The East-West Schism was the third huge break-up in the Christian Church.
The first huge break-up was the separation of the Churches in the Parthian, Persian, and Indian Empires to the Far East, from the Churches of the Roman Empire. With the almost constant state of war between the Roman Empire and its eastern imperial neighbours, the borders became sealed and the Churches east of the Roman Empire were almost permanently out of contact with their western brothers and sisters in Christ. The Far Eastern Schism is sometimes called the Nestorian Schism, but stereotyping it in this way is a gross oversimplification.
The second huge fracture was the North-South Schism between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Rome to the north, and the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch to the south, which is often called the Monophysite Schism. The fracture became obvious with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, although hopes persisted for the next two centuries that the wound would heal. The loss of those territories to Islam made the wound permanent.
The third huge fracture was more a series of ebbs and flows, of breaks and patch-ups, of good will and ill-will, of understanding and gross misunderstanding. It developed over a much longer period than the North-South Schism and eventually became a matter of rape, fire, theft, massive destruction, and sword.
The East-West Schism fermented from at least the Iconoclastic period of the ninth century until its final dénouement with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. There were also breaks between east and west before the iconoclastic emperors, and these breaks should be considered too for a more full understanding of the fundamental differences between Greek East and Latin West. Some suggest the schism should be seen to have started from the Sack of Rome in 410 CE and the ascendency of the Arians there.
The focus of the East-West Schism cannot just be on Rome, or on Constantinople. It must include the other patriarchates of the Pentarchia Romania. These were Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
The time when the schism between Rome and Antioch became final can be pinpointed precisely to when Rome set up a Latin Patriarch in Antioch in substitution for the Greek Patriarch of Antioch.
The time when the schism in Jerusalem became final is probably later than in the other patriarchates. Plus there were times when the Latins were in control in Jerusalem to the exclusion of the Greeks, and the schism was obvious. But later the Greeks regained control and followed their usual path of tolerant openness to all from the other four patriarchates, including Old Rome.
The definition of schism is imprecise, and it may later have become obvious that parties were in schism at a particular time, although at that time the parties did not regard themselves as in schism. There was also the confusion in a lot of people’s minds, between schism and heresy. Both terms tended to be hurled about rather indiscriminately, as weapons against each other, and sometimes against usual friends.
Relations between the four eastern Greek-speaking patriarchs were often not friendly. There were times when one patriarch considered another to be invalid, uncanonical, schismatic, or even heretical.
The patriarchs did not operate in a vacuum. They were subject to pressure from the other bishops under their oversight. They were subject to pressure from the other patriarchs, including both Rome and Constantinople. They were frequently pressured by the people, and in the east they were surprisingly frequently installed by popular demand of the people, and ejected by the people. In Constantinople especially, and in the other eastern patriarchates to a somewhat lesser extent, they were very much subject to appointment, dismissal, and direction, by the emperor.
The emperor too was subject to all these pressures. But he had the added pressures of the imperial bureaucrats, the army, the hired mercenary forces, the competing commercial interests, plus the warring barbarian hordes, warring neighbouring states, and warring adjoining empires. Empire then was just as difficult as empire is now, except they did not have the instantaneous communication and satellite technology that empire has now.
By the ninth century, Rome had faded away into almost insignificance. Sicily and southern Italy were Greek-speaking, and were definitely provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople. Perhaps the emperors caused the problem by not directly assisting Rome at the time of its lowest ebb. Certainly if the emperors had wished to, they could have gone a long way towards relieving Rome and Western Europe of the dark ages they were suffering.
The forces which gave rise to Rome’s decline, suffering, and insignificance, once they became organised, also gave rise to Rome’s resurgence, reorganisation, and eventual redomination. The Franks and then the Germans forced the papacy to revitalise and become both potent and effective.
It is very simple to say the schism occurred in 1054 when the papal legate Cardinal Humbert acted illegally by excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. But while dramatic, that was largely only symbolic, and was only between two hierarchs, both with peculiar personalities. Humbert sailed off immediately after, before the emperor knew anything about it. When the court and patriarchate found out a few days later that the Pope was dead, and had been for a while, they knew that Humbert had acted without authority, and his action was invalid. It was a non-event at the time.
It is even more tempting to assign the date of the schism to 12 April 1204, when the Venetians breached the land-walls of Constantinople, and the Latin crusaders poured in to complete the siege. The next day, they commenced their three days of sack, rape, murder, theft, looting, pillage, desecration, defilement, and extraordinarily wanton destruction. They burnt the great libraries destroying all the remaining ancient manuscripts which had not been lost in the burning of the great library of Alexandria. They defiled all the churches and monasteries in Constantinople. They destroyed large numbers of the churches and monasteries, and large sections inside the Great Church itself. The Byzantine people and clergy never forgave the Latins and never forgot.
Perhaps even more accurate would be to fix the final date of the schism at 1453, when the Latins did nothing to help the Greeks in their death agonies under the final siege of the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday 29 May 1453, and the centuries long festering schism between East and West became complete. There could be no hope of recovery.
The reason for no hope of recovery lay in the fundamental differences in nature, temperament, and approach, between Latin and Greek. This was also the reason for the enduring disagreements and misunderstandings between the two halves of the Roman Empire. The Greeks largely ignored the Latins in their agonies during their dark ages, and the Latins ignored the Greeks during their death agonies at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
The schism was not an event. It was a process.
The process started from the very earliest times, and continued until the final definite collapse of the eastern Christian empire. The two halves always saw themselves as different, and were therefore always potential or actual competitors. Constantine founded a new capital for himself on 11 May 330, and moved the senate from Old Rome to his new city in the East, after suitable buildings had been erected. As a result the status and pride of Old Rome suffered a blow sufficiently hard for the barbarian invaders to successfully sack Rome in 409, and to completely finish off the Western Roman Empire in 476.
The Latins never really got over their anger and jealousy. The one thing they could retain pride in was their always orthodox papacy. In the first eight centuries, the bishop of Rome was universally venerated. When the inevitable theological disputes in the East boiled over, he could be relied on to provide the true orthodox answer. The orthodoxy of Rome was usually held in the highest regard everywhere in the wider Roman Empire.
It was one thing for the eastern bishops-in-council to appeal to the Roman pontiff for an authoritative answer, which they could debate over and eventually inevitably accept. But it was quite another thing for Rome to take away their opportunity to debate and dispute, and simply impose his answer on everyone. This, the eastern bishops and people, were never prepared to accept.
Even when the emperor attempted to impose his will on the Churches under his influence, the people and clergy were more likely to refuse and revolt, than to accept.
The North-South schism between the Greek-speakers in the north, and the Syrian and Coptic speakers in the south, was more about imperial force of arms on the southern Christian Churches, than on theological niceties. The difficult differences between the languages did not help, though they were probably more symptomatic of, and a tool for, resistance to imposed imperial uniformity and monoculturism, than a real stumbling block to understanding.
If both sides in that debacle had acted with the good will, good faith, and accepting charity, which were supposed to be the hallmarks of the new state religion, then the schism would have been unlikely to have happened, or to have been so deep or so long lasting. But unconverted human nature prevailed.
This same lack of charity was very evident, at various times, during the drifting apart of East and West.
The differences and distrust laid the groundwork. The competitiveness, and consequent politico-commercial dominance of one over the other, provided the basic framework. The arrogance, lack of charity, and personality clashes, provided the cladding. But the torches which inflamed the whole building of the schism, were the diabolical greed and lust for power which the Germans, and then the Normans, the English, and especially the Venetians, unleashed against the Greek-speaking Roman Empire.
The Western Patriarch was at least partially complicit at most times.
The theological disagreements were just the fretwork on the awnings.