Splitting Heirs?

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches both claim to be legitimate inheritors of apostolic authority, but bitter disputing ripped them apart nearly a thousand years ago. Will the breach ever be mended?

A Europe united “from the Urals to the Atlantic.” That was the vision set forth by Pope John Paul II in October 1988 as he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But he wasn’t just talking about political unity. As the pontiff addressed the assembled parliamentarians, religious unity was uppermost in his mind—a unity resulting from Europe searching “more intensely for its soul.”

A little over a year later, the pope outlined the same vision to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on his visit to the Vatican. Such a union was to be regarded as “a restoration of normality, a return to Europe’s true historical course,” wrote George Weigel, (Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, 1999).

Europe has changed dramatically since those days. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell to become the stuff of souvenirs. The political division between East and West was removed and the long process of healing began. Various nations of Eastern Europe now wait anxiously and impatiently to become members of the European Union, eager to send representatives to sit in the European Parliament.

Yet while communism suffered defeat, other deep-seated, generally unknown or ignored divisions have surfaced in Europe, so that little real progress has been made toward achieving the sense of unity described by the pope in 1988.

Old Wounds, New Wounds

The primary division of Christian Europe that John Paul II seeks to heal culminated almost a thousand years ago with the Great Schism between the Orthodox Church in the East, centered in Constantinople, and the Catholic Church in the West, centered in Rome. The actual rupture in 1054 was ostensibly over statements by and personal relationships between the leaders of the two churches.

John Paul II views the restored unity of the two bodies as essential to the progress of Christianity. His favorite metaphor for Christian Europe is of the branches being two lungs of one body. His desire is to see that body breathing once more with both lungs.

On the surface it may not appear to be an insurmountable problem. A priest’s ordination is honored in both churches, and various rites can be conducted in either church. But the pontiff’s efforts to establish a return to the pre-schism relationship before the start of the third millennium were unsuccessful, and such overtures continue to be rejected.

Though the separation is frequently expressed in terms of doctrinal differences that amount to little more than wrangling over words, there are other issues.

Divisions between the two groups have been compounded, for example, by the issue of property ownership. Communist governments confiscated church property and subsequently returned it—but not always to the church that originally owned it. The Orthodox churches, which tend to predominate in these former communist states, were often favored at the expense of the Catholics, who were treated as outsiders.

On the other hand, Roman Catholics (and Protestants) have subjected Eastern Europe to considerable missionary activity since the fall of communism. Charges of active Roman Catholic proselytizing in areas that have traditionally been Orthodox have further soured the atmosphere.

A Material Point

In the last decade, nations that were impoverished by decades of communist government have struggled to bring their economies into line with the West. One result is that in the Orthodox Church, a renaissance has occurred. Throughout these countries, former basilicas are being refurbished at great cost, and new churches are being built.

The populations of Eastern Europe, however, are enduring continued hardship. Granted, the ability of Eastern Europeans to withstand hardship is perhaps stronger after living for so long under communist regimes. Yet even today, with personal freedoms restored, people still seem willing to suffer deprivation for the sake of the church.

The Eastern church has long seen Rome as having a focus on the here and now.

This goes to the heart of the problem that exists between Rome and Constantinople. The Eastern church has long seen Rome as having a focus on the here and now, giving rise to the pursuit of material goods that the East has largely been denied. There the focus is viewed as being more on the spiritual aspects of life. Hence many commentators speak of the mystic nature of the Eastern church.

What is it about the West that causes the Eastern church to object? Why is the perceived emphasis on materialism an issue?

The problem has its roots in European history. Today the pope is at the center of criticism from the East. But is the papacy itself the problem? While both East and West look to the past and laud Emperor Constantine’s contribution to Christianity, the East sees the West, and the papacy in particular, as having assumed the emperor’s imperial role. And that is the crux of the issue.

The East views secular government as an institution with which to coexist, even when its actions are contrary to the teachings of the church. The most obvious example is the way in which the Orthodox Church tolerated the establishment of an Islamic government throughout much of its domain following the demise of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. It may have created problems which we have to address today in areas such as Kosovo, but the Eastern church has always tried to live in a relationship it calls symphonia, or harmony between church and state.

This stands in marked contrast to the history of the West, where the church has often sought to control secular governments.

Holy Acrimony

An indication of current levels of dissent between the two communities was seen on Pope John Paul II’s visit to Greece in May 2001. Although he was invited by the Greek government to visit as a head of state, his visit was also intended as a pastoral one for the Catholic Church in Greece. In addition, it was an attempt to bring about closer ties with the Greek Orthodox Church.

The visit was robustly opposed by Greek Orthodox clerics. While the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church seemed content just to hector the pope about historical matters, the priests were much more outspoken in their criticisms. Flags were flown at half-mast in many Orthodox churches, as if to proclaim a period of mourning.

The pope’s only response was to provide an apology for the disastrous Fourth Crusade of 1204, which ended up pitting the Western church against its Eastern brothers.

Orthodox priests went so far as to denounce the pope as a false prophet and as the Antichrist, who adorns his miter with 666. The Catholic News Service reported that the pope was described as an “arch-heretic” and “the two-horned grotesque monster of Rome.” These descriptions find their origin in the biblical book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, in which the apostle John described a false religious system that would set itself up in opposition to the true church that Christ had founded (Revelation 13:11–18).

From a surface reading of John’s prophecy, one would learn that the apostle wrote about a particular animal he saw in a vision. It was like a lamb having two horns, but it spoke with the mouth of a dragon. John used these same two animals as symbols earlier in the book: Jesus Christ is typified as a lamb more than 20 times (e.g., Revelation 5:6–13), while Satan, the adversary, is described as a dragon (Revelation 12:3, 9, 13). So this present-day Orthodox interpretation is a conflation of a lamb representing Christ and a dragon symbolic of Satan. Hence the name Antichrist has been applied to this animal.

The Orthodox understand John to have described a religious system that exercises power over a political system. The latter is described as yet another beast in the earlier part of Revelation 13. It has long been identified as a reference to the Roman Empire and its subsequent revivals.

The history of the empire coincides with this biblical description. Emperors such as Augustus saw themselves as descended from the gods and hence head of the religion of the empire. Subjects of the empire were to sacrifice to the emperor as a god.

John, writing at the end of the first century, saw in a vision another religious system expressed in similar imperial terms. The Eastern churches view the papacy and the Western church today as the fulfillment of John’s prophecy. And it is not just Greek Orthodox priests who have such an opinion of the papacy. This view of Rome is held throughout the Orthodox world.

Evolution of an Empire

More than three centuries after Augustus, Constantine saw himself clearly following in the earlier emperor’s footsteps He even associated himself with Apollo, just as Augustus had.

When Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople, a column dedicated to him was erected in the center of the latter city’s forum. A statue surmounted the column, the body of which, according to author and historian John Julius Norwich, “was that of an Apollo by Phidias [a Greek sculptor of the fifth century B.C.]; but the head, which was surrounded by a metal halo with representations of the sun’s beams radiating from it, was that of Constantine himself. The right hand carried a sceptre, while in the left was an orb in which had been placed a fragment of the True Cross.”

Apollo, Sol Invictus and Jesus Christ all seem subordinated to a new supreme being—the Emperor Constantine.”

John Julius Norwich

Concerning this remarkable statue, Norwich observes: “Christian and pagan elements are combined; but this time Apollo, Sol Invictus [the unconquered sun] and Jesus Christ all seem subordinated to a new supreme being—the Emperor Constantine” (Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 1990).

Though other emperors had been deified and added to Rome’s pantheon of pagan gods, Constantine was the first emperor to profess Christianity. Clearly, pagan customs and influences did not cease during his rule. In fact, the mixture of paganism and Christianity was creating a whole new dynamic in the empire, and this began to have its effect.

According to tradition, for instance, it had been the army’s responsibility to proclaim and crown Roman emperors. But by the fifth century, an interesting change took place.

In the East, a man named Leo was acclaimed emperor by the army, in accordance with the tradition. Then, as explained by Norwich, “for the first time, a second ceremony was instituted. On 7 February 457, in the course of a solemn mass in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Leo was formally crowned by Patriarch Anatolius . . . a sign that the old order was beginning to change: away from the venerable military traditions on which the Empire had been founded and towards that religious, mystical concept of sovereignty which was to grow ever more insistent as the centuries went by.”

About the same time in the West even greater changes were taking place under another Leo. Pope Leo I “The Great,” an advocate of papal authority, forcefully articulated that the papacy was not just the successor to the apostle Peter’s chair but possessed supreme authority over the entire church. According to historian Richard P. McBrien, Leo’s pontificate “constitutes a major turning point in the history of the papacy. He was the first pope to claim to be Peter’s heir, which, according to Roman law, meant that all the rights and duties associated with Peter lived on in Leo” (Lives of the Popes, 2000).

The full weight of Pope Leo’s claims was not felt immediately, but opportunity for them to be enacted soon presented itself.

In 476, the boy king Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, a barbarian general who led the Heruli forces against Rome. Odoacer then submitted the Western empire to the emperor reigning in Constantinople and in so doing reunited the empire under one (Eastern) emperor. His decision created a political vacuum in Rome, a city accustomed to ruling large sections of the world.

As Norwich records, the vacuum was filled by the leaders of Rome in that they “raised up the Bishop of Rome, already the Primate of Christendom, investing him with temporal authority as well as spiritual and surrounding him with much of the pomp and semi-mystical ceremonial formerly reserved for the Emperors. The age of the medieval Papacy had begun.”

When a new emperor was crowned in the West some 300 years later on Christmas day 800, it was at the behest of the now established imperial papacy. The pope had taken to himself the power to bestow the imperial crown on the head of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor on the basis of a document known as the Donation of Constantine. Though that document is now known to be spurious, it was of great political value to the papacy until the fall of Byzantium in 1453, because it meant that the emperor was subject to the pope.

Will Europe Reunite?

In many ways, the Fourth Crusade for which John Paul II apologized while in Greece is an example of the Western church’s worldview. The Crusades were initiated by the papacy for the purpose of recovering holy places and sites from religions that were perceived as pagan. Their initial purpose was not to convert conquered peoples.

The Fourth Crusade was launched in the early 13th century to fight against those Muslims who controlled the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular. When Pope Innocent III first called for this Crusade, far fewer Roman Catholic faithful came forward than expected. This left the Crusade unable to challenge the power of the Muslim world. It was distracted instead by the promise of riches from the East and the possibility of using force to overcome the schism between the two churches. The crusaders thus turned their fury against their fellow Christians, sacking Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, and subjugating the Eastern church to Rome. For more than 50 years, Constantinople was under the control of Latin kings.

Those in the East therefore lay responsibility for the Fourth Crusade and the plundering of Constantinople and the Eastern churches squarely at the feet of the papacy.

As noted earlier, when John Paul II visited Greece and other Orthodox countries, it was ostensibly to support the Catholic faithful and to seek to heal the schism between the two churches. In each case, his overtures have been treated with suspicion and rejection by most in the Orthodox communities. It is his great desire to visit Moscow as a guest of the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the largest of the Eastern churches, but the patriarch of Moscow has refused to issue an invitation. On the surface, therefore, the pope’s vision of a reunited church stretching from the Urals to the Atlantic seems to be an impossible dream.

Still, the apostle John did write about a scenario whereby such a vision and reunion could become a reality. He spoke of a religious leader being able to perform miracles whereby the nations would be deceived into following his commands both in a religious and a political sense (Revelation 13:13–17). Such power could easily change the outlook of the Orthodox community—and even of entire nations—toward the papacy and Rome.

Were John’s scenario to become a reality, we would then see a united Christian Europe—but for what ultimate purpose? A careful reading of the prophetic writings of the apostle John creates cause for concern regarding the appearance of such a union.