Basic Facts and Events giving rise to the Eastern Orthodox Churches

Some past scholars and popular opinion have held that the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism (causing the emergence of the present Eastern Orthodox communion) was consummated in the days of the Patriarch Photius of Constantinople (858-886 A.D.). Yet others have thought that the Schism between Rome and Byzantium was complete when the Queen City on the Bosphorus saw Roman Cardinals and the Patriarch Michael Cerularius engage in mutual excommunications in 1054 A.D.

Actually, it was at the end of the 13th century that the Byzantine Greek church (constituted by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) together with its offshoot Slav churches in the Balkans would find themselves separated from the full communion of the See of Peter. To this day the Eastern Orthodox churches (as they are commonly known) consisting of 16 or so national churches are the heirs of the most tragic schism to occur in the history of the Catholic Church. The continued separation of these Eastern churches from Catholic unity has never ceased to be deplored by the Roman Pontiffs always conscious of Our Lord's prayer to His Heavenly Father that all His professed followers should be "One, in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me"  (Jn. 17:21).


From the 4th century to the 8th century Eastern Christianity had been beset by various large-scale schisms caused by the spread of such heresies as Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism and Iconoclasm. The first 7 Ecumenical Councils (the first was Nicaea in 325 A.D.; the 7th was held in Constantinople in 787 A.D.) struggled to preserve the orthodoxy of Christian belief against heretical teachings which distorted the Apostolic Teaching on the Trinity, Christ's Person, and the salvific consequences of the Incarnation. Nestorianism spread among the Christians of East Syria and Persia (now Iran and Iraq) and was to expand even to Central Asia, India, and China. If the Nestorians rejected the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.), the Monophysites were to reject the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Monophysitism spread among the Western Syrians (Jacobites), Egyptian Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians (the latter having constituted the first Christian nation!). It is interesting to observe that each large-scale heresy shredding the unity of the Church in the East had the support of sometimes hundreds of bishops and their Councils. To this day the few Nestorians existing still claim to be "Orthodox" as do today's more numerous Monophysites who call themselves "Oriental Orthodox".

It should not be forgotten that the arch-heretic Nestorius was the Bishop of Constantinople. His condemnation at the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) unfortunately only served to spread his heresy among the Syrian and Persian churches. Later, the same See of Constantinople seeking supremacy in the East over the other patriarchates would be held by heretical Monophysite, Monothelite, and Iconoclast Patriarchs supported by Byzantine Emperors who fiercely persecuted the Catholic faithful. As one author has calculated, of the 5 centuries which lay between the accession of the Emperor Constantine the Great to the imperial throne and the 7th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.), more than two hundred years were passed by the Imperial See of Constantinople in separation from Rome. Despite the large schisms which saw large groups of Eastern Christians depart from Catholic orthodoxy, it was those Eastern bishops who remained in communion with the See of Peter, "head of all the Churches of God", that represented the continued existence of the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" noted in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed issued by the 2nd Ecumenical Council in 381 A.D. In the first Millennium of the Church's history the criterion of Catholicity and Orthodoxy in belief was always dogmatic agreement with the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles.

One must recall the disturbing pattern of Imperial interference in the internal affairs of the Church with the Byzantine Emperors often supporting heresy and seeking to modify or compromise the Orthodox Faith of that great communion of Western and Eastern Churches called 'The Catholic Church'. Maintaining the Emperor's control of the Church would be a constant factor in all the negotiations for the reunion of the Byzantine Greco-Slav churches with Rome that would take place in the medieval period ( 11th-15th centuries). An Eastern Roman (Byzantine Greek) ideology early developed wherein the Emperor was considered 'another Christ', the first personage of Christendom, exalted in fact above all Patriarchs and Councils. He was the guardian and protector of the Empire and the Orthodox Faith, neither of which could exist without the other. As a number of historians have remarked, one cannot understand the history of the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism unless he understands the Byzantine tradition of the Emperor's rights and duties regarding the Church and the profound repugnance that would be felt by the Byzantines at the emergence in the West of a Frankish empire of foreign Latin "barbarians" who would appear increasingly aggressive.

