy and ritual—was troubling to aggressive purists in both the Catholic and Orthodox camps. In 1772, the partition of Poland and aggrandizement of Russian power and influence made it all the more important that the Uniate Church unequivocally affirm its own mixed construction, as a condition of independent identity and survival. If such self-identification was first practiced in 1772 at the highest levels of the episcopal hierarchy—as in the case of Smohozhevs'kyi —over the next generation its urgency would be experienced at every level of the Uniate Church, in all its social contexts, as village communities were invited to choose their own priests and individual peasants were solicited for their signatures.

Smohozhevs'kyi in St. Petersburg was not always in female company. He often visited with three members—“learned and humane”— of the Orthodox Synod, to discuss privately the points of division between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and even the possibilities of general reunion. These discussions were friendly even in disagreement, allowing for “intimate little disputes” (famigliari disputarelle). They culminated in a seven-hour informal symposium on issues of ritual and theology, with serious debate over the nature of the Eucharist. “Heated by such a long conversation,” Smohozhevs'kyi had to take to his bed with fever for four days, “diverting” himself by reading Greek authorities on Eucharistic forms. Fully recovered and returned to society at the home of Count Chernyshev, he was provoked in company—by an outspoken Russian theologian—to pronounce publicly upon the possible union of the Churches. His listeners appeared “strongly surprised” to learn that “the pope seeks nothing but dogmatic Union, and, in the rest, regarding the sacred rites and truly pious and honest customs, as well as ecclesiastical liberty, he is accustomed without difficulty to condescend to the desires of nations (alle brame delle Nazioni)”—as demonstrated in the case of the Ruthenian Uniates themselves.83 Again the declaration cut two ways, offering the Russian Empire the Uniate Church as a model of ecumenical unity, while informing Rome of the precise terms in which the Uniate archbishop would construe and defend the Catholicism of the Uniates.

The message to the Vatican was underlined by the extraordinary exclamation, addressed to the Warsaw nuncio Garampi, that followed at this point in the dispatch. For the “surprise” of the company, like the questions of the ladies after mass, confirmed for Smohozhevs'kyi that in the Russian Empire there prevailed the most damaging misimpressions of the Uniate compromise. Yet he did not blame either St. Petersburg or Orthodoxy:

Ah! my Reverend Monsignor, now I understand how much has been contributed to the stubbornness (cocciutaggine) of the Orthodox (disuniti), and to the present disasters of Poland, by that selfish (interessato) zeal of the Jesuit fathers, and also of some Latin bishops, exercised most damagingly for more than a hundred years, to render despised (vilipeso), ridiculous, and also abhorred the sacred rite of these Uniates, in order to occupy the property of their churches, to transfer so many villages, so many cities, and so many noble families of the Greek Catholic rite to the Latin rite, having in this manner debilitated the Church and the condition of the Uniates, and reinforced that of the Orthodox.84

In short, for the suspicion he encountered in St. Petersburg as a Uniate in 1772, he blamed a long history of Roman Catholic contempt and despoliation in Poland, especially by the Jesuits. The Uniate Church, from its founding in 1596, depended upon a negotiated compromise between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and that balance seemed more urgently threatened by Latin forces in Poland right up until 1772. Suspicion of Rome lingered through the next generation, and even acquired additional force from the need to demonstrate in the Russian Empire, as Smohozhevs'kyi did, that the Uniates preserved their Greek rites.

