Question: What is it that separates the Catholic Church from our Orthodox counterparts? What led to these divisions?
— Name withheld via email
Answer: The separation between the Orthodox Churches of the East and Western Churches united to Rome is a complex issue rooted in culture, language and politics as much as theology or authority. The modern tendency to fix the Great Schism on one event or year is misleading. The first cause of the division was the gradual estrangement of East and West. The East and West increasingly grouped themselves around different centers (Rome and Constantinople), used different rites and spoke different languages.
The elaborate rites of the East were contrasted to the simpler rites of the West. A Syrian, Greek or Egyptian layman could not fail to notice that a Latin bishop or priest celebrated the holy mysteries in a way that was very strange. Regarding language, the Western Church spoke Latin, and the Eastern Church spoke Greek. At councils the papal legates addressed the assembled in Latin and no one understood them; the council deliberated in Greek and the legates wondered what was going on. So there arose suspicion on both sides.
Regarding authority, although the ancient Church had regarded the pope as supreme, and he was often appealed to in order to solve disputes, this began to break down as the cultural and political breaches widened. Increasingly the pope represented to Eastern Christians a remote and foreign authority, and they were less willing to appeal to him.
For these and other complex political reasons, Eastern Christians began looking more to Constantinople than Rome and seeing the pope more as the Patriarch of the West, rather than supreme pontiff.
And all this provides the remote background for the Great Schism that occurred technically in 1054 and is popularly thought to involve the addition of a word (filioque) to the Nicene Creed. But the realities are so much more complex and coalesce more around rising political tensions between the East and the West.
After many debates and attempts to negotiate with the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Caerularius, Roman legates excommunicated him (July 16, 1054). But this was not a general excommunication of the Byzantine Church, still less of all the East. What broadened the problem was that the rest of the East eventually sided with Constantinople, and gradually all the other Eastern patriarchs took sides with Caerularius. Thus, the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches was less an event than a drifting apart that multiplied misunderstandings. Add politics and power to the mix, and the perfect storm that rent the Church raged through.
There really is not any insurmountable question of doctrine involved. This is not a heresy, but a schism. It is true that the Orthodox Churches deny papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception, and they quarrel over our terminology regarding purgatory and the procession of the Holy Spirit, but they do not outright deny these teachings.
Thus, we remain with a tragic division that is complex and involves many different parties. For there is not one Orthodox Church; there are many: Greek, Russian, Serbian, Coptic and so forth. Often they disagree among themselves and suffer from debates rooted more in nationalism and politics than theology. So the pope cannot simply sit down with an Orthodox patriarch, for they are many and their Churches are independent. Currently tensions are less, and mutual understanding is growing. This is a grace which we must pray will increase!
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.