The advances of the Church in the 9th -11th centuries AD were tremendous.  Catholic missionaries like Sts. Ansgar, Cyril and Methodius carried the Gospel far into northern and eastern Europe.  By the 11th century, Scandinavians, Slovenians, Czechs, Poles, Russians, the wild Magyars, and the fierce Tartars had all become established Christian nations, adding colorful and distinctive threads to the tapestry of the bridal garment of the Church, the Bride of Christ.  Unfortunately, these victories of the Church were offset by the most painful of losses in the East.  In the middle of the eleventh century, the disastrous schism known as the Greek or Eastern Schism broke the unity of the Church, cutting off a large portion of churches founded by the Apostles and their successors from the fabric that was the united Kingdom of Jesus Christ.(1)

Misunderstanding and jealously between the East and the West had begun to wear away at the fabric of unity centuries earlier when, in the 4th century AD, the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, moved the capital of the Empire from Rome on the Italian peninsula to Constantinople, the strip of land that was the jumping off point between Europe and Asia Minor.(2)  Some scholars identify the beginnings of the rift at this time with the controversy that developed with Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia and his accomplices in their opposition to the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325AD.  It was under the guidance of Eusebius and other like-minded eastern bishops that the autonomy of the Byzantine bishops was first organized and established.  As the centuries pasted, disputes arose between the reigning Roman emperors (and later Byzantine emperors) and the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome. (3) The Bishops in the Eastern part of the Empire began to side with the reigning Emperor in disputes between the Emperor and the Pope who sat on the throne of St. Peter in Rome.

The Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity began a long succession of Christian Roman and Byzantine emperors (with the exception of Constantine's great-nephew, Julian the Apostate).  But the pagan concept of the power of the Roman Emperor as the supreme authority in secular as well as in spiritual matters did not entirely disappear after the Roman Empire became Christian.  The Christian emperors, with few exceptions, sought to carry on the pagan tradition of the reigning emperor's authority in matters both civil and religious.  In their desire to interfere and to influence decisions in doctrinal matters, many Christian Roman rulers fell into the heresies which were forever surfacing in the Eastern Church centered in the capital of Constantinople.  Emperors who embraced the heresies of Arianism (denied divinity of Christ), Monophysitism (denied humanity of Christ), Monothelitism (denied that Christ had two natures), and the Iconoclast (condemned icons as idol worship) heresies found the intervention of the Pope of Rome an assault upon their sovereignty.  Papal pronouncements and the Councils of the Magisterium, over which the Pope held authority, continually condemned the pet heresies of the Emperors and their wives: They wanted a Christianity more submissive to their caprices or their passions, a Church of which they themselves might become the actual heads; in place of Peter's successor, they wanted an episcopate nominated by themselves and immediately depending on them; they wanted councils they could rule after their pleasure  (Bishop d'Herbigmy, The Separate Eastern Churches)(4)

Before long nearly all of the Eastern bishops owed their appointments to the emperor, whose choice was not always guided by the law of Sacred Scripture (1 Timothy 5:17-6:1-14; 2 Timothy 2:14-4:5; Titus 1:5-3:11) nor the approval of the Bishop of Rome.  If the emperors were weaklings, these court bishops made them the tools of their own ambition; if the emperors were strong men, the Eastern bishops were completely at their mercy.  In either case, it was the Church that suffered the consequences.

The growing rift between East and West was accentuated by the diversity in national character, language, rites, and discipline.  When Rome fell in 476, the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches decided that supremacy over the Church should pass from the Bishop of Rome to the Patriarch of Constantinople, since Constantinople was now the center of the Empire.  In addition, since the time of Emperor Justinian the Great (527-565), the Eastern Church had become rigidly attached to her own forms and traditions. If the Eastern Church had been satisfied to only holding on to their own traditions, there wouldn't have been a controversy, but since they adhered to those traditions with such rigidity they were suspicious and uncharitably critical of the traditions of the Western Church.  Unfortunately, the Eastern Church's criticism of Western traditions and their desire to assert supremacy over the Bishop of Rome led to a desire to impose Eastern Rite traditions on the West.  Any ritual or disciplinary practice not in harmony with those in vogue in the East were declared as "contrary to the apostolic tradition," and, therefore, to be abolished.  In the Greek Council of Trullo (692), the Eastern bishops presumed to dictate in matters of discipline to the Church in Rome and to pronounce a sentence of excommunication against anyone who refused to accept its ruling: We have learned that in the city of the Romans, people fast on the Saturdays of Lent contrary to ecclesiastical tradition:  it hath accordingly seemed good to this Holy Synod to decree that amongst the Romans also the canon should be enforced which says:  If a cleric be found to fast on Sunday or Saturday he shall be deposed; if a layman be guilty of the same offense, he shall be excommunicated (55th Canon of the Council of Trullo).  According to this pronouncement, not only could the faithful be excommunicated, but all Western bishops could be dispossessed of their ecclesiastical positions and even the Pope could be dispossessed of his See and of his sacerdotal dignity if found to be persisting to fasting on Saturdays during Lent.  The Emperor Justinian II, who had called the council, sent the canons from the council to be signed by Pope St. Sergius I (687-701), who indignantly refused to sanction a document of such rebellious impertinence.

