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The Great Schism: When the Christian East and West Split Apart

The division of the Roman Empire into halves changed medieval Christianity and foreshadowed future splits like Protestant Reformation. So what should we know about?

The Great Schism: When the Christian East and West Split Apart

Few events changed church history like the Great Schism. So what was it?

The Great Schism of East and West

The division of the Roman Empire into halves was eventually echoed in the church. The break came when Michael Cerularius was the Patriarch of Constantinople and St. Leo pope of Rome. In 1053, Cerularius circulated a treatise criticizing in strong terms the practices of the Western church. Catholics did not allow their clergy to marry. This was contrary to scripture and tradition, said Cerularius. And Catholics used unleavened bread in their Eucharist. But the most serious concern was that the Latin church had added the word "filoque" to the Nicene creed, saying the Holy Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son.

It would seem that this was more political to Leo than religious, as it was pressed upon him by the Franks. Cerularius excommunicated all bishops of Constantinople who used the Western ritual and closed down their churches. This incensed Leo. He demanded that Cerularius submit to the pope. Any church which refused to recognize the pontiff as supreme was an assembly of heretics; he said--a synagogue of Satan. The Eastern patriarch wasn't about to accept this characterization. The five patriarchs, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, were equals in his eyes. As the patriarch of the West, the bishop of Rome was given the courtesy title of "first among equals," and in a tie vote, he could make the final determination according to tradition. Rome's growing claims to authority were deemed unacceptable to the other patriarchs, who believed (and still believe) that Christ alone is the head of the church.

Leo sent legates, headed by an unyielding man, Cardinal Humbert, to discuss the issues. Before they could complete their mission, Leo died. Humbert was so rude to Cerularius that Cerularius refused to speak with him. Aggravated by this treatment, the legates marched into St. Sophia on July 6, 1054, and placed a bull on the altar, excommunicating Cerularius. After this act, Humbert made a grand exit, shaking the dust off his feet and calling on God to judge.

Cerularius convoked a council and once more blasted Western practices. Humbert was anathematized. The Orthodox condemned all who had drawn up the bull. There was no chance of reconciliation between the factions. The once-united Church was now divided into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. In many areas, Orthodox churches submitted to Rome while maintaining many of their rites and traditions. These became the Byzantine rite or Uniate churches, also known as Eastern Catholics, which still exist in countries as distant in time and place as the United States.

The rift was inevitable. Traditions and doctrine had been diverging for hundreds of years. East and West would be even farther apart after the cruelties of the crusaders, whose violent acts were often against fellow believers of the East whom, in ignorance, they did not recognize as Christians. The unity of love which Christ had said should mark his followers was broken.


1. Dawley, Powel Mills. Chapters in Church History. New York, The National Council, Protestant Episcopal Church, 1950.

2. Durant, Will. The Age of Faith; A history of Medieval Civilization--Christian, Islamic and Judaic--from Constantine to Dante: AD 325 - 1300. The Story of Civilization, Part IV. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.

3. Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Press, 1964.

("The Great Schism of East and West" published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

Rev. J. C Robertson, M.A, Canon of Canterbury, gives a deeper look at how particular leaders' interactions with each other contributed to the Great Schism:

The Great Schism of East and WestThe Great Schism (AD 1378-1410)

Gregory XI died in 1378, and the choice of a successor to him was no easy matter. The Romans were bent on having a countryman of their own, that they might be sure of his continuing to live among them. They guarded the gates, they brought into the city a number of rough and half-savage people from the hills around, to terrify the cardinals; and, when these were shut up for the election, the mob surrounded the palace in which they were with cries of "We will have a Roman, or at least an Italian!" Day and night their shouts were kept up, with a frightful din of other kinds. They broke into the pope's cellars, got drunk on the wine, and were thus made more furious than before. At length, the cardinals, driven to extreme terror, made choice of Bartholomew Prignano, archbishop of Bari, in south Italy, who was not one of their own number. It is certain that he was not chosen freely, but under fear of the noise and threats of the Roman mob; but all the forms which follow after the election of a pope, such as that of coronation, were regularly gone through, and the cardinals seem to have given their approval of the choice in such a way that they could not well draw back afterwards. 

But Urban VI (as the new pope called himself), although he had until then been much esteemed as a pious and modest man, seems to have lost his head on being raised to his new office. He held himself vastly above the cardinals, wishing to reform them violently, and to lord it over them in a style which they had not been used to. By such conduct he provoked them to oppose him. They objected that he had not been freely chosen, and also that he was not in his right mind; and a party of them met at Fondi and chose another pope, Clement VII, a Frenchman, who settled at Avignon. 

Thus began what is called the Great Schism of the West. There were now two rival popes--one of them having his court at Rome, and the other at Avignon; and the kingdoms of Europe were divided between the two. The cost of keeping up two courts weighed heavily on the Christians of the West; and all sorts of tricks were used to squeeze out fees and money on all possible occasions. As an instance of this, I may mention that Boniface IX, one of the Roman line of popes, celebrated two jubilees with only ten years between them, although in Boniface VIII's time it had been supposed that the jubilee was to come only once in a hundred years. 

The princes of Europe were scandalized by this division and often tried to heal it, but in vain; for the popes, although they professed to desire such a thing, were generally far from hearty in saying so. At length it seemed as If the breach were to be healed by a council held at Pisa in 1409, which set aside both the rivals, and elected a new pope, Alexander V. But it was found that the two old claimants would not give way; and thus the council of Pisa, in trying to cure the evil of having two popes, had saddled the Church with a third. 

Alexander did not hold the papacy quite eleven months (June 1409 to May 1410). He had fallen wholly under the power of a cardinal named Balthasar Cossa; and this cardinal was chosen to succeed him, under the name of John XXIII. John was one of the worst men who ever held the papacy. It is said that he had been a pirate, and that from this he had got the habit of waking all night and sleeping by day. He had been governor of Bologna, where he had indulged himself to the full in cruelty, greed, and other vices. He was even suspected of having poisoned Alexander; and, although he must no doubt have been a very clever man, it is not easy to understand how the other cardinals can have chosen one who was so notoriously wicked to the papacy. 

Adapted from Sketches of Church History (public domain) by Reverend J.C. Robertson.  First Published in 1904

("The Great Schism (AD 1378-1410)" by Reverand J.C. Robertson published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

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