The role played by the Byzantine Emperors during the famous Photian Affair (9th century) is particularly instructive, especially as they did not scruple to depose at will both Patriarch Ignatius and his successor Patriarch Photius. With the great Iconoclast heresy having subsided with the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" in 843 A.D. and union with Rome restored, the internal peace of the Byzantine Greek Church would be again disturbed by the fierce conflict between the supporters of the erudite Patriarch Photius and those of the saintly Patriarch Ignatius. In the incredibly complex issue of the "Photian Crisis" beginning in 858 A.D. when Photius replaced Ignatius on the throne of [the See of] Constantinople (with the support of the Emperor Michael "the Drunkard"), Ignatius' followers appealed to Rome declaring Photius a usurper and guilty of various crimes against Ignatius' and his followers. With Latin and Greek missionaries quarreling as to whether the newly-converted Bulgarians would come under the jurisdiction of Rome or Constantinople, the Patriarch Photius unleashed a bitter attack on the Frankish missionaries accusing them of liturgical and disciplinary "impieties" (e.g., fasting on Saturday, eating dairy products in Lent, seeking to impose clerical celibacy, not allowing priests to confirm, etc.). Worse yet,

"they have even gone to the extreme limits of evil and have falsified the Creed in introducing into it the Filioque."

In other writings he denounced the doctrine held for centuries in the West that the Holy Spirit also proceeded "from the Son" (Filioque) as "heresy" and "blasphemy". In 867 A.D., Photius even held a synod declaring Pope Nicholas I (one of the greatest of Roman Pontiffs and one of the most eloquent defenders of the Roman Primacy) deposed and excommunicated! Rome reacted with its own synod condemning Photius for having dared to judge a Pope.

Two Councils were then held in Constantinople (the 8th Ecumenical Council in 869 A.D. which condemned and deposed Photius as Patriarch) and the Council of 879-880 A.D. which rehabilitated Photius with the consent of Pope John VIII who sought to restore peace and unity among the Byzantines. Modern historical research has shown that Photius (despite his liturgical and doctrinal quarrels with the Latin Franks in Bulgaria) died in communion with the Holy See. Despite his personal quarrel with Pope Nicholas I (whom he regarded as unnecessarily interfering with the internal affairs of the Byzantine Church), he never rejected Rome's primacy of universal jurisdiction over the entire Church, East and West - a primacy which was so vigorously set forth in the letters of Popes Nicholas I, Hadrian II, Stephen V, and John VIII. This same Petrine primacy of Rome in the Universal Church was similarly acknowledged by the Byzantine Emperor Basil who was present in the Councils of 869 and 879-80 (however jealous he was to maintain his administrative control of ecclesiastical affairs in the East and Imperial control over Bulgaria).

Though the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism did not finalize with the Patriarch Photius or even later with the Patriarch Michael Cerularius in 1054, Photius' attacks on latin liturgical practices and discipline and, more grave, his doctrine denying that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son were to spread among the Byzantines. The "Latin heresy" of the Filioque would constitute the major dogmatic issue used to justify the growing estrangement between Latins and Greeks, [and consequently] the various ruptures of communion, and then the formal schism with Rome that certainly developed after the atrocious sack of Constantinople by the Venetians in 1204 and the later violent rejection of the Reunion Council of Lyons in 1274.   Earlier in that century the canonist Demetrios Chromantianos had taken exception to the opinion of the renowned canonist Theodore Balsamon who held that the Latins could not be admitted to the Eucharist in the Greek churches. Chromatianos argued that the Latins had never been proscribed by a Council, "nor like heretics cast forth from the Church". Even when a Byzantine Council in 1285 formally rejected the Filioque doctrine of the Reunion Council of Lyons, the position of those Byzantine prelates who refused to have communion with the Latins remained equivocal since all were aware (and this even into the 14th and 15th centuries) that no Ecumenical Council had condemned the Latins as heretics or schismatics.

As noted above, many past historians had mistakenly looked upon the 9th century Patriarch Photius or the events of 1054 with mutual excommunications between the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert as causing that formal schism with the See of Peter which we witness today. The truth is much more complex as modern writers have observed in discussing the unionist efforts of Emperors and the Patriarch John Beccus and other Eastern prelates who remained in communion with the Latins during the 13th century. However, the Patriarch Michael Cerularius did contribute to the worsening of relations between Rome and Constantinople by highlighting yet another "Latin heresy" - that of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice with unleavened bread (azymes)! In addition he would pour scorn on Latin liturgical practices (Latin priests shaved their beards, Latins ate meat on Wednesdays, their bishops wore rings and fought in wars on horseback, Latins rejected the cult of relics, etc.). All this was to excite the passions of the outraged masses against the impious Latins.

