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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 30 Mar 2002

orthodox churches vs. RCC QUESTION from john saranko January 17, 2000 When did the split with the orthodox churches occur and what is the nature of our(Roman Catholic Church) with these groups. Do they fall in with the other christian groups as seperated brothers and sisters in faith?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on January 23, 2000 Dear Mr. Saranko,
In popular chronologies of Church history, the schism between East and West occurred in 1054 A.D. However, many, if not all, specialists on the issue dispute this date.
To understand the schism between the East and West, you must understand that the East and West have very different concepts of doctrinal formulation, ecclesiology (i.e. church structure) and liturgy. Easterners and Westerners have different mentalities. The West's mentality was closer to the Roman one, whereas the East was more Greek. They did not share the same language and their languages tended to emphasize the differences of doctrine. For instance, the Greeks did not have a word for infallibitas, the Latin word for infallibility; yet Greek was a language which was very subtle and could produce many shades of meaning. These differences, combined with a physical breakdown of communication after the fall of Rome, a series of diplomatic blunders, military transgressions and mutual misunderstandings led to a break between the two churches. Historians would tend to place the schism during the Crusades. However, there occurred, in 1054, an incident which, of itself was not that important, but which would be played up in future centuries.
The crisis began in 1052 when Michael Kerullarios (also spelled Cerularius), the Patriarch of Constantinople, wished to impose liturgical uniformity throughout his partriachate and closed down the Latin-rite churches because they would not stop using unleavened bread for the Eucharist. It was believed, by the Eastern Church, that using unleavened bread was heretical. They believed that the external precepts imposed on Israel on Mt. Sinai were a form of punishment for her idolatry in the desert. Jesus, in freeing Israel from the bondage of sin, did away with these restrictions, and it was incumbent for Christians not to continue Jewish customs, such as using unleavened bread. This was a long-standing dispute between the East and West.
Eventually, Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054) sent three legates Cardinal Humbert, Archbishop Peter of Amalfi and Frederick of Lorraine, a priest. The pope was ill, and died by the time the three reached Constantinople. Michael refused to meet with them because the pope was a prisoner of the Normans, the enemies of the Byzantine Empire. Pope St. Leo died. Cardinal Humbert, a tempestuous man, wrote a pamphlet defending the Latin custom, and caused a storm of controversy-- and in those days, theology was not merely the preserve of the clerical elite, as it was in the West; it was common for the laity to have a good grasp of theology. So the effects were not felt only among the clergy, but throughout the whole city.
Finally, Cardinal Humbert penned a bull and excommunicated Michael and all clergy who supported him. Cardinal Humbert obviously did not have the authority to do this, and Michael burnt the bull and anathematized the three legates, but this anathema did not extend to the pope or the Western Church in general.
This incident was subsequently used by anti-Latin clergy in the East for propaganda purposes, to warn of the potential of Roman domination. The Reform movement of the 11th century was well underway in the West, and during that period, the papacy asserted its rights in a more explicit and concrete manner. In former times, the papacy had more of a hands off policy towards the Eastern Church. The East perceived Rome as a court of last appeal; it did not view the pope as the sole ruler of the whole Church, like we in the Latin rite do today. This does not make their perceptions necessarily heretical-- they had acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but due to the long distance between Rome and Constantinople, the pope was not the main focus of attention. They saw Rome as the first of five sees; but in each see, the Patriarch would administer his church by himself, unless there was a serious dispute, in which case, it would be submitted to Rome for a decision. Latins tend to see the pope as the primary focus of attention because Western Europe was converted due to the efforts of the pope, and his decisions were naturally supreme. It also tends to view the pope in this light because of the Reform Movement, in which various popes tried to extricate the clergy from domination by secular rulers, the Holy Roman Empire in particular. The popes had to emphasize the doctrines of papal supremacy and the necessity of recognizing the spiritual realm as superior to the temporal realm. These claims caused concerned among the Easterns, who feared Latin tyranny.
In itself, the events of 1054 did not signify an official schism. It was business as usual in the East after that particular incident. However, the Crusades fomented the break between the two churches. Urban II, was anxious to improve relations between the two churches, and wished to help the Byzantine by launching the first crusade, in order to help stave off the advance of Islam. The Byzantine emperor had hoped for reinforcement, to help him reconquer those parts of his empire he had lost to the Turks. The western princes did not have the same idea; they wanted land they conquered for themselves. The Orthodox were also disillusioned by the atrocious behaviour of Crusaders; in 1096, a horde of penniless crusaders, led by Peter the Hermit, plundered the city of Constantinople; in 1204, it was sacked again. This is the key act which completely turned off the Orthodox to the Western Church. It was one of those events which makes reconciliation emotionally impossible. There were a few attempts at reunion in 1274 and 1439, but they did not last very long, precisely because of the history of differences. The concept of papal primacy generally faded into the background, to the point where, in practice, it's denied by most Orthodox. So the schism was really the result of a doctrinal dispute, although there is something of that, but more the result of a long history of bruised feelings.
The Western Church has always been anxious for the re-unification of the Church-- they are separated brethren, being in schism, but they are in many ways close to us in church structure, liturgy and theology. The Council Fathers at Vatican II solemnly declared that the liturgical practices of the Eastern Church would be preserved. However, there are a number of nagging doctrinal differences which prevents reunification. Traditionally, Catholics present these differences as few and relatively insiginificant. In my discussions with Orthodox Christians, I have learned that they do not see it that way. For them, it's not just a matter of resolving the issue of papal primacy, the Filioque and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. They dislike the way in which the Western Church conceives of doctrine. The Orthodox do not place a great emphasis on human reason, the way the Western Church has; as a result, there are many questions which they leave unresolved because they do rely on reason where Revelation does not appear to answer their question. So, for instance, they do not believe in purgatory. Some Orthodox allow for the possibility that there may be a place of expiation in the next world, they do not go beyond what Scripture and Tradition reveal about them. Whereas we in the West will happily use philosophical principles to speculate on questions which are not directly answered in Revelation. This is how we arrived at the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Orthodox especially do not like the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas; they consider his way of parsing truths to be legalistic.
Just a caveat: the accounts of the events of the schism are very truncated. My main source of information is Rome and the Eastern Churches, by Aidan Nichols, O.P.. A short account like the one I gave you cannot do justice to the whole controversy, and I highly encourage anyone who wishes to have a good grasp of the situation to devote some time to this. Unless you are very well versed in Byzantine history, it's not a subject that you can really understand in one reading because it deals with events which are not part of the popular historical culture, or of the syllabuses of the history normally taught in schools.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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