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East–West Schism

Related subjects: Religious disputes

Background Information

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The Second Ecumenical Council whose additions to the original Nicene Creed lay at the heart of one of the theological disputes associated with the East-West Schism. (Illustration, 879-882 AD, from manuscript, Homilies of Gregory Nazianzus, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

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 Catholic Church, respectively. Relations between East and West had long been embittered by political and ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes. Pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, heightened the conflict by suppressing Greek and Latin in their respective domains. In 1054, Roman legates traveled to Cerularius to deny him the title Ecumenical Patriarch and to insist that he recognize the Roman claim to be the head and mother of the churches. Cerularius refused. The leader of the Latin contingent excommunicated Cerularius, while he excommunicated the legates.

The Western legate's acts are of doubtful validity because Leo had died, while Cerularius's excommunication applied only to the legates personally. Still, the Church split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines, and the fundamental breach has never been healed. Western cruelty during the Crusades, the capture of Constantinople in 1204, and the imposition of Latin Patriarchs made reconciliation more difficult. On paper, the two churches actually reunited in 1274 (by the Second Council of Lyon) and in 1439 (by the Council of Florence), but in each case the councils were repudiated by the Orthodox as a whole, on the grounds that the hierarchs had overstepped their authority in consenting to reunification. In 1484, 31 years after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, a Synod of Constantinople repudiated the Union of Florence, marking the final breach. In 1965, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch nullified the anathemas of 1054. Further attempts to reconcile the two bodies are ongoing.

A schism is a break in the Church's authority structure and communion, 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.


Prior to the official onset of the schism, Eastern and Western Christians had a history of difference and disagreement dating back to the second century.

Rise of Rome

From the Roman perspective, after the fall of Jerusalem (70), see also Early Christianity, the church of Rome naturally became the primary church, the capital of Christianity. Rome had an early and significant Christian population. It was closely identified with the Apostle Paul, who allegedly preached and was martyred there, and the Apostle Peter, who was said to have been its first bishop and a martyr there as well. While the Eastern cities of Alexandria and Antioch produced theological works, the bishops of Rome focused on what Romans admittedly did best: administration. In the early church, Roman bishops attempted to exert authority over other churches, such as in the schism over the proper dating of Easter (2nd century).

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 sees 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. These sees 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 honour given to Jerusalem over other sees subject to the same metropolitan.

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 see of Constantinople itself, to a position ahead of the other chief metropolitan sees, except that of Rome. Mentioning in particular the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace, it decreed that the synod of each province should manage the ecclesiastical affairs of that province alone, except for the privileges already recognized for Alexandria and Antioch.

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:

[T]he Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops [i.e., the Second Ecumenical Council], actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges (ἴσα πρεσβεῖα) to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her; so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.

The council also ratified an agreement between Antioch and Jerusalem, whereby Jerusalem held jurisdiction over three provinces, numbering it among the five great sees. 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 (see Pentarchy).

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. 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.


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.

Papal Supremacy

Icon depicting Emperor Constantine and the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea (325) as holding the Nicene Creed in its 381 form.

The primary causes of the Schism were disputes over papal authority— Pope Leo IX claimed he held authority over the four Eastern patriarchs (see also Pentarchy) — and over the insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed by the Western Church. Eastern Orthodox today state that the 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon explicitly proclaimed the equality of the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople and that the 7th Canon of the Council of Ephesus explicitly prohibited modification of the Nicene Creed. The Orthodox also state that the Bishop of Rome (i.e. The Pope) has authority only over his own diocese and does not have any authority outside his diocese. There were other less significant catalysts for the Schism however, including variance over liturgical practices and conflicting claims of jurisdiction.

Other points of conflict

Many other issues increased tensions.

  • Emperor Leo III the Isaurian outlawed the veneration of icons in the 8th century. This policy, which came to be called Iconoclasm, was rejected by the West.
  • The insertion of " Filioque" into the Nicene Creed.
  • Disputes in the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Sicily over whether the Western or Eastern church had jurisdiction.
  • The concept of Caesaropapism, a tying together in some way of the ultimate political and religious authorities, which was much stronger in Constantinople, where the emperor lived, than in Rome which was geographically distant and at a certain stage ceased to be subject to the emperor's power.
  • Following the rise of Islam, the relative weakening of the influence of the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, leading to internal church politics increasingly being seen as Rome versus Constantinople. These Patriarchates had already been weakened by the Oriental Orthodox Church having split off after the Council of Chalcedon taking most of the Christians in these Patriarchates with them.
  • Certain liturgical practices in the West that the East believed represented illegitimate innovation: the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist, for example.
  • Celibacy among Western priests (both monastic and parish), as opposed to the Eastern discipline whereby parish priests could be married men whose marriage had taken place when they were still laymen, before their ordination to the diaconate.

