The Story Behind a Centuries-old Rift

February 10, 2016
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia. / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 1,000 years ago, the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity split. Despite decades of attempts there has yet to be reconciliation. But, on Friday, Pope Francis will visit with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in a historic meeting and the first between a pope and the Russian patriarch.

Below, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Kevin Madigan provides context for how this rift happened and why there’s been so much suspicion over the centuries.

This is the first time in history that the pope has met with the Russian patriarch. From a historical perspective, this is a very significant event indeed. Today, some two-thirds of the world's Orthodox Christians, whose number has been estimated to be 200-225 million, are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

For more than a millennium, from roughly the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800), the Eastern, or Orthodox Church, and the Western, or Roman Catholic Church, had been mutually alienated not just by different language, culture, and history, but by profoundly different views on key theological issues, and, above all, by differences over the role of the pope in relation to Eastern bishops, as well as several historical events disastrous for ecumenical relations.

The first of these, sometimes called "the breach of 1054," came when a delegate of the pope traveled to Constantinople in an attempt, ironically, to heal wounds caused by recent actions taken by both churches. But the delegate began the conversation by outlining the primatial role of the bishop of Rome, or pope, who, he claimed, had universal jurisdiction based on Peter (whose successor popes always claimed to be) having received the keys to the kingdom of heaven given to him by Jesus, along with the power to forgive sins (see Matthew 16 for the biblical foundation of this claim).

Talks stalled. Frustrated, the papal delegate waited a few days. Before returning to Rome, he walked up the nave of Hagia Sophia where the Patriarch of Constantinople was about to begin the liturgy, and deposited a bull of excommunication on the altar. Needless to say, this was perceived as an arrogant expression of Roman triumphalism. Furious, the patriarch struck back by excommunicating the papal delegate. This mutual excommunication was only lifted in the 1960s, at the end of Vatican II. For a thousand years, each church was allowed to nurse grievances against the other.

One reason that the pope has not met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is that the Orthodox have always harbored suspicions, rooted in memory of an event like this, that the Catholic Church would demand acknowledgment of papal sovereignty in the church—this despite the insistence of popes like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis that that is not at all what they wanted.

Even more serious, in my view, was the disaster of the Fourth Crusade, because memories of it filtered down to the popular level, while the events of 1054 were remembered mainly by prelates and hierarchs. For complicated reasons, the crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople in 1204, and damaged and stole relics from the church of Hagia Sophia. This was a great ecumenical sin, never forgiven. Even after Vatican II, this event was never forgotten.

Other historical developments include the creation of 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome (the so-called "Uniate" churches). These communities were always regarded with suspicion by the Orthodox. The Uniate Church in the Ukraine was a particular problem for the Russian Orthodox Church; it was in Russia's ecclesiastical "sphere of influence," if you will.

The theological issue dividing East and West was the unilateral addition of a clause to the Nicene Creed by the West (before Charlemagne even). Even though the Eastern Church agreed, theologically, with the addition, it was deeply offended that the West would emend an historic creed produced by the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, presided over by the Emperor Constantine, in 325. Western arrogance, again.

After Vatican II, John Paul II (perhaps sympathetic to the Russian church, as he was of Slavic origin himself) made some attempts to meet the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. He cherished hopes of reuniting the two churches, East and West. As mentioned, suspicion of Roman triumphalism prevented any meeting, much less a reunion.