Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries by Steven Runciman

I have just finished reading The Eastern Schism by Sir Steven Runciman (1955.) This is the eleventh of his works that I have read, so it is safe to say I am something of a fan. Unlike contemporary scholars who often seem to major in minutiae, Runciman was a historian of the old school, who knew that his craft was not, at heart, that of an analyst, but rather that of a story-teller. For anyone interested in Byzantine history (or the larger medieval world, for that matter,) my advice is to start with Runciman. He is that good.

This particular study examines the historical events which resulted in the Great Schism, an event we usually associate with the year 1054. This development is little known among most Protestants, for whom church history begins shortly after 1500. But for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the event is pivotal, and in different ways defines our respective world views. Nobody lays out the historical processes by which East and West took diverging paths more succinctly than Runciman. A few points from the book stood out in my mind.

1. The schism was not over the Filioque

2. The schism did not occur in 1054

3. Efforts to avoid schism and resolve differences were ongoing by cooler heads on both sides up to the very end of the 12th-century

4. The Fourth Crusade ruined everything

I know that in Orthodox sources, the controversy over the Filioque is usually listed as one of the underlying causes of the Great Schism. And of course, it was a serious issue (from Runciman's view, the azymite controversy--the use of leavened or unleavened bread--was quite nearly as important.) By the 11th and 12th-centuries, both positions had solidified and neither the East nor West showed any sign of budging. But as Runciman well demonstrates, communion was not broken over it. The Orthodox believed that the West was wrong in arbitrarily adding to the Creed, but because of the West's particular history, the limitations and inflexibility of Latin relative to Greek, the lack of educated lay population in the West and other factors, the East was prepared to allow the West to continue with the Filioque, as long as it was not imposed upon the East. In short, they had agreed to disagree in practice. The real problem, however, lay in the arbitrariness of the addition. The Creed came out of the Ecumenical Councils, and to the Eastern mind, that was the only place, and not the Papacy, that a subsequent addition could be enacted. And as time went on, it became obvious that the Pope was intent on imposing his understanding. So, the insurmountable hurdle then was, as it is today, the specific claims of the Papacy.

For high drama, nothing beats the scene of Cardinal Humbert, the Papal Secretary, striding into Haghia Sophia during a Divine Liturgy and laying a Bull of Excommunication on the altar in 1054. According to Runciman, it was a silly document, unworthy of someone of Humbert's education. And surprisingly, it received little notice in Constantinople. The Emperor ignored it, and the general populace was not enraged (for long) and still considered the West to be their Christian brothers in an undivided church. If one were looking for the first time a Pope of Rome was not listed on an Eastern diptych, then the date of the schism would be 1009, not 1054. And if one were looking for an hard and fast date that communion was broken, on the ground, then the date would be 1100, when a Latin Patriarch was chosen for Antioch, when a Greek, John the Oxite, already held the office.

The simple fact of the matter was that relations ebbed and flowed over these two centuries, and even during the lowest points, cordial correspondence passed back and forth between Pope and Patriarch and Emperor, and their representatives. Each side seem committed to continuing the dialogue and avoiding at all costs an outright schism (though often for reasons of pure political expediency rather than piety.)

Several months ago, I let myself be sucked into an argument on one of the sillier monarchist blogs (I am generally sympathetic to monarchy in principle, just not the British version.) The blogger posted a tribute to Constantine XII, the last Byzantine emperor, but in so doing, made some comment to the effect that if the East had just submitted to Rome, then the downfall of Constantinople could have been avoided. I responded and suggested that real history might be a bit more nuanced than this. All discussions of this nature seem to end up back at the Fourth Crusade, as did ours. He finally sputtered "Well, if the Crusades were so bad, then why did the Byzantines keep asking for their help?" By this time, I knew better than to continue the correspondence, as he clearly did not know what he did not know. As Runciman notes, the Byzantines never asked for the Crusades--not even the first one. In 1095, Alexios I was short on manpower and engaged in a bitter struggle on the eastern front with the Seljuk Turks. Two representatives of the emperor were in Italy recruiting soldiers to join the eastern Roman army in this fight. At the same time, a general church council was in session, and the two envoys requested permission to address the gathering and make their needs known. Something was lost in translation and Pope Urban took the plea and ran with it. By the time he had crossed the Alps and gave his famous speech at Clermont, a simple recruiting effort had morphed into a plea by the East to be rescued by the Christian Army of the West. This was not at all what Alexios had in mind. Likewise, the Second and Third Crusades were endured, but never requested. And the Fourth Crusade turned on Constantinople itself. The tragedy of 1204 was outside the Papacy's control, and they had no choice but to validate the results afterwards. But in so doing, the Schism was set. And each side, from the highest clerics down to the communicant in the lowliest village knew it. Neither now saw the other as brother, but as schismatic or heretic.

