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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Eastern Schism

Detailed article on the history of the separation of the vast majority of Eastern Christians from union with the Catholic Church

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Schism, EASTERN.—From the time of Diotrephes (III John, i, 9-10) there have been continual schisms, of which the greater number were in the East. Arianism produced a huge schism; the Nestorian and Monophysite schisms still last. However, the Eastern Schism always means that most deplorable quarrel of which the final result is the separation of the vast majority of Eastern Christians from union with the Catholic Church, the schism that produced the separated, so-called “Orthodox” Church.

I. Remote Preparation of the Schism.—The great Eastern Schism must not be conceived as the result of only one definite quarrel. It is not true that after centuries of perfect peace, suddenly on account of one dispute, nearly half of Christendom fell away. Such an event would be unparalleled in history, at any rate, unless there were some great heresy, and in this quarrel there was no heresy at first, nor has there ever been a hopeless disagreement about the Faith. It is a case, perhaps the only prominent case, of a pure schism, of a breach of intercommunion caused by anger and bad feeling, not by a rival theology. It would be inconceivable then that hundreds of bishops should suddenly break away from union with their chief, if all had gone smoothly before. The great schism is rather the result of a very gradual process. Its remote causes must be sought centuries before there was any suspicion of their final effect. There was a series of temporary schisms that loosened the bond and prepared the way. The two great breaches, those of Photius and Michael Caerularius, which are remembered as the origin of the present state of things, were both healed up afterwards. Strictly speaking, the present schism dates from the Eastern repudiation of the Council of Florence (in 1472). So although the names of Photius and Caerularius are justly associated with this disaster, inasmuch as their quarrels are the chief elements in the story, it must not be imagined that they were the sole, the first, or the last authors of the schism. If we group the story around their names we must explain the earlier causes that prepared for them, and note that there were temporary reunions later.

The first cause of all was the gradual estrangement of East and West. To a great extent this estrangement was inevitable. The East and West grouped themselves around different centers—at any rate as immediate centers—used different rites and spoke different languages. We must distinguish the position of the pope as visible head of all Christendom from his place as Patriarch of the West. The position, sometimes now advanced by anti-papal controversialists, that all bishops are equal in jurisdiction, was utterly unknown in the early Church. From the very beginning we find a graduated hierarchy of metropolitans, exarchs, and primates. We find, too, from the beginning the idea that a bishop inherits the dignity of the founder of his see, that, therefore, the successor of an Apostle has special rights and privileges. This graduated hierarchy is important as explaining the pope’s position. He was not the one immediate superior of each bishop; he was the chief of an elaborate organization, as it were the apex of a carefully graduated pyramid. The consciousness of the early Christian probably would have been that the heads of Christendom were the patriarchs; then further he knew quite well that the chief patriarch sat at Rome. However, the immediate head of each part of the Church was its patriarch. After Chalcedon (451) we must count five patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The difference between the East and West then was in the first place that the pope in the West was not only supreme pontiff, but also the local patriarch. He represented to Eastern Christians a remote and foreign authority, the last court of appeal, for very serious questions, after their own patriarchs had been found incapable of settling them; but to his own Latins in the West he was the immediate head, the authority immediately over their metropolitans, the first court of appeal to their bishops. So all loyalty in the West went direct to Rome. Rome was the Mother Church in many senses, it was by missioners sent out from Rome that the local Western Churches had been founded. The loyalty of the Eastern Christians on the other hand went first to his own patriarch, so there was here always a danger of divided allegiance—if the patriarch had a quarrel with the pope—such as would have been inconceivable in the West. Indeed, the falling away of so many hundreds of Eastern bishops, of so many millions of simple Christians, is explained sufficiently by the schism of the patriarchs. If the four Eastern patriarchs agreed upon any course it was practically a foregone conclusion that their metropolitans and bishops would follow them and that the priests and people would follow the bishops. So the very organization of the Church in some sort already prepared the ground for a contrast (which might become a rivalry) between the first patriarch in the West with his vast following of Latins on the one side and the Eastern patriarchs with their subjects on the other.

Further points that should be noticed are the differences of rite and language. The question of rite follows that of patriarchate; it made the distinction obvious to the simplest Christian. A Syrian, Greek or Egyptian layman would, perhaps, not understand much about canon law as affecting patriarchs; he could not fail to notice that a traveling Latin bishop or priest celebrated the Holy Mysteries in a way that was very strange, and that stamped him as a (perhaps suspicious) foreigner. In the West, the Roman Rite was first affecting, then supplanting, all others, and in the East the Byzantine Rite was gradually obtaining the same position. So we have the germ of two unities, Eastern and Western. Undoubtedly both sides knew that other rites were equally legitimate ways of celebrating the same mysteries, but the difference made it difficult to say prayers together. We see that this point was an important one from the number of accusations against purely ritual matters brought by Caerularius when he looked for grounds of quarrel.

