Monday, July 6

The Great Schism

On this day in 1054, the Christian Church suffered a permanent schism when the four eastern Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch broke off fellowship with the one in the west, Rome.

The division came during the prelacies of Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople and Leo IX, Pope in Rome. The year before, Cerularius had circulated a treatise criticizing a number of the practices of the Roman church in unusually strong terms. Catholics did not allow their clergy to marry, for instance. This was contrary to both Scripture and tradition, according to Cerularius. In addition, Catholics used unleavened bread in their Eucharist, again in contradistinction to the long-held standards of the Eastern Church's dogma.

But the most serious concern for Cerularius was that the Latin church had added the word filoque to the Nicene creed, asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son. This, it seemed to the hierarchs of the East, to be a heinous flirtation with heresy. Indeed, Cerularius excommunicated all bishops of Constantinople who followed the Western ritual and closed their churches using military force.

Both the criticisms and the actions incensed Leo. He demanded that Cerularius cease and desist--and then as if to add insult to injury, he demanded that each of the other patriarchs submit to the authority of the papal see. Any church which refused to recognize the pontiff's decree was an "assembly of heretics," he said--a "synagogue of Satan." The Eastern patriarchs weren't about to accept this characterization. In their view, the five patriarchates had always been held to be equal--Rome merely being "first among equals."

In an effort to enforce his decrees, Leo sent a delegation to Constantinople. The legates were led by a brilliant, though unyielding man, Cardinal Humbert. But Humbert was so brusk with Cerularius that the patriarch refused to speak with him. Aggravated by this treatment, the legates traded a series of anathamas. Back and forth went the insults. And then to make matters worse, before they could get any further direction from Rome, Leo died.

Taking matters into his own hands, Humbert and his delegation marched into Hagia Sophia on July 6, 1054, and placed a bull on the altar, excommunicating Cerularius. After this act, Humbert made a grand exit, shaking the dust off his feet and calling on God to judge.

In turn, Cerularius convoked a council and once more blasted Western practices. Humbert was anathematized. The Orthodox condemned all who had drawn up the bull. There was no chance of reconciliation between the factions.

The unity of fellowship, forbearance, and love which Christ had said should mark his followers was irrevocably broken. The next four hundred years were marked by incessant fractiousness and scandal--with only intermittently-stifled efforts at reform--inevitably leading to the magisterial Reformation at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

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