Posts Tagged ‘The Great Schism’

Divorce, Italian Style

Posted in General, On This Day on July 16th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 6 Comments

July 16, 1054

Last Supper memeImagine the marriage of Arianna Huffington and Tony Danza.  Do you think that it would last?  She despises him as a  vulgar barbarian; he resents her as an effete, overbearing dragon.  (Well, they both are right.)  Yes, a divorce is inevitable.  In fact, it happened this day in 1054: the final schism between Byzantium and the Roman Catholic Church.

Constantinople and Rome had never liked each other; but that was not essential to the union.  “Honor and obey” would have been sufficient; alas, neither party was willing to be the supplicant one.  Each claimed to be the capital of Christendom.    For a few centuries, however, Rome had no choice but to defer.  A Byzantine garrison was there to remind the Bishop of Rome of his manners.  A few uncooperative Popes found themselves dragged to Constantinople.  (If it was any solace, a Byzantine dungeon was probably more comfortable than the Vatican during Dark Ages.)

In the middle of the eighth century, the couple had a vicious fight over interior decorating.  Rome liked icons; Constantinople didn’t.  From that point on, they were unofficially separated.  At the same time, Rome found a more appreciative partner–a muscle-bound parvenu named France.  While rich, sophisticated Constantinople had scoffed at Rome’s claims to primacy, rich, ignorant France craved the classy distinctions that Rome could confer.

For the first time since the Emperor Constantine, Rome felt like a capital again.  And it loved the attention and the power.  From then on, Rome was no longer the neglected domestic of Constantinople.  It was the rival.  The pagans of Eastern and Northern Europe found themselves the subject of competing Christianities.  Would they be converted (and subservient) to Rome or Constantinople?  Rome turned out to be quite adept at hustling, one of the advantages of vulgarity.  It had missionaries who promised anything to make their quotas, and its armed adherents were never shy about swordpoint conversions.  (How else would you convert the Vikings?)

However, there were presumed limits to Rome’s marketing:  it was to keep out of Byzantine dioceses.  Greek Christians were not to be enticed or rustled.  But Southern Italy –or Western Greece depending on your perspective–became the focus of contention.  The area had long been held by the Byzantines, but in the mid-eleventh century Norman freebooters had seized much of it.  While hardly paragons of piety, the Normans gave nominal allegiance to Rome and let Latin practices be introduced into the Greek churches of Southern Italy.  The Patriarch of Constantinople, a quarrelsome bureaucrat named Michael Cerularius, publicly denounced Pope Leo IX as an accomplice to theft.   He further inveighed against the Pope for all sorts of theological failings including being “Judaistic”.  Popes really appreciate that adjective.

If Leo was ever good natured about being slandered, this was not the time.  The Pope was dying, and his temper was as short as his life expectancy.  He wrote a scathing letter back to “Bishop” Cerularius but refrained from sending it when he received a conciliatory letter from the Byzantine Emperor.  The Emperor had seen where this quarrel was heading, and was hoping to avert it; after all, while trying to retain Southern Italy, he did not need another enemy.  A Papal delegation was invited to Constantinople, where any disputes would be diplomatically resolved.  All that was required were men of good will.  But the Pope’s delegates were anything but; the two cardinals and an archbishop hated the Byzantines.  They went to Constantinople, looking to be outraged and freely giving offense.  Of course, the Patriarch did not disappoint them; he snubbed them.  They responded by translating and distributing the Pope’s attack on the Patriarch.  This did not win them friends in Constantinople; do you think that they cared?

While fomenting a schism, the Roman delegates received word that Pope Leo had died.  They no longer had any authority but that did not stop them by from committing one final, definitive offense.  Dressing in their full canonical regalia, the three entered Hagia Sophia–on this day in 1054.  The church was crowded; the Eucharist was being celebrated.  There would be no lack of witnesses.  The Roman delegation walked up to the High Altar and left there a Bull of Excommunication for the Patriarch.

In fact, the Papal Bull had no validity.  The Pope was dead, and his legates had lost any authority to issue an excommunication.  The Bull could have been ignored.  But the Byzantines chose not to.  Yes, the Roman delegation had infuriated them, but it was only the culmination of Rome’s endless pretensions and affronts.  If that meaningless parchment was an excuse for a schism, the Byzantines were glad to have it.