The great divorce

ONE SUMMER afternoon in the year 1054, as a service was about to begin in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, Cardinal Humbert and two other legates of the Roman pope entered. They made their way to the sanctuary. They placed a sealed papal document called a “bull” on the altar and marched out. The bull proclaimed the patriarch of Constantinople and his associates excommunicated, no longer in communion with the church, no longer allowed to receive the grace of God through the sacraments.

When the cardinal passed through the western door, he shook the dust from his feet and said, “Let God look and judge.” A deacon, guessing the contents of the bull, ran after Humbert in great distress and begged him to take it back. Humbert refused, and the deacon dropped the document in the street.

This incident is usually portrayed as the key moment in the Great Schism between the Orthodox East and the Latin West. But this incident is but one of many on the path to permanent schism though surely the bloody events of 1204 put a seal on a break that lasts to this day.

The schism’s causes are manifold and complex, and they reveal much of the uniqueness of what we now call the Eastern Orthodox Church and how the Orthodox understand this chapter of Christian History.

Geo-political realities

During the time of the apostles, the Roman Empire was a close-knit political and cultural unity. The empire embraced a variety of ethnic groups who spoke a variety of languages and dialects. Yet all were governed by the same emperor; all shared in a broad Greco-Roman civilization. Either Greek or Latin was understood almost everywhere, and Latin was commonly used as the political language of the empire.

Beginning in the late 200s, the empire was still theoretically one but was usually divided into two parts, an eastern and a western, each under its own emperor. Constantine even founded a second imperial capital, in the East Constantinople, the “New Rome.” Then came the Germanic invasions of the fifth century, and the West was carved up among the Goths, Lombards, Franks, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes. The Byzantines in the East still regarded the Roman Empire as universal, but, in fact, the political division of the Greek East and the Latin West was now permanent.

Then the Avars and Slavs occupied the Balkan peninsula. Illyricum, which used to serve as a bridge between Byzantium and the West, instead became a barrier. With the rise of Islam in the 600s, the Mediterranean now passed largely into Arab control. Cultural contacts between the eastern and western Mediterranean became far more difficult.

Geo-political realities complicated things. For centuries, the popes had turned naturally to Constantinople and its emperor for military and economic help. But in 754, Pope Stephen II, cut off from the East and in need of help to defend his papal states from attacks by the Lombards, turned north and sought help from the Frankish ruler, Pepin. Henceforth, the papacy began to pass increasingly under Frankish influence.

A half-century later, a more symbolic and dramatic event took place. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire.” Charlemagne immediately sought recognition from the emperor at Byzantium. The Byzantine emperor, however, considered himself ruler of a still united Roman Empire. Charlemagne he regarded as an intruder, and the papal coronation, an act of schism. He didn’t recognize Charlemagne for years.

Becoming strangers

With the reign of Charlemagne, the schism of civilizations first became apparent. For all the cultural renaissance promoted by Charlemagne’s court, it was marked at its outset by a strong anti-Greek prejudice in literature, theology, and politics. The Byzantines, for their part, remained enclosed in their own world of ideas and failed to take Western learning seriously. They dismissed all Franks as barbarians.

This mutual prejudice was reinforced by language. The days when educated people were bilingual were over. By the year 450, few in the West could read Greek, and after 600, although Byzantium still called itself the Roman Empire, it was rare for a Byzantine to speak Latin. Photius, the greatest scholar in ninth-century Constantinople, could not read Latin. In 864 a “Roman” Emperor at Byzantium, Michael III, called the language of Virgil a “barbarian” tongue.

In addition there was a significant difference between the educated. Byzantium was a civilization of great wealth and learning, and many educated laymen took an active interest in theology. The lay theologian has always been an accepted figure in Orthodoxy: some of the most learned Byzantine patriarchs Photius, for example were laymen before their appointment to the patriarchate.

In the West, mired in political confusion and cultural retreat, the only effective education that survived the early Middle Ages (often called the “dark” ages) was given solely to the clergy. Theology became the preserve of priests. Most of the laity were illiterate; most could not comprehend the nuances of theological discussion.

So theology took different paths, East and West. In general the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative. Latin thought was influenced by Roman law, while Greeks understood theology in the context of worship. Regarding the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the victim on the Cross, Greeks of Christ the victor over death. Latins talked more about redeeming sinners, Greeks, about the deification of humanity.

There were also a few practical differences: the Greeks allowed married clergy; the Latins insisted on priestly celibacy. The two sides had different rules about fasting. The Greeks used leavened bread in the Eucharist, the Latins unleavened bread, or “azymes.”

Still, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory each served to supplement the other, as do the differences between husband and wife.

