Benedict XVI Honored by Eastern Orthodox Hierarchs

Another look at the Constantinople-Rome schism and a way forward for reconciliation

Following the announcement of Benedict XVI’s retirement, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the chief hierarch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, issued a statement expressing his profound respect and friendship to Benedict. Bartholomew honored Pope Benedict as an eminent theologian and reaffirmed his desire to keep dialogue open between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians “for the union of all.” Benedict and Bartholomew’s friendship has been marked by their common mission to restore Christian culture to Europe. The Russian Orthodox Church issued a similar statement thanking Benedict for his efforts to restore relations between the Vatican and the Moscow patriarchate.

Benedict XVI played an important role in modern efforts to heal the schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Dialogue began in 1964 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I went together as pilgrims to Jerusalem. The work of restoring communion was renewed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios I during the 1980s. Between 1980 and 2000 the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church worked to find common ground that would lead to further unity. After a period of interruption, Benedict and Bartholomew reopened the work of the commission in 2007. Pope Benedict signed a joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew in 2006 that renewed their commitment to building Christian unity and working together for the common good of humanity. Admittedly, progress has been slow—too slow for some critics, but then long histories of contention between alienated peoples take a lot of time to heal, Christian or not. Hasty reconciliation attempts between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox in the past did not prove successful.

Like the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have counterparts who are in full union with the pope, called Eastern Catholics. The Eastern Catholic Churches are part of a long-standing effort to reunite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Unsuccessful reunification attempts took place in Lyon (1274) and in Florence (1438), but the current Eastern Catholic communion was established by the Union of Brest in 1596. At this council the Metropolitan of Kiev (in modern Ukraine) united his church to the Pope of Rome, which is why they are sometimes called “Uniates.” The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of 22 Eastern Catholic Churches, sui iuris, in the world. The Ukrainian Catholics even have a cardinal, Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Lubomyr Husar, who was papabile at the 2005 papal conclave but is no longer eligible because of his age.

Some Orthodox theologians claim the establishment of Uniate churches by Rome has only created a further stumbling block to reunion, but they do not speak for all Orthodox believers. Eastern Catholics have played a vital role in safeguarding authentic Eastern liturgy and canons, and Uniates have maintained an important dialogue between the Churches. Perhaps a brief look at history will help us understand the complexity of the rift.

As early as 476 AD, cultural dissonance had emerged between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking, Eastern Mediterranean Christians. As early as the second century, Eastern theology had begun to develop in a different direction from Western theology. An example of this is the fact that the West tended to emphasize aspects of theology like the unity of the Godhead, Christ the paschal victim, and the Augustinian understanding of redemption. The East, for their part, preferred to speak of the Threeness of Divine Persons, Christ the Victor, and Theosis.

Furthermore, Eastern and Western Christians had different liturgical and canonical disciplines. For example, the Western Church discouraged married clergy and eventually forbade it, while the East maintained the apostolic tradition of supporting both a celibate and a married clergy. Eastern and Western Christians also practiced different rules for fasting and had opposing views on the use of leaven in Communion bread. Most of these theological differences have already been resolved by recent dialogue and have long been understood to be canonical disciplines that do not threaten orthodox doctrine.

More significant divisions in theology concerned the papal claims and the Latin addition of the Filioque (the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son) into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. At one time the Greeks assigned the pope a primacy of honor as “first among equals” in the college of bishops, a title that has since been transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but they have never recognized the Roman papal claim to universal jurisdiction. Furthermore, most Eastern Orthodox theologians believe that, in matters of faith, the ecumenical college of all the bishops of the Church must be in agreement and cannot unconditionally yield to the voice of the Chair of Peter.

In 589, the Council of Toledo interpolated the Filioque into the Creed in order to counter Arianism in Spain. From Spain, the practice of adding the Filioque to the Creed spread to the rest of Europe. In 753, Emperor Constantine V was unable to spare an army for the defense of Rome against the invading barbarian Lombards. Desperately in need of help, Pope Stephen turned to Pepin, the Frankish ruler. As the Franks emerged as a rival Christian kingdom to the Byzantine East, the Pope of Rome was caught between a rock and a hard place. It didn’t help that Rome was defending the use of sacred relics and images, therefore further alienating the iconoclastic Constantinopolitan court during this time. As Franco-papal relations strengthened, Constantinople became more and more estranged from Rome.

In 794, a semi-iconoclast council of German bishops in Frankfurt “officially” accepted the Filioque and accused the Greeks of heresy for saying the old Nicene Creed without it. Pope Hadrian did not approve of this council teaching, but it did not matter. This was mainly a geo-political power struggle between Charlemagne and the imperial house of Constantinople. In 800, Charlemagne had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo, but his title was not recognized by Constantinople, which saw Charlemagne as an interloper. The papal coronation was taken as an act of schism within the Empire.

In 808, Pope Leo III wrote to Charlemagne warning him against tampering with the words of the Creed. Rome, still sensitive to its relationship with Constantinople, did not use the Filioque until the 11th century, even though the popes did not necessarily disagree with the theology behind it. The Greeks disapproved of the Filioque addition for two reasons: first, the West had dared to add the clause without the consent of the ecumenical college of bishops, and second, because most Greeks disagreed with the theology, believing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. More recent Orthodox theologians have been willing to discuss the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son, or some such concession, while Rome encourages Eastern Catholics to omit the Filioque within the Eastern liturgy, making even this source of contention a surmountable barrier to union.

