The Great Schism Split Christianity into East and West

The great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the head of Eastern Christianity until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the site of the seminal event causing the Great Schism in the year 1054. Credit: Wikimedia Commons



3 December 2021

Patricia Claus


This article of great historical and theological importance, has been suggested for the readers of Church Citizens' Voice by the one and only Shri Varghese Pamplanil who scans the entire global knowledge bank to search out gems of information for our readers. Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor.



The separation of Christianity into East and West, occasioned by cultural and liturgical norms as much as the Filioque issue, continues down to this day. Credit: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License


The East–West Schism that occurred in 1054 represents one of the most significant, and tragic, events in the history of Christianity. Eastern and Western Christians had a history of differences and disagreements, some dating back to the earliest days of Christianity, and the root of what later became the Great Schism was not only theological but cultural as well.

The most important theological difference occurred over various questions regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit and the adding of the Filioque clause onto the Nicene Creed. One of the main ecclesiastical issues was the question of papal supremacy over all other bishops. Other points of difference were related to various liturgical, ritual, and disciplinary customs and practices, which in themselves still do not pose insurmountable problems to unity.

Some scholars believe that serious schisms had already taken place under Pope Victor I  in the second century, Pope Stephen I in the third century) and Pope Damasus I in the 4th and 5th centuries. Disputes about theological and other questions led to minor schisms between the Churches in Rome and Constantinople from 482 to 519 and from 866 to 879, leading up to the great seeing of the churches centuries afterward. 


St. Paul, St. Peter martyred in Rome but Constantinople later became seat of Empire

The idea that primacy in the Church was transferred along with the transfer of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople had been posited as early as the 6th century by John Philoponus. Constantinople, as the seat of the ruler of the empire and therefore of the world, was the highest among the churches of the patriarchate and, like the emperor, it had the right to govern them, he believed.

However, Rome was regarded as an extremely important center of Christianity, especially since it was for so long the powerful capital of the Roman Empire. The eastern and southern Mediterranean bishops generally recognized the leadership and authority of the bishop of Rome, but the Mediterranean Church did not regard him as infallible, nor did they acknowledge any juridical authority of Rome.

The Church of Rome, however, claimed a special authority over the other churches because of its connection with the apostles Peter and Paul; but the extant documents of that era show no clear-cut claims to, or recognition of, papal primacy.

Rome had a significant Christian population from the very beginning of the spread of Christianity; the city is closely identified with the Apostle Paul, who preached and was martyred there, and the Apostle Peter, who was martyred there as well. Peter, whose remains are believed to rest under the Vatican, is seen as founder of the Church in Rome, and the bishops of Rome were his successors.

An icon showing the figures who presided at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. In the middle is the Roman Emperor Constantine, who is flanked by bishops who attended the conference. The men hold a scroll with the Nicene Creed printed on it. Credit: Unknown iconographer/Public Domain

Rome held special place in Christianity as place of martyrdom, political center of Empire

According to St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, who also died a martyr in Rome around the year 110, “the church which presides in the territories of the Romans” was “a church worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of felicitation, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and presiding in love, maintaining the law of Christ, bearer of the Father’s name.”

The Roman church held this place of honor and exercised a “presidency in love” among the first Christian churches not only because it was founded on the teaching and sacrificial blood of the foremost Christian apostles Peter and Paul; it was also the church of the capital city of the Roman empire that then constituted the “civilized world” (or oikoumene), as it was thought in those times.

An initial controversy arose after Christians in the Roman province of Western Anatolia celebrated Easter at the spring full moon, like the Jewish Passover, while the churches in the rest of the world observed the practice of celebrating it on the following Sunday (“the day of the resurrection of our Savior.”

In the year 193, Pope Victor I presided over a council in Rome tasked with trying to nail down the correct date on which the great feast should be held. Despite his failure to do so, many Catholic apologists point to this episode as evidence of papal primacy and authority in the early Church, since none of the bishops challenged his right to excommunicate the Eastern bishops who disagreed with him, but simply questioned the wisdom and charity of doing so.


St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is the home of Roman Catholicism. Credit: Alvesgaspar /CC BY-SA 4.0

 Nicene Creed codified what Christians believe

When Roman Emperor Constantine the Great embraced Christianity, he summoned the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in Asia Minor in 325 to resolve a number of issues in the theology of the early Church.

The Nicene Creed, which embodies the basis of all the beliefs of Christianity, was established at that seminal meeting of churchmen. Following the death of Emperor Theodosius the Great in 395, the Roman Empire was divided into western and eastern halves, each for a few decades still under its own Emperor; it was never reunited.

Following the sack of Rome by invading Goths, Rome slid into the Dark Ages of strife and political confusion; during these times the Church itself was the only functioning institution of any recognizable type.

Rome became increasingly isolated and irrelevant to the wider Mediterranean Church — which suited the Eastern Mediterranean patriarchs and bishops quite well. The center of politics in the empire shifted to the eastern Mediterranean. Rome lost the Senate to Constantinople and lost its status and gravitas as imperial capital.

Major theological issues between the Eastern and Western churches began after the Latins added the “Filioque,” which means “and from the Son,” to the original Creed in the sixth century, amounting to a changing of the nature of the Holy Spirit as emanating not just from God but from Jesus Christ as well.  


Theological, cultural, linguistic differences divide East and West

The Filioque has been the subject of great controversy between Eastern and Western Christianity ever since that time — although it was not the only reason for the Great Schism, nor did the Schism of 1054 mean that all the members were immediately excommunicated from the other half of Christianity.

However, in practice, as we know from human history, things become garbled very easily, and events often take on lives of their own, snowballing inevitably into situations which are nearly impossible to unravel.

Many Eastern Orthodox Christians argued that was a violation of Canon VII of the Council of Ephesus, since the words were not included in the text by either the First Council of Nicaea or that of Constantinople.

Many other factors also caused the East and West to drift further apart. The dominant language of the West was Latin while that of the East, of course, was Greek. Soon after the fall of the Western Empire, the number of people who spoke both Latin and Greek began to dwindle, and communication between East and West grew much more difficult.

Both sides became suspicious of the other. With their linguistic unity gone, cultural unity began to crumble as well. they developed different liturgical and had different approaches to religious doctrines.

Although the Filioque was incorporated into the liturgical practice of Rome in 1014, the relations between the papacy and the Byzantine court were good overall in the years leading up to 1054.  


Tragic events of 1054 reverberate down the centuries

The Great Schism occurred after Michael I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered Leo, the Archbishop of Ochrid, to write a letter to John, the bishop of Trani, in which he attacked the “Judaistic” practices of the West, namely the use of unleavened bread. The letter was sent by John to all the bishops of the West, including the pope; it was then passed to Humbert of Mourmoutiers, the cardinal-bishop of Silva Candida, who brought it to the pope.

The Pope then ordered that a letter be written to the Eastern bishops defending papal supremacy.

In 1054, Pope Leo IX sent a letter to Michael that cited a large portion of the forgery called the Donation of Constantine, believing it genuine. Leo IX assured the Patriarch that the donation was genuine, so only the apostolic successor to Peter possessed that primacy and was the rightful head of all the Church.

The Patriarch rejected all claims of papal primacy. Humbert, Frederick of Lorraine, and Peter, Archbishop of Amalfi, then arrived in Constantinople in April 1054. Met with a hostile reception, they stormed out of the palace, leaving the papal letter with Michael, whose anger matched their own.

Historians note that the seals on the letter had been tampered with and the legates had published an earlier, far less civil, draft of the letter — in Greek — for the entire populace to read. The patriarch flatly refused to recognize the legates’ authority. 


Excommunications of churchmen — not the faithful — was basis of Great Schism

On July 16, 1054, the three legates produced a Charter of Excommunication directed only against Patriarch Michael of Constantinople, Archbishop Leo of Ohrid, and their followers, for refusing the Papal legates.

On the same day, in what was seen as an unforgivable breach of etiquette, the legates entered the church of Hagia Sophia during the divine liturgy and placed the charter on the holy altar. In the charter, the legates made 11 accusations against Michael and “the backers of his foolishness;” however, the issue of the Filioque was only given seventh place in the list of supposed Greek errors.

The papal legates themselves were likewise excommunicated by Michael; the anathema was officially proclaimed in Hagia Sophia on July 24, 1054. Significantly, however, only the legates themselves were anathematized, as well as a general reference made to all who supported them — there was no explicit excommunication of the entirety of Western Christianity or the Church of Rome.

The legates had also been careful not to intimate that the Charter of Excommunication implied a general excommunication of the Byzantine Church; the schism began to develop when all the other Eastern patriarchs supported Michael.  


Schism’s effects not immediately apparent

Pope Leo IX had died during the time of this brouhaha, so even the authority of the legates to issue such a document is unclear. Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox convert from the Church of England, states in his History of the Orthodox Church “Even after 1054, friendly relations between East and West continued. The two parts of Christendom were not yet conscious of a great gulf of separation between them. … The dispute remained something of which ordinary Christians in the East and West were largely unaware.”

But the cultural and linguistic differences between the East and West grew only more pronounced in the centuries that followed. The division between the peoples became much more stark after, during the Fourth Crusade, European knights and Venetian merchants sacked Constantinople, looting Hagia Sophia and other holy sites, and celebrating Latin Catholic rites in them.

The greatest churches and cities of the East were looted and sacked by the marauders in an action that was not condoned by the Pope; but that was of no import to Eastern Christians, who could not forgive the Frankish knights for their desecration of their holy places.

A final treaty established the Latin Empire of the East and the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople at that time; what is now the nation of Greece came under the Frankokratia.


Efforts continued to reunite the two halves of Christianity

However, there were continued efforts to reunite the churches even after the Schism and the inexplicable desecrations of the Crusaders.

The Second Council of Lyon was convoked as the fulfillment of a pledge by Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII to reunite the Eastern church with the West. Wishing to end the Great Schism once and for all, Pope Gregory X had sent an embassy to Michael VIII, who had reconquered Constantinople.

On June 29, 1272, Pope Gregory X celebrated a Mass in St. John’s Church in Lyon; both sides officiated at the services. The council declared in its final statement that the Roman church possessed “the supreme and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church.”

The Council, seemingly a success, did not provide a lasting solution to the schism because the Eastern clergy proved to be extremely obstinate in accepting the primacy of Rome.

The vast majority of Byzantine Christians remained implacably opposed to a reunion with people whom they called “heretics”. Michael’s death in December of 1282 put an official end to the unity of Lyons.

Nearly 200 years later, another attempt at rapprochement was launched with the Council of Ferrara-Florence of 1439. Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, pressed hard by the Ottoman Turks, was keen to ally himself with the West, and to do so he arranged these parleys with Pope Eugene IV.

After several long discussions, the emperor managed to convince the Eastern representatives to accept the Western doctrines of filioque, purgatory and the supremacy of the papacy. On June 6, 1439, an agreement was signed by all the Eastern bishops present except one — Mark of Ephesus, who held that Rome was still heretical and in schism.

However, upon their return, the Eastern bishops found their agreement with the West broadly rejected by the populace and by civil authorities there, leading to a popular rejection of the accord. The agreement signed in Florence has never been accepted by the Eastern churches.

The Eastern Catholic Churches consider themselves to have reconciled the Great Schism by keeping their prayers and rituals similar to those of Eastern Orthodoxy, while also accepting the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. 


1870 dogma of papal infallibility remains huge obstacle

Additional doctrinal additions by the Catholic Church, including the concept of papal infallibility, have continued to pose additional problems for the Orthodox. The First Vatican Council of 1869–1870 affirmed the dogma of papal infallibility, declaring that the infallibility of the Christian community extends to the pope, when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.

However, a major event of the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, held in 1965, occurred with the issuance by Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of a joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that led up to the Great Schism.

The two prelates issued their “Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965” as a way to soothe some of the tensions that had stood for so many centuries between the East and West. At the same time, they also lifted the mutual excommunications on their predecessors which were issued in the 11th century.

In May of 1999, John Paul II became the first pope since the Great Schism to visit an Eastern Orthodox country, Romania. Upon greeting the pope, the Romanian Patriarch Teoctist stated: “The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity.” 


Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Elpidophoros extend hand of friendship to the West

The Roman Catholic Church recently has shown some flexibility on the thorny Filioque issue as well. In accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of including the clause when reciting the Creed in Latin, but not when reciting the Creed in Greek, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have recited the Nicene Creed jointly with Patriarchs Demetrius I and Bartholomew I in Greek — without the Filioque.

The action of these patriarchs in reciting the creed together with the popes has been strongly criticized by some elements of Eastern Orthodoxy, such as the Metropolitan of Kalavryta, Greece in November 2008.

Patriarch Bartholomew continues his extremely cordial relations with the Catholic Church today, in the thirtieth year of his reign, welcoming Pope Francis on his second visit to Greece and Cyprus.

The two prelates famously walked together through the migrant camps of the Greek island of Lesvos on Francis’ earlier trip to Greece in 2015, while they expressed their Christian solidarity in many ways, including praying together.

As Greek Reporter reported at the time, unaccompanied women with children in their arms were extending their hands in an effort to shake hands with the three religious leaders. One refugee approached the Pope with tears and bowed in front of him and asked for his blessing. In an intimate moment, both the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch each took a baby in their arms.

In November of 2021, Archbishop Elpidophoros, the leader of all Greek Orthodox in the Americas, attended a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; this was the first time in history that an Orthodox bishop had attended such a meeting of Catholic bishops.

In his remarks to the assembled clergy, he called for a “restoration of unity” and a “dialogue of love” between all Christians.

Elpidophoros’ remarks were greeted very warmly by the Catholic bishops.

In his keynote address, given during the first day of the Conference, Elpidophoros brought up Patriarch Bartholomew’s speech to the Ecumenical Reception at the National Council of Churches, in which the leader of all the Greek Orthodox stated that a “dialogue of love” between the faiths was the future for the two denominations, and that this “should become the century of the restoration of unity.”



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