Open conflict

From the sixth century on, a number of disputes erupted between Rome and Constantinople. One conflict in the middle of the ninth century revealed just how estranged East and West had become. The incident is usually known as the “Photian schism” though the East would prefer to call it “the schism of Pope Nicholas.”

It began in 858, when Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople was exiled by the Byzantine emperor (for criticizing the emperor’s private life). Ignatius resigned his office under pressure, and a gifted layman named Photius was appointed patriarch of the capital city. Photius has been called “the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skillful diplomat ever to hold office as patriarch of Constantinople.”

Photius, as was the custom, sent a letter to the bishop of Rome, Pope Nicholas I, announcing his accession. Normally the pope would immediately recognize a new patriarch. But Nicholas balked. He had heard that the former patriarch still had supporters who claimed Photius was a usurper. Pope Nicholas decided to look into the matter. In 861 he sent legates to Constantinople.

Photius wanted no dispute with the papacy, so he treated the legates with great deference; he even invited them to preside at a local council to settle the issue. The council decided Photius was the legitimate patriarch.

When the legates returned to Rome, though, Nicholas accused them of exceeding their powers. He retried the case himself at Rome. This council repudiated Photius’s claims, deposed him of all priestly dignity, and recognized Ignatius as patriarch.

The Byzantines ignored this Roman council and refused to answer the pope’s letters.

The dispute centered on the papal claims, which had become another growing issue between East and West. Among Eastern churches, there was a strong sense of equality among bishops because a number of city churches claimed to have been founded by an apostle. The East acknowledged the pope as the first bishop of the church but saw him as only the first among equals.

In the West, only one great city church claimed apostolic foundation—Rome—so that Rome came to be regarded as the apostolic see. The Western church was seen less as a college of equals and more as a monarchy with the pope at its head. But the Byzantines didn’t care if the Western Church was centralized, as long as the papacy did not interfere in the East.

Furthermore, the East had a strong secular head, the emperor, to uphold the civilized order. But after the invasion of Germanic tribes in the West, there was only a plurality of warring chiefs. Only the Roman pope could act as a representative of the remaining political life of western Europe. It was Pope Leo I, for example, who persuaded Attila the Hun in 452 to bypass Rome on one of his campaigns. After this the pope increasingly issued commands not only to ecclesiastical subordinates but to secular rulers as well. Still, the Eastern church didn’t mind—as long as the pope claimed absolute power only in the West.

Nicholas I was a reforming pope, with an exalted idea at least according to the Orthodox of the prerogatives of his office. He believed his absolute power extended to the East. As he put it in a letter of 865, he believed the pope was endowed with authority “over all the earth, that is, over every church.” When a dispute erupted in Constantinople, Nicholas thought it a golden opportunity to make both parties submit to his arbitration, to enforce his claim to universal jurisdiction.

Ironically, Photius’s initial submission to the legates had proved to be a problem. His action did not in itself confirm the supremacy of the pope but only that Photius had shown diplomatic courtesy. To demonstrate his authority, then, Nicholas called a new council.

Again, the Byzantines were not troubled about appeals going to Rome but only under the specific conditions laid down in Canon 111 of the Council of Sardica (343). This canon states that retrials cannot be conducted by the pope at Rome but only by bishops of the provinces adjacent to that of the condemned bishop. The Byzantines believed Nicholas had violated this canon and interfered in the affairs of another patriarchate.

On the issue of papal authority alone, then, the incident between Nicholas and Photius had explosive potential. But another issue, more subtle but equally divisive, was also at work.

Missionary politics

Both Byzantium and the West (chiefly the Germans) were at this time launching missionary ventures among the Slavs. The two lines of missionary advance, one from the East and one from the West, soon converged in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria was a country both Rome and Constantinople were anxious to add to their spheres. The Bulgarian khan, Boris, was at first inclined to ask the German, i.e. Catholic, missionaries for baptism. But when threatened with a Byzantine invasion, he changed his mind, and around 865 accepted baptism from Greek clergy.

Still, Boris wanted independence for the Bulgarian church, so he asked Constantinople to grant the Bulgarian church the same autonomy enjoyed by the other patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). Constantinople refused.

So Boris turned again to the West in hopes of better terms. He gave the Latins a free hand in Bulgaria, and Latin missionaries promptly launched harsh verbal assaults against the Greeks, singling out the points where Byzantine practice differed from their own: married clergy, rules of fasting, and above all the filioque.

This last dispute involved the words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. Originally the phrase read: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life,who proceeds from the Father . “ This original form is still recited unchanged by the East to this day. But the West gradually had inserted an extra phr“and from the Son” (in Latin, filioque), so that in the West, the Creed read “ who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The addition originated in Spain in the sixth century as a safeguard against Arianism; it helped emphasize the full divinity of Jesus. The addition spread to France and Germany, where it was welcomed by Charlemagne and adopted at the Council of Frankfurt (794).

Rome did not use the filioque until the start of the eleventh century. In 808 Pope Leo III wrote Charlemagne that, although he himself believed the filioque to be doctrinally sound, he considered it a mistake to tamper with the wording of the Creed.

The empire shrinks back

It wasn’t until the ninth century that the Greeks paid much attention to the filioque, but once they did, they reacted strongly. The Orthodox objected (and still object) to this addition for two reasons. First, the Creed is the common possession of the whole church; if any change is to be made in it, it must be made by the whole church at an ecumenical council. The West, in altering the Creed without consulting the East, is guilty (as one Orthodox writer put it) of “moral fratricide,” of a sin against the unity of the church.

Second, most Orthodox believe the filioque to be theologically mistaken. Some say it’s a heresy because it changes the delicate balance in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Though the filioque was still used at Rome in the ninth century, Nicholas supported the Germans when they insisted upon using it in Bulgaria.

Photius was alarmed at this development on the very borders of the Byzantine Empire. In 867 he wrote a letter to the other Eastern patriarchs; he denounced thefilioque at length and charged those who used it with heresy. Photius then summoned a council at Constantinople, which declared Pope Nicholas excommunicated, calling him “a heretic who ravages the vineyard of the Lord.” Christendom was on the verge of schism.

Then the situation suddenly changed. This same year, 867, the Byzantine emperor was murdered, and the usurper deposed Photius and gave the patriarchate back to Ignatius the man whose exile and resignation began the controversy. About the same time, Pope Nicholas died, and Hadrian II became pope, followed by John VIII. Thus a whole new set of rivalries and alliances, too complex to detail here, came into play.

Another council at Constantinople, known as the anti-Photian Council, condemned Photius, reversing the decisions of 867. The council decided the Bulgarian church belonged to the patriarchate of Constantinople. Realizing Rome would allow him less independence than Byzantium, Boris accepted this decision. In 870 Western missionaries were expelled, and the filioque was heard no more in Bulgaria.

And this was not the end of the story. At Constantinople, Ignatius and Photius were reconciled, and when Ignatius died in 877, Photius once more succeeded him as patriarch. In 879 yet another council was held in Constantinople. The previous council was anathematized and all condemnations of Photius were withdrawn! Rome did not press the question of the filioque nor attempt to enforce the papal claims in the East.

Thus the schism was outwardly healed, temporarily.

Diplomatic failure

At the beginning of the eleventh century, there was fresh trouble. In 1014 at the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at Rome, the Creed was sung in its edited form. Furthermore, under German influence now, Rome began reforming itself. Through the rule of men such as Pope Gregory VII, it gained an unparalleled position of power in the West. The papacy naturally revived claims to universal jurisdiction.

Matters were made worse by the Normans, Vikings who attacked Byzantine-controlled regions in southern Italy. In addition, Venice, a powerful commercial city-state, encroached on Byzantine business in Italy and Asia Minor.

In the early 1050s, the Normans began forcing the Greeks in Byzantine Italy to conform to Latin practices. Patriarch Michael Cerularius in return demanded that the Latin churches at Constantinople adopt Greek practices. When the Latins refused, he closed their churches.

In 1053 Cerularius took up a more conciliatory attitude and wrote to Pope Leo IX, offering to settle the disputed questions on usages. In 1054 Leo sent three legates to Constantinople, the chief of them being Humbert, bishop of Silva Candida.

Cardinal Humbert and Cerularius were both stiff and intransigent; their meeting was not likely to promote good will. The legates, when they called on Cerularius, thrust a papal letter at him and then retired without the usual salutations. The letter had actually been drafted by Humbert and was antagonistic in tone.

The patriarch refused to deal further with the legates. Humbert lost patience and drew up a bull of excommunication against Cerularius. Among other ill-founded charges in the document, Humbert accused the Greeks of omitting the filioque from the Creed!

Humbert promptly left and in Italy represented the whole incident as a great victory for Rome. Cerularius and his synod retaliated by excommunicating Humbert. The attempt at reconciliation left matters worse than before.

Even after 1054, though, friendly relations continued. The two parts of Christendom were not yet conscious of the great gulf between them. At the time, this seemed like a misunderstanding that, with tact and diplomacy, could be cleared up. With the Crusades, however, all hope was forever dashed.


In the early 1090s, the Byzantine emperor, Alexis, appealed to Pope Urban II to help the East. Muslims had recently conquered large areas of the Byzantine Empire, including many precious sites in the Holy Land. The West rallied to the cause, sending thousands of Crusaders, who liberated both Antioch and Jerusalem

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #54 in 1997]

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