The Great Schism That Divided East and West

Author: Paul L. Miller


In 1054, Pope Leo IX sent an emissary, Cardinal Humbert, from Rome to Constantinople. The cardinal's visit with Patriarch Cerularios was meant to be a mission of conciliation. It became anything but.

The cardinal excommunicated the patriarch who, in turn, excommunicated the cardinal. The main point of contention was the use of leavened bread during the celebration of Mass, according to MacMillan Publishing's

While it is commonly accepted that the separation of Rome and Constantinople into two Christian Churches was the result of centuries of conflict, the event became known as the Great Schism of 1054. The schism, which reflected numerous long-standing tensions between the eastern and western Roman empire, may have been inevitable. The Church had remained united for centuries without solving several theological disputes. Political and cultural differences between east and west further fueled the separation.

"The problems had been brewing for some time," said Father William Saunders, president of the Notre Dame Institute in Alexandria. "There were conflicting power centers with different cultural traditions." The Mediterranean civil centers became strongholds for the early Christian Church. Disciples carried their ministries to the population centers of the time. "Cities such as Antioch, Rome and Alexandria attracted the apostles and evolved into centers for evangelization," John Faris wrote in

The conversion of Emperor Constantine provided the Church with a political superstructure in which it could flourish. The history of the Church after that event in some ways paralleled the history of the Roman Empire for the remainder of the millennium.

When the sleepy fishing village of Byzantium was transformed into Constantinople ¾ the "New Rome" ¾ in 330, that city also became a center of Christianity.

The Church was soon organized into patriarchates. Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem became official evangelical headquarters.

In the 20th century, the modern day locations for these ancient cities may seem like a short commuter flight from one another. For people living near the Mediterranean in the early days of the Church, they extended from one end of the world to the other.

Despite the political unity of the empire, the patriarchates represented distinct peoples and cultures. Those distinctions became a part of the Universal Church.

"Liturgies originated in the second, third and fourth centuries," said Chorbishop Seely Beggiani of the Maronite seminary in Washington and a Catholic University professor. "Those liturgies reflect local cultures. They used different vestments, music and art. Even among various eastern churches, there can be a lot of differences."

Constantinople, formally established as the political capital of the Eastern Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius in 395, also developed into the more prominent of the eastern patriarchates.

The liturgical tradition of Constantinople, known as the Byzantine Rite, is credited to St. John Chrysostom. Because of the city's prominence and later missionary activity, the Byzantine Rite became widely practiced. In an attempt to maintain unity among the diversely developing traditions and to define Catholic doctrine, the idea of the ecumenical council was born. The first seven councils ¾ all of which still are recognized as valid by the Catholic Church ¾ were held from 325 to 787.

These proclamations of the first councils also are recognized by Byzantine Rite Christians. For eastern churches currently not in communion with Rome, proclamations from later councils are not recognized. Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. Though intended to foster unity, the councils raised issues which caused the first major separations from the Catholic Church. The Trinitarian doctrine of the first two councils were universally accepted. But during the third council, the theology of Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople was condemned, causing a rift and the development of a Nestorian Church separate from the Catholic Church.

A larger rift occurred at the fourth council, held in Chalcedon in 451. Terminology regarding the dual nature of Christ ¾ simultaneously divine and human ¾ was rejected by many representatives from the Alexandrian, Antiochian and Armenian Churches.

Alexandria, established in Egypt by Alexander the Great in 331, accepted the liturgical rite developed by St. Mark, believed to be an adaptation of the Antiochene Rite. The patriarchate had apostolic charge of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians. It was the first indigenous African church, 600 years before Islam.

Many Alexandrian Rite Christians broke from the Catholic Church and became known as non- Chalcedonians. Cultural differences and "terminological misunderstandings" aggravated the disagreement, according to the

Outside pressures on the Roman Empire also took their toll on Christian unity. After the 7th-century death of Muhammad, his followers launched a jihad "in an effort to conquer the entire world," according to Faris. Muslims quickly gained control of three patriarchates ¾ Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria ¾ leaving Constantinople as the only unoccupied eastern patriarchate.

The western empire faced repeated attacks from the north and eventually fell to the Barbarians. The papacy was left as the dominant political entity in Rome. Subsequent popes exercised their political authority, whereas Byzantine patriarchs only controlled church affairs.

This too was a cause of friction, as several patriarchs felt the papacy had gained undue prominence, according to Father Saunders.

Continued invasions and the growth of the world of Islam further isolated Rome from Constantinople. Travel between the two cities was dangerous. For Roman popes, contact with the developing cultures of Western Europe became more prevalent than with the eastern empire.

The differing orientations were further entrenched through missionary activity. Constantinople had little access to Western Europe, but found Eastern Europe ripe for mission work.

Byzantine missionaries carried their liturgical rite into Slavic lands and as far north as Russia and the Ukraine by the 10th century. Two of the more famous of these missionaries were Ss. Cyril and Methodius. The two brothers were dispatched from Constantinople when the prince of greater Moravia requested Christian missionaries from the Roman emperor.

Though the relations between Rome and Constantinople were strained, St. Cyril sought and won approval from the pope to translate Scripture into vernacular languages ¾ the first such translations. In so doing, he discovered the Greek alphabet was insufficient for the task, leading him to develop the Cyrillic alphabet.

Missionary expansion was partly responsible for a temporary schism that occurred in the 9th century. From 861 to 867, Pope Nicholas I and Patriarch Photius excommunicated each other when both attempted to exert control over the emerging church in Bulgaria. Also at issue was western insertion of the filioque, "and the Son," in the Nicene Creed. Church relations between Rome and Constantinople were restored, but the root of the problem ¾ papal primacy ¾ was never solved between then and 1054. For Rome, it was a Roman Church, headed by a papacy as established by Christ.

Rome had been established as the senior patriarchate by the early ecumenical councils, but eastern patriarchs did not always recognize the pope's authority in all matters. And after the 11th century, few eastern Christians recognized that authority at all.

The Byzantine or Orthodox Church resulted from the schism. It shared a common heritage and common doctrine, as set forth in the first seven ecumenical councils, but it was no longer aligned with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church still exists in many forms today, but many Eastern Rite Christians now are in communion with the pope. The series will continue next week with the reunification of these Eastern Rite Catholics into the Catholic Church.

This article appeared in the August 4, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

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