This episode explores a classic unresolved controversies, namely the Great Schism between East and West, and the myths surrounding the controversy. In this episode, I explore four myths that we hear about and often believe to be factual and the truth behind them. Listen to this episode here or on Spotify.
The following are some of the sources I used to create this episode. Feel free to check them out:
Let us begin with a quote from St. Ephraim the Syrian’s sermons on the Faith:
“Controversy in moderation is a life enhancing medicine, but in excess it is a deadly poison.”
In the previous episodes, we talked about what controversies are and then we talked about resolved controversies. Today, we will talk about an unresolved controversy and by no means is it the only unresolved controversy, but it is a classic so let us explore it a bit.
Now of course, like all unresolved controversies, there are two sides to the story. One side is the Eastern Church better known as the Orthodox Church and the other is the Western Church better known as the Roman Catholic Church. I will acknowledge my bias right of the start and say that I feel more affinity toward the eastern side.
You would think that given that there are two sides to the story, that they would keep each other in check and maybe the constant attacks on either others’ narratives would help in putting a stop to the development of myths. If you think so, then guess what! You could not be more wrong. I will look at five classic myths that you would likely see in Sunday school classes and catechism classes on both sides.
Myth 1: The Church had no divisions before the Great Schism until then.
It does not take a history book to see how mythical that it. Rather, it takes reading the New Testament! We have Juadizers and the Church in Corinth that is divided upon itself. Paul had to deal with such schisms throughout his ministry. Some would object saying that this is about postbiblical history, and the answer would be that even then it is still a myth. The Church suffered through a schism between East and West after the council of Nicaea, a fourfold schism in Antioch that the council of Constantinople tried to fix and failed, a schism between Alexandria and Antioch after the council of Ephesus, a schism between all the Churches on the one hand and what came to be known as the Assyrian Church of the East, a schism between the Churches of Egypt, half of Antioch, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Armenia on the one hand, the Churches of Greece, half of Antioch, and Rome on the other hand after the council of Chalcedon. And the list goes on and on. Even if someone were to say that this was the first schism between Constantinople and Rome or east and west, they would be wrong. At least three schisms took place between east and west: the schism after Nicaea, another one is known as the Acacian schism and yet another one is known as the Photian schism.
Unfortunately, there was almost no time when one could say that the Church was one in a universal and definitive sense. But how can that be the case when we confess the attributes of the Church saying that she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?! Well, this will be the topic for a future episode in a future season, God willing.
Now let us turn to myth number 2
Myth 2: This was about Roman Catholics adding the filioque to the Creed or the Eastern Orthodox rejecting the addition.
First let us define what the filioque is. The filioque is a Latin term meaning “and the Son.” The clause of the creed defining the Holy Spirit originally said, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.”
Later, some churches in the west added the clause “and the Son” making the reading go like this: “we believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
But before this addition took place, some would pretend like it was unheard of to speak of the Spirit being from the Father and the Son.
Here is how wrong this is: The Church had theologians who spoke about the Spirit being from the Father and the Son before any schism and in fact before any ecumenical council such as St. Gregory the Armenian. He does not put this in the creed per se but he speaks of the Spirit as one who is from the Father and the Son. I will eventually dedicate a whole episode to the filioque in future seasons.
Some churches in the west began including this addition since the sixth and seventh century. It was later adopted in Rome and that is when the Church in the East became aware of the issue. The issue was heavily debated and condemned by Photious of Constantinople. This took place in the ninth century. The schism did not actually take place till the eleventh century despite the Church in the East condemning the addition in the west.
Some Western Churches used the filioque since the sixth century. Rome adopted the addition as official in the 11th century. The debates happened in the 9th century. The filioque was quite a side issue and was by no means the main cause of the 11th century schism.
Myth 3: Catholics and Orthodox were no longer communing since 1054 AD.
While it seems convenient to say that once a schism takes place that the parties involved were not taking communion in each other’s churches, it is simply unfounded. Like other schisms in church history, the people did not know much about neither did they care that much about where they communed. If you were a tradesman and you went from Italy to Constantinople, you communed in the Church closest to your location. Clergy might have no longer concelebrated. The laity did. The schism was properly solidified after the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204. It was then that the people on the lay level wanted nothing to do with those who killed their people, raped their women, and stole their treasures both private and ecclesial. With that in mind, some historians believe that the Greeks and Latins together partook of the Eucharist seeking one another’s forgiveness in the last divine liturgy in Hagia Sophia in 1453. This is 399 years after the “great schism” in 1054 AD. Such forgiveness was quickly forgotten as the focus was on survival under Ottoman Rule. What remained in the conscience of the Greeks from then onwards was not such forgiveness but rather the bitter taste of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the phrase “Better the Sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat.” One wonders how things would have changed if the memory that remained was that of forgiveness in 1453 rather than the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Now let us turn to yet the fifth myth.
