Circumstances created an unlikely community of interests between the Habsburgs and the leading element of Romanian society – the upper clergy. In search of allies for their campaign to overturn the dominance of the three nations the Habsburgs looked to the Romanians, who could hardly be defenders of a political and social order that disdained them as outsiders. They recognized the inconvenience of the Romanians’ Orthodoxy, but they had at hand a stratagem that had proved effective among the Ruthenians in the seventeenth century – the Church Union with Rome based on the principles enunciated at the synod of Ferrara-Florence in 1439, which had temporarily ended the schism between the Byzantine and Western churches. The Church Union with the Romanians would serve perfectly the purposes of the Habsburgs, who were intent on using the Roman Catholic Church as one of the instruments for holding together the empire’s diverse territories. Thus, under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Leopold Kollonich, negotiations with the Romanian Orthodox bishop and his archpriests, which were conducted by the Jesuits, who returned to Transylvania with Habsburg armies, resulted in the Act of Union of 1701. Under its terms the Orthodox clergy and faithful acknowledged the Pope of Rome as the visible head of the Christian Church and accepted the use of unleavened bread in the Communion, the existence of Purgatory, and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. But all other matters, including canon law, ritual, and practices such as a married parish clergy, remained untouched. In return the Romanian clergy were to enjoy the same rights and privileges as the members of the three nations among whom they lived. In this way the Habsburgs gained the good will of an influential elite, who could, if they chose, foster imperial aims among the large rural population. In time, so the Habsburgs and Kollonich reasoned, the Romanian clergy would come to see the Church Union as a step toward conversion to Roman Catholicism. The now Greek Catholic, or Uniate, clergy acquired, or at least were promised, social and political benefits befitting their station. The Court of Vienna chose to believe that the actions of the clergy also signified the acceptance of the Union by the mass of Romanian peasants, and thus it regarded the Orthodox Church as having ceased to exist.
The Church Union with Rome marked a turning point in the history of the Romanians of Transylvania. It opened to them Western cultural and intellectual influences of the most diverse sorts by providing the new Greek Catholic clergy with unprecedented opportunities for higher education in Roman Catholic lyceums in Transylvania and universities in Rome, Vienna, and Trnava (Nagyszombat). The aim of the Habsburgs and Kollonich was to form a well-educated and devoted Greek Catholic clergy that would be inspired to gain adherents for the Union among the mass of the rural population. But events were to take a different course. In time, rare (for Romanians) educational opportunities and the experience of Central Europe enabled the Greek Catholic clergy to assume political as well as spiritual leadership of the Romanians as they organized the struggle to end discrimination against Romanians and raise themselves to the rank of a fourth nation.
No less important a consequence of the Union was the sense of identity which it fostered and which by mid-century the clerical elite had transformed into a new idea of nation. Inspired by their bishop Ion Inochentie Micu-Klein (bishop, 1729–44), who was conscious of Roman origins and regarded his church as a bridge between East and West, they conceived of nation in ways that differed fundamentally from the privileged communities represented by the three nations. The nation the clergy served was ethnic, and it encompassed all Romanians, even if social distinctions remained strong. They accepted without debate their descent from the Roman conquerors of Dacia and the Latin origins of their language, but they were not modern nationalists, as they did not go so far as to make either history or language, that is, ethnicity, the justification for equality with the three nations. Rather, they still depended on the diplomas of emperors and kings and other authoritative juridical documents for that purpose. Yet, they conceived of the Church Union as significant beyond the bounds of religion. It was for them a return to Rome, to the ethnic origins that ultimately defined them. At the same time, they expressed devotion to their Eastern cultural and religious heritage and were utterly opposed to making their Greek Catholic Church more Latin.
The mass of the peasants reacted to the Church Union very differently from the clerical elite. They resisted it with all their being, an obstinacy that reveals a mental climate in the villages beholden to tradition and a sense of community defined by religion. The Greek Catholic clergy, who were trained to be missionaries of the Union in the countryside, in fact did little. They were deeply aware of how devoted the peasants were to Orthodox rituals and practices, and even though the Union made no changes in either, they were anxious to avoid the upheaval they knew even the mention of Rome and the Pope would cause. The great majority of peasants, therefore, did not know that the clergy had accepted the Union and that they, too, were considered Uniates.