The gains of the Church in the 11th century were tremendous.  Catholic missionaries had carried the Gospel far into northern and eastern Europe.  Scandinavians, Slovenians, Chechs, Poles, Russians, the wild Magyars, and Tartars had all become established Christian nations.  Unfortunately, these gains of the Church were offset almost immediately by the most painful 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 Christendom and cut off an appallingly large fragment from the Catholic Church.

Misunderstanding and jealously between the East and the West had begun to wear away at the fabric of our unity centuries earlier when the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople (later called Byzantium and in this century known as Istanbul) in the 4th century AD.  Some scholars identify the beginnings of the rift at this time with the controversy that developed with Eusebius of Nicomedia and his accomplices in their opposition to the Council of Nicaea in 325AD.  It was under the guidance of this party that the autonomy of the Byzantine Bishops was first organized and established.  As the centuries pasted, and disputes arose between the reigning Roman emperors (and later Byzantine emperors) and the Vicar of Christ in Rome, the Bishops in the Eastern part of the Empire began to side with the reigning Emperor in disputes between the Emperor and the Pope.  

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 emperor being supreme in secular as well as in spiritual matters did not entirely disappear after the Empire had become Christian.  The Christian emperors, with few exceptions, sought to carry on the pagan tradition.  In their desire to interfere and to influence decisions in doctrinal matters many of them fell into the heresies which were forever surfacing in the Eastern Church.  Emperors who embraced the Arian (denied divinity of Christ), Monophysite (denied humanity of Christ), Monothelitism (denied that Christ had two natures), and Iconoclast (condemned icons as idol worship) heresies found the Pope of Rome very irritating to their pride.  His papal condemnations and the Councils of the Magisterium over which the Pope held authority always condemned their pet heresies. "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).  Before long nearly all of the Eastern bishops owed their appointments to the emperor, whose choice was not always guided by Gospel law or 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.  Since the time of Justinian the Great (527-565) the Eastern Church had sunk into a state of stagnation and rigid adherence to her own forms and traditions. If the Eastern Church had been satisfied to only holding on to her own traditions there wouldn't have been a controversy.  But because she adhered to them with such rigidity she was suspicious and critical of the traditions of the Western Church.  Unfortunately, the Eastern Church insisted on imposing her traditions on the West also.  Any ritual and disciplinary practices not in harmony with those in vogue in the East she declared "contrary to the apostolic tradition," and therefore to be abolished.  In the Greek Council of Trullo (692) the Eastern Catholics 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 even the Pope himself could be dispossessed of his See and of his sacerdotal dignity if he insisted on fasting on Saturdays during Lent!  The Emperor Justinian II,  who had called the council, sent the canons to be signed by the Pope St. Sergius I, who indignantly refused to sanction such a piece of impertinence.

Soon after the death of the Emperor Justinian a heresy broke out which caused a terrible schism between East and West.  This schism was caused by Emperor Leo who in 726 ordered the destruction of all images in the churches.  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.  For more than one hundred years this controversy over religious images would fill the Eastern Church with confusion, desolation, and death.  The destruction of the famous image of Christ over the brazen door of the palace led to an uproar among the people 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 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.  A Greek council of Constantinople anathematized those who venerated images, and this anathema was the excuse for additional atrocities.  Monasteries were razed to the ground, and many monks died as martyrs for their faith in 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 Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (789), 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 would resurface in the next century before it disappeared, but the Popes in Rome steadfastly continued to support the decree of the Council and maintained the heresy of this movement.

The peace that had been restored between the East and West by the 7th Council of Nicaea was destroyed on Christmas Day 800 when Pope St. Leo III crowned the King of the Franks, Charlemagne, "Charles the Great", the "Holy Roman Emperor".  No single event, it is claimed by many historians, alienated the East so forcibly from the West.  By this action of Pope Leo, the centuries of rivalry was transformed into bitter hatred.  But this was not a question of religion.  It was instead an issue of national pride.  That Rome should presume to detach itself from the Roman Empire and place a barbarian king on the throne was a monstrous action to the Eastern mind.  Rome was no longer Roman and the Bishop of Rome was responsible for this unpardonable crime!  It was now only a question of time before the whole East would refuse to obey the "barbarian's" Bishop of Rome.

For the next three hundred years there was almost unbroken communion between Constantinople and Rome, but no real peace.  The issues of the addition of the words "and from the Son" to the Nicene Creed in the 9th century (which was a response to a heresy which attacked the Trinity), the Latin practice of fasting on Saturday, their use of milk and cheese on fast days, the enforced celibacy of the clergy, the use of unleavened bread in Eucharist , and the unwillingness to conform to papal authority, continued to add to the disharmony between East and West.

All these divisions came to a head when the proud and ambitious Michael Cerularius became Patriarch of Constantinople.  It was under his direction that Bishop Leo of Achrida sent his infamous letter to the West.  In this letter the use of unleavened bread in the Holy Eucharist is declared to be Jewish and invalid, and the Latins are 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 him, 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 Rite Catholics have been refused by the Catholic Churches of the East with the exception of the Byzantine and Anatiochene Rite Catholics.  This year Holy Father John Paul II visited St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai in another 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.

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.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2000 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.