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The Great Schism

The Great Schism separated the Christians in the West from the Greek (Orthodox) Christians in the East. The Christians in the East had been for a long time united in one church with the Roman Christians of the Occident. The Eastern Church had patriarchs at Constantinople, at Alexandria, at Jerusalem, and at Antioch, and also recognized the superiority of the bishop of Rome. But after the Arabs had conquered Egypt and Syria only one patriarch remained in the Byzantine Empire, the patriarch at Constantinople, who began to be a rival of the Pope.

Pope Leo IX
Pope St. Leo IX
The Great Schism did not happened suddenly, but had roots in previous conflicts. In the 8th century, when the Pope severed relations with Leo III the Isaurian, because the Byzantine Emperor outlawed the veneration of icons, the Eastern Christian Church began to no longer regard the Christians of the Occident as brothers.

The difference between the East and West was in the first place that the Pope in the West represented to Eastern Christians a remote and foreign authority, the last court of appeal, for very serious questions, after their own patriarchs had been found incapable of settling them. For the Latins in the West he was the immediate head, while the loyalty of the Eastern Christians went first to their own patriarch, so there was here always a danger of divided allegiance.

Beside the question of the authority, other factors contributing to the Great Schism were the differences in rituals and in doctrine. The Greeks believed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, the people in the West believed that He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. The Greeks used bread at the communion, the western church used unleavened bread. The Greeks permitted the marriage of priests, the western church forbade it.

The Great Schism was also the result of the detail of language separating the West from the East. Greek became to a great extent the international language in the East. In the Eastern councils all the bishops talked Greek. This resulted in practically an entirely Greek East, and an entirely Latin West. Many misunderstandings arose and grew, simply because people could not understand one another. During the time when these disputes arose, hardly anyone knew a foreign language.

The hostility of the two churches manifested openly in the 9th century, thus preparing the grounds for the Great Schism. The emperor had deposed Ignace, the patriarch of Constantinople, and had put in his place Photius, a former diplomat and general. This prompted Pope Nicholas to excommunicate Photius and his partisans, as he supported the deposed patriarch. In 867, Photius summoned a council at Constantinople, which condemned as heresies the peculiar doctrines of the Latins and excommunicated Nicholas . The Pope profited by a change of emperors, in order to hold at Constantinople an ecumenical council ( 869) which deposed Photius and set aside his acts. But in 879 a new council annulled the acts of the council of 869 and declared that the Pope had the supremacy only over the church in the Occident. The Pope responded by excommunicating Photius, who withdrew into a convent. But at the end of the 9th century, the Popes were in the hands of the Roman nobles, and were too feeble to continue the contest.

In 1054, when the Eastern Church was under Patriarch Michael I Cerularius, a succession of events precipitated the Great Schism. At a time when the Normans were invading Sicily and the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor had all the reasons to unite their forces, suddenly, after no kind of provocation, Cerularius sent a declaration of war against the Pope and the Latins. He closed all the Latin churches at Constantinople, including that of the papal legate. His chancellor Nicephorus burst open the Latin tabernacles, and trampled on the Holy Eucharist because it was consecrated in azyme bread.

The Pope, St. Leo IX, then answered to a previous letter from Leo of Achrida, Metropolitan in Bulgaria, knowing very well that the letter was dictated by Cerularius, where he points out that no one thought of attacking the many Byzantine monasteries and churches in the West. At the same time he wrote a very friendly letter to the emperor, and sent both documents to Constantinople by three legates, Cardinal Humbert, Cardinal Frederick (Chancellor of the Roman Church, afterwards Stephen IX, 1057-58), and Archbishop Peter of Amalfi. The emperor was exceedingly annoyed about the whole quarrel, and received the legates with honor, lodging them in his palace.

Cerularius was very indignant that the legates did not give him precedence and prostrate before him, and wrote to Peter of Antioch that they are "insolent, boastful, rash, arrogant, and stupid". Several weeks passed in discussions. Cerularius refused to see the legates or to hold any communication with them, and he struck the Pope's name from his diptychs. The liturgical diptychs admitted only the names of persons in communion with the Church. Exclusion from these lists was a grave ecclesiastical penalty; the highest dignity, Episcopal or Imperial, would not be able to save the offender from its infliction. When Cerularius struck the name of the Pope from his diptychs, the Great Schism was declared. The legates then prepared the Bull of excommunication against him, Leo of Achrida , and their adherents, which they laid on the altar of Sancta Sophia on 16 July, 1054. Two days later they set out for Rome.

The Great Schism continues to this day, the Christians being divided between the two churches: the Latin or Catholic Church, which obeys the Pope, and the Greek (Orthodox) Church which recognizes the Patriarch of Constantinople.

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