The Great Schism: Why the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church Really Split

The Great Schism: Why the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church Really Split November 4, 2022

“Holy Father, keep [those you have given me] in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Jesus prayed the above prayer in John 17 on the night he was betrayed and since that first day until now it is a prayer that the Church has struggled to see perfectly fulfilled. On that night, Judas’ betrayal violated that unity. The New Testament documents other breakdowns in Church unity – Paul and Apollos, Jewish believers and Gentile believers, and wealth disparity among members of the church – to name a few. The history of the Church has continued to see the faithful suffer breakdowns in unity. Schisms and heresies have emerged from the first days until now.

There is arguably no schism quite as tragic as that between the Eastern Orthodox communion and the Catholic Church. For nearly a millennia much of the Eastern “lung” of the Church, as St. John Paul II referred to it has been separated from the western “lung.” The mystery of Christ is most richly and powerfully known when both lungs can breathe together and I personally find it heartbreaking that there continues to be this division in the body of Christ. It is my heartfelt prayer that the two lungs would be able to more fully breathe together and that Christ’s prayer for unity may more perfectly be fulfilled between these communions.

There are many obstacles toward unity today and many of them have deepened and evolved in the past 1000 years. However, it is perhaps a good first step to look at some of the root causes of the division. Below are a few of the critical issues.

  1. The filioque clause
    Too often the reason for the split is oversimplified as a disagreement about one word in the Creed. The Western Church had added the word “filioque” to the creed and the East would not do so. The word means “and the son” and was placed within the article on the Holy Spirit. It added an affirmation that the spirit processes from both the Father and the son. The original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed only affirmed the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.  There are many volumes written on the history of when and why and how this happened, what is critical to know is that it was added without the East’s consent or an Ecumenical council. The language that was not used in the liturgy of the East, was Latin. This brings us to another critical reason for the split: language.
  2. Language
    Language is tricky. It is a powerful tool to bring clarity to something when the words and their meanings between individuals or groups are the same. However, differences between words and meanings can cause tremendous conflict when there are differences between the words themselves or their meaning. This played a big role in the split. Latin had become the primary language of theology in the west while Greek remained central in the East. This resulted in a lot of potential areas of miscommunication and conflict. The controversy around the filioque clause gives a good example of how this worked. The word “proceeds” in the creed was originally the greek word ἐκπορευόμενον. It had been translated procedit into Latin. Although similar, these words are not identical. The Greek word has more of an emphasis on something’s origin and the Latin word has more of an emphasis on something’s path. Therefore the western church could see a passage like John 20:22, where the spirit clearly procedit through Jesus as he breathes on the disciples, but the East might argue that the example was not ἐκπορεύομαι. This is one example of many challenges. On top of that, Rome would send delegates who didn’t understand Greek to Constantinople. Misunderstanding and frustration, unsurprisingly, could ensue.
  3. Authority
    Perhaps the most important reason for the split was related to the question of authority and who had the final word in a disagreement. Controversies were solved in Ecumenical councils of Bishops, yet Patriarchs were looked to as the most important apostolic voice within these councils. The Pope of Rome was seen as the preeminent leader among the patriarchs and exercised the function as a decisive voice at times, most notably at the Council of Chalcedon. After the conversion of Constantine, the Church had a tenuous alliance with the Empire. Leaders, including the Pope, were confirmed by the Emperor and this was a practice that continued even after the Roman Empire of the West fell. Popes would still receive confirmation from the Eastern Roman emperor for centuries.  However, as the East and the West became increasingly separated from one another culturally, linguistically, and politically this tenuous balance began to break down. The Pope no longer looked to Constantinople for confirmation, instead developing an alliance with the Carolingian Empire. Decisions also began to be made without consulting the Bishops of the East, including the addition of the Filioque. As Rome increasingly began to envision itself as having the ability to make decisions on faith, morals, and their own apostolic succession unilaterally the East became uneasy about their own disenfranchisement.
  4. Islam
    The expansion of Islam became a key issue as well. As Christian lands were conquered avenues of communication were disrupted and the belief in a unified Christian World became unraveled. The West became very wary of the influence of Isalm on the Eastern Roman Empire, particularly after the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. One of the reasons the Pope removed himself from the sphere of influence of the Empire of the East was because of pressures exerted by the Emperor to eliminate the veneration of images from worship. Although this iconoclasm was eventually overturned in the seventh ecumenical council, a century of iconoclasm in the East seriously eroded the willingness of the Western Church to give authority to the Eastern Empire.
  5. Bad Actors
    The schism was also caused by the sin, arrogance, pride, and confusion that were caused by humans making mistakes. There are high-profile examples of this like the events leading up to the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople by Humbert of Silva Candidam, or of Crusaders sacking other Christian cities. However, there are, undoubably, countless other examples of human frailty pushing these communions apart from one another.

This simple list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives a sketch of some of the most salient historical reasons for the divide. As we pray that Christ’s prayer for unity might find greater fulfillment in our own time I pray we might draw wisdom from our past mistakes and seek a more perfect unity for the future. Make us one Lord!

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