Even the detail of language was an element of separation. It is true that the East was never entirely hellenized as the West was latinized. Nevertheless, Greek did become to a great extent the international language in the East. In the Eastern councils all the bishops talk Greek. So again we have the same two unities, this time in language—a practically Greek East and an entirely Latin West. It is difficult to conceive this detail as a cause of estrangement, but it is undoubtedly true that many misunderstandings arose and grew, simply because people could not understand one another. For during the time when these disputes arose, hardly anyone knew a foreign language. It was not till the Renaissance that the age of convenient grammars and dictionaries arose. St. Gregory I (d. 1604) had been apocrisary at Constantinople, but he does not seem to have learned Greek; Pope Vigilius (540-55) spent eight unhappy years there and yet never knew the language. Photius was the profoundest scholar of his age, yet he knew no Latin. When Leo IX (1048-54) wrote in Latin to Peter III of Antioch, Peter had to send the letter to Constantinople to find out what it was about. Such cases occur continually and confuse all the relations between East and West. At councils the papal legates addressed the assembled fathers in Latin and no one understood them; the council deliberated in Greek and the legates wondered what was going on. So there arose suspicion on both sides. Interpreters had to be called in; could their versions be trusted? The Latins especially were profoundly suspicious of Greek craft in this matter. Legates were asked to sign documents they did not understand on the strength of assurances that there was nothing really compromising in them. And so little made so much difference. The famous case, long afterwards, of the Decree of Florence and the forms Greek: kath on tropon, quemadmodum, shows how much confusion the use of two languages may cause.

These causes then combined to produce two halves of Christendom, an Eastern and a Western half, each distinguished in various ways from the other. They are certainly not sufficient to account for a separation of those halves; only we notice that already there was a consciousness of two entities, the first marking of a line of division, through which rivalry, jealousy, hatred might easily cut a separation.

II. Causes of Estrangement.—The rivalry and hatred arose from several causes. Undoubtedly the first, the root of all the quarrel, was the advance of the See of Constantinople. We have seen that four Eastern patriarchates were to some extent contrasted to the one great Western unity. Had there remained four such unities in the East, nothing further need have followed. What accentuated the contrast and made it a rivalry was the gradual assumption of authority over the other three by the patriarch at Constantinople. It was Constantinople that bound together the East into one body, uniting it against the West. It was the persistent attempt of the emperor’s patriarch to become a kind of Eastern pope, as nearly as possible equal to his Western prototype, that was the real source of all the trouble. On the one hand, union under Constantinople really made a kind of rival Church that could be opposed to Rome; on the other hand, through all the career of advancement of the Byzantine bishops they found only one real hindrance, the persistent opposition of the popes. The emperor was their friend and chief ally always. It was, indeed, the emperor’s policy of centralization that was responsible for the scheme of making the See of Constantinople a center. The other patriarchs who were displaced were not dangerous opponents. Weakened by the endless Monophysite quarrels, having lost most of their flocks, then reduced to an abject state by the Moslem conquest, the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch could not prevent the growth of Constantinople. Indeed, eventually, they accepted their degradation willingly and came to be idle ornaments of the new patriarch’s Court. Jerusalem too was hampered by schisms and Moslems and was itself a new patriarchate, having only the rights of the last see of the five.

On the other hand, at every step in the advancement of Constantinople there was always the opposition of Rome. When the new see got its titular honor at the First Council of Constantinople (381, can. 3), Rome refused to accept the canon (she was not represented at the council); when Chalcedon in 451 turned this into a real patriarchate (can. 28) the legates and then the pope himself refused to acknowledge what had been done; when, intoxicated by their quick advancement, the successors of the little suffragan bishops who had once obeyed Heraclea assumed the insolent title “ecumenical patriarch”, it was again a pope of Old Rome who sternly rebuked their arrogance. We can understand that jealousy and hatred of Rome rankled in the minds of the new patriarchs, that they were willing to throw off altogether an authority which was in their way at every step. That the rest of the East joined them in their rebellion was the natural result of the authority they had succeeded in usurping over the other Eastern bishops. So we arrive at the essential consideration in this question. The Eastern Schism was not a movement arising in all the East; it was not a quarrel between two large bodies; it was essentially the rebellion of one see, Constantinople, which by the emperor’s favor had already acquired such influence that it was able unhappily to drag the other patriarchs into schism with it.

We have already seen that the suffragans of the patriarchs would naturally follow their chiefs. If then Constantinople had stood alone her schism would have mattered comparatively little. What made the situation so serious was that the rest of the East eventually sided with her. That followed from her all too successful assumption of the place of chief see in the East. So the advance of Constantinople was doubly the cause of the great schism. It brought her into conflict with Rome and made the Byzantine patriarch almost inevitably the enemy of the pope; at the same time it gave him such a position that his enmity meant that of all the East. This being so, we must remember how entirely unwarrantable, novel, and uncanonical the advance of Constantinople was. The see was not Apostolic, had no glorious traditions, no reason whatever for its usurpation of the first place in the East, but an accident of secular politics. The first historical Bishop of Byzantium was Metrophanes (315-25); he was not even a metropolitan, he was the lowest in rank a diocesan bishop could be, a suffragan of Heraclea. That is all his successors ever would have been, they would have had no power to influence anyone, had not Constantine chosen their city for his capital. All through their progress they made no pretense of founding their claims on anything but the fact that they were now bishops of the political capital. It was as the emperor’s bishops, as functionaries of the imperial Court, that they rose to the second place in Christendom. The legend of St. Andrew founding their see was a late afterthought; it is now abandoned by all scholars. The claim of Constantinople was always frankly the purely Erastian one that as Caesar could establish his capital where he liked, so could he, the civil governor, give ecclesiastical rank in the hierarchy to any see he liked. The 28th canon of Chalcedon says so in so many words. Constantinople has become the New Rome, therefore its bishop is to have like honor to that of the patriarch of Old Rome and to be second after him. It only needed a shade more insolence to claim that the emperor could transfer all papal rights to the bishop of the city where he held his court.

Let it be always remembered that the rise of Constantinople, its jealousy of Rome, its unhappy influence over all the East is a pure piece of Erastianism, a shameless surrender of the things of God to Caesar. And nothing can be less stable than to establish ecclesiastical rights on the basis of secular politics. The Turks in 1453 cut away the foundation of Byzantine ambition. There is now no emperor and no Court to justify the ecumenical patriarch’s position. If we were to apply logically the principle on which he rests, he would sink back to the lowest place and the patriarchs of Christendom would reign at Paris, London, New York. Meanwhile the old and really canonical principle of the superiority of Apostolic sees remains untouched by political changes. Apart from the Divine origin of the papacy, the advance of Constantinople was a gross violation of the rights of the Apostolic Sees of Alexandria and Antioch. We need not wonder that the popes, although their first place was not questioned, resented this disturbance of ancient rights by the ambition of the imperial bishops.

Long before Photius there had been schisms between Constantinople and Rome, all of them healed up in time, but naturally all tending to weaken the sense of essential unity. From the beginning of the See of Constantinople to the great schism in 867 the list of these temporary breaches of communion is a formidable one. There were fifty-five years of schism (343-98) during the Arian troubles, eleven because of St. John Chrysostom’s deposition (404-15), thirty-five years of the Acacian schism (484-519), forty-one years of Monothelite schism (640-81), sixty-one years because of Iconoclasm. So of these 544 years (323-867) no less than 203 were spent by Constantinople in a state of schism. We notice too that in every one of these quarrels Constantinople was on the wrong side; by the consent of the Orthodox, too, Rome in all stood out for right. And already we see that the influence of the emperor (who naturally always supported his court patriarch) in most cases dragged a great number of other Eastern bishops into the same schism.

III. Photius and Coerularius.—It was natural that the great schisms, which are immediately responsible for the present state of things, should be local quarrels of Constantinople. Neither was in any sense a general grievance of the East. There was neither time any reason why other bishops should join with Constantinople in the quarrel against Rome, except that already they had learned to look to the imperial city for orders. The quarrel of Photius was a gross defiance of lawful church order. Ignatius was the rightful bishop without any question; he had reigned peaceably for eleven years. Then he refused Communion to a man guilty of open incest (857). But that man was the regent Bardas, so the Government professed to depose Ignatius and intruded Photius into his see. Pope Nicholas I had no quarrel against the Eastern Church; he had no quarrel against the Byzantine see. He stood out for the rights of the lawful bishop. Both Ignatius and Photius had formally appealed to him. It was only when Photius found that he had lost his case that he and the Government preferred schism to submission (867). It is even doubtful how far this time there was any general Eastern schism at all. In the council that restored Ignatius (869) the other patriarchs declared that they had at once accepted the pope’s former verdict.