Yet another constant thorn in the side of papal relations with Constantinople, which persisted into the 15th century, was the fact that the Patriarch of Constantinople had ecclesiastical jurisdiction in southern Italy, Sicily, and Illyricum since the mid-eighth century and the pope wanted those territories to return under his jurisdiction. So when the Byzantine Emperor Michael III wrote to Pope Nicholas I in 859 asking him to acknowledge and approve the appointment of Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople after the previous patriarch, Ignatius, had been exiled by the emperor and resigned under pressure, Nicholas thought this a good opportunity to revisit the status of jurisdiction over Illyricum.

In 861, Pope Nicholas sent legates to Constantinople to investigate the legitimacy of Photius’ claim to the See and to press the papal claim to Illyricum. When the legates returned to Rome and announced that they had found Photius’ appointment legitimate but that they had been unable to secure Illyricum, Pope Nicholas I disowned their decision and held his own trial in Rome. In a bid to regain Illyricum, he found Ignatius to be the true patriarch, not Photius. The Byzantines ignored this decision, causing an open schism between Rome and Constantinople.

In 865, Pope Nicholas claimed in a letter that the pope has authority “over all the earth, that is, over every Church.” This claim went beyond the canons of Sardica (343), which allowed a bishop who has been condemned to appeal to Rome. But that bishop was to be tried by peer bishops from neighboring eparchies—not the pope himself. This claim, therefore, was unacceptable to the East. Twenty years of contention and confusion followed between Rome and Constantinople, known to Catholic history as the “Photian Schism.” But in an odd turn of events Photius was restored to the patriarchate and died in communion with Rome (886). The century that followed was relatively calm in regard to Latin-Greek relations. But the mid-11th century was not so peaceful.

At the beginning of the 11th century, Normans invaded Southern Italy and Sicily. As they began to settle permanently and establish their dominance, the Normans forced the Greeks in Byzantine Italy to conform to Latin usages. In 1053, Pope Leo IX, although not opposed to the Latin practices, unsuccessful joined forces with Argyrus, the Byzantine governor of Southern Italy, to drive back the fierce Normans.

Meanwhile, Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, had closed the Latin churches in Constantinople. He and his supporters objected to unleavened bread being used for the Eucharist, as well as other minor Latin practices. One of Cerularius’ archbishops wrote a letter to the bishops of Italy and the pope that articulated these different practices so that they could “correct their errors.” In the letter, translated into Latin by Humbert, Cardinal Bishop of Silva Candida, the Patriarch of Constantinople was referred to as the “Universal Patriarch of New Rome.” “Universal” was a bad translation of the Greek title “Ecumenical,” and was taken as a threat. In his response to two more letters from the emperor and the patriarch that soon followed, Leo showed deference to Emperor Constantine IX, but was surly with the “archbishop of Constantinople.” He made it clear that Rome was the “Head and Mother of the Church.” Pope Leo also sent legates to settle the disputed questions of Greek and Latin usages in 1054. The papal legates were led by Humbert. Both Humbert and Patriarch Cerularius, proud and unbending, were bad diplomats.

Humbert rudely delivered a letter from the pope and did not make any real attempt at reconciliation. Cerularius was even worse, as he refused to attend the meetings between the legates, the emperor, and certain monks who defended the Greek side. Humbert soon lost patience with the whole hostile situation and secretly laid a papal bull, excommunicating Cerularius and his close associates (not the entire Orthodox Church, as Cerularius later claimed), on the altar in Hagia Sophia. Cerularius responded by excommunicating Humbert. Actually, these were matters of hierarchical dispute and not generally noticed at the public level. Because neither party excommunicated the entire Church, the particular excommunications of Cerularius and Humbert were not as serious to East-West relations as they have sometimes been made out to be. Nevertheless, these anathemas were solemnly lifted by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in 1965. But historically, the real tragedy was that a lasting consensus was never reached concerning the different customs, the papal claims, and the use of the Filioque. Reconciliation still could have been possible until 1204. It was the hijacking of the Fourth Crusade by the Venetians and their sack of Constantinople that brought complete schism.

As mentioned above, the differences in customs and the Filioque problem are no longer the main issue. The real bones of contention are the papal claims to universal jurisdiction and infallibility. These matters will take time to sort out. The obstacles to union between Rome and Moscow are further complicated by the history of the Ukrainian Church over the past 400 years and disputes between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church over property in Ukraine. However, through prayer and the grace of God, the next pope will make further headway, and we will one day see the brother Churches—represented by Saints Peter (Rome) and Andrew (Constantinople)—united again, and the full communion of the ecumenical college of bishops restored.

In the meantime, there is a great need for the Orthodox and Catholic faithful to work together for the reestablishment of Christian culture in our increasingly secular world. The councils of Lyon (1274) and Florence (1438) failed because the Byzantine Orthodox monks and laity refused to acknowledge the union agreed upon by their hierarchs. Current Church leaders, East and West, may have done as much as they can at present. Premature union could easily fail again without a cooperative effort at the grass-roots level. But we are not without hope. There is nothing like a common enemy to renew old alliances. Perhaps the best way forward for Catholics is to follow Benedict’s example and to befriend and cooperate with Orthodox Christians. United for the common good of defending Christian culture, this kind of ecumenism cannot fail to bear fruit and reestablish our fraternal bond. For all their differences, Catholics have much more in common with Orthodox believers than with Protestants. Orthodox and Catholics, alone, participate in the full sacramental life of the Church because of their common apostolic origins and traditions. Ut unum sint.

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About Christopher B. Warner 19 Articles
Christopher B. Warner lives with his wife and son on a small farm in West Michigan. He writes for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Warner is the author of Catholic Money: A Father Teaches His Son About Family Finances, and his essays have appeared in Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, First Things, Religion & Liberty and other publications. Christopher has a bachelor’s degree in theology and history from Franciscan University and a master’s degree in marriage and family studies from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. His research includes topics concerning the economic and theological foundations for family flourishing, contemporary applications of the patristic letters, and ecumenical dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.