In 1054 papal legate, Cardinal Humbert, marched into the Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and banged a bull of excommunication onto the altar before the ecumenical patriarch, Michael Cerularius. This formalized the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches that has persisted, despite a brief reunion, for nearly a millennium.
Split Between Catholic and Orthodox – Long in the Making
It is erroneous to think that the split just happened. Constantine had established a Christian church across his empire. The fate of that church was linked to the fate of the empire: as the Roman world split between Latin and Greek divisions, the tectonic crack between two churches grew. The trouble was rooted in political structures and language differences.
The Roman Empire survived in the Greek East, whereas the West fell under the control of Germanic warlords who had flooded into Europe as imperial power failed. The West emphasized Latin, whereas the East spoke Greek. As society broke down in the fierce struggles that followed imperial collapse, many on each side failed to learn the language of the other. While there was some competence on each side, there was little scholarly expertise. This meant that misunderstandings could occur, especially when dealing with complex theological documents.
Part of the trouble was the status of the papacy. The church was ruled by apostolic sees, bishoprics deemed to have been founded by apostles and therefore sure repositories of the apostolic tradition. Each was governed by a patriarch/pope. These included Rome, where Peter and Paul had settled, Constantinople [dubiously connected with Andrew], Alexandria and Antioch.
The Bishop of Rome was supposed to be first among equals, presiding over the other patriarchs in fraternal relationship. Decisions on doctrine were made by ecumenical councils, in which the collected bishops met to discuss doctrinal matters. As time passed, however, the orthodox sensed that the popes regarded themselves as emperors over all the others, and were becoming more domineering. Trouble came when the popes started making doctrinal decisions on their own without ecumenical councils, inserting words into the creed without conciliar approval.
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Filioque: Holy Spirit, Father and Son
The nub of the trouble was the doctrine of filioque, which concerns the relationship of the Holy Spirit to Father and Son. This means “and from the son” and the pope inserted it in the creed without authorization.
The doctrine of the Trinity involves the mysterious relationship between the three persons in God. The Nicene Creed, authorized by the council of Nicea, asserted that the spirit proceeded from the Father, but it said nothing about his proceeding from the Son, Jesus. In 589, however, the local council of Toledo claimed that the Spirit proceeded from the Son and the Father.
This fortified the church’s stance against the Arian heretics, who claimed that the son was a created being, unintentionally undermining his divine status. This belief spread in the West and was reaffirmed at the council of Frankfurt in Charlemagne’s time in 794. The Greeks took an interest in about 850, holding that changes to doctrine could only be made by an ecumenical council. They accused the Western church of making illegitimate changes without authorization.
Not all popes were in favor of the move. Leo the Third wrote to Charlemagne to say that although he believed that filioque was correct, one should not change the creed without authorization.
Rome at this stage was peacemaking between the Franks and the Orthodox. In 1014 the Pope crowned Henry the Second, a Frankish ruler on whom he depended for his protection, and passively went along with Henry’s desire to include filioque in the creed at the coronation.
Political tensions over the next few hundred years, however, undermined the relationship between the Western and Eastern parts of the church. It was inevitable that the issue would flare again.
In 1053 a dispute arose. The Normans in Sicily were forcing members of the Orthodox church to accept Western ritual practices, such as the use of unleavened bread in communion. Michael Cerularius demanded that Latin churches in Constantinople adopt Eastern practices. He then took the pope’s name out of the diptyches, the lists of prayers said in church. The pope sent legates, including Cardinal Humbert to settle the issue and Cerularius was conciliatory, offering to restore the pope’s name to the diptyches.
This gesture was not enough for Humbert . An unbending authoritarian, he demanded total submission, and in 1054 arrived in Hagia Sophia with the infamous bull of excommunication, which accused Cerularius of a multitude of offenses, including denying the rights of the pope and refusing to insert filioque into the creed. Humbert then marched off. The Greek emperor tried to reconcile the two sides to no avail. The split between the churches dates from then.
Catholic Versus Orthodox After 1054
Orthodox accused Rome of making decisions without authorization from an ecumenical council. Catholics accused Orthodox of disobedience to papal authority. For 150 years the dispute simmered while the two churches lived in a state of amicable, informal schism. Feelings were hardening and theological battle lines were being drawn, but nothing did as much harm as the crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1205, which turned Orthodox feelings against Rome very sour.
Since then, the two churches have been sundered, despite a short, contrived reunion in the fifteenth century under pressure from advancing Islam. There have been moves to reconcile, but while the theological issues can be overcome with open minded thought, ancient animosities are harder to deal with. Benedict the Sixteenth said that the Catholic Church should ask nothing of the Orthodox that was not agreed in 1054, and this is a wise suggestion. The papacy of Pope Francis, which began in 2013, might see some progress towards reunion.
Terheyden, Michael. Historic Meeting Between Pope Francis and Coptic Patriarch, Tawadros II, Fosters Christian Unity. (May 18, 2013). Catholic Online.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. (1963). Penguin.
Hughes, Philip. A History of the Church, Volume 2. (1947). Sheed and Ward.