But Photius had formed an anti-Roman party which was never afterwards dissolved. The effect of his quarrel, though it was so purely personal, though it was patched up when Ignatius died, and again when Photius fell, was to gather to a head all the old jealousy of Rome at Constantinople. We see this throughout the Photian Schism. The mere question of that usurper’s pretended rights does not account for the outburst of enmity against the pope, against everything Western and Latin that we notice in government documents, in Photius’s letters, in the Acts of his synod in 879, in all the attitude of his party. It is rather the rancour of centuries bursting out on a poor pretext; this fierce resentment against Roman interference comes from men who know of old that Rome is the one hindrance to their plans and ambitions. Moreover, Photius gave the Byzantines a new and powerful weapon. The cry of heresy was raised often enough at all times; it never failed to arouse popular indignation. But it had not yet occurred to any one to accuse all the West of being steeped in pernicious heresy. Hitherto it had been a question of resenting the use of papal authority in isolated cases. This new idea carried the war into the enemy’s camp with a vengeance. Photius’s six charges are silly enough, so silly that one wonders that so great a scholar did not think of something cleverer, at least in appearance. But they changed the situation to the Eastern advantage. When Photius calls the Latins “liars, fighters against God, forerunners of Antichrist“, it is no longer a question merely of abusing one’s ecclesiastical superiors. He now assumes a more effective part; he is the champion of orthodoxy, indignant against heretics.

After Photius, John Bekkos says there was “perfect peace” between East and West. But the peace was only on the surface. Photius’s cause did not die. It remained latent in the party he left, the party that still hated the West, that was ready to break the union again at the first pretext, that remembered and was ready to revive this charge of heresy against Latins. Certainly from the time of Photius hatred and scorn of Latins was an inheritance of the mass of the Byzantine clergy. How deeply rooted and far spread it was, is shown by the absolutely gratuitous outburst 150 years later under Michael Caerularius (1043-58). For this time there was not even the shadow of a pretext. No one had disputed Caerularius’s right as patriarch; the pope had not interfered with him in any way at all. And suddenly in 1053 he sends off a declaration of war, then shuts up the Latin churches at Constantinople, hurls a string of wild accusations, and shows in every possible way that he wants a schism, apparently for the mere pleasure of not being in communion with the West. He got his wish. After a series of wanton aggressions, unparalleled in church history, after he had begun by striking the pope’s name from his diptychs, the Roman legates excommunicated him (July 16, 1054). But still there was no idea of a general excommunication of the Byzantine Church, still less of all the East. The legates carefully provided against that in their Bull. They acknowledged that the emperor (Constantine IX, who was excessively annoyed at the whole quarrel), the Senate, and the majority of the inhabitants of the city were “most pious and orthodox”. They excommunicated Caerularius, Leo of Achrida, and their adherents.

This quarrel, too, need no more have produced a permanent state of schism than the excommunication of any other contumacious bishop. The real tragedy is that gradually all the other Eastern patriarchs took sides with Casrularius, obeyed him by striking the pope’s name from their diptychs, and chose of their own accord to share his schism. At first they do not seem to have wanted to do so. John III of Antioch certainly refused to go into schism at Caerularius’s bidding. But, eventually, the habit they had acquired of looking to Constantinople for orders proved too strong. The emperor (not Constantine IX, but his successor) was on the side of his patriarch and they had learned too well to consider the emperor as their over-lord in spiritual matters too. Again, it was the usurped authority of Constantinople, the Erastianism of the East that turned a personal quarrel into a great schism. We see, too, how well Photius’s idea of calling Latins heretics had been learned. Caerularius had a list, a longer and even more futile one, of such accusations. His points were different from those of Photius; he had forgotten the Filioque, and had discovered a new heresy in our use of azyme bread. But the actual accusations mattered little at any time, the idea that had been found so useful was that of declaring that we are impossible because we are heretics. It was offensive and it gave the schismatical leaders the chance of assuming a most effective pose, as defenders of the true Faith.

IV. After Coerularius.—In a sense the schism was now complete. What had been from the beginning two portions of the same Church, what had become two entities ready to be divided, were now two rival Churches. Yet, just as there had been schisms before Photius, so there have been reunions after Caerularius. The Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and again the Council of Florence in 1439 both arrived at a reunion that people hoped would close the breach for ever. Unhappily, neither reunion lasted, neither had any solid basis on the Eastern side. The anti-Latin party, foreshadowed long ago, formed and organized by Photius, had under Caerularius become the whole “Orthodox” Church. This process had been a gradual one, but it was now complete. At first the Slav Churches (Russia, Servia, Bulgaria, etc.) saw no reason why they should break communion with the West because a patriarch of Constantinople was angry with a pope. But the habit of looking to the capital of the empire eventually affected them too. They used the Byzantine Rite, were Easterns; so they settled on the Eastern side. Caerularius had managed cleverly to represent his cause as that of the East; it seemed (most unjustifiably) that it was a question of Byzantines versus Latins.

