The early united Christian Church consisted of five co-equal Patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. On July 16, 1054, Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius was excommunicated from the Christian church based in Rome, Italy. Cerularius’s excommunication was a breaking point in long-rising tensions between the Roman church based in Rome and the Byzantine church based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The resulting split divided the European Christian church into two major branches: the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This split is known as the “Great Schism”, or the “Schism of 1054.”
The Great Schism came about due to a complex mix of religious disagreements and political conflicts festering within the church since the 8th century. From 756 to 857, the Roman papacy shifted from the orbit of the Byzantine Empire to that of the kings of the Franks. The period was characterized by “battles between Franks, Lombards and Romans for control of the Italian peninsula and of supreme authority within Christendom.”1
Some of the many religious disagreements between the western (Roman) and eastern (Byzantine) include:
- Disagreement over a unilateral Roman change to the Nicene Creed (of AD 325/381) adding the words “and the Son” (“filioque” in Latin), thus changing the ontological understanding of the Holy Spirit.
- Dispute whether or not it was acceptable to use unleavened bread for the sacrament of communion. (The west supported the practice, while the east did not.)
- Western belief that clerics should remain celibate.
Other than the dispute over the “filioque”, one can conclude that the remaining religious issues were mainly adiaphora, “indifferent things” that are neither right nor wrong, spiritually neutral things. Afterthoughts of man.
These religious disagreements were made worse by a variety of political conflicts, particularly regarding the power of Rome.
- Rome believed that the pope—the religious leader of the western Roman church—should have authority over the other four Christian Patriarchates— and thus have the religious authority over the eastern church and all of Christendom.
- Constantinople disagreed, pointing out that each of the five co-equal Patriarchates of the united church historically recognized their own leaders.
The western church eventually excommunicated Michael Cerularius and the entire eastern church. The eastern church retaliated by excommunicating the Roman pope Leo III and the Roman church with him.
The Schism became so politically charged that Western Latin Crusaders actually attacked and sacked the Eastern Byzantine capitol of Constantinople in 1204 during the corrupted Fourth Crusade. As with the religious disagreements, discussed above, these political conflicts were mainly adiaphora, “indifferent things”, that had little to no basis in spiritual matters. Afterthoughts of man.
This was the Great Schism of 1054.
1 Goodson, Caroline J. The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824. Cambridge University Press. 2010