The schism of the Church of Christ along East-West lines in 1054 AD is among the most tragic events in Christianity. At first, despite the mutual excommunications of the Pope of Rome in the West and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the East, Catholic and Orthodox Christians considered themselves united by their shared heritage and faith in Christ.
This changed following the sack of Constantinople by Latin soldiers during the fourth crusade in 1204. Ouch.
The violent event prompted the Orthodox faithful to begin to view themselves as separate from the Catholics. Since then, many mutual theological condemnations have been issued by saints of both churches, perhaps the most famous of which is Thomas Aquinas’ work Against the Errors of the Greeks, which outlines what he saw as errors in Orthodox theology.
Relations have improved since the mutual nullification of the anathemas issued towards each other in 1965. This gesture, much like a “no hard feelings?” text after a break-up, has proven to be one of only symbolic significance with no theological weight attached. The Catholic and Orthodox churches are not in communion with one another and have not been for nearly a thousand years.
Despite the length of separation, the Catholic and Orthodox churches retain much of the same theology and practice. Both hold to the authority of the seven Ecumenical Councils and the scriptures, both practice liturgical worship rooted in the ancient liturgies, and both believe in salvation as deification – the constant process of union with and participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
However, the theological disagreements that caused the break-up in the first place are not trivial by any means. Since the schism, the once “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” has only seen more distance between us. It is necessary to review the initial disagreements to assess whether reunification is possible.
You Can Blame It All On Me: Causes of the Schism
Perhaps the most obvious cause of the schism is the difference in views on papal authority. The West over the centuries had begun to view the Bishop of Rome as having authority above that of a normal bishop because of the special places of saints Peter and Paul among the apostles, and their martyrdom in Rome.
The East saw the Bishop of Rome as having authority among the other bishops, who reserved the right to make theological decisions as a last court of appeals due to his status as “first among equals.” As is common in quarrels among lovers, one thing led to the next: the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed by the Bishop of Rome.
The filioque clause changed the Nicene Creed to state that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, whereas the original Nicene Creed stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father. The West argued the filioque was a necessary clarification to protect against Trinitarian heresies. The East viewed it as an unnecessary and heretical deviation from the Creed handed down to them by the early church fathers who had met at the First Council of Nicaea.
The last major theological difference is the use of leavened versus unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Though seemingly trivial, this matter is made important by the fact that the kind of bread used in liturgy is integral to the training of priests in seminary. The issue is further complicated by competing traditions that existed within the unified Church of Christ.
The West, noting that Christ used unleavened bread in the celebration of the Passover, insisted on also using unleavened bread. The East, seeing the risen leavened bread as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and having learned this tradition from the earliest apostles, insisted on using leavened bread.
These are the three main differences that led to the schism.
All three of these remain issues to this day. The question to be asked is whether these disagreements are irreconcilable. Perhaps they could be worked out with humility and honest discussion?
Can We Mend The East-West Divide?
On a personal level, as an Orthodox Christian with many Catholic friends, I want the answer to be a resounding yes and to see the reunification of the majority of the Christian world. Realistically, I am forced to give a hesitant maybe.
The main theological barrier is the Orthodox unwillingness to budge on papal supremacy and the filioque. This has been proven time and time again throughout the ages in many theological documents published by the Orthodox. In the letters exchanged between the early Lutheran reformers and the Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople, the Orthodox explicitly condemned both papal supremacy and the filioque in great detail.
Similarly, the Catholic Church has been unwilling to let go of their view of papal supremacy, with the authority of the pope having increased since the schism. However, the Catholics have been more willing to compromise on the filioque, tentatively accepting that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son instead of from the Father and the Son.
These differences have not been resolved in a thousand years, and I am skeptical they will be resolved anytime soon.
Despite the length of the separation, there have been positive advances in the realm of liturgical diversity on both sides. For example, the Catholic Church has allowed the celebration of Eastern liturgies through its Byzantine rite, and the Orthodox Church has incorporated the celebration of Western liturgies through its Western rite.
This meaningful demonstration in the liturgical life of both churches shows that our histories are the same and that our hearts are aligned.
We may not pray together anymore, but the least we can do is pray for each other. The most important step that can be taken by Orthodox and Catholic faithful today is to pray for unification and the salvation of their brothers in the East and the West.