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The Schism of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox:
by Father Michael Azhoul, St. Catherine’s Mission, St. Louis, Missouri (1994)
The East-West Schism, or the Great Schism, divided medieval Christendom into Eastern (Greek)
and Western (Latin) branches, which later became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the
Roman Catholic Church, respectively.
A schism is a break in the Church's authority structure and communion and is different from a heresy,
which means false doctrine. Church authorities have long recognized that the sacraments function
even if their minister is in schism. There have been many other schisms, from the 2nd century until
today, but none as significant as the one between East and West.
Rise of Rome
After the fall and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the natural leading centers of the Church
were Antioch and Alexandria. Alexandria had been assisted by Mark [2], one of theTwelve Apostles.
Antioch had attracted Peter and Paul and Barnabas, plus others of the followers. Antioch was the
base from which Paul made his missionary journeys to the pagans (Germanics, Slavs, and Bulgars).
. The Church of Antioch sent the apostles Peter and Paul to Rome to assist the fledgling church
there in its growth, and because Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire. Antioch regarded Peter
as its first bishop [4].
The church of Rome naturally became the primary church, the capital of Christianity. [5] Rome had an
early and significant Christian population.[5] It was closely identified with the Apostle Paul, who
preached[6] and was martyred there, and the Apostle Peter, who was a martyr there as well. The
Eastern Orthodox liturgy calls Peter and Paul "the wisest Apostles and their princes" and "the radiant
ornaments of Rome".[7][8] Peter is seen as founder of the Church in Rome,[9] and the bishops of Rome
as his successors.[10][11] While the Eastern cities of Alexandria and Antioch produced theological
works, the bishops of Rome focused on what Romans admittedly did best: administration. [5]
In the fourth century when the Roman emperors were trying to control the Church, theological
questions were running rampant throughout the Roman Empire[14]. The influence of Greek
speculative thought on Christian thinking led to all sorts of divergent and conflicting opinions [15].
Christ's commandment to love others as he loved, seemed to have been lost in the intellectual
abstractions of the time. Theology was also used as a weapon against opponent bishops, since being
branded a heretic was the only sure way for a bishop to be removed by other bishops. Incompetence
was not sufficient grounds for removal.
In the early church up until the ecumenical councils, Rome was regarded as an important centre of
Christianity, especially since it was the capital of the Roman Empire. The eastern and southern
Mediterranean bishops generally recognized a persuasive leadership and authority of the Bishop of
Rome, because the teaching of the bishop of Rome was almost invariably correct. But the
Mediterranean Church did not regard the Bishop of Rome as any sort of infallible source, nor did they
acknowledge any juridical authority of Rome.
After the sole emperor of all the Roman Empire Constantine built the new imperial capital in
Byzantium on the Bosporous, the centre of gravity in the empire was fully recognized to have
completely shifted to the eastern Mediterranean. Rome lost the senate to Byzantium and lost its
status and gravitas as imperial capital.
The patriarchs of Constantinople often tried to adopt an imperious position over the patriarchs of
other branches of Christianity. In the case of Nestorius (whose actual teaching is now recognized to
be not overtly heretical, although it is clearly deficient) [16] patriarchs were able to make the charge of
heresy stick and successfully had Nestorian patriarchs deposed. This was probably more because
their Christian history was delivered with a heavy sarcastic arrogance which matched his high-handed
personality [17].
The opinion of the Bishop of Rome was often sought, especially when the patriarchs of the Eastern
Mediterranean were locked in dispute. The bishops of Rome never obviously belonged to either the
Antiochian or the Alexandrian schools of theology, and usually managed to steer a middle course
between whatever extremes were being propounded by theologians of either school. Because Rome
was remote from the centers of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, it was frequently hoped its
bishop would be more impartial.
The opinion of the bishop of Rome was always canvassed, and was often longed for. However the
Bishop of Rome's opinion was by no means automatically right. For instance, the Decisions of Pope
Leo of Rome was highly regarded, and formed the basis for the ecumenical council's formulation. But
it was not universally accepted and was even called "impious" and "blasphemous" by some.[18] The
next ecumenical council corrected a possible imbalance in Pope Leo's presentation. Although the
Bishop of Rome was well-respected even at this early date, the concept of the primacy of the Roman
Papal authority were only developed much later.
Following the Sack of Rome by invading European Goths, Rome slid into the Dark Ages which
afflicted most parts of Western Europe, and became increasingly isolated and irrelevant to the wider
Mediterranean Church. This was a situation which suited and pleased a lot of the Eastern
Mediterranean patriarchs and bishops [19]. It was not until the rise of Charlemagne and his successors
that the Church of Rome arose out of obscurity on the back of the military successes of the western
Mediterranean adventurers.
New Rome
When the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great embraced Christianity, he summoned the First
Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 to resolve a number of issues which troubled the Church. The
bishops at the council confirmed the position of the metropolitan patriarchs of Rome and Alexandria
as having authority outside their own province, and also the existing privileges of the churches in
Antioch and the other provinces.[20] These leaders were later called Patriarchates and were given an
order of precedence: Rome, as capital of the empire was naturally given first place, then came
Alexandria and Antioch. In a separate canon the Council also approved the special honor given to
Jerusalem over other clergy subject to the same metropolitan.[21]
Five Patriarchs
Soon, Constantine erected a new capital at Byzantium, a strategically-placed city on the Bosporus.
He renamed his new capital Nova Roma ("New Rome"), but the city would become known as
Constantinople. The Second Ecumenical Council, held at the new capital in 381, now elevated the
site of Constantinople itself, to a position ahead of all the other chief metropolitan centers, except that
of Rome.[22] Mentioning in particular that the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace, would come after
the privileges already recognized for Alexandria and Antioch.[23]
The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451, confirming the authority already held by
Constantinople, granted its archbishop jurisdiction over the three provinces mentioned by the First
Council of Constantinople:
The council also ratified an agreement between Antioch and Jerusalem, whereby Jerusalem held
jurisdiction over three provinces,[25] numbering it among the five great centers.[26] There were now five
patriarchs presiding over the Church within the Byzantine Empire, in the following order of
precedence: the Patriarch of Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Alexandria, the
Patriarch of Antioch and the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Historical Foundations causing Schism
Empires East and West
Disunion in the Roman Empire further contributed to disunion in the Church. Theodosius the Great,
who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, died in 395 and was the last
Emperor to rule over a united Roman Empire. Following his death, the Empire was divided into
western and eastern halves, each under its own Emperor. By the end of the 5th century, the Western
Roman Empire had been overrun by the Germanic tribes, while the Eastern Roman Empire (known
also as the Byzantine Empire) continued to thrive. Thus, the political unity of the Roman Empire was
the first to fall.
In the West, the collapse of civil government left the Church practically in charge in many areas, and
bishops took to administering secular cities and domains.[5] When royal and imperial rule
reestablished itself, it had to contend with power wielded independently by the Church. In the East,
however, imperial and, later, Islamic rule dominated the Eastern bishops due to the invasion of the
region by Seljuks and Mamluks.[5]
Many other factors caused the East and West to drift further apart. The dominant language of the
West was Latin, whilst that of the East was Greek. Soon after the fall of the Western Empire, the
number of individuals who spoke both Latin and Greek began to dwindle, and communication
between East and West grew much more difficult. With linguistic unity gone, cultural unity began to
crumble as well. The two halves of the Church were naturally divided along similar lines; they
developed different rites and had different approaches to religious doctrines. Although the Great
Schism was still centuries away, its outlines were already perceptible. [27]
Papal Supremacy and Pentarchy
The primary causes of the Schism were disputes over conflicting claims of jurisdiction, in particular
over papal authority—Pope Leo IX claimed he held authority over the four Eastern patriarchs. [28]
Eastern Orthodox today states that the 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon explicitly proclaimed
the equality of the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople, and that it established the highest court of
ecclesiastical appeal in Constantinople. The seventh canon of the Council of Ephesus declared:
It is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival
to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa. But those
who shall dare to compose a different faith, or to introduce or offer it to persons desiring to turn
to the acknowledgment of the truth, whether from Heathenism or from Judaism, or from any
heresy whatsoever, shall be deposed, if they be bishops or clergymen. . . [29]
Eastern Orthodox today state that this Canon of the Council of Ephesus explicitly prohibited
modification of the Nicene Creed drawn up by the first Ecumenical Council in 325, the wording of
which but, it is claimed, not the substance, had been modified by the second Ecumenical Council,
making additions such as which Christian Patriarch has greater authority over another.
In the Orthodox view, the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) would have universal primacy in a reunited
Christendom, as primus inter pares without power of jurisdiction.[30]
There were other less significant catalysts for the Schism however, including variance over liturgical
Many other issues increased tensions.
Emperor Leo III outlawed the practice of praying to Christian icons in the 8th century. This
policy, which came to be called Iconoclasm, was rejected by the West.
The Western Church's insertion of "Filioque" into the Latin version of the Nicene Creed.
Disputes in the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Sicily over whether Rome or Constantinople had
ecclesiastical jurisdiction occured.
In the East, endorsement of the subordination of the church to the religious claims of the
dominant political order, was most fully evident in the Byzantine Empire at the end of the first
millennium,[31] while in the West, where the decline of imperial authority left the Church
relatively independent,[32] there was growth of the power of the Papacy.
As a result of the Muslim conquests of the territories of the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch
and Jerusalem, only two rival powerful centers of ecclesiastical authority, Constantinople and
Rome, remained.[33]
Certain practices in the West that the East believed represented illegitimate innovation
included the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist.
