What is the difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism? Like so many other questions I have explored in this series, the answer is a matter of history.
In July 1054 A.D., a papal delegate, Cardinal Humbert, arrived in Constantinople from Rome to excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople and the entire Eastern Orthodox Church.
Known as “The Great Schism,” this date marks the official split between the two churches, which has not been healed to this day.
How did it come to this? Flash back 600 years or more, to a period when no distinction could be made between “Roman Catholic” and “Orthodox.”
There was only the church, composed of dioceses in urban centres throughout the empire, each headed by a bishop who governed, along with his presbyters and deacons. Bishops who ruled the largest cities (like Alexandria and Constantinople) or centres of spiritual distinction (like Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch) took on a special prominence. Among these, Rome was preeminent.
Both saints Peter and Paul had been martyred there and St. Peter was Rome’s first bishop. In addition, Roman Christians had a reputation for solid theological teachings and, in matters of dispute, the bishop of Rome regularly offered wise and godly arbitration.
Despite his theological authority, however, the bishop of Rome did not meddle in the jurisdictions of other bishops.
They often sought his opinion, but they did not need his approval to make decisions within their own dioceses.
In fact, all bishops were equal by virtue of their consecration, whether they ruled prestigious urban centres or small cow towns.
Then, beginning in the late fourth century, Germanic tribes from the north began a series of invasions, cutting off Western Europe (the diocese of the bishop of Rome) from the rest of the empire, including Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch. Communication between East and West virtually ceased. In its isolation, the Western church faced unique problems.
When the Germanic conquerors of Spain adopted Arianism (a heresy that denied the full equal divinity of Jesus with God the Father), Spanish theologians proposed an addition to the fourth century Nicene Creed.
Where the original version of the Creed said the Holy Spirit “proceeded from the Father,” the revised version stated that the Holy Spirit “proceeded from the Father and the Son.”
By adding this clause (“filioque” in Latin), the theologians hoped to equate the authority of Jesus with God the Father and refute the Arians. Another unique Western controversy centred around investiture. According to custom, a newly consecrated bishop would receive his staff and ring of authority from the local lord, on whose land the diocese was located.
This “lay investiture” was, in effect, the state’s approval of church authority. However, because Germanic legal traditions gave the lord possession over anything on his land, the lords felt they could invest only those bishops they preferred, such as their relatives or political favourites.
In reaction to these abuses, the pope asserted supreme jurisdictional authority over the church, including all church appointments, quite separate from state approval.
Anyone who disagreed would be excommunicated. Remember, these controversies and their solutions took place in the West, completely isolated from the East. In fact, neither side of the empire had any real sense of what was happening in the other.
When some semblance of political stability returned to Western Europe around the 10th century, westerners began to engage in sustained ways with eastern Christians once again — and only then did it become clear just how far apart they had grown.
The jurisdictional authority of the pope was not just absolute in the diocese of the West, it was absolute everywhere, in the whole of Christendom on pain of excommunication.
And so, we arrive at that fated day in 1054, when Cardinal Humbert flung down the papal bull of excommunication on the altar of Haghia Sophia and stormed out in a self-righteous huff.
The Patriarch of Constantinople’s retaliatory excommunication of the Pope followed as a matter of course. The formal schism between the East and the West was not by any means sealed in 1054 A.D.
Only in the 13th century, when Roman Catholic knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked and burned Constantinople, was the separation between the two churches finally cemented with Christian blood.
Today, Catholic and Orthodox theologians are striving to heal the wounds inflicted 10 centuries ago. If reunion is to come, though, it will not come from theologians in ivory towers.
Real unity will be restored through ordinary Christians who strive to understand what happened to separate and divide them, learn each other’s cultural languages and respect legitimate differences of experience, while striving for common ground in Jesus Christ, who prayed that “they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).