Great schism divided the Church but apostolic succession remains

Published: March 15, 2008

By Msgr. Richard Oswald

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome, the once mighty capitol faded, and the city of Constantinople ascended to become a great center of political and economic power. Eventually this political and economic divide would lead to a theological schism.

For centuries there had been a cultural divide between the eastern regions of the ancient Roman Empire and the western or Latin regions.

In the East the Church was rooted in the ancient sees like Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Western Church grew in what would become known as Europe. Naturally local culture had a profound impact on the local church. Over the centuries distinct approaches to art, worship language and style, theology, discipline and spirituality developed in the two areas.

Sadly clergy and laity on both sides had little respect for one another’s distinctive qualities. All of this came to a head in the year 1054 when the bishop of Rome and the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated one another. This great schism or separation between what is known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church endures to this day. Examples of the Eastern Orthodox churches are the Greek Orthodox, the Ukrainian Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox churches.

As the chasm between East and West widened some key differences other than culture became clear. The Orthodox Church does not accept the primacy of the bishop of Rome. The Church is instead a union of several large sister churches or patriarchates (regions) which honor the patriarch of Constantinople as the “first among equals.” The Orthodox Church holds that the church of Rome mistakenly added the words “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed in 589 proclaiming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.

At the time of the great schism there were communities within the Orthodox patriarchates who chose to remain in full communion with Rome. They are known as the Eastern Catholic churches. They have generally maintained their original traditions and practices. There is a distinct code of canon law that governs the Eastern Catholic churches. Within the Roman curia, there is a congregation for the Eastern Catholic churches, which serves as a liaison between Rome and the churches. Examples of Eastern Catholic churches are the Coptic Catholic, the Melkite Catholic, the Ukrainian Catholic and the Greek Catholic churches.

The Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism notes that “from their very origins, the churches of the East have had a treasury from which the church of the West has drawn largely for its liturgy, spiritual tradition and jurisprudence.” It also reminds us “the basic dogmas of the Christian faith concerning the Trinity and the Word of God made flesh from the Virgin Mary were defined in ecumenical councils held in the East.” Regarding the Eastern Orthodox Church the decree states, “These churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.”

We have reason to hope that the day will come when there will be no need to make the distinction between “Orthodox” and “Catholic.”

Msgr. Richard Oswald is pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith.