In the earliest centuries of the Church, there was no “Greek East” and “Latin West”, nor was there anyone who could have conceived of a “Byzantine Empire” in opposition to the “Roman Empire”.
In the first century, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans had been written in Greek, because Greek was the language of the Empire. And in the year 330, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (Constantinople). For at least the first three centuries A.D., everyone—in both East and West—spoke Greek and called themselves “Romans”. In fact, the term “Byzantine Empire” is a modern invention. Even as late as the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the inhabitants of that city still called themselves “Romans”.
With so much initially in common, how did such a great rift finally divide East and West? What were the pressures and influences which brought about such an enmity between these two ancient centers of Christianity? For convenience, many historians mark the year 1054 as the year of the “Great Schism”, highlighting the mutual excommunications of Cardinal Humbert (leader of the papal legates) and Michael Cerularius (Ecumenical Patriarch). However, “it is only with hindsight that the events of this year have assumed such significance”, because these events “made no impact upon Byzantine sources, which ignore them, and in the West there does not seem to have been any sense of final schism” (Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West, p. 271). And according to Hussey, “it was no doubt thought that normal relations between Constantinople and the curia would eventually resume” (J.M. Hussey, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, p. 136). Indeed, if Rome wasn’t built in a day, then neither was Rome divided in a day. The schism of 1054 came on the heels of centuries of pressures from multiple sources. As an analogy, one might say that the pot had been simmering for a long time, and that 1054 was a year when one of the major bubbles finally burst through the surface.
One of the factors which contributed to the schism was simply distance. Four of the Five Patriarchal sees were nearby one another — Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria — but Rome stood relatively alone. This geographical isolation made it more difficult for mutual dependence and trust to be cultivated between Rome and the East.
Language differences also proved to be a major factor in laying the groundwork for the schism. Though the entire Roman Empire had originally spoken the common language of Greek, the East is the only part of the Empire that continued this practice. The West gradually abandoned the Greek language and instead embraced Latin. In retrospect, this language shift appears to have been a sort of localized “tower of Babel” experience for the Roman Empire. . . where former friends and family are driven apart, due to communication difficulties. Once this formidable language barrier finally settled into place, the stage was set for the East and West to communicate far less effectively with one another, thus causing their respective cultures and liturgies to diverge that much more rapidly, eventually crumbling the ties which once bound the two halves of the Empire together.
Another critical factor was the political vacuum in the West which paved the way for the rise of papal power. After the 5th century witnessed the reign of the last Roman Emperor in the West, the Western bishops were able to fill the void by stepping into positions of greater and greater political influence. This sort of political vacuum never happened in the East, however. Roman Emperors continued to reign in Constantinople for another millennium, right up until the reign of Constantine XI, when Constantinople itself fell to the Turkish armies of Mehmet II in 1453.
The more lasting differences between East and West were doctrinal (persisting even to this day). The West’s innovations regarding the filioque, the Eucharist, and the Papacy (among other issues) were all hot buttons which ultimately exploded in 1054.
The Latin word “filioque” means “and the Son”. And in reference to the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, that term did not exist in the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (Nicene Creed), which had been finally formulated in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople. But in an attempt to combat Arianism, the Third Council of Toledo (Spain) added the filioque to the Nicene Creed in the late 6th century. This was a local council which lacked Ecumenical authority.
Nevertheless, the filioque gradually spread throughout the West, until it became a major cause of contention between the two halves of the Church. In fact, the filioque controversy had already led to an East/West schism—the “Photian Schism”—nearly two hundred years before Cardinal Humbert’s fateful encounter with Patriarch Cerularius. This schism lasted for a decade in the late 9th century, and had been healed by repentance from the West: Pope John VIII affirmed the 879-880 council of Constantinople, which anathematized the filioque and struck down the “robber council” of 869-870. Thereafter, the filioque was still a recurring point of contention between the East and the West, finally becoming a major factor in the debacle later known as the “Great Schism”. In 1054, Cardinal Humbert arrogantly strode into the Hagia Sophia, and laid a bull upon the altar, excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. Incredibly, one of the bull’s charges against Cerularius was that he had removed the filioque from the Nicene Creed!
The East and West also had divergent Eucharistic practices. In regard to the use of leavened bread, the East and West had previously enjoyed Eucharistic unity for nearly eight hundred years. Then in the West, “various ordinances appeared from the ninth century on, all demanding the exclusive use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist” (Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. II, p. 34). And even then, the use of unleavened bread in the West did not become universal until after the passing of the first millennium. As one Roman Catholic priest points out:
During the first millennium of Church history . . . it was
the general custom in both East and West to use normal
“daily bread,” that is, leavened bread, for the Eucharist
(Johannes H. Emminghaus, The Eucharist:
Essence, Form, Celebration, p. 161)
Though the early Church had normally used leavened bread for Holy Communion, Rome abandoned historic tradition. Their Eucharistic innovation “did not come into exclusive vogue until the middle of the eleventh century” (Jungmann, p. 34). And the eleventh century is precisely when we see Humbert’s infamous antics take place. Traditionally, it had been customary to permit the existence of some Greek-rite churches in Rome, and some Latin-rite churches in Constantinople. But after the Normans had infiltrated the Western Church, persecution broke out against Byzantine Christians in southern Italy. Greek-rite Churches were forcibly incorporated under the Latin-rite, Orthodox bishops were deposed, and Christians were required to partake of unleavened Eucharistic bread. It was in response to these outrages that Patriarch Cerularius, in the year 1053, had ordered all Latin-rite churches to be closed in Constantinople. This attack (albeit defensive) against Latin-rite churches was among the charges in the bull of excommunication which Humbert presented to Cerularius in 1054. He castigated the Patriarch for requiring leavened bread in the Eucharist, and for showing hostility to Latin Christianity.
Quite possibly, the deepest root of the East/West schism was the Frankish-influenced papacy. As Dr. Martin suggests, “The recognition of Pippin by the Pope is one of the great critical points in history” (Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, p. 79). For centuries, the West had considered the Roman Empire to encompass both East and West, and had regularly sought good relations with the Roman Emperors in the East. But in the midst of the Iconoclastic controversy, during the era of the Hieria council, Constantinople “now showed itself to be rooted in error. Henceforth Constantinople is regarded by the Pope with indifference or fear. His ally is the Frank” (Martin, p. 80). In 757, just three years after Hieria, Paul ascended the papal chair, and “for the first time his election was formally announced not to the Emperor but to Pippin. Rome and Constantinople are finally separated” (Martin, p. 80). This was not the first instance in history where an Eastern Patriarch had fallen into heterodoxy. But this was the first time that Rome presumed to have found a viable alternative ally in the Franks.
Thus having psychologically rejected their own dependency on the true seat of the Roman Empire, the West pursued a redefinition of the Roman Empire, through Frankish kings and popes. They starting calling the eastern Romans “Greeks”, and they started calling the Franks “Romans”. And though there had been a continuous line of Roman Emperors reigning in Constantinople since the time of Constantine himself, the bishops of Rome presumed to coronate Frankish kings as Emperors over the Holy Roman Empire. The bishops of Rome had ascended in power, to the point that they believed they had not only ecclesiastical power over their own dioceses, but also jurisdictional power over the entire Roman Empire, and the world besides. Though the official date of the Great Schism would come a couple centuries later, the “final breach between the Churches . . . was virtually complete in the ninth century” (Martin, pp. 220).
Over the previous centuries, the bishops of Rome had steadily increased their verbal claims to universal jurisdiction. But as long as they felt they needed support from the Eastern half of the Empire, their overreaching claims were mitigated enough that they could often be tolerated and ignored as merely arrogant rants. But once the bishops of Rome felt they had the military support they needed from the Franks, they were able to break psychological ties with the East to the point that their claims to universal jurisdiction could be pressed to the breaking point. Indeed, papal claims were central in the events of 1054. The main reason the papal legates (including Humbert) had come to Constantinople was to defend papal authority. Prior to their visit, Cerularius had circulated letters accusing the Western church of “Judaizing”, specifically referring to their use of unleavened bread in worship. But Pope Leo IX was not content merely to have a debate over the Eucharist . . . he saw this as an opportunity to force the issue of papal supremacy. Regardless of Holy Tradition which had been followed for numerous centuries, the Eastern churches were not supposed to debate, question, or criticize the practices of the Western church, simply because the pope was the pope. Ultimately, the West pressed the claims of the papacy to the point that the result had to be either Eastern submission or Western schism. And since the East refused to break with Tradition, the West travelled the latter route.
There were also a number of other doctrinal issues which came to a head in the West’s excommunication of Patriarch Cerularius. As Mahlon Smith has pointed out, the Western Church was upset with the East’s “marriage of priests, refusal to recognize the validity of baptisms done without triple immersion, translation of bishops from one see to another, admission of pregnant women to communion,” and “excommunication of priests and monks who cut their hair or shaved” (Mahlon H. Smith, And Taking Bread: Cerularius and the azyme controversy, p. 119, footnote #127). Examples could be multiplied, illustrating the divergent paths which had been taken by the Eastern and Western churches. But as discussed above, certain doctrines stand out. The filioque was utterly unacceptable to the East, because it was an illicit change to the Nicene Creed. Changes of any kind had already been expressly prohibited five centuries earlier, in the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus). And this change was considered particularly heinous, because it recast the doctrine of the Trinity in a false light. The use of unleavened bread was unacceptable to the East, for both doctrinal reasons and political reasons. And the papacy, by nature, caused major problems both doctrinally and politically. Doctrinally, the idea of universal papal supremacy was ahistorical, in opposition to the Holy Tradition of the first millennium of the Church. The papacy was also an umbrella over many other heresies . . . e.g. the East was expected to swallow unleavened bread and the filioque, simply because the pope claimed he had the authority to require it. Politically, the alliance between the Frankish kings and the bishops of Rome also served to sever ties between the East and West.
Humbert, not content to castigate Cerularius for his actual differences with Rome, added a whole host of historic heresies to the list of charges against the Patriarch. Humbert actually charged Cerularius with being a “Severian, Pneumatomachian, Manichaean, Nazarene, Donatist, and Arian” (Smith, p. 119, footnote #127). Of course, this sort of diarrhea-of-the-mouth says a lot more about Humbert’s character than it does about that of the Patriarch. Cerularius was an Orthodox Trinitarian Christian, who fit into none of the categories asserted by Humbert.
One might say that the hinges of door of the Great Schism were greased in the 8th and 9th centuries, in response to the iconoclastic controversy, to the ascent of Frankish and papal power, and to the debates surrounding the Photian schism.
One could say the door of the Great Schism was nearly shut in the 11th century, in 1054, with the mutual excommunications of the papal legates and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
But if the door of the Great Schism was nearly shut in the 11th century, then it was slammed and locked in the 13th. In the year 1204, the Western Crusaders sacked Constantinople. “That was when the real schism occurred” (Hussey, p. 136). Vryonis sums up the carnage:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. . . . the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention. (Speros Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, p. 152)
Even after the 1054 split, there had still been frequent occasions of intercommunion between Eastern and Western Christians. But after the carnage of 1204, the Great Schism was complete. This enormous scar has remained upon the Church now for over 800 years, and we continue to pray the day will come when the bishop of Rome returns to the fold, in tears of repentance.