Previous schisms

Some scholars have argued that the Schism between East and West has very ancient roots, and that sporadic schisms in the common unions took place under Victor (second century), Stephen (third century) and Damasus (fourth and fifth century). Later on, disputes about theological and other questions led to schisms between the Churches in Rome and Constantinople for 37 years from 482 to 519 ( the Acacian Schism), and for 13 years from 866-879 (see Patriarch Photios I of Constantinople).

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 catepan of Italy, Argyrus, who had spent years in Constantinople, originally as a political prisoner. Leo and Argyrus led armies against the ravaging Normans, but the papal forces were defeated at the Battle of Civitate in 1053, which resulted in the pope being imprisoned at Benevento, where he took it upon himself to learn Greek. Argyrus had not arrived at Civitate and his absence caused a rift in papal-imperial relations.

Meanwhile, the Normans were busy imposing Latin customs, including the unleavened bread—with papal approval. Patriarch Michael I then ordered Leo, Archbishop of Ochrid, to write a letter to the bishop of Trani, John, an Easterner, in which he attacked the " Judaistic" practices of the West, namely the use of unleavened bread. The letter was to be sent by John to all the bishops of the West, Pope included. John promptly complied and the letter was passed to one Humbert of Mourmoutiers, the cardinal-bishop of Silva Candida, who was then in John's diocese. Humbert translated the letter into Latin and brought it to the pope, who ordered a reply to be made to each charge and a defence of papal supremacy to be laid out in a response.

Although he was hot-headed, Michael was convinced, probably by the Emperor and the bishop of Trani, to cool the debate and prevent the impending breach. However, Humbert and the pope made no concessions and the former was sent with legatine powers to the imperial capital to solve the questions raised once and for all. Humbert, Frederick of Lorraine, and Peter, archbishop of Amalfi set out in early spring and arrived in April 1054. Their welcome was not to their liking, however, and they stormed out of the palace, leaving the papal response with Michael, whose anger exceeded even theirs. The seals on the letter had been tampered with and the legates had published, in Greek, an earlier, far less civil, draft of the letter for the entire populace to read. The patriarch determined that the legates were worse than mere barbarous Westerners, they were liars and crooks. He refused to recognise their authority or, practically, their existence.

When Pope Leo died on April 19, 1054, the legates' authority legally ceased, but they did not seem to notice. The patriarch's refusal to address the issues at hand drove the legatine mission to extremes: on July 16, the three legates entered the church of the Hagia Sophia during the divine liturgy 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 near riots. The patriarch had the immense support of the people against the Emperor, who had supported the legates to his own detriment, and Argyrus, who was seen still as a papal ally. To assuage popular anger, Argyrus' family in Constantinople was arrested, the bull was burnt, and the legates were anathematised—the Great Schism had begun.

Orthodox bishop Kallistos (formerly Timothy Ware) writes, that the choice of cardinal Humbert was unfortunate, for both he and Patriarch Michael I were men of stiff and intransigent temper... . After [an initial, unfriendly encounter] the patriarch refused to have further dealings with the legates. Eventually Humbert lost patience, and laid a bull of excommunication against Patriarch Michael I on the altar of the Church of the Holy Wisdom... . Michael and his synod retaliated by anathematizing Humbert.

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. This conclusion, however, is not correct, because in the bull composed by Humbert, only Patriarch Michael I was excommunicated. The validity of the bull is questioned because Pope Leo IX was already dead at that time. On the other side, the Byzantine synod excommunicated only the legates.

It should be noted that the bull of excommunication issued against Patriarch Michael stated as one of its reasons for the excommunication the Eastern Church's deletion of the word "filioque" from the original Nicene Creed. It is now common knowledge that the Eastern Church did not delete anything, 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 gulf of separation between them. … The dispute remained something of which ordinary Christians in East and West were largely unaware".

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 on their way eastward sacked Constantinople itself and defiled the Hagia Sophia. The ensuing period of chaotic rule over the sacked and looted lands of the Byzantine Empire is still known among Eastern Christians as Frankokratia. After that, the break became permanent. Later attempts at reconciliation, such as the Second Council of Lyon, met with little or no success.

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."

John Paul II visited other heavily Orthodox areas such as Ukraine, despite lack of welcome at times, and he said that an end to the Schism was one of his fondest wishes.

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