The Greek and Latin Churches

The Greek and Latin Churches

The Greek and Latin churches have been at odds with each other since the early days of Christianity. While cultural differences were bound to exist between the two—the See of Constantinople being Greek (East) and the See of Rome being Latin (West)—disagreements in theology, liturgy, doctrine, and jurisdiction over time resulted in a gradual process of estrangement. By 1053, a mutual enmity between the two patriarchal sees was in place. The following year, each see excommunicated the other from the universal church during what is known as the Schism of 1054, or the Great Schism. Today, while they maintain friendly relations, the Greek (Eastern Orthodox) and Latin (Roman Catholic) churches have never been able to reconcile the gulf between them.

How, and why, did the schism occur between these two preeminent Christian sees? To understand how, we must look at the first few hundred years of Christianity. As Jesus’ disciples spread the “good news” throughout the Roman Empire, patriarchal sees arose. In addition to Jerusalem, where the nascent religion had begun and James, the son of Alpheus, also called James the Just, presided as the See’s first bishop, the following cities had established preeminent sees:

  • Rome (Italy) – The see was founded by Peter and Paul. Clement I, a disciple of Peter, considered the first apostolic father, was the third Bishop of Rome and pope.
  • Antioch (Turkey) – Called “the cradle of Christianity”; the see was founded by Peter and Paul; Ignatius helped to form early Christian beliefs and practices. The term Christian was first used in Antioch.
  • Alexandria (Egypt) – Founded by the evangelist Mark; became an influential Christian center, particularly under Athanasius (328–339) and Cyril (412–444).
  • Constantinople (Turkey) – In 330, when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great dedicated his new city, Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, and the fifth patriarchate.

After the Schism of 1054, the Bishop of Rome, as Pope, was the head of the Western Rite, or Roman Catholic Church. The See of Constantinople formed the Greek, or Eastern Orthodox, Church with the Sees of Jerusalem, Antiochishop, and Alexandria, which by the end of the seventh century had all declined due to Moslem conquests.

Thus, some 800 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity had two preeminent sees remaining: Rome and Constantinople. What were the differences between the Greek and Latin churches that first started to drive a wedge between them? They included:

  • In Western churches, services were held in Latin and participants knelt during prayer; in Eastern churches, services were said in Greek and participants stood during prayer.
  • In Eastern churches, converts to Christianity were baptized by immersion; in Western churches, full immersion was not required.
  • Eastern churches used leavened bread during the Eucharist; Western churches did not.
  • Western churches required priests to be celibate; Eastern churches allowed men already married to be priests (but not bishops), but priests could not marry once ordained.
  • In the Eastern church, the Greek cross had arms of equal length; in the Western church, the Latin cross had a descending arm.

These were just a few of the noticeable differences between the two sees. However, to understand why the schism occurred, we need to look at two other areas of dispute between the two: the filioque clause and papal supremacy.

“And the Son”

By the beginning of the sixth century, the filioque clause was in use in many parts of the Western church. Its use became more increasingly general during the next two hundred years. A remarkable example of this was that, in 589, during the Third Council of Toledo, the Visigoth King Reccared, who had publicly announced his conversion to Christianity at the opening of the council, directed that the Nicene Creed be recited at Communion. The impetus for this was that Reccared had denounced Arianism in favor of Christianity, and he wanted his subjects in his new Catholic kingdom (present-day Spain) to learn the profession of faith that was used in Christian liturgy.

In addition, Reccared also decreed that filioque be added to the Nicene Creed: thus, Credo in Spiritum Sanctum qui ex patre filioque procedit. (I believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.) The filioque clause became an instant area of conflict between Western and Eastern Christianity—a conflict that has never been resolved.

The Greek churches argued that filioque was added without the consent of the Eastern church leaders and that its addition was simply an innovation of the Bishop of Rome. They pointed to the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical meeting of Christian bishops whence the Nicene Creed had been adopted. The creed, they said, spoke of “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father”—Credo in Spiritum Sanctum qui ex patre procedit. The Holy Spirit proceeded through, not from, the Son, they insisted.

The Latin church responded that the Holy Spirit was recognized as part of the Trinity at least as far back as the Council of Nicaea. And, most definitively, they pointed to Scripture as proof that its inclusion was just. In his gospel, John says that Jesus taught the disciples during the Last Supper that where he was going they could not follow, but the Father would send the Holy Spirit in his name, and Jesus would join with the Father in sending the Holy Spirit, who would further teach the disciples and “bring to your remembrance all that I have taught you….(I)f I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Hence, the filioque (“and the Son”) clause in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

While this addition was accepted by Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Latin West, it was never accepted in Eastern churches and remains a point of contention today.

Papal Supremacy

The bad blood between Rome and Constantinople worsened in the eleventh century. For hundreds of years, the two sees had argued over ecclesiastical jurisdiction—who would decide matters for areas in the Mediterranean and Balkans. However, by 1053 the issue of which see was ultimately the supreme authority had come to a head.

A rivalry developed between the two sees, with Rome claiming preeminence over the universal church and Constantinople arguing that it was Rome’s equal. Rome argued that the most important sees were the three Petrine sees—Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. (The evangelist Mark was an associate of Peter and related his sermons in his gospel; thus, the inclusion of Alexandria.) With both Antioch and Alexandria no longer influential, Pope Leo IX insisted on the supremacy of the Roman See as the ecclesiastical seat of the Church. He therefore claimed authority over the four Eastern patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.

However, Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, believed his See the equivalent of Rome in scope and power. He encouraged the circulation of a treatise criticizing the Roman church. Among the criticisms were the differences previously noted—the use of unleavened bread in Latin services, the demand that priests be celibate, and the filioque clause. To punctuate his point, Cerularius closed all churches in Constantinople using Latin rituals.

Pope Leo countered that Cerularius should accept the supremacy of the See of Rome, and pope’s authority. If he or anyone else did not, they would be recognized as “an assembly of heretics, a conventicle of schismatics, a synagogue of Satan.” Pope Leo also sent legates to Constantinople, among them Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, to discuss the differences between the two churches. Cerularius refused to meet with Humbert. Three months after Pope Leo died, in July 1054, Humbert left a bull excommunicating Cerularius on the altar of St. Sophia (known today as the Hagia Sophia). Cerularius promptly convened a council of the Eastern churches, and, in turn, excommunicated Humbert and the other legates.

Thus, the See of Rome and the See of Constantinople broke into separate branches of the Church. Today, despite attempts at reconciliation, the two sees remain theologically and doctrinally separated.

Two Lungs

In the past few decades, leaders from both churches have reached out to their counterparts. Patriarchs Demetrius I and Bartholomew I met with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and just last year Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Cuba.

Pope John Paul II, the first pope to visit an Eastern orthodox country (Romania) once said that healing the divisions between the Western and Eastern churches was one of his fondest wishes. He expressed the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude of reconciliation by the image of the Church “breathing with her two lungs.” He said that there should be a combination of the more rational, juridical, organization-minded “Latin” temperament with the intuitive, mystical, and contemplative spirit found in the East.

Robert M. Randolph graduated summa cum laude from Texas Christian University and received a Fulbright scholarship to attend Goethe University in Germany. He served with the U.S. Army Intelligence Service during the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crises, and then began a 35-year career as a civil trial attorney. Mr. Randolph is a Knight of Magistral Grace in the Order of Malta, a member of St. Patrick Cathedral parish in Fort Worth, and a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.