Soon after the death of the Emperor Justinian a heresy broke out which added another deep crack in the rift that had been developing between East and West.  In 726, Emperor Leo ordered the destruction of all images in the churches of Constantinople.  This decree was the beginning of the iconoclast (image-breaking) heresy.  Iconoclasts believed pictures, statues, and other works of religious art that depicted images, such as icons and crosses, constituted a violation of the Biblical commandment forbidding the worshiping of images (Ex 20:4-5; Lev 19:4; Dt 4:15-20).  For more than one hundred years, this controversy over religious images would fill the Eastern Church with confusion, desolation, and death.  Leo went so far as to destroy the famous image of Christ over the doors of the imperial palace, an action that led to a riot among the Christians of Constantinople.  Pope St. Gregory II condemned Emperor Leo and the iconoclasts' heresy.  In response, the emperor threatened to destroy the image of St. Peter at Rome, and to take the Pope captive.  A fleet was sent by Emperor Leo to Rome to carry out this threat, but the Italians and the Lombards rallied to the Pope's defense, and the attack utterly failed.  Emperor Leo successors continued the iconoclast heresy.  The Greek Council of Constantinople anathematized those who venerated images, and this official anathema became the excuse for additional atrocities.  Monasteries were razed to the ground, and many monks died as martyrs for their faith in defending the traditional beliefs of the Church.

In 780, the Empress Irene restored the veneration of images and the Catholic faith as defined by the Pope in Rome.  In the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787), with Papal legates presiding, the question of the veneration of images was defined.  The Council declared: The figure of the cross and holy images, whether made in colors or of stone, or any other material, are to be retained.  They are not to become objects of adoration in the proper sense, which is given to God alone, but they are useful because they raise the mind of the spectator to the objects which they represent.  It is right to salute, honor, and venerate them, to burn lights and incense them, not only because this is in accordance with the tradition of the Church, but also because such honor is really given to God and His Saints, of whom the images are intended to remind us (Fr. Laux, M.A., Church History)The Iconoclast heresy was defeated in 842 when Empress St. Theodora brought the sacred images of Jesus and the saints back into to Basilica of St. Sophia.   The iconoclast heresy would resurface in the next century before it finally disappeared, but the Popes in Rome steadfastly continued to support the decree of the Council of Nicaea II and maintained the heresy of this movement.

The peace that had been restored between the East and West by the Council of Nicaea II was destroyed on Christmas Day 800 when Pope St. Leo III, without consulting the Patriarchs of the East, unwisely crowned Charlemagne (the King of the Franks) the Holy Roman Emperor of all Christian nations.  Many historians claim that no single event in the history of the Church so forcibly alienated the East from the West as the coronation of Charlemagne.  Pope Leo's action transformed the centuries of rivalry into bitter hatred.  In the East, there was violent opposition to Leo's action not only because of the belief in the shared role of bishops and patriarchs in deciding the role of politics in the future of the Church, but also because of the issue of the national pride of Eastern Catholics. That the Bishop of Rome had placed a barbarian king of a still mostly pagan nation on the throne of Christendom over which a Christian Roman emperor still ruled was a monstrous action to the mind of Eastern Christians.  For Eastern Catholics, this action meant that the Pope had presumed to detach Rome, and the Church, from the Roman Empire because Rome was now no longer Roman.    It was only a question of time before this festering wound would result in the whole of Eastern Christendom's refuse to obey the barbarian king's Bishop of Rome.

For the next three hundred years there was communion between Constantinople and Rome, but it was an uneasy union with no real peace.  The next movement toward the division between East and West was known as the Photian Schism.  This event occurred in the mid-ninth century when Patriarch Photius of Constantinople attempted to sever the link between East and West over changes in doctrine, rite, and discipline on which Eastern Bishops had not been consulted (nor had they been invited to attend Church Councils dealing with these issues).  Grievances against the West included the addition of the words "and from the Son" (Filioque) added to the Nicene Creed in the 9th century (defining the procession of the Holy Spirit, which was a response to a heresy which attacked the Trinity), the Latin practice of fasting on Saturday, the use of milk and cheese on fast days, the enforced celibacy of the clergy, the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist instead of the leavened bread used in Divine Liturgy in the East, and omitting the alleluia during Lent.  The additional fodder which fueled the flames of discord was the unwillingness of the Eastern Bishops to conform to papal authority.  All these issues continued to add to the disharmony between East and West.