Myth 4: Catholics and Orthodox are not in communion because the anathemas between them have not been lifted.
Although the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church have more in common in terms of dogma, spirituality, and ethos, they have more difficulty retaining communion as their separation entails anathemas from councils local and ecumenical. That makes the canonical procedure much harder. But when it comes to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic situation, the issue is reversed. There is more difficulty seeing eye to eye in terms of dogmatic formulation, spirituality, and ethos. However, it is easier canonically speaking for them to be reconciled. After all, the anathemas involved are not from one Church against the other but rather from one pope of Rome against one ecumenical patriarch. Historians suggest that the anathema placed by the pope of Rome against the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople does not have much bearing as it was placed by Cardinal Humbert, the pope’s representative, after the pope in Rome has died. This complicates the matter. No one knew how to deal theologically or canonically with an anathema placed by the pope’s representative post-mortem. Regardless of the status of these anathemas, the successors of the pope and patriarch responsible for the great schism, namely Pope Paul VI and Ecumenic Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the anathemas as a gesture of goodwill on the mount of olives in Jerusalem in 1965. This means that the anathemas that caused the schism to take place (regardless of how seriously they were taken by the people at different times) have ceased to be effective.
Now your follow up question might be then how come the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics no longer commune with each other?
This is because the developments each Church had after the schism makes it difficult for them to see eye to eye. Eastern Orthodox Christians find it difficult to look at the doctrinal developments in Rome such as Mariological doctrines of immaculate conception and coronation of Mary and papal doctrines such as papal supremacy and infallibility. Roman Catholic Christians find it equally difficult to accept the development of hesychasm, a controversy in the 14th century regarding how union with God is achieved through His energies rather than a direct contact with divine essence which is beyond human reach. The formulation of such doctrine can be difficult to reconcile with Roman Catholic theology. So, it is not just about undoing the past issue that caused the schism but rather to also examine all subsequent issues. Furthermore, it is not just about what the ecumenical patriarch thinks. It is important that other patriarchs in communion with the ecumenical patriarch to be of one mind regarding their understanding of Roman Catholic doctrines as they relate to their Eastern Orthodox confession. Unfortunately, that did not take place before the lifting of the anathemas which renders what happened in 1965 to be merely a nice gesture on the practical level. Some Patriarchs of other Eastern Orthodox Churches did in fact show their disapproval of such gesture.
Now, does that mean that there is no hope?
Realistically, a union between Rome and Constantinople is unlikely in our lifetime. I say that as an outsider to both traditions which means insiders might have a different opinion. If the Eastern Orthodox Church is to be realistic about an endeavour for union with other churches, it should probably look first to the Oriental Orthodox Church. But let us stick to East-West dialogue for now though.
In case you think this means that there is no hope ever, let me make a few suggestions to the contrary.
Once upon a time, East and West disagreed on clerical celibacy and whether clergy should be bearded or not. Some theologians tried to universalize the practice of their church in such petty matters. Others did not dignify such claims with a response in the East. Today, we have gone as far as having western rite Orthodox jurisdictions and eastern rite Catholic jurisdictions. This is no small deal given that people were sweating the existence of such ritual differences.
Papal primacy is being rediscussed in the light of Roman Catholic dialogue with other western Churches such as the Anglican Church. Thankfully, this is making the Roman Catholic Church think more deeply about its historical claims regarding papal supremacy and infallibility. Theologians of the Roman Catholic Church can disagree today about the papacy in context. Is it a matter of function? Is it a matter of intrinsic value? Is it an eternal concept or a temporary one that worked for a specific day and age? The fact that these questions are on the table is in and of itself a development and a progression in the right direction.
There is hope but there is so much work to be done. Prayers need to be offered. Much humility needs to be acquired. Then we can look at fulfilling unity that we may have one flock under one shepherd, being Christ Himself. What certainly needs to come to an end is baseless antagonism, false claims about what others believe, accusations of heresy about matters where multiplicity of opinions have always existed, just to name a few things.
Allow me to conclude today’s episode with a quote from Fr. Thomas Ryan, a Paulist Roman Catholic priest, a welcoming person whom I had the privilege of meeting in person, and author of one of the most practical books I read namely Christian Unity: How You can Make a Difference. Fr. Thomas writes in the conclusion of his book:
“O God, holy and eternal Trinity, we pray for your church in the world. Sanctify its life; renew its worship; empower its witnesses; heal its divisions; make visible its unity. Lead us, with all our brothers and sisters toward communion in faith, life, and witness, so that, united in the one bod by the one Spirit, we may together witness to the perfect unity of your love.”