an antique Russian Orthodox icon

So there are twenty-two churches.  Does that include the Orthodox Churches?

The short answer is no, it does not.  We should also clarify a point that the Orthodox make: The term Orthodox Church is singular.  Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church is made up of numerous churches, but becasue they profess one faith, one baptism, and share the mysteries (what the Latin Catholics call “sacraments”), they really are a single church.

Now, having said that, it’s important to note that popes down through history, including Pope Benedict XVI, have worked toward a reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches so that we can truly represent Christ with one mind and one church.

Does this have anything to do with the Great Schism of 1054?

First, let’s disabuse ourselves of the idea that 1054 was a magic year.  It was, in fact, the year nothing happened!  Let’s examine the history of this event so that we can understand what the reality is.

The Great Schism was not the first schism between East and West.  As we’ve already noted, relations between the East and the West had been strained for a long time.  Theological differences were understood to be, primarily, a matter of expression and were not the focal point of the friction that was taking place, although the insertion of the filioque (the phrase “and the son”) into the Creed (at the local Council of Toledo in 589 and about 1000 in Rome) had antagonized the Eastern Church.  Sources of friction were found in practices and in political actions taken by the East and the West.  Among the practices that were different were the ordination of married men in the East and the use of unleavened bread for holy communion in the West.  There was also an issue of language when it came to communications between the two: the West used Latin and the East used Greek.  Actions taken by both East and West included the closing of parish churches and the replacement of clergy from one church with those of the other.

The so-called Photian Schism took place during the ninth century.  This schism set the stage for what was to follow.

The tradition of both the East and the West was that, in general, territory evangelized by a particular church belonged to that church.  The best example of that was Russia.  Russia was evangelized by the church of Constantinople and, therefore, it became an Eastern Church under the authority of Constantinople (it was later granted “autocephalous” status, meaning that it was a separate church).

The Photian Schism involved Bulgaria, which was originally evangelized by the Greeks (Constantinople), who applied pressure on the Bulgarian ruler, Boris I, to accept a Greek bishop.  The problem was that Boris I wanted an autocephalous bishop, and this was not granted.  He, therefore, turned to Rome.  Rome sent a bishop to Bulgaria who infuriated Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Photius called a council and condemned the actions of Rome, excommunicating Pope Nicholaus I, who died before he could respond.  Later Photius was deposed by the Byzantine emperor, and Pope Hadrian in turn excommunicated Photius.  To make this even more confusing, Rome did not satisfy the expectations of the Bulgarians, who returned to the Greek fold under Constantinople.

By the eleventh century, the Church of Rome was no longer fluent in Greek, and many of the senior prelates, especially Cardinal Humbert, had developed distrust for anything the Greeks (the Eastern Churches) did.  On the other side, Michael Cerularius had become the patriarch after a career as a civil servant.  He did not have extensive theological training, nor was he a particularly skilled diplomat.  Cerularius had a very low opinion of the papacy (but not of the pope himself), so he and Humbert were diametrically opposed to each other.

Nevertheless, when in 1054 word of the problems the Byzantines had in Southern Italy arrived in Constantinople, Cerularius wrote to Pope Leo IX asking for clarification.  The letter was written in Greek, and Cardinal Humbert himself translated it.  We do not know if the translation was accurate or not, nor do we know how well Humbert spoke Greek.  In any event, Cerularius addressed the letter to the pope as “Brother” rather than using the more traditional title of “Father” and compounded the insult by signing it as the “Ecumenical Patriarch,” the title the at that time applied to himself.

Humbert convinced the pope to send legates to Constantinople to address this situation.  He himself wrote two letters, one to Cerularius and one to the emperor, Constantine IX (Monomachus).  The emperor received the letter from Humbert with equanimity, but the clergy in Constantinople did not.  In fact, the reception of the legates, which included Humbert, was so lacking in protocol that Humbert did not even greet Cerularius but simply handed him the letter.  Cerularius, for his part, was taken aback by this action, which seemed so unlike Pope Leo.

After reading the letter, one of the Byzantine monks wrote a rebuttal in which he condemned the Roman practices of celibate clergy, the use of unleavened bread, and other practices.  Humbert fired off an ill-tempered response to the monk and even questioned the orthodoxy of a church that refused to use the filioque!  Cerularius, for his part, simply ignored the legates.  This so infuriated Humbert that he and the other legates entered Hagia Sophia, the great church in Constantinople, just before the start of the Liturgy and tossed a bull of excommunication on the holy table (altar).  This letter excommunicated Cerularius, Constantine IX, and all their followers.  They then left.  since Pope Leo had died before this action took place, Humbert was technically “without canonical mission,” meaning that his action had no force of law and he was without authority to do what he did.  Contained in this bull were lists of “offenses,” some of which were true, but others were not.

Cerularius, in return, excommunicated Humbert and the other two legates.  This might have been rectified on their return to Rome except that one of the legates, Frederick of Loraine, was soon to become Pope Stephen X.  Pope Victor II, who reigned between the papacy of Leo and Stephen, did not address the issue.  So, the excommunication retained, and popular interpretation made them more powerful than they really were.

However, communion between the churches was not broken by this event.  Relations remained strained, but tolerable.


Excerpt from Faulk, Edward. 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches.  (Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ) 2007.