Historical ties of schism in Christendom explored

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

In 1995, Pope John Paul II, writing in his encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint,” examined the nearly thousand-year split between the Eastern and Western Church with a keen sense of yearning.

“The Church must breathe with her two lungs (its Eastern one and its Western one),” St. John Paul II wrote.

In that spirit, Notre Dame Seminary has established The Dathel and John D. Georges Endowment for Orthodox-Catholic Relations to educate Catholic seminarians about those issues, said Father James Wehner, rector-president of the seminary.

The endowment was funded through a $250,000 gift of John Georges, publisher of The New Orleans Advocate.

Examined three factors

The inaugural lecture was delivered March 2 at Notre Dame Seminary by Archpriest Andrew Louth, an internationally recognized Orthodox scholar of the Russian Orthodox Church in England, who spoke about three major factors that led to the split and that still divide the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches.

Contrary to the historical tendency to date the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christendom to 1054 – when each church placed an anathema on the other – Father Louth said that rift “was a step on a long journey, not the decisive moment of the schism.”

Despite the formal lifting of the mutual anathemas in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, Father Louth said the sad reality is that “we are still in schism.”

“If any date is to be given to the Great Schism, it is rather 1204 (the sacking of Constantinople) than 1054,” Father Louth said. “The violence of the Latin Christians against their supposedly fellow-Christians of Byzantium left a deep grievance in the hearts of Byzantines, aggravated by the overthrow of the Byzantine Emperor, the establishment of Latin rule with a Latin Patriarch, the desecration of the great church of Hagia Sophia.”

Father Louth examined “three of the most commonly cited grievances” for the rift: the addition of the “Filioque” to the Nicene Creed (that the Holy Spirit descended from both the Father and the Son); the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist in the Latin church (“azyma”); and the developments of papal primacy.

A lightning rod 

Father Louth said before the “Filioque” was added to the creed – generally believed by the Spanish Synod of Toledo in 589 and not added to the creed in Rome until 1014 at the coronation of Ottonian Emperor Henry II – it “was not generally regarded as a theological issue.”

But, once it became an issue, he said, “it is presented, both in East and West, in an uncompromising way.”

The Patriarch Photios insisted that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone; St. Anselm, in the Western tradition, presented the argument  using three premises: “that God is one; that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and that these terms are defined as relationships,” Father Louth said.

“But its becoming an issue was something that evolved,” he said. “It was not there in the beginning. It is a symptom of the growing rift in Christendom, not its cause.”

The Western use of unleavened bread was criticized by Byzantine theologian Nikitas Stithatos, who observed “that the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper speak of the Lord’s taking (regular) bread, not unleavened bread. He then moves on to argue that the use of unleavened bread belongs to the Passover meal of the Old Testament, not to the Eucharist of the New.”

Father Louth said Nikitas asserted that since Christ died on the Day of the Passover – as mentioned in the Gospel of John – “the Last Supper itself could not have been the Passover meal, but a meal at which ordinary bread was used.”

The use of unleavened bread in the West was first mentioned by Alcuin in the eighth century, “but the custom was for him no innovation,” Father Louth said.

“Once unleavened bread was introduced, a powerful symbolism attached to it, and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians found a new resonance: ‘Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole dough? Purge out the old leaven, that you may become new dough, just as you are unleavened.’”

“Unleavened bread and leavened bread generate different, conflicting symbolic worlds,” Father Louth added.  “It is this kind of thing that lies at the heart of difference between East and West.”

As for papal primacy, Father Louth said by the fourth century, Rome was calling itself “sedes apostolica – the apostolic see – despite the fact that Latin has no definite article.”

“In the West, this was easily accepted, as Rome was the only see that could claim apostolic foundation,” Father Louth said. “In the East, where churches founded by the apostles were commonplace, the claim of a church to be apostolic cut much less ice.”

By the 11th century,  “the demand to accept the pope as universal monarch became more insistent, and the East became more intransigent, finally preferring, as they said, the ‘Muslim turban to the Latin mitre.’”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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