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.  


Charles C. Yost

Charles C. Yost

10 Responses

  1. Patrick Kinnell says:

    I look forward very much to this series. Thanks to you and Dr. Fleming for taking on this difficult and I daresay poorly understood subject.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Much needed conversation and one that a recent Pope described as two lungs of the same body. The East has done a lot better in my eyes of maintaining the integrity of their Liturgy than the West. Look forward to more posts of this type

  3. Harry Colin says:

    Agree indeed with the gentlemen above – this will be a most welcome exploration. I look forward to it.

    There is timeliness, too, in that the Patriarchs Bartholomew and Kirill are meeting over the Ukrainian Church future among the Orthodox; the implications will extend beyond religious lines. I hope too that at some point the Unions of Brest and Uzhorod will be discussed and how Eastern Catholics have fared and what role they might play in any future unification.

  4. Dot says:

    Thank you very much for this difficult yet honest inquiry into divisions among Christianity. I am one who, like Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, have taken different “roads” because “they needed wear”. Today I think that “catholic” should be removed from the creed because they are not Catholic in the universal sense of the word. I spent 20 years of my life in the Unitarian church and at this point believe that that church is the most catholic and universal because of its acceptance of different beliefs among the congregation but leaning toward the Judaic/Christian faith. I now go to the Greek Orthodox church. But in my view, the problem with the Orthodox churches is the language. Since I am not Greek I feel that I am accepted and wanted but there is that language difference. The liturgy is what I needed when I left the UU church not necessarily the Creed.

    There are those who complain against Pope Francis. BUT is he more Catholic than others? In a time when Catholic churches are closing he may be the Pope for the times.

  5. Charles C. Yost says:

    Thank you all for these positive and encouraging comments. I am grateful to Dr. Fleming for the opportunity to walk this road with you all (to pick up on Dot’s metaphor)–even if it is a sad journey, it is a necessary one, and I am happy to walk it with such irenic and intelligent fellow travelers.

    I would second many of the sentiments that have been expressed above. Certainly, the liturgy is an issue of supreme importance. Although it has been relegated to a secondary place–or completely forgotten–in discussions about East/West unity today (particularly by the the Catholics), as we shall see the divergent liturgical praxis of the West was a particular stumbling block and scandal to the Greeks in the Middle Ages. Western Christians must recover their liturgical sensibility.

    Meanwhile, I appreciate Harry Colin’s animadversion to the Eastern Catholic Church and the situation in Ukraine in particular. Like my mentor and doctoral adviser, a Russian-born priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and scholar of the schism, I believe that these Ukrainian Catholics have an important destiny and key part to play in any discussion of East-West rapprochement today.

    The questions of liturgical language and ethnic belonging deserve sensitive treatment, and I am grateful to Dot for raising them. I hope that this series will be a springboard for further discussion of these issues–both in the past and today.

    Let me emphasize once more how grateful I am to Dr. Fleming and his Foundation for providing a venue for these discussions, and to you, readers, for your attention and incisive comments. I look forward to this. If I can be of any further or special assistance to anyone, please feel to get in touch (–I am at your service for special questions, bibliographic recommendations, etc. Who knows? Maybe sometime Dr. Fleming will let us re-enact the Council of Florence at his house.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Maybe we could do the Council in Florence, but this time without Cosimo de’ Medici. As Mr. Yost is aware, the Council was opened in Ferrara, which is a lovely small city with one tenth the tourists (at the most) that Florence has and infinitely better food.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Unitarians are ‘catholic’ in the sense that one can believe anything or nothing, but hardly “holy”, much less “apostolic.” When I was an atheist, I used to go to the lovely Unitarian Church in Charleston, on Archdale Street. As an atheist, I was eventually shocked by their indifference to all forms of religious experience. I do remember the doxology we sang every week: “From all that dwells beneath the skies/ Let faith and hope and love arise./. Let beauty, truth, and good be sung/ In every land by every tongue./ Amen.

    It was the amen that cracked me up. They were nice people, though, though several were not only Marxists but Communists with a capital C.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Late to the conversation, nonetheless, as a convert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, I too look forward to this series.

    Dot – a change to the Creed, which involved the theology of the Trinity, played a role in the schism.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    This is excellent and calaborative endeavor along with the good comments following remind me of what the world must have been like when people of the day asked The Christ to ” teach us how to pray.” It’s a perennial question for every generation but when the cultural resources supplying the answer have been almost entirely depleted it rises again from the dead. One thing about the ancient liturgy, from both East and West, and even from the most truncated view of secularism is that it supplies the most ordinary chronicle of answers to that question.

  10. Robert Reavis says:

    It is fitting that it has been labeled as the extraordinary form.