Thursday, July 16, 2020

Not Really the Beginning of the East-West Schism

Not Really the Beginning of the East-West Schism

       Today is the anniversary of the laying of a bull of excommunication upon the altar in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 1054, oft cited as the event precipitating the schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the Catholic Church. The excommunication was of Michael I Cerularius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the bull being delivered by a trio of papal legates, they representing Pope Leo IX. What is clear is that the presentation of the bull led to a counter-excommunication of the papal legates. It is also clear that this is not the event that led to the East-West Schism.

       The Eastern and Western branches of the Church had been growing apart for centuries. Hyper-technical debates as to complex theological topics, many of them Christological in nature, served as fault lines even as the ability to discuss those topics became more and more difficult as knowledge of Greek declined in the West. In addition to these theological disputes, disputes as to practice continued to arise. As early as the Quinisext Council in the late seventh century there were sharp divides between practices in Eastern and Western churches as to matters of liturgy and clergy discipline. On the political front, as Rome and the Papacy were based in the crumbling remains of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople was still thriving even as it was facing significant challenges from Muslim invaders. Constantinople, from a political perspective, was not willing to play second fiddle to Rome, and expected recognition of the importance of Constantinople as an Ecumenical Patriarch of at least near equivalency with the Bishop of Rome.

       While today may not be the anniversary of the schism, that it existed, and that it had long-term effects, is without doubt. It would taint efforts at cooperation in connection with the Crusades and have a significant role in the Fourth Crusade and its conquest of Constantinople itself, thereby forever weakening the Eastern Roman Empire and making it more susceptible to conquest in turn by Muslim forces.

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