Great Eastern Schism
The Great Eastern Schism is the name given to the separation
of the Roman and Byzantine branches of the Christian church. This separation of
the Latin and Greek churches is sometimes dated from 1054, the date when
Byzantine and Roman officials excommunicated each other. Actually, the break
came about through a gradual process of estrangement that extended from the 9th
to the 15th century.
Background of the Schism
Causes of the schism included political, cultural, economic,
and social as well as theological differences that originated before 1000. The
political unity of the Mediterranean world was shaken and finally destroyed
through the barbarian invasions in the West and the rise of Islam in the
Communication between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin West broke down as church and other
leaders in each no longer spoke or read the language of the other half of the Christian world.
In 800 Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope as the new emperor of the Roman Empire, but he was
not recognized by the Byzantine Greeks.
Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I
The court theologians of Charlemagne considered the Eastern Christians to be heretics because
the latter refused to admit the word Filioque into the Creed, while the Greeks viewed the introduction of that
doctrine into the Nicene-Constantinople Creed as unforgivable.
The development of church order in the West
made the pope of Rome the strong monarchical bond of unity throughout the
The East had no comparable structure; the church was
administered by a hierarchy whose members were considered equals.
East-West issues crystallized in a quarrel between Photius,
patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Nicholas I, which resulted in the Photian
Photius was eventually recognized by the pope as the legitimate successor
of Patriarch Ignatius after the latter's death in 877.
However, Photius had condemned the primacy of the pope of Rome and the use of the Filioque as
unacceptable to the Christian East.
In the 11th century other factors aggravated these differences. In 1009 the Filioque clause was
made an essential part of the Latin profession of faith. In retaliation the name of the pope of Rome was dropped from the diptychs, or
lists of those patriarchs with whom a patriarchal church was in communion.
Under strong reforming popes such as Gregory VII, the papacy claimed jurisdiction over all
Christian churches. This claim was ignored in the East.
The Normans conquered the southern part of Italy, which was
under Byzantine control, and insisted on enforcing Latin customs.
Patriarch Michael Cerularius retaliated in 1052 by closing the Latin churches in
In 1054, Pope Leo IX sent three legates, led by Cardinal Humbert, to Cerularius.
On July 16, 1054, Humbert laid upon the altar of Hagia Sophia a bull of excommunication of
Cerularius and his partisans.
Cerularius summoned his 20 metropolitans and anathematized "the impious document and its
authors." This seemed to be more a personal quarrel than an excommunication, and friendly relations still
continued between the churches.
Effect of the Crusades
The Latin Crusaders made the schism definitive. During the First Crusade (1098–1099) the Latins
captured Antioch and Jerusalem and set up Latin patriarchates, which caused friction with the Oriental
patriarchates. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the Latins sacked Constantinople. Their swords finally cut
Christendom into two distinct Roman and Orthodox parts.
Two attempts at reunion took place, one in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyons and the other in
1438–1439 at the Council of Florence. At both councils the Orthodox accepted the Latin papal claims and the
doctrine of the Filioque, but the unions effected were mainly on paper. The masses of Christians, the monks, and
the lower clergy were not ready for the healing of the schism.
On April 7, 1453, the Turks took Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire came to an end. The
separation of East and West was accepted as a reality by both Orthodox and Catholics.