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Yuri Koszarycz

Conflict between Constantinople and Rome

A serious split between Rome and Constantinople took place in the ninth century. Its immediate cause was the irregular appointment of a new Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius (in 898) but its real origin lay in the great political conflict which occurred at the beginning of the century, when in the year 800, Charlemagne restored the Western Roman Empire. In the eyes of the Greeks, the Pope had committed a serious breach of faith when he consented to crown a barbarian like Charlemagne as Emperor of the West. It is true that the Byzantine ruler was obliged to recognise the intruder as his brother-sovereign, since he had no power to oppose him, but the Greeks strongly resented this concession. Thus two rival political powers had been set up, both claiming to be the only lawful successor the Roman Empire, and it was merely a matter of time before one or other had to be destroyed. The bitter conflict between these two competitors, which ended with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, involved the Church also, and was thus the root cause of the schism between the Christian East and West.

The leading roles in the ever-growing struggle fell to the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Under the strong political influence of the rival Emperors, the occupants of the most important sees of Christendom started a feud, seizing on every pretext in a campaign of mutual calumny and recrimination. The Patriarch Photius first produced a catalogue of Western heresies which included:

  • fasting on Saturdays in Lent;
  • beginning Lent on Ash-Wednesday instead of on a Monday;
  • disapproval of married priests;
  • objection to confirmation administered by a priest;
  • the unlawful addition to the Greek of the words"and the Son", when describing the "procession of the Holy Ghost.

The Latin Church retorted by producing a similar list of Eastern heresies. A lively controversy arose which gradually increased in bitterness and volume till the catalogue of heresies included more than fifty topics. Every difference in customs and teaching, which had been treated in the past as a legitimate expression in religion of the differing Eastern and Western outlooks, was now treated as an outrage. The most debated of these divergences were:

  • the question of the Filioque clause (see above);
  • the belief in a Purgatory distinct from Hell;
  • the use of leavened or unleavened bread at the Eucharist.

It would, however, be a great mistake to think that these disputes between Pope and Patriarch had seriously affected the bulk of Christians. Their sense of oneness was so strong that it took more than 400 years to destroy it. The first breach between Pope Nicholas and Patriarch Photius was eventually healed: the quarrels of their successors were also brought to a peaceful end; and when, on July 16, 1054, the Papal Legate excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, no one had any idea that this was the beginning of a schism which would last for many centuries. Its immediate cause was a trivial local dispute over the control of Latin monasteries in Constantinople. Much bad feeling was displayed on both sides, but neither was yet ready for permanent schism. The way was prepared for this, during the next two centuries, by the coming of the Crusaders.

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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.