THE GREAT SCHISM THAT DIVIDED EAST AND WEST
by 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 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
The Church was soon organized into patriarchates. Rome, Constantinople,
Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem became official evangelical
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
"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
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
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
Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the
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