“O East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgment Seat…” Rudyard Kipling

Authority seems to be the running theme of divisions within the Catholic Church. The separation between East and West was no different.

Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is a complicated story that spans centuries. Although both sides view the conflicts in their own way, the final division between the Eastern and Western church in 1453 has to be one of the saddest splits of our Faith. Though not related to the Protestant Reformation (and was separated many years from that divide), the pangs of separation from the East are particularly tragic. Part of the sorrow that remains is because of the fact that the East retains valid Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession. Unfortunately, several conflicts brought about the final split that exists even today.

The first issue had to do with the very structure of the Eastern Church. The Byzantine Empire’s capitol was Constantinople, headed by a patriarch. Although he was in charge of several areas (including Antioch and Jerusalem), he was ultimately under the emperor. And just as in many eras of history, the emperor claimed power over the church. Consequently, the patriarch’s hands were tied in many ways under the emperor’s control. Even in the case of some of the better patriarchs, the emperor with his vast army was impossible to resist. The conflict arose when Emperor Constantius appointed a patriarch who subscribed to Arianism. Arianism was a heretical belief that, at its core, denied the divinity of Jesus…absolutely not acceptable to Christianity. At that time, Pope Julian excommunicated the Patriarch in A.D. 343 due to his heresy against the Faith (NOTE: the separation ended in A.D. 398 when John Chrysostom became patriarch).

At the heart of this dispute is our topic: Authority. Just as in the case of Martin Luther, the Patriarch had developed a doctrinal stand that was outside those defined by the Authority of the Church under the Pope and Magisterium in Ecumenical Councils. The First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) formally presented the teaching on the divinity of Christ to be one with God the Father in substance and nature. By subscribing to Arianism, the patriarch of Constantinople, as appointed by Emperor Constantius, stood in defiance of authoritative, defined teachings. This was the first issue against authority.

The second issue was in part over authority, and in part a ‘comedy of errors’ committed by both sides. The year was 1054. The Normans conquered southern Italy, taking over the Byzantine- Greek churches. The Byzantines had been practicing the use of leavened bread for communion, which was not in keeping with the long-standing custom of unleavened bread. To be fair, there is reasoning for each practice. Because the Orthodox Church believes yeast to be like the soul, which gives life to the body, they have maintained that the bread of the Eucharist needs to have yeast. Catholics have a more pragmatic, Holy Tradition stand: since Jesus used unleavened bread in the Last Supper during the Passover Meal, so the Western Church continues in His example.

Next were several faux pas moves on both parts. After the Normans took over Sicily, they insisted that the Greek churches adopt the practice of unleavened bread in the Latin-Rite custom. However, the Patriarch Cerularius then dictated to the Latin churches in Constantinople to use leavened bread. When the Latin congregations refused to abandon their age-old custom of unleavened bread, Cerularius closed their churches. He then sent an angry letter to the Pope. Then the fun began…

Pope Leo IX, in an effort to address the mutual hostility, sent three men to Constantinople. Unfortunately, tempers flared. In part, this was due to the two men who represented each side. The Eastern Patriarch Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert from Rome were both men who could be stubborn, as well as temper-driven. When the Patriarch refused any further discussion, Humbert laid an excommunication bull on the altar at the Church of Holy Wisdom. Cerularius responded by anathema of Humbert…essentially excommunicating him. Although there is a question of the validity of either move, it was yet another incidence of strife between the two.  But at the center of this controversy was an underlying question of who had the authority to decide the form of matter used in communion. (NOTE: in the Code of Canon Law 926, Roman-rite Catholics are not permitted to use leavened bread. The Church maintains that the same sacrifice of the Mass should be reflected in uniformity of the elements.)

Some point to the 1054 issue over communion bread to be the date of the schism; however, this is inaccurate. East finally broke with Rome around 1453. That break, ironically, was due to a soldier’s mistake of forgetting to lock one of the gates of Constantinople. The Turks invaded, sacked the city, and the empire fell. The Muslims then forced most of the Eastern churches in the Byzantine Empire to renounce its tie to Rome.

There have been several other issues and fallout due to the East-West division. One, which in many ways mimics subsequent divisions in Protestant sects, is that the Eastern Church has divided into about eleven separate and independent Orthodox churches. How did this evolve? To begin, when Islam took over Constantinople, the patriarch became somewhat diminished in any authority over his church. Though Islamic forces protected the Eastern Orthodox, the Muslim sultan became the keeper of the patriarch’s role. A great many were deposed, and several were murdered. There were also contributing factors in Russia, with Ivan the Great naming himself Czar (Caesar), subsequently stating it was independent from Constantinople. After that break, the further breaks created the eleven separate Orthodox churches.  All of this points to the need for an ultimate authority, which was established by Christ in the Pope. When that was abandoned, it opened the door for these distressing splits in the East.

Further disagreements had to do with:

  • The word filoque (meaning, ‘and the Son’), which was added for clarification in the Nicene Creed.
  • The number of ecumenical councils considered valid (the East only recognizes 7 of the 21 Councils)
  • An actual disagreement over pope’s authority

Number three, the Primacy of Peter, is where we come full circle. Where the Orthodox recognize an honor bestowed upon Peter, they see no correlation to the Seat of Peter having primacy in authority over the Church. Similarly to the Protestant Reformation, the issue of Papal Authority is central to most of the issues that divide East and West. As Catholics, we look to Holy Scriptures to understand how Christ established the authority that safeguards the Church. First, Jesus consistently spoke of Peter in a separate and special way among the rest of the apostles. He assigns him specific pasturing leadership in ‘feeding his sheep.’ He gives Peter the ‘keys of the kingdom,’ which is an Old Testament reference of specific authority. And then, Jesus gives Simon a new name: Peter, the Rock upon which the Church on Earth will be built. Throughout Biblical accounts, when God renames someone, that person is destined for a huge and important mission. The new identity was a destiny. Abram (high father) to Abraham (father of a multitude). Sarai (my princess) to Sarah (mother of nations). Jacob (supplanter) to Israel (having power with God). Simon (God has heard) to Peter (Rock).

God doesn’t do things idly, without reason.  Peter’s new name and identity was the establishment of his role as not only keeper of the keys to heaven, but as the earthly authority of the visible Church. This authority has been challenged throughout the history of the Church, including in the struggles of the Eastern and Western Church.

One positive note: the East and West have been dialoging, and there is much hope that there will someday be reconciliation that could reunite East and West as God intended.

{Watch for Part 3}



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