Back on the Road from Damascus: Finding Our Bearings
Greetings once again, fellow travelers. It is my distinct pleasure to be in your company once more. Your humble guide to the history of the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches has been long absent: I’ve been finishing a dissertation, defending it, and submitting it. Now that I’ve left behind me the unenviable existence of a graduate student in the 21st century, I return to you so that we may continue on our way through the sad history of division in the Body of Christ. But before we break a new path, we ought to pause and get our bearings by recollecting where we’ve been. Here follows a summation of some principal points from past entries in this series on the schism:
1. The schism is a medieval phenomenon. Certainly, its remote origins can be traced to Christian antiquity (believers may rightly wonder whether there was ever a time in the history of the Church untroubled by the scandal of division), and its results remain painfully obvious today in the on-going separation between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, but the schism truly emerges sometime in the millennium between Constantine I (d. 337) and Constantine XI (d. 1453) known as the Middle Ages.
2. Imperial patronage contributed indirectly to East-West antagonism. Although the intervention of the Emperor Constantine the Great rescued the Church from the catacombs of persecution and social stigma, increasing imperial investment in the Church marked something of a dubious legacy for the prospects of Christian unity. This is observed, above all, in the precipitous rise of the see of Constantinople, directly as a result of imperial prestige, to a position of leadership in the universal Church (see esp. the 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon in 451).
3. There was a tension between orthodoxy and unity in the Christian Roman Empire. Besides conflicting views about the nature and origins of authority in the Church, tensions between the theological imperative to maintain the purity of the orthodox faith and the political imperative to maintain the unity of the Christian Empire contributed to the alienation between East and West. Eastern patriarchs endorsing “divergent” Christologies—often in accordance with the policies of their sovereigns—earned the ire and anathemas of the bishop of Rome. Communion was occasionally disrupted (for instance, the Akakian Schism of the fifth/sixth centuries) and only healed by the humiliation of the patriarch and his damnatio memoriae. At the same time, popes in Rome remained subjects to an emperor who might seize, extradite, or even have them killed should their insistence on orthodoxy become too obnoxious. In life and limb, popes of Rome and patriarchs of Constantinople were liable to the emperor. In the best of times, harmony within the Christian Church, and between East and West, depended upon the emperor’s goodwill and commitment to orthodoxy, whose definition he left to the councils and pontiffs beyond his circle of court theologians.
4. Emergent Islam challenged Christian unity. The elusive character of this “working arrangement” between emperor and Church was revealed by the explosion of Islam from Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries. Muslim conquests stripped the Roman Empire of its most prosperous and populous territories on its eastern and southern frontiers, absorbed the imperial government in Constantinople in a struggle for its very survival and, thereby, helped bring about the crisis between the Roman Church and the imperial government that resulted in the effective secession of the former from the latter in the eighth century. (Which brings us to our final point).
5. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Roman Church “secedes” from the Roman Empire (“the eighth century pivot”). As a result of the malign neglect of Rome by Constantinople and the outrageous imperial policy of Iconoclasm, popes came to believe—to put it crudely—that they could get a better deal from the catholic Franks than from the overbearing and distracted Byzantines. Pope Zacharias blessed the usurpation of the Frankish throne by the upstart Carolingian clan in 751 and Pope Leo III plotted their seizure of an even grander authority, which came to pass on Christmas Day in the year 800, when the Roman pontiff placed the crown of the Caesars upon the head of Charlemagne. In Rome, the pope had declared the Roman Empire re-born among the Germans. An “anti-emperor,” as it were, had been established in opposition to Constantinople—(the westerners assured themselves that inasmuch as the Eastern throne had devolved upon a filicide woman, it was as good as vacant). But this so-called Zweikaiserproblem did not restrict itself to questions of profane authority. As we shall see, it had definite political implications that would reverberate subsequently through the history of the schism.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Although the topics treated in these essays constitute background crucial for understanding subsequent developments, there is a sense in which they have remained prolegomena to the clear emergence of the schism in the later Middle Ages. Whether ninth-century Christians saw Charlemagne’s new title as legitimately transferred or illicitly stolen, no one thought that the Churches of Rome and Constantinople were divided by schism—(try as they might, Frankish theologians could not persuade the popes to take their own anti-Byzantine view on the cult of images…). But very soon, in that same century, the conflagration of a thoroughly theological controversy between Rome and Constantinople would be sparked in the incendiary mission-field of the Balkans.