Smohozhevs'kyi was a carefully political prelate, and just as he underplayed any anxiety about Russian Orthodoxy while at the court of Catherine, so he could hardly denounce Roman Catholicism without qualification in a report to the Warsaw nunciature for relay to the Vatican. The blaming of the Jesuits was the solution to this political awkwardness, and they came to serve as a focus for Uniate resentment against the high-handedness of Roman Catholic sponsorship. There was a certain historical injustice in this, for it was a sixteenth-century Jesuit, Antonio Possevino, who played a leading role in the creation of the Uniate Church, while seventeenth-century Jesuits, as in the case of the Chinese rites, had advocated precisely the sort of open construction of Catholicism that Smohozhevs'kyi described in St. Petersburg as the key to religious union. The Jesuits in the eighteenth century, however, were natural scapegoats, denounced across Europe in a spirit of both Jansenism and Enlightenment, and finally abolished as an order by the Vatican itself in July 1773, the very same month that Smohozhevs'kyi wrote his report on the visit to St. Petersburg. In 1770 he already complained from Polatsk that he could devote more time to the defense of the Uniates, “if I were not disquieted and persecuted by the Jesuits of this College.” In 1772 he protested against “Jesuitical usurpations and persecutions,” warning Rome that “for love of the Jesuits it is not fitting to keep in ignorance the secular clergy of the Uniates, nor to leave open the door to transit ex Ritu ad Ritum, and now what use can I have from my poor and ignorant priests?”85 Thus, the Jesuits represented that privileged part of Roman Catholicism, privileged in property and in education, that underlined by contrast the poverty and ignorance of the Uniate clergy. At the same time, their worldly advantages made them appear as religious predators, undermining the Uniate Church by drawing off its members in transit to the Roman rite.

After the suppression of the Jesuits by the Vatican, they continued to exist insubordinately in Russia with the encouragement of Catherine, and Smohozhevs'kyi gave emphatic expression to his resentment in denunciations to Rome. The Jesuits had been ordered to divest themselves of their “habits,” the distinctive costumes of their order: “but I believe that changing habit will not change the hide—on the contrary, Jesuitism hidden and everywhere dispersed will be dangerous, so it will be necessary to see to it that no two of these Venerable Members should ever find themselves together in the same place.” Such paranoia was consistent with the most conventional eighteenth-century anticlerical myths of Jesuit plotting and conspiracy. Indeed, Jesuit insubordination in the face of the suppression of the society highlighted the crucial and defining issue of Catholicism for the Uniates: their own hierarchical subordination to the pope, in spite of their un-Roman rites. Smohozhevs'kyi took satisfaction in reporting himself “horrified” to hear an angry Jesuit theologian “vomiting” his opinion, regarding the suppression of his order, that “Luther left the Roman Church for less reason.”86 By 1774 the Uniate churchman achieved an even cruder intensity of expression, denouncing the supreme “bestiality” of Jesuit writings (bestialissime irriflessioni), at which point his outrage almost seemed to partake of the anticlerical fervor so favored by the age of Enlightenment. That same year, in the house of a Polish woman from a family with Jesuit-connections (she herself rather crudely characterized as grandissima Gesuitessa), Smohozhevs'kyi encountered a “pseudo-Jesuit” (Gesuitino) and warned him against trying to celebrate any masses in Uniate churches. The Gesuitino “ran” to complain to his “pseudo-Rector” (Rettorone), and the Smohozhevs'kyi feared they would attack him at court in Warsaw.87 Evidently, his fear was not so great, or he would not have spoken so plainly—in the mocking tones of Gesuitino and Rettorone— but the fury of his comments on the Jesuits during these years of their misfortune suggested a spiritual liberation from past intimidations.

Such seemingly gratuitous vehemence must be taken as an important symptomatic manifestation of the Uniate hierarchical mentality in the 1770s. These odd outbursts reflected more than resentment about the Jesuits preying upon the Uniate Church or about the symbolic juxtaposition of privileged and underprivileged within the Catholic world. Anger at the Jesuits reflected a whole historical perspective on the purpose and direction of the Uniate Church, from its foundation in 1596 to its new exigencies after 1772. The date of the Union of Brest in 1596 lends itself to alternative interpretations. Was the Union a triumph of the Counter-Reformation, ten years after the failure of the Spanish Armada, a Jesuit conquest in Eastern Europe whereby millions were converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism? Or was it a late Renaissance compromise, in the same spirit of religious conciliation that characterized the contemporary reigns of Tudor Queen Elizabeth I in England and Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II in Prague? The research of David Frick suggests that in the urban context of seventeenth-century Vilnius it was possible for the Uniates to negotiate neighborly patterns of social and cultural coexistence with other Christian communities of the city.88