At Lyons, and again at Florence, the reunion (on their side) was only a political expedient of the Government. The emperor wanted Latins to fight for him against the Turks. So he was prepared to concede anything—till the danger was over. It is clear that on these occasions the religious motive moved only the Western side. We had nothing to gain; we wanted nothing from them. The Latins had everything to offer, they were prepared to give their help. All they wanted in return was that an end should be made of the lamentable and scandalous spectacle of a divided Christendom. For the religious motive the Byzantines cared nothing; or, rather, religion to them meant the continuation of the schism. They had called us heretics so often that they had begun to believe it. Reunion was an unpleasant and humiliating condition in order that a Frank army might come and protect them. The common people had been so well drilled in their hatred of Azymites and creed-tamperers, that their zeal for what they thought Orthodoxy prevailed over their fear of the Turk. “Rather the turban of the Sultan than the tiara of the Pope” expressed their mind exactly. When the bishops who had signed the decrees of reunion came back, each time they were received with a storm of indignation as betrayers of the Orthodox faith. Each time the reunion was broken almost as soon as it was made. The last act of schism was when Dionysius I of Constantinople (1467-72) summoned a synod and formally repudiated the union (1472). Since then there has been no intercommunion; a vast “Orthodox” Church exists, apparently satisfied with being in schism with the bishop whom it still recognizes as the first patriarch of Christendom.

V. Reasons of the Present Schism.—In this deplorable story we notice the following points. It is easier to understand how a schism continues than how it began. Schisms are easily made; they are enormously difficult to heal. The religious instinct is always conservative; there is always a strong tendency to continue the existing state of things. At first the schismatics were reckless innovators; then with the lapse of centuries their cause seems to be the old one; it is the Faith of the Fathers. Eastern Christians especially have this conservative instinct strongly. They fear that reunion with Rome would mean a betrayal of the old Faith, of the Orthodox Church, to which they have clung so heroically during all these centuries. One may say that the schism continues mainly through force of inertia.

In its origin we must distinguish between the schismatical tendency and the actual occasion of its outburst. But the reason of both has gone now. The tendency was mainly jealousy caused by the rise of the See of Constantinople. That progress is over long ago. The last three centuries Constantinople has lost nearly all the broad lands she once acquired. There is nothing the modern Orthodox Christian resents more than any assumption of authority by the ecumenical patriarch outside his diminished patriarchate. The Byzantine see has long been the play thing of the Turk, wares that he sold to the highest bidder. Certainly now this pitiful dignity is no longer a reason for the schism of nearly 100,000,000 Christians. Still less are the immediate causes of the breach active. The question of the respective rights of Ignatius and Photius leaves even the Orthodox cold after eleven centuries; and Caerularius’s ambitions and insolence may well be buried with him. Nothing then remains of the original causes.

There is not really any question of doctrine involved. It is not a heresy, but a schism. The Decree of Florence made every possible concession to their feelings. There is no real reason why they should not sign that Decree now. They deny papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception, they quarrel over purgatory, consecration by the words of institution, the procession of the Holy Ghost, in each case misrepresenting the dogma to which they object. It is not difficult to show that on all these points their own Fathers are with those of the Latin Church, which asks them only to return to the old teaching of their own Church.

That is the right attitude towards the Orthodox always. They have a horror of being latinized, of betraying the old Faith. One must always insist that there is no idea of latinizing them, that the old Faith is not incompatible with, but rather demands union with the chief see which their Fathers obeyed. In canon law they have nothing to change except such abuses as the sale of bishoprics and the Erastianism that their own better theologians deplore. Celibacy, azyme bread, and so on are Latin customs that no one thinks of forcing on them. They need not add the Filioque to the Creed; they will always keep their venerable rite untouched. Not a bishop need be moved, hardly a feast (except that of St. Photius on February 6) altered. All that is asked of them is to come back to where their fathers stood, to treat Rome as Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom treated her. It is not Latins, it is they who have left the Faith of their Fathers. There is no humiliation in retracing one’s steps when one has wandered down a mistaken road because of long-forgotten personal quarrels. They too must see how disastrous to the common cause is the scandal of the division. They too must wish to put an end to so crying an evil. And if they really wish it the way need not be difficult. For, indeed, after nine centuries of schism we may realize on both sides that it is not only the greatest it is also the most superfluous evil in Christendom.


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