Celibacy among Western priests (both monastic and parish) was opposed to by the Eastern
discipline whereby parish priests could be married men with families.
Mutual excommunication of 1054
Most of the direct causes of the Great Schism, however, are far less grandiose than the famous
filioque. The relations between the papacy and the Byzantine court were good in the years leading up
to 1054. The emperor Constantine IX and the Pope Leo IX were allied through the mediation of the
Lombard Ruler of Italy and led armies against the ravaging Normans.
Meanwhile, the Normans were busy imposing Latin customs and Roman Catholic practices, including
the unleavened bread—with papal approval. When Pope Leo died on April 19, 1054, the legates'
authority legally ceased, but they did not seem to notice.[36] The patriarch's refusal to address the
issues at hand drove the legatine mission to extremes. On July 16, the three legates from the Holy
Roman Emperor entered the church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople during the divine service
on a Saturday afternoon and placed a Papal Bull of Excommunication (1054) on the altar. The
legates left for Rome two days later, leaving behind a city in chaos due to riots. The patriarch in
Constantinople had the immense support of the people against the Emperor, who had supported the
legates to his own detriment. As a result, the Great Schism had begun.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says, "The consummation of the schism is generally dated from the
year 1054, when this unfortunate sequence of events took place. The validity of the bull is questioned
because Pope Leo IX was already dead at that time it was issued by the Holy Roman Emperor. On
the other side, the Byzantine Patriarch excommunicated only the legates who had delivered the illegal
Papal Bull.
It should be noted that the bull of excommunication issued against Patriarch Michael at
Constantinople stated, as one of its reasons for the excommunication, that the Eastern Church had
deleted of the word "filioque" from the original Nicene Creed. It is now common knowledge that the
Eastern Church did not delete any thing, it was the Western Church that added this word to the
original Nicene Creed.
East and West since 1054
"Even after 1054, friendly relations between East and West continued. The two parts of Christendom
were not yet conscious of a great gap of separation between them. … The dispute remained
something of which ordinary Christians in East and West were largely unaware". [37]
There was no single event that marked the breakdown. Rather, the two churches slid into and out of
schism over a period of several centuries, punctuated with temporary reconciliations. During the
Fourth Crusade, however, Latin crusaders and Venetian merchants sacked Constantinople itself,
looting The Church of Holy Wisdom and various other Orthodox Holy sites. This event and the final
treaty established a separate Latin Christian Empire of the East under the Latin Patriarch of
Constantinople (with various other Crusader states). This period of chaotic rule over the sacked and
looted lands of the Byzantine Empire is still known among Eastern Christians as the Frankish
Invasion. Later attempts at reconciliation, such as the Second Council of Lyon, met with little or no
success until the middle of the Twentieth Century.
In 1965, the Catholic Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople lifted the mutual
excommunications dating from the eleventh century.[38]. In 1995 (Jun 29), Pope John Paul II and
Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople again withdrew the previous 11th Century
excommunications and concelebrated the Eucharist together. In May 1999, John Paul II was the first
pope since the Great Schism to visit an Eastern Orthodox country: Romania. Upon greeting John
Paul II, the Romanian Patriarch Teoctist stated: "The second millennium of Christian history began
with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real
commitment to restoring Christian unity." Pope John Paul II visited other heavily Orthodox areas
such as Ukraine, despite lack of welcome at times, and he said that healing the divisions between
Western and Eastern Christianity was one of his fondest wishes.
Other Disputes
PAPAL AUTHORITY: A lot of the issues that currently separate the two churches are
ecclesiological. Principal among them is the content of papal primacy within any future unified church.
The Orthodox insist that it should be a "primacy of honor", as in the ancient church and not a "primacy
of authority", whereas the Catholics wish to maintain the Papal role as has been recently developed.
CELIBACY OF CLERGY: Celibacy of the clergy is also a dividing point, although the Catholic church
does allow married men to be ordained in particular Eastern Rite churches. Finally there is
disagreement on divorce: the Catholic church forbids it, whereas the Orthodox permits it, though
allowing remarriage only in penitential form.
CHURCH GOVERNMENT: A major sticking point is the style of church government. The Orthodox
Church has always maintained the original position of collegiality of the bishops. And although the
Roman Catholic Church recently flirted with collegiality, it is still very much a bureau-monarchical
CHURCH LAW: The Orthodox Church has also emphasised economical, or a certain amount of
flexibility in the rules depending upon the circumstances of each particular situation. The Roman
Catholic Church is very much wrapped up in its codes of church law covering almost every aspect of
church life.
BAPTISM: Some Orthodox Churches do not require baptism in the case of a convert already
baptized in the Catholic Church. Catholic Churches require all converts to be baptized regardless of
their previous affiliation with the Orthodox Church.