The Byzantine Patriarch had originally caused trouble by closing Latin Churches in Constantinople, causing Pope Leo IX to write an indignant letter (with a masterful exposition of the Roman primacy) and to send 3 Papal Legates to Constantinople to uphold the rights of the Roman See. Suffice to say that Cardinal Humbert was hardly the best diplomat to deal with the Byzantines and (despite the best of intentions) blundered badly by falling into the same error as the Greeks by attaching too much importance to matters of discipline and liturgy and regrettably bringing the doctrine of the 'Filioque' to the forefront in his document excommunicating Cerularius and his party. Moreover, the document contained some erroneous accusations against the Byzantines including that of their omitting the Filioque in the Creed! Both Humbert and Cerularius were very careful not to include their respective Churches in essentially personal excommunications, but for all that there had occurred a lamentable rupture between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Church of Rome that would only worsen as the other Eastern Patriarchates would follow Constantinople's lead in decrying the theological, disciplinary, and liturgical differences they found among the Latins. In succeeding centuries the Filioque and the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist would be especially regarded by the Byzantines as "Heresies", thus justifying their breaking communion with the Latins, and consequently with the See of Peter. But for a time after the sad events of 1054, as one historian has observed:

"It is clear that at the close of the 11th century neither at Rome nor at Constantinople did responsible circles believe that there was a schism between the Western and Eastern Churches."

Relations between most Latins and Byzantine Greeks remained amicable; there was no consciousness that the unity of faith had been shattered by the theological quarrels that had taken place. It is one of the great ironies of history that the Crusades which were intended to defend fellow Christians against Muslim aggression had the effect of worsening relations between Latins and Byzantines to the point of consolidating the schismatic tendencies set into motion by the events of 1054. The Crusades with their large, unruly, and pillaging armies antagonized the Byzantines and when the Fourth Crusade sacked the city of Constantinople in 1204 A.D. (to the horror of Pope Innocent III), it would leave an indelible impression on Byzantine mentalities that is felt to this very day among those monks of Mt. Athos opposed to any ecumenical overtures to Catholics.

When the Crusaders set up their chosen Patriarch for the See of Antioch in 1100 A.D., with Constantinople and the Greeks supporting a rival Patriarch in exile, a schism was created between Latins and Greeks which would spread as rival hierarchies resulted from the further establishment of a Latin Empire in the East.

As Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., has written regarding the Crusaders setting up a Latin Empire in the East:

"The schism between Rome and the Orthodox East was the child of the Crusades. Though never ratified by a Council, it was formalized by the emergence of competing Latin and Greek hierarchs for three out of four of the Oriental Patriarchal Sees. The key event was the sack of Constantinople in 1204. It was a body-blow to the whole mystique of Byzantium as the city chosen by God, a mystique integral to the cultural and religious identity of Christian Hellenism."

In 1254 Pope Innocent IV announced his concern over the "Schism of Romania, that is, of the Greek Church, which in our time, only a few years ago, arrogantly and foolishly seceded and removed itself from the bosom of its Mother." The failure of negotiations at a Council held at Nymphaeum in 1234 had resulted in acknowledgment that a schism was in existence.

Throughout the 11th – 15th centuries, however, there were efforts to restore full communion between Rome and Constantinople and its sister- Slav churches which were drawn into the Byzantine Patriarchate's separation from Rome. A number of important Byzantine theologians such as the 13th c. Patriarch John Beccus and the 14th c. lay theologian Demetrios Kydones (who was a great admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas and translated his works into elegant Greek) repudiated the schism and worked for the union of the Churches. Such unionists prepared the way for the Reunion Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439) which failed to bring about a definitive corporate union of the Byzantine Greek Church with Rome but did prepare the way for the re-uniting of almost all the Byzantine Rite Churches that presently enjoy communion with the Holy See.

There have always been irrational and incoherent aspects about the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism with Rome. The Dominican scholar Fr. Aidan Nichols has noted the import of the lack of conscious rejection of Catholic doctrine by many Eastern Orthodox in past centuries:

"Despite the unravelling of the union of Florence in the course of the later 15th c., it should by no means be assumed that an iron wall of division separated the Catholic and Orthodox communities in the subsequent period. From 1600-1700 in particular, both educated believers and simple believers in considerable numbers acted as though no schism existed."
(See his "Rome and the Eastern Churches", page 240 –245; T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1992)

Many Catholic theologians have similarly stressed the important fact that many Eastern Orthodox today are not "formal schismatics or heretics" but rather dissidents in good faith, and who are desirous of reunion with the Apostolic See of Rome.

From the 12th century on, there were among the Byzantines moderate and noble spirits who desired an end to all schismatic activity and sought the purification of memories to prepare for a "dialogue of charity" that would end in the common celebration of the Eucharist by Pope and Patriarchs giving witness to Christ's prayer that all His followers be "One" in faith, worship, and government. The ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) explaining Primacy and Collegiality in accordance with Apostolic Tradition provides new inspiration for the ending of a truly tragic schism which has served only to continue wounding the Unity of that "One and only Church" which Christ the Lord saw fit to establish on the Rock of Peter.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage