Volume III - Church History

Eleventh Century

The Great Schism

In 1009 Pope Sergius of Rome wrote a confession of faith which included the filioque in the Nicene Creed. Because of this, the Church of Constantinople removed his name and that of the Roman Church from the diptychs (the official list of sister churches and bishops who are liturgically commemorated by a given church). Then in 1014, the Roman Church, after resisting for over 200 years Germanic pressure to adopt the filioque, finally used this addition to the Creed in public worship for the first time—at the coronation of Henry II as Holy Roman Emperor. Ironically, forty years later the Latin Christians would accuse the Greek Christians of being heretical for not using the filioque.

As we have seen, tensions between the two great halves of the Christian world had been simmering for many years, with roots going back to the early centuries of the Church. The two different languages—Greek in the East and Latin in the West—reflected differences in basic worldview, which contributed to different approaches in theology. The Latins tended to use philosophical, legal, and juridical concepts and categories in an attempt to make the mysteries of the Faith more comprehensible to the human mind, while the Greeks tended to more readily accept the paradoxical, ineffable mysteries of the Faith as being ultimately far beyond the limits of human logic and understanding. And the Greeks, more than the Romans, stressed the crucial importance of having a vibrant, dynamic experience and relationship with the living God, in order to better understand the Holy Scriptures and the mysteries of the Faith. Also, the loss of the political unity of the Empire was a huge factor in disrupting communication between East and West. And the rivalry between the Holy Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East exacerbated the rift.

From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, however, the biggest single reason for the Great Schism was the reassertion of Papal claims to have jurisdictional authority over all the Churches of Christendom. Ever since Bishop Victor of Rome near the end of the second century tried to dictate to the Quartodeciman Christians of Asia Minor concerning the dating of Pascha, a succession of strong Roman bishops, as we have seen, steadily promoted Papal claims over Churches beyond the Roman Church’s geographic territory, even though this was in violation of the original pattern of each bishop having jurisdictional authority over his own geographic territory—a pattern clearly affirmed in the canons of the first four Ecumenical Councils. Gradually the Papacy did manage to gain at least nominal authority over all the churches of Western Europe, as we have also seen, by the time of the powerful Pope Nicholas I in the middle of the 9th century.

In the middle of the 11th century, after a long period of weakness and decadence in the Papacy, there occurred an intense period of reform. This reform movement strove mightily to bring an end to widespread moral abuses among the clergy—especially the crime of simony (buying church office), and the practice of clergy who were supposed to be celibate living with concubines. Partly in an effort to deal with these problems, the reformers accomplished a dramatic centralization and expansion of the power of the Papacy.

The reforming movement began with the appointment by the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (r. 1039–1056) of a fellow German named Bruno as Pope Leo IX (r. 1048–1054). Along with Leo’s efforts to increase the power of the Papacy in Western Europe, it’s not surprising that this particularly strong pope would also have been interested in extending Papal influence in the East. At the same time, the fiery Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius (r. 1043–1058), was determined to resist all attempts by the Roman Church to impose its will upon the Eastern Church.

The “showdown” came as a result of the Norman invasion of southern Italy beginning in 1016, and the subsequent suppression of Greek practices in the churches in this region where there was strong Byzantine influence. Patriarch Michael retaliated by trying to force the Latin churches in Constantinople to use Greek practices—especially leavened instead of unleavened bread (azymes) in the Eucharist. And Archbishop Leo of Ochrid wrote a comprehensive critique of the Latin beliefs and practices divergent from those of the Eastern Church—especially the filioque, mandatory clerical celibacy, and the use of azymes in the Eucharist.

In response, Pope Leo sent to Constantinople a delegation led by Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida (d. 1061), a fiery and fiercely anti-Byzantine personality who tried to press Roman claims to their fullest extent. After a cold initial reception, at which Humbert refused to greet the Patriarch with the customary protocol, Michael refused to deal with him any longer. After waiting about two months in the capital, on July 16, 1054, Humbert strode into the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia during a service and placed on the altar a bull of excommunication against “Patriarch Michael and all his followers.” In a day or two, he and his fellow legates left for home. Michael, in his turn, excommunicated Humbert “and all those responsible” for the bull of excommunication against him.

Very interestingly, Pope Leo IX died soon after Humbert left Rome for Constantinople, but before Humbert issued the bull of excommunication. And Leo’s successor was not elected until near the end of the year. So it would seem that the next pope, Victor II (r. late 1054–1057), could easily have revoked Humbert’s action, but he did not choose to do so. And while relations between some of the Eastern Churches with Rome continued to be relatively friendly for quite some time, the reality and extent of the schism gradually deepened and spread, until the sack of Constantinople and its conquest by the Latin knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 increased the mutual animosity to such a degree that future efforts at reconciliation had virtually no chance to succeed.

As we know, the Roman Catholic Church is still not in communion with the Orthodox Churches, even though in 1965 Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the mutual anathemas of 1054.