Yesterday I mentioned Pope Theodore II who was the son of the Patriarch of Constantinope, Photius, and said that there is a very interesting—and important—story in the background here as it explains, in part, the split between the Western (Catholic) Church and the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Of course in antiquity the entire Church, East and West, was one, holy, catholic (note the small “c”), and apostolic. And the Western Church (at least those parts of it in communion with the See of Rome) and the Eastern Church (at least those parts of it in communion with the See of Constantinople) were “orthodox” (note the small “o”). By catholic we mean part of the universal communion of Churches; by orthodox we mean accepting the doctrinal formulations of the ancient ecumenical Councils, especially in regards to the doctrines of the Trinity and regarding the two natures in One Person of Christ.
For centuries there was great harmony between the Sees of Peter (Rome) and Andrew (Constantinople). The sense of the Imperium Romanum (Roman Empire) persisted long after the fall of the Emperor in the West, Romulus Agustulus in 476; the Emperor in Constantinople considered himself to be the Emperor of the whole Roman world, East and West, and the Bishop in Rome acknowledged this even as the Emperor acknowledged the Bishop of Rome to be the first (among equals) bishop of the Church. Popes in Rome were often from the Greek half of the world, and while the liturgies developed very differently in the East and in the West, there was some cross-fertilization of practice, particularly a Greek influence on the Western Liturgies. The Kyrie is one example of this Greek influence on the Roman Liturgy. The orientation of the celebrant of the liturgy is another.
As the centuries went on, however, the harmony between east and west began to show some signs of discordance. Particularly after the rise of Islam and the loss of a large portion of the Empire in Syria-Palestine and North Africa, the Emperor in Constantinople was preoccupied with defending the borders with Islam and could not offer the military protection to Rome that was needed. Saracen pirates captured Sicily and parts of Southern Italy and threatened Rome. (Somewhat later they would even raid Rome and sack the Basilica of St. Peter, prompting Pope Leo IV to build the “Leonine Wall”—we discussed that in an earliar post—but that was just a few decades later than the period we are talking about.) Meanwhile from the north a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, were pressing down on papal lands in central Italy. When the popes could not count on the Emperor in Constantinople for help, they turned to a powerful kingdom in the West—the Franks—for support. Pepin, and then later his son, Charlemagne checked the Lombards. In return for protection that Charlemagne offered, Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor.
Historians argue whether Charlemagne wanted this title, or even knew about it before the pope brought out a crown and plucked it on his head December 25, 800. It was, one must admit, a pretty classy Christmas gift. Charlemagne always protested that it hadn’t been his idea. The Emperor in Constantinople certainly was not pleased. "Emperor? Excuse me, we have an emperor—right here in Constantinople. There is no room for two Emperors." But what was the fellow in Constantinople to do? He didn’t have the military power to go over to what is today France and Germany and teach this bearded upstart who couldn’t even write and wore a bearskin cape a lesson or two about emperors. He had to live with it—but he didn’t have to like it.
Nor did his subjects. They thought the people in the west were a joke. Rome was a has-been city. In the days when the empire was capitaled there, Rome had approximately two million residents; now it had about forty-thousand at best. And they lived in the bricked up ruins of old temples and amphitheaters, with cattle grazing in the forum. The neighborhood had certainly become run down. Constantinople, on the other hand, was a city of great wealth and culture. It had schools where philosophy and theology were taught. Its churches were magnificent. Its Patriarch presided at the Divine Liturgy in the gorgeous basilica of the Hagia Sophia surrounded by choirs and monks and bishops while in Rome the Pope had to step over cow dung on his way to the altar in the broken down ruins of Constantine’s basilicas. The west, they declared, had seen its day; its glory was finished. Leadership and power belonged in the city of Constantinople. Peter may be buried at Rome, but Andrew was Peter’s older brother and his Church was still something glorious.
The relationship of the Church to the Empire had developed differently in Constantinople than it had in Rome because of the presence of the Emperor in the one city and the relative independence of the Pope from civil authority in the other. Actually through most of this period the pope was both the civil and religious authority. When the power of the Byzantine Emperor declined in Rome in the sixth and seventh centuries it left a vacuum which the Bishop stepped in and filled. It wasn’t that the popes sought the responsibilities and privileges of civil government—it was just that there wasn’t anyone else on site who could provide for law and order, food distribution, military protection and other functions of government. So the Church stepped in and did it. By and large the papal administration wasn’t particularly good at this task—other than the distribution of grain and foodstuffs to the poor, or in times of famine to the general population—but it was the only leadership that took the initiative. Consequently the Bishop of Rome was used to being answerable only to God, while in Constantinople the Bishop was used to being required to give account to the Emperor. The Patriarch was little more than an officer of State, while the Pope was supreme authority. They each conceived their role very differently and this is where the conflict came in with Photius and the subsequent schism.
Pope Nicholas objected when the in 858 Emperor Michael III deposed the patriarch Ignatios and named a layman, Photius, to replace him. The problem was not that the new patriarch was a layman. True, Photius was not ordained but he was a theologian and had served the Church well in that capacity. His uncle had been patriarch at one time and his family was noted for service in the Church and their commitment to Orthodoxy. He was ordained through the various minor and major orders and then consecrated Bishop on Christmas day 858. Moreover in the Western Church laymen were occasionally elected bishops and even pope. (hmmm, that would be an interesting blog.) They were, of course, ordained to their new office once they had accepted. The problem for Nicholas was that a sitting bishop—indeed the patriarch—had been removed from office by Imperial authority. Ignatios had refused the Emperor's uncle (and power behind the throne), whom he suscpeted of adultery with his widowed daughter-in-law, entrance into the Church of the Hagia Sophia. For Nicholas the rights of the Church took precedence over the authority of the Emperor. The Church was supreme in power over government. The Emperor’s role was to protect the Church and to carry out the temporal directives of the Pope. For the Emperor, and Photius, the Emperor was the Vicar of Christ and therefore held authority over the Church as well as the secular domain. This would be a problem in the Western Church too in the eleventh century when various Emperors claimed jurisdiction over the Church. The Eastern Church—first under the Byzantine Emperors and later under the Russian Czars—always saw the Emperor as having authority over the Church and the Church serving under their protection and authority.
Nicholas excommunicated the Emperor and the Patriarch. The Patriarch returned the compliment and thus there was a break of communion—a schism—between the Eastern and Western Churches. The schism did not last. It ended with Ignatios was restored to his See in 867. Moreover Photius came to the Patriarchal throne legitimately after the death of Ignatios ten years later. But the precedent had been set and the wound never quite healed right. It would break open again in 1054 when the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and the Papal Legate, the Cardinal Humbert, exchanged mutual excommunications—but that is for later.
Notice that I wrote that there was a break of communion. It is historically inaccurate to say, as many Catholics do, that the Greek Orthodox Church broke off from the Roman Catholic Church or went into schism from the Catholic Church. (You could say schism with the Catholic Church, but not schism from the Catholic Church). It was an unhappy parting of brothers—of Peter and Andrew as it were—not a rebellion of a child from his father. The Churches had been in communion with one another, not the one subject to the authority of the other. The Bishop of Rome may have been “first” among the bishops of Christendom but he was not “over” them—that idea will develop a little later. In antiquity the bishops and Churches of Christendom were seen as equals with Rome being the first among the equals. Indeed it was the emerging sense of superiority of one over another, that led to the great schism of East and West. Popes and Patriarchs unfortunately had forgotten the words of Jesus to the disciples when they were arguing about which of them were first. There are times that Jesus must scratch his head and wonder if it had all been worthwhile.
The image today is the interior of a Greek Orthodox Church