The ‘Great Schism’ between Roman and Orthodox Christianity


  • Question 186, from Ava, USA

    Why was there a schism between eastern and western Christianity?

    The division between the branches of Christianity now known as Roman Catholicism and Orthodox (or Eastern Orthodox) is often referred to as the ‘Great Schism’. It is usually dated to 1054CE when the then Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) excommunicated each other. There were some theological differences, but the primary reasons were political.

    To understand the division between eastern and western Christianity, it is important to know that the Roman Empire was politically divided for practical purposes . Rome was the western capital and Constantinople was the capital of the eastern empire. When Rome was conquered by the Goths in 476CE, the eastern empire continued. Although often referred to as the Byzantine Empire (as Constantinople was renamed Byzantium), the Byzantines regarded themselves as ‘true Romans’.

    In Rome the papacy assumed much political power, especially with the establishment of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ in 800CE under Charlemagne, which enforced the authority of the Pope in western Europe. However, Constantinople/Byzantium had its own emperor and as the two powers clashed politically, the patriarch there was compelled to support the Byzantine emperor.

    The ensuing theological debates reflect the political issues of the time. For example, the Byzantine emperor arrested Pope Martin in 653CE and tried him for treason as Martin espoused a slightly different view of God to the view held in the east. In the ninth and tenth centuries the western church added a clause to the Nicene creed, known as the ‘filioque’, which slightly altered Trinitarian theology. This was not accepted in the east and arguments broke out again.

    The real damage between east and west was done during the crusades. The crusader armies, the vast majority of whom were drawn from western Europe, attacked Christian cities in the east, including the ‘Sack of Constantinople’ in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. This caused real hatred towards the west among the Christian population of the east, leading to the statement by the final patriarch of Constantinople before it fell to the Turks that he would ‘rather see the Sultan’s turban in the City than the Latin’s mitre’ – meaning he would prefer the city was occupied by the Muslim army than accept the help of the Pope. Constantinople was eventually taken over by the Islamic armies in 1453.

    Orthodox Christianity still differs from Roman Catholicism on a number of points, including the celebration of religious festivals on different dates, and technical theological issues. It is also very different from the Protestant churches that later split from Roman Catholicism.

    After almost 1,000 years of separation, there may be moves towards change. The recent inauguration of Pope Francis I was attended by Bartholomew I, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians. This was the first time an Orthodox patriarch has attended a papal inauguration since the Great Schism, and was heralded as a key moment in potentially restoring relationships between the two branches of Christianity.

    Theological controversies

    653CE – Pope Martin put on trial and accused of treason against the Byzantine emperor, widely believed to be based in Martin’s opposition to ‘Monothelite’ doctrine (the view that Jesus has two natures, divine and human, but only one will). Ironically, Monothelitism was denounced as heretical in the east about 30 years later.

    Ninth century – the phrase ‘and the son’ (‘Filioque’ in Ecclesiastical Latin) is added to the creed in the West in the article about the Holy Spirit – ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. In the creed as originally formulated at the First Council of Constantinople (an extension of the Nicene Creed) it only says the Holy Spirit proceeds ‘from the Father’. Although this has some bearing on understanding the Trinity, this was also a disagreement about who made decisions over doctrine.

    Ecclesiastical authority – the Schism was as much to do with who was in charge of church affairs as anything else. Increasingly the eastern churches refused to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.

    Political controversies

    After the capture of Rome by the Goths, the eastern part of the empire continued and considered itself to be the true Roman Empire. The power struggle between the Pope and the Patriarch was therefore an extension of the power struggle between the eastern Romans and the new rulers of the former western empire.

    During the crusades, various ‘Christian’ states were set up in Palestine and ruled by Frankish kings. These were resented by the Christians living there, many of whom felt oppressed by the crusaders. During the Fourth Crusade, the crusader army sacked and looted Constantinople.

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