Smohozhevs'kyi in St. Petersburg in the late eighteenth century clearly considered it an important point—of external policy toward state authority and of religious identity within the Church—to insist on a spirit of compromise presiding over the foundation and development of the Union. It was thus that he himself held forth upon the nature of religious union, concluding with historical references that revealed his interest in the Renaissance. The pope, he explained at the home of Chernyshev, was “accustomed without difficulty to condescend to the desires of nations, just as Eugenius IV condescended to the Greek propositions at the Council of Florence, and Clement VIII to the demands of the Ruthenians of Poland.”89 Thus, linking the reigns of Eugenius IV (1431–1447) and Clement VIII (1592–1605), and comparing the Council of Florence (1439) with the Union of Brest (1596), the eighteenth-century archbishop implicitly assigned the creation of the Uniate Church to an age of Renaissance union and compromise.

The Jesuits, with their Ignatian religious militancy, with their reputation for cleverness and machination, represented for Smohozhevs'kyi the alternative and false interpretation of the Union in terms of the Counter-Reformation. If the Union was no sincere compromise, but a simple victory for Catholicism, then the Rus populations had fallen for a Jesuit trick and changed their religion solely to serve the purpose of Counter-Reformation self-aggrandizement. In fact, this was the conventional Russian and Orthodox perspective on the Union— that it was created, in Catherine’s words, “by various tricks of the Catholic clergy”—and therefore Smohozhevs'kyi encountered Russian “surprise” when he explained the true nature of his Church. He himself powerfully resented what he saw as Jesuit contempt for the Uniates, and he made it his business in the Russian empire to refute that Jesuit perspective on the Union.

This historical concern was all the more relevant in the late eighteenth century, because the proper work of the Counter-Reformation remained still to be completed in the age of Enlightenment. Jean Delumeau has argued that the fundamental achievement of the Counter-Reformation in Western Europe was the “Christianization” of a clergy that previously showed a rather weak standard of piety and dedication, so that priests might in turn Christianize a hitherto deeply superstitious and ignorant population.90 The “ignorance” that Smohozhevs'kyi frankly noted in his own parish clergy called for Christian education, so that the likewise ignorant peasant laity might also achieve that level of religious identity necessary to the survival of the Uniate Church. He did not hesitate to propose that confiscated properties of the suppressed Jesuits should fund the education of the Uniate clergy: “Good God, such properties from their most antique foundations should belong to my clergy, needful of education more than anything else, the security of the Catholic religion depending upon this.”91

His denunciations of the Jesuits, even his interest in confiscations, allowed the archbishop’s religious program to be curiously conditioned by eighteenth-century enlightened values. Even his concern about ignorance and education, combined as it was with hostility to the Jesuits, involved the spirit of both Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. When he left Russia in 1780 to bring those same values to Poland as the metropolitan, he reminded Catherine of his educational and economic enterprises as evidence of his good service to her. Above all, it was his unrelenting attitude toward the Jesuits that allowed him to make the idea of religious union into an ideological connection between Renaissance and Enlightenment, effacing or revising the values of the problematic Counter-Reformation. His spirited speech, on behalf of a union that would allow “ecclesiastical liberty” to the “desires of nations,” took on some of the rhetorical coloring of Lessing or Voltaire. After all, his hyperbolic hatred of the Jesuits in itself brought the archbishop of Polatsk into peculiar alignment with the philosopher of Ferney. By his rejection of the Jesuits and his celebration of their suppression, Smohozhevs'kyi signaled a certain modernity of purpose, which may be observed at every level and location of the Uniate Church during the last decades of the eighteenth century. With the passing of the ancien régime, a specifically Uniate identity was cultivated in ritual and disseminated through education, to adapt an early modern religious experiment to forms and standards of piety consistent with the conditions of modern society.

82 Smogorzewski, Epistolae, 87–88.
83 Ibid., 87–89.
84 Ibid., 89.
85 Ibid., 59, 69.
86 Ibid., 103–5.
87 Ibid., 147.
88 David Frick, Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), pp, 77-98 & 117-72.
89 Ibid., 89; see also Gudziak, Crisis and Reform, 77–88, 245–55.
90 Jean Delumeau, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation, trans. Jeremy Moiser (1971; London, 1977), 175–202.
91 Smogorzewski, Epistolae, 115.

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