The Road from Damascus, Part I, By Charles C. Yost
The Intelligent Christian’s Guide to the Schism
A word more about the obstinacy of the Greeks who are with us, and yet are not with us; united by the bond of faith, and yet not on terms of peace. Though, to speak accurately, they have in the matter of faith itself halted and wandered from the right paths.
--St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153 (trans. George Lewis)
And so, between us and the Franks is set the widest gulf. We have not a thought in common. We are poles apart, even though we may happen to live together in the same house. They are arrogant for the most part, and proudly make pretense of an upright carriage, and affect to look down on the smoothness and modesty of our manners as base and fawning. But we regard their arrogance and boasting and over-bearing as a flux of the snivel which keeps their noses in the air, and we tread them down by the might of Christ who giveth us power to trample unhurt upon the viper and the scorpion.
--Nicetas Choniates, c. 1155-1217 (trans. Romilly Jenkins)
This coming Sunday, we Christians shall once again profess our faith in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” We shall do this as members of specific congregations calling themselves “Roman Catholic” or “Lutheran,” “Greek Orthodox” or “Baptist.” There is an obvious and painful irony to all of this. For by the very denominational names with which we label ourselves—coinages of the post-Reformation era—we tacitly acknowledge the reality of division in our midst. It is an acknowledgment that might even seem to belie our creedal faith in the oneness of the Church.
This tension between belief and observable reality is stretched to the point of breaking in the case of the division between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The antiquity and holiness of both Churches are undeniable. Their apostolic credentials unimpugnable. Their law and theology so near akin. And, for all that, the schism between them all the more bitter and all too real. And yet these two Churches, descended from the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople (along with their daughter churches), are both justified in considering themselves to be the Church established by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the Apostles and professed in the creed of Nicaea as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
On one side stands the Catholic Church: governed by a papal-monarchical constitution, in which the bishop of Rome wields real power over the episcopate in communion with him; culturally predominated by the Latin rite, though comprising also a variety of distinct ritual cultures. On the other is the Eastern Orthodox Church: governed by an episcopal-aristocratic constitution, in which local bishops are gathered into synods presided over, ultimately, by patriarchs or otherwise autocephalous hierarchs, who are themselves ordered in respect to one another in a hierarchy—nowadays purely theoretical and honorific—of precedence based upon the prestige and antiquity of their sees; Byzantine in rite, inflected through Greek, Slavic, and Arabic cultures.
Both churches share in the vital tradition of apostolic succession through which the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins are made possible in every age thanks to the powers passed from bishop to bishop by the imposition of hands in unbroken succession stretching back to the Apostles and Christ Himself. Both Catholics and Orthodox profess the faith authoritatively taught by the first seven ecumenical councils. Both share the legacies of imperial Rome and Christian Hellenism. Although it is not sufficiently appreciated today, both Churches had an historical experience of “growing up” together and learning from each other over a period that—in terms of its duration and the intensity of the interaction transpiring therein—is unparalleled by either of the two Churches’ interactions with Protestantism (of comparatively brief tenure) or Oriental/Nestorian/Monophysite Orthodoxy (of less intensity following the Islamic conquests of 7th-8th centuries). This longue durée of vibrant interaction between the Latin West and Byzantine East transpired during the approximate millennium between Emperor Constantine I (d. 337) and his successor Constantine XI (d. 1453) known as the Middle Ages. It was also during this time that the Churches of Rome and Constantinople became divided by the schism that persists to today.
Recognition of the schism between the Churches requires no faith, for the hard fact of division between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is as evident to the unbeliever as the committed Christian, even if it means as little (or less) to the former as the hard fact of division between Homo sapiens and his primate cousins—a parting of ways that happened some time a long time ago of which we moderns merely see the results. Indeed, like the process of the differentiation of species, the division between the Churches appears to many today as inscrutably ancient and, perhaps, even inevitable, as though fated by some infallible law of cultural difference or mere human folly. And herein lies the problem behind this deceptively simple observation. Evident as the fact of division may be today, finding its origins, progress, and consummation in the past proves far more elusive. It is hard to put our finger upon the decisive point of fracture. Once we begin our historical investigations, we shall even find the nature of this division, gradual, uneven and diffuse as it was, belies the clean and even break seemingly implied by the word “schism.”
