Great Schism: Schism



Objective: Students should be able to give dates and reasons behind each of these major historical events and their importance to history and the Church.




Historical Background:

      Many of the political reasons for the Schism have been discussed previously; review them:

  1. The fall of Rome and the Dark Ages
  2. The rise of the Papacy
  3. The ascendancy of Ravenna under Justinian
  4. The coronation of Charlemagne
  5. The temporal properties, armies, and power of the Western Church under the Popes, making them more like Emperors than like spiritual leaders of the East
  6. Significant cultural differences between the Eastern and Western churches, even to the point that Latin was the language of the Roman Church and Greek the Eastern Churches.
  7. A new one: The tribe of Normans, at first invited by Pope Benedict VIII into Italy to help him against the Arabs, penetrated southern Italy and continued marching northward. But, since the days of Justinian, the clergy of southern Italy were under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. This would further complicate the drama about to unfold…


      Doctrinal reasons for the Schism to be reviewed include:

  1. The “filioque”
  2. The supremacy of the Pope
  3. Scholasticism in the West and Hesychasm in the East
  4. A new one: the celibacy of the priesthood – a change in the Western Church brought about by the Cluniac Monks in Germany/France
  5. Variation of West and East in liturgical practices, long tolerated by both East and West, now being banned by each within their territories – most visibly that the West used only unleavened bread for communion and the East everyday leavened bread.


Pope Leo IX:

            Leo was a German Bishop, born in Alsace. He was elected Pope in 1048 AD. He was trained by Cluniac monks and firmly believed in the “filioque”, the supremacy of the Pope, and the celibacy of clergy. An able administrator, he insisted on these doctrines being strictly followed in all his territories. As he sought to extend his territory, he deposed the clergy who were married in Southern Italy and closed all Eastern rite churches that would not conform to his demands.


Patriarch Michael Cerularius:

            An equally rigid monk had ascended to the Patriarchal seat in Constantinople. He was alarmed by the Pope’s deposing his archbishop and priests and retaliated by closing the Latin Rite churches in his jurisdiction. Leo responded by demanding that the Patriarch and the Emperor both accept his Papal Claims. The stage is now set…


The Bull of Excommunication:

            A delegation from Pope Leo of three men – Cardinal Humbert, Archbishop Frederick of Lorraine, and Bishop Peter of Amalfi – arrived in Constantinople in 1054 AD. They met only with the Emperor, viewing the Patriarch as the inferior of the Pope. Remember that, in the West, the Pope held both temporal as well as spiritual power; he was ruler as well as bishop. They demanded the Papal claims and also the return of the province of Illyricum. The Patriarch was, understandably, infuriated by the snub.

            Now the Normans come into play. As they invaded Rome itself, Pope Leo was imprisoned and died. The legates were no longer empowered by the new Pope, but news traveled slowly in those days. They continued to press their demands.

            Patriarch Michael refused to agree to any of the demands of the delegation or to negotiate a compromise. So, on July 16, while the patriarch was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of St. Sophia, the delegation entered the Church and placed a “Bull of Excommunication” on the altar itself. They then stormed out of Constantinople.

            Patriarch Michael convened a council within a few days and excommunicated the delegation. Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria sided with Constantinople. The Latin West and Greek East were separated in 1054 AD. This is known in the Church as the “Great Schism”.

            Still, many people hoped for reconciliation – some sort of compromise. After all, patriarch and pope had mutually excommunicated each other multiple times before, even in the dispute over the use of icons in the church. No one really believed in 1054 that the Schism would be last 1000 years. The events of the next two lessons would, unfortunately, cement the Schism without hope for resolution. Some attempts were made at reconciliation and even a council of church leaders from east and west in the 1300s, but the people at that time, east and west, were much more worried about Black Death than about church unity. A “concordat” of Union was, indeed, signed in 1439 by delegates from the East (except one, Mark of Ephesus) as Constantinople found itself surrounded by Turks and eager for Western help – an agreement giving all of the issues to the West – including the “filioque”, the unleavened bread for communion, and the supremacy of the pope…but, as we will see, it was too late to save Constantinople.


What about reunion today? The Bull of Excommunication issued by Cardinal Humbert and the counter-excommunication issued by Michael Cerularius were mutually lifted by Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI in 1965. Are the churches now ready to unite? Why or why not? Under what conditions? Do you foresee this in your lifetime?


Quiz Questions:

  1. List 5 political causes for the Great Schism.
  2. List 3 doctrinal causes for the Great Schism.
  3. Identify these men: Justinian, Leo IX, Michael Cerularius, Humbert
  4. Identify these things:  Bull of Excommunication, Great Schism
  5. What was the date of the Great Schism?