MARRIAGE: Most Orthodox Churches allow marriages between members of the Catholic Church
and the Orthodox Church. Catholic canon law allows marriage between a Catholic and an Orthodox
only if permission is obtained from the Catholic bishop.[41] The Code of Canons of the Eastern
Churches authorizes the local Catholic bishop to permit a Catholic priest, of whatever rite, to bless the
marriage of Orthodox faithful who being unable without great difficulty to approach a priest of their
own Church, ask for this spontaneously.
SACRAMENTS: The Catholic Church allows its clergy to administer the sacraments of Penance, the
Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, if they
spontaneously ask for the sacraments and are properly disposed.[39] It also allows Catholics who
cannot approach a Catholic minister to receive these three sacraments from clergy of the Eastern
Orthodox Church, whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and
provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided.[40]
1. Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, s.v.
"Great Schism"
2. John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2002, p144
3. Acts 11:19-26, Acts 12:24-25, Acts 13:1-3, Acts 14:24-28, Acts 15:1-2, Acts 15:22-40, Acts 18:22-23, Acts
19:21-22, Gal 2:11-14
4. John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2002, p144
5. Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972
6. Acts 28:17-31
7. Great Vespers of 29 June
8. Menaion, 29 June
9. The Illuminator, The Newspaper of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, Oct.-Dec. 2004, p.7
10. "Linus was bishop of Rome after the holy apostle Peter"
11. Pope Benedict XVI is "the 265th successor of the St Peter" (Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, 2007 Annual
Report to His All Holiness Bartholomew
12. Roman Presidency and Christian Unity in our Time
13. John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2002, esp pp
14. John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2002, pp
15. John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2002, p68
16. John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, SVS Press, NY, 2004, p173
17. John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, SVS Press, NY, 2004, p173
18. The Sixth Book of the Select Letters of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch, vol. II, p. 254
19. Aristeides Papadakis The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, SVS Press, NY, 1994 esp p14
20. "Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in
all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let
the Churches retain their privileges" (First Ecumenical Council, Canon VI).
21. "Since custom and ancient tradition have prevailed that the Bishop of Ælia [i.e., Jerusalem] should be honoured,
let him, saving its due dignity to the Metropolis, have the next place of honour" (First Ecumenical Council, Canon
22. "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because
Constantinople is New Rome" (Second Ecumenical Council, Canon III)
23. "Let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops
of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of
Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic
bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs" (Second Ecumenical Council, Canon
24. Fourth Ecumenical Council, Canon XXVIII
25. Fourth Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Jurisdiction of Jerusalem and Antioch
26. Bishop Kallistos (Ware) (1963), The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, London, ISBN 0-14-020592-6), p. 34
28. Aristeides Papadakis The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, SVS Press, NY, 1994 p14)
29. (Extracts from the Acts of the Council of Ephesus). The creed quoted in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus (the
Third Ecumenical Council) is that of the first Ecumenical Council]], not the creed as modified by the second
Ecumenical Council, and so does not have additions such as "who proceeds from the Father" (ibidem).
30. Emmanuel Clapsis. "Papal primacy". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved on 2008-10-16. "The
regional primacy can be conceived not as power or jurisdiction but only as an expression of the unity and
unanimity of all the bishops, and consequently of all the churches, of an area. We must understand the universal
primacy of the Roman Church similarly. Based on Christian Tradition, it is possible to affirm the validity of the
church of Rome's claims of universal primacy. [...] Orthodoxy does not reject Roman primacy as such, but simply
a particular way of understanding that primacy. Within a reintegrated Christendom the bishop of Rome will be
considered primus inter pares serving the unity of God's Church in love. He cannot be accepted as set up over the
Church as a ruler whose diakonia is conceived through legalistic categories of power of jurisdiction."
31. Church and State in the Byzantine Empire
32. Church and State in Western Europe
33. "During the decade following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, his followers captured three of the five
'patriarchates' of the early church — Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem — leaving only Rome and
Constantinople, located at opposite ends of the Mediterranean and, eventually, also at opposite ends of the Schism
of 1054" (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
34. Cleenewerck, Laurent His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism between the Catholicand
Eastern Orthodox Churches. Washington, DC: EUC Press (2008) pp. 145-155
35. Norwich, John Julius. The Normans in the South 1016-1130. (1967) pg 102.
36. Norwich, John Julius Byzantium, The Apogee. New York: Alfred A. Knoff (1992) p.320
37. Bishop Kallistos (Ware), op. cit., p. 67
38. Joint Declaration [1]
39. Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 125; cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §3
and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §3
40. Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 123; cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §2
and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §2
41. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 813 and Code of Canon Law, canon 1124
42. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 833
43. Code of Canon Law, canon 1116 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 832
44. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 832