Sunday, October 20, 2013


The Great Schism of East and West

Originally a writing assignment at Catholic Distance University

The great split between the Greek East and Latin West remains one of the saddest events in Christian history. Although many attribute the year 1054 as when a definitive split occurred, there were centuries of misunderstanding and miscommunication that contributed towards the “Great Schism”. Problems resulted from the differences between Greek and Latin philosophy and theology, or from political divisions, or through bigotry and mistrust. The events that led up to the divisions between East and West are complicated and remain a black eye for the Mystical Body of Christ.

In the year 330, Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium (later called Constantinople) in present-day Turkey. In 395, the Empire would be officially split into East and West by Theodosius I. As wealth and power were concentrating in the eastern portion of the Empire, barbarian invaders continued to wreak havoc on the West. The Western Roman Empire would finally collapse in the year 476, while the Eastern Roman Empire continued to exist for roughly another 1,000 years. These political changes significantly affected the ways in which East and West viewed the relationship between Church and state. While the Church in the West had to establish itself above the invading forces and warring nations, allowing the papacy to develop into a sort of monarchial role, the Eastern Christians were usually under the thumb of the Roman emperor. Eastern Christians still view the power of the papacy with suspicion, preferring instead a collegial relationship between bishops in the form of synods and councils. The philosophical differences between East and West also contributed to the growing rift. Eastern Christians were speculative and philosophical in dealing with theological issues, while Christians in the West saw themselves as more practical and legal. “The east wanted to know who Christ was and the west wanted to know what Christ wanted them to do.”1 Language was also a barrier; while the lingua franca of the Roman Empire was Greek at one point, Latin gradually overtook it in the West, while the East remained Greek-speaking.2 Mistrust existed from the earliest days; the Church Fathers in the West accused the Greeks of being responsible for many of the early heresies, while the Church Fathers in the East thought the Latins were incapable of lofty, theological discourse.3 There were differences in practices that, although we respect them today, proved to be divisive in the early days of the Church; such as married priests versus celibates and unleavened bread as hosts versus leavened bread.4

Both the East and West hold the tradition that a nation evangelized by a certain church “belongs” to that church. However, the Photian Schism in Bulgaria, which occurred in the ninth century, involved what could be termed today as “sheep stealing”. Bulgaria, evangelized by Constantinople, wanted an autocephalous (independent) bishop and had gotten a Greek one instead. They appealed to Rome, who sent one of their own bishops, which infuriated Patriarch Photius who immediately called a council and excommunicated Pope Nicolas I. Relations continued to be shaky as each side would spitefully close one another’s parish churches and replace the local clergy with their own.5

One of the most famous issues to spring up between East and West was the filioque (Latin for and the Son). The Nicene Creed was written and clarified within the context of ecumenical councils, but the term filioque was added to the Creed locally in Toledo in 589 and in Rome by around 1000, becoming the norm throughout the Western church.6 This outraged the East who rejected the filioque because they saw it as being unlawfully and unilaterally added without the consent of the universal Church. To this day, the East refuses to use the words “and the Son” when reciting the Nicene Creed.

Relations continued to deteriorate between East and West when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, since there was already a Roman Emperor ruling in Constantinople. By the time 1054 approached, East and West had drifted apart from one another to the point that they might as well have been on different planets. The final straw came when Rome and Constantinople tried to deal with a problem in southern Italy, which at the time was a Byzantine colony. Being resettled by Norman colonists, the Pope had declared that all Greek churches in Italy needed to use the Roman Rite, including use of unleavened bread and the filioque. Constantinople, in return, forced all Roman churches within its territory to celebrate the Byzantine Rite. After exchanging a few angry rebuttals, an anti-Greek Cardinal traveled to Constantinople with a delegation, entered Hagia Sophia Cathedral right before Divine Liturgy, and tossed a bull of excommunication on the altar (even though he had no permission from Rome to do so). The Patriarch of Constantinople, in return, excommunicated the delegation – one of whom would become Pope Stephen X.7 Spotty communication between Rome and various Eastern churches continued for another 300 years or so, but relations were horribly tarnished after the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.8

Efforts have been made to heal this wound in the Body of Christ, most significantly when the mutual excommunications were deemed no longer in effect by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1965.9 The Catholic Church still recognizes the Orthodox churches of the East as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Christ. “These Churches, although separated from us, possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy” (UR 15). Although the Great Schism between East and West has made our communion imperfect, the Catholic Church believes that “this communion is so profound that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist” (CCC 838). Humility, patience, communication, and understanding might have been able to prevent these horrible and scandalous events from taking place. Since we cannot change the past, perhaps learning these skills in the present day, “in the spirit of love, to the exclusion of all feeling of rivalry or strife,” (UR 18) we might be able to heal our divisions and return to that one flock with one shepherd that our Lord asked us to be.

1. Fr. John Vidmar, The Catholic Church Through the Ages, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 67-68.
2. Ibid., 98.
3. Ibid., 98-99.
4. Edward Faulk, 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), 29.
5. Ibid., 30.
6. Ibid., 29.
7. Edward Faulk, 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), 31-32.
8. Ibid., 43-44.
9. Paul VI & Athenagoras I, “Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration”, (7 December 1965, accessed 30 June 2013), 4; available from

Catechism of the Catholic Church. (2011). Retrieved from
Faulk, E. (2007). 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007).
Paul VI & Athenagoras I. (1965). Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of His Holiness Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Retrieved from
Second Vatican Council. (1965). Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism). Retrieved from
Vidmar, J. (2005). The Catholic Church Through the Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005).