When I introduce myself as an Orthodox Christian, the most common response is “Orthodox what?” The second most common response is “Orthodox? That’s like Catholic, right?”
What’s 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 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 yet been healed.
How did it comes to this? Flash back six hundred years or more, to a period when no real distinction could be made between “Roman Catholic” and “Orthodox.” There was only the Church made 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 Saint Peter was Rome’s first bishop. In addition, Roman Christians had a reputation for solid theology. The opinion of the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope, which means literally “Papa”) was highly regarded, and in matters of dispute, Rome regularly offered wise and godly arbitration.
Despite his moral authority, however, the Pope did not interfere (at least in the early days) 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. The governance of the Church was not the prerogative of a single individual, but of all the bishops, who acted in council with the approval of the laity.
Then Germanic tribes invaded from the north, cutting off western Europe (which happened to be the diocese of the bishop of Rome) from the rest of the Empire, including all the remaining dioceses (Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch among them). Communication between East and West virtually ceased.
Now in isolation, the western half of the Church faced unique problems. When Germanic converts to Christianity fell into Arianism (a heresy that denied the full equal divinity of Jesus with God the Father), Spanish theologians proposed an addition to the 4th century Nicene Creed. Where the original version said that 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 (known as filioque), 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 received his staff and ring 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 that they could invest only those bishops they preferred, like their relatives or political favourites...
In reaction to these nepotistic abuses, the Pope asserted his 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, which faced its own difficulties and conflicts (such as the Iconoclasm, as discussed in a previous article). In fact, neither side of the Empire had any real sense of what was happening in the other, and only when western Europe emerged from its Dark Ages into some semblance of social and political stability, did westerners encounter—or rather, collide with—the East, with tragic consequences.
Having been cut off from the East, western theologians assumed that their western problems and solutions applied to everyone. The filioque was not just a local response to a local heresy; everyone needed to accept it. 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!
For their part, the Eastern Orthodox theologians were stuck in their Byzantine Greek style of theology. They dismissed their western brethren as barbaric and irrelevant. With both sides refusing to understand one another, 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 excommunication of the Pope followed as a matter of course.
The division 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, killing and raping its Eastern Orthodox citizens, was the separation between the two churches finally cemented with Christian blood.
Today, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians are striving to heal the wounds inflicted ten centuries ago. Their task is an immense one. Not only have the two churches have evolved different theological, liturgical, and spiritual traditions, they have embedded themselves into distinct cultural attitudes. The two churches share much, but often have very different understandings of what they share.
If reunion is to come, though, it will not come from theologians working in ivory towers. My brief history shows that real unity will come from ordinary people striving to understand what happened to cause their divisions; learning each other’s cultural languages; respecting legitimate differences of experience, while striving for common ground in the Lord who prayed that “they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11)