By now the problem, even the contradiction, should be apparent. After all, if both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches incarnate the Church established by Jesus Christ, how can they truly be divided from each other? The creed of Nicaea proclaims that the Church is “one.” The seamless garment of Christ—used as an image of the Church in the Middle Ages—remained untorn. Of course, Eastern and Western hard-liners, then and now, easily solve this conundrum by denying that both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are the “one true Church.” “Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church,” insists the Catholic fundamentalist, “and Eastern Orthodoxy only came into existence when it broke off from the true Church in 1054.” Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox fundamentalist (and nowadays you’re more likely to find one of these than the Catholic sort) insists that when the creed refers to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” it means Holy Orthodoxy alone. Such solutions are comforting for minds that would be sheltered from the complicating witness of history. But besides the undeniably deep foundations of faith, culture, and mentality shared by the Eastern and Western Churches (as mentioned above), ecclesiastical history, ancient and not-so-ancient, provides numerous examples of schism wherein it is difficult, even absurd, to suggest that one or the other side in the split had ceased to be the “true Church,” or, much less, to hold the one true faith.
A Catholic should consider, for instance, the so-called Great Western Schism, during which Latin Christendom was divided for some forty years by allegiance to one or another of the men who simultaneously proclaimed himself to be the true Roman pontiff. Although each would-be pope excommunicated those who did not acknowledge his claims, would any Catholic today suppose that his Spanish or Scottish ancestors had died outside of the one Church, and been damned to hell, for living as faithful Christians in realms allied with the Avignon popes against the Roman line? Indeed, the witness of the saints—and the Catholic Church today recognizes saints on both sides of that schism—testifies to the resilient and essential unity of faith and Church, left intact and untouched, as it were, on a plane beyond that on which the unedifying antics of contemporary ecclesiastical politics played out.
On the Eastern side, consider the schism in the Church of Constantinople between the followers of Arsenios, who had excommunicated Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259-1282) for his violent usurpation of the throne (which involved blinding the heir-apparent, a mere boy entrusted to Michael’s care by the late emperor) and was in turn deposed by the emperor, and the adherents of Patriarch Joseph, the otherwise impeccably orthodox patriarch whom Michael put in Arsenios’ place. The schism dragged on for about fifty years during which time the deposed patriarch’s numerous followers withdrew their communion from the patriarchate. The Eastern Church was apparently thereby divided. But would Orthodox today be willing to thrust either the Arsenites or the Josephites outside of the true Church in order to preserve belief in her necessary oneness?
Or consider the situation of the Macedonian Orthodox Church today, which is in communion with no other Orthodox Churches, though it remains nonetheless undeniably Orthodox in faith. One might point to the recent dissension between the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem regarding jurisdiction over the Christians in Qatar (“all two of them,” a wag remarked). Would Orthodox Christians be willing to say that any of these obvious rents in the ecclesiastical fabric of Eastern Orthodoxy truly compromised the ecclesial unity that they profess in the creed, or meant that one or the other side of any such schism had actually forfeited their status as members of the true Church?
These preliminary considerations are a foretaste of the insights that lie in store in this coming series. They are intended to serve one of the major lessons of these coming articles: The story of schism between the Eastern and Western Churches is not as simple as it may have appeared to us previously. In this introduction I have attempted to unsettle any facile dismissals of, and draw attention to, the uncomfortable ambiguity between the fundamental Christian belief in the unity of the Church—as professed in the creed by both Eastern and Western Christians—and the reality of division between the two greatest Sees of Christendom. In subsequent entries I shall proceed more as a church historian than an ecclesiologist. This series aims to provide readers with a broad overview, leavened by intriguing details and anecdotes, of the most tragic story in Christian history that remains today still so poorly understood.
From the beginning, the goal that Dr. Fleming and I envisioned for this series was self-knowledge through discovery of the Christians from whom we have come to be alienated by schism. Let us try to understand, then, how it was that brethren and disciples of Jesus Christ became strangers to one another.