In a letter addressed to all the patriarchs of the East, Photius denied the claim of the Bishop of Rome's spiritual authority, pronounced as intolerable that the imperial crown of the Western Empire had been given by Leo III to a barbarian king (Charlemagne), accused the Latin Church of heresy in adding the word "Filioque" ("and from the Son") to the Church's profession of faith in the Nicene Creed, and attacked the disciplines of Western Catholics in fasting and enforced celibacy of the clergy.  But the final blow against the West was his excommunication of all Western Rite Catholics and a sentence of deposition against Pope Nicholas (867).  Photius' march toward total separation with the Western Church was circumvented by the murder of his patron, Emperor Michael, in 867.  Photius was cast into prison by the new emperor and the former patriarch, Ignatius, who Emperor Michael had deposed in favor of Photius, was reinstated.  The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (869-870) condemned Photius and restored union under the authority of the Apostolic See in Rome by acknowledging the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.  This was the last Ecumenical Council in which the Eastern Rite churches participated.

All these grievances which were accelerating the movement toward the division between East and West came to a head when Michael Cerularius became Patriarch of Constantinople.  It was under his direction that Bishop Leo of Achrida sent his infamous letter to the Bishop of Rome.  In this letter, the use of unleavened bread in the Holy Eucharist is declared to be Jewish and invalid, and the "Latins" were reproached in unmeasured terms for fasting on Saturdays, for eating things strangled and bloody, and for other divergences from Eastern customs.  Cerularius himself closed the churches loyal to the Pope in Constantinople and ordered the Blessed Sacrament to be cast out and trodden under foot as invalid (Laux, Church History).  At the request of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus, who desired to have peace restored, Pope St. Leo IX sent three legates to Constantinople, but Patriarch Cerularius obstinately refused to receive them.  In one last attempt to see the Patriarch, the legates went to Saint Sophia Cathedral on the 16th of July, 1054.  When Cerularius still refused to see them and with no other choice available to them, the papal legates laid the document containing Cerularius' excommunication on the altar of St. Sophia in the presence of the clergy and the people with these words: Let God be the judge (Laux, History of the Church), and left the city to return to Rome.

All the attempts made by Popes, Emperors and Councils to reunite the Eastern and Western Rites have been refused by the churches of the Eastern Rites with the exception of the Byzantine, Chaldean, and Anatiochene Rites who were welcomed back into the family of the Universal Church in communion with the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Bishop of Rome, and therefore are by right called "Catholic."  In the year 2000, the Holy Father, John Paul II visited St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai in an attempt to restore unity.  The Eastern Orthodox Patriarch received Pope John Paul but refused to allow him to celebrate Eucharist with the community of the monastery.  In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Istanbul visit with the Patriarch of Constantinople.  What began as a rather cool welcome warmed to a genuine embrace of brotherly affection in the farewell.  There is hope for unity if Christians, in both the Eastern and Western Rites, will pray for the intervention of the Holy Spirit to bring together a family united by the blood of Jesus Christ but divided by the petty ambitions and lingering hurts of centuries long since past.


  1. The Greek Schism was, however, not the first rent in the fabric of Church unity.  In the 5th century AD the Council of Chalcedon condemned the Monophysite heresy  which maintained that Christ's human nature was absorbed by his divine nature (mono = one; physis = nature).  The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, on October 8, 451, decreed the Catholic doctrine of the two natures of Christ in one Divine Person.  This definition of the nature of Christ was not accepted by certain churches in the East which clung to the Monophysite heresy.  Eventually those parts of the Eastern Church in which Greek was not the national language, severed themselves from communion with the Bishop of Rome.  These communities include the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Syrian Jacobites, the Armenians and the Abyssinians.  The Antiochene and Chaldean Rites are in communion with Rome.
  2. In 334AD Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, a city erected on the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, founded circa 667BC.   The city's name was changed to Istanbul when Sultan Mohammed conquered Constantinople in 1452, making the city the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  Today Istanbul is the largest city in the modern Republic of Turkey.
  3. Initially the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire were united under one Roman emperor.  When the Roman Empire lost virtually all its western provinces and Rome was overrun by the barbarian chieftain Odoacer in 476AD, the Empire in the west came to an end and Roman Empire was reduced to the eastern provinces with Constantinople as its capital.  This reduced Roman Empire is what historians call the Byzantine Empire, a successor of the ancient Roman Empire.  The Byzantine Empire survived until the Moslem conquest in 1453AD.
  4. Church historians refer to the desire of rulers to have ultimate control over both civil and spiritual matters within their states "Caesaro-Papism" (see Laux, Church History, page 289).


Summary of the Events leading up to the Great Eastern Schism:

The great estrangement between Eastern and Western Rite Catholics finally came about on July 16, 1054.



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