Some selections:

Throughout the history of the Eastern Empire there was a large lay population that was as well educated as the clergy. The professors, the government servants, and even the soldiers were usually as cultured as the priests. Many of them were highly trained in theology, and almost all of them felt themselves perfectly competent to take part in theological discussions. No one in Byzantium thought that theology was the exclusive concern of the clergy. (p. 7)

Right worship was really more important to the East Christians than right belief. They were devoted to their liturgy...[and] was probably the strongest single spiritual force in the make-up of the Byzantines. It inspired their best art and their best poetry and music; and the humbler members of the Empire felt an even stronger loyalty to it than the educated. (p. 8)

The whole attitude of the medieval West was different. Christianity spread more slowly in the West than in the East, and paganism lasted on much longer there, particularly in cultivated circles. The Church there was obliged, for its self-defence, to insist on the need for unity and uniformity of belief. At the same time there was less general interest in speculative philosophy and less desire, therefore, for theological debate. Language played its part in the difference. While Greek is a subtle and flexible tongue, admirably suited to express every shade of abstract thought, Latin is far more rigid and inelastic; it is clear, concrete, and uncompromising....Even in Roman times the level of culture had been generally lower in the Western provinces....The cultured lay circles of Italy were extinguished during the wars and troubles of the fifth and sixth centuries. The only education that survived was conducted by the Church for the Church. In the early Middle Ages there were few laymen int he West who could even read. This gave the Church in the West a position in society that the Eastern Churches never possessed....Unlike the Eastern Liturgy, the Western Mass was a mystery performed by the priesthood, and the lay congregation did not have the same intimate feeling of participation. Moreover, while the language of the Byzantine Liturgy was roughly intelligible to the average Byzantine, the Latin of the Mass was a foreign language to most of the faithful in the West. The Western laity was seldom permitted to interfere in any matter of religion. (p. 9)

The East enjoyed speculation and argument; but the official Church was ready to exercise charity towards unessential divergences, and avoided doctrinal pronouncements and condemnations except when political issues or the liturgy was involved. The West had a simpler, stricter, and more legalistic and logical conception of right and wrong belief. In the East there were large numbers of educated laymen and laywomen accustomed to play a part in religious affairs, and there was an articulate public opinion that did not hesitate to criticize both the Emperor and the hierarchy. Neither an educated laity nor a public opinion that was articulate on religious matters existed in the West before about the twelfth century... (p. 11.)

Thus to the Romans Church union meant the submission of the Eastern Churches to Rome, but to the Byzantines it meant that the Roman bishop should resume his place as the senior of the Patriarchs and be mentioned once more int he diptychs and be accorded all deference and honorific titles due to him. It would be difficult to reconcile these views (p. 58.)

Economy was still more necessary when it came to the controversy over the Filioque. Of course this was wrong; but, after all, he [Peter III, Patriarch of Antioch] wrote, the Latins are our brothers, and it is only ignorance that makes them deviate. We must not demand from them the same scrupulous exactitude that we demand from our own highly educated circles. it should be enough that they confess the Mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Perhaps, he suggested, they had lost the copies of the acts of the earlier councils (p. 65.)

The Latin argument on the Filioque seems at first sight to be clearer and more convincing than the Greek; but the Latin conception of the Trinity is less subtle and delicately balanced....The only solution would have been for each Church to show the Economy so often recommended by Orthodox theologians. But Rome was not in the mood to allow divergences, while the Greeks, though they might be willing to show tolerance over purely theological points and practices, could not bring themselves to forgive an addition to the Creed which they considered a direct challenge to the authority of the Oecumenical Councils. Nor were they prepared to admit that any of their old-established usages could be wrong. The essential issue was the question of papal authority. Could the Pope add to the Creed at his pleasure, and could he even insist on uniformity of usage? (p. 109.)


James the Thickheaded said...

Not to be the skunk at the party or anything, but Runciman's account seems so favorably one-sided (in a nice way), that I hesitate to ask whether he had an axe to grind with respect to Rome? Any indications of his degree of impartiality from other scholars?

Milton T. Burton said...

I think too that the fact that there were five truly metropolitan cities in the East and only one---Rome itself---in the West had a great deal to do with the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome in western Europe.

John said...

Actually, I thought his treatment very even-handed. Case in point would be the last paragraph I quoted. From the Orthodox perspective, some of the personalities one would expect to be somewhat demonized, were actually treated quite favorably. At the time he wrote (1955), scholarship had been so one-sided in the other direction for so long, that Runciman's treatment was seen as a radical reappraisal. Since that time, there has been a sea change in the area of Byzantine Studies, and his work is seen as pretty mainstream these days.

Actually there were only 4 in the East; 5 total, but your point is correct. Language differences and the logistical difficulties in maintaining communication played a critical part as well. One distinction Runciman makes clear is that in the East there was a literate laity that saw themselves as full participants in the Liturgy and overall life of the Church, as opposed to the West, where illiteracy was the norm, and the Latin Mass was often largely unintelligible. And the East had no problem with the Bishop of Rome's supremacy in the western Europe. The rub came when he turned his gaze eastward.

Milton T. Burton said...

You are right about that: I have been to Roman masses many times, and the feeling is that it is a spectator affair and not something one really participates in.

s-p said...

Nice summary. I recall reading somewhere that the "schism" was more over praxis than dogma, ie., azymes, beards, liturgics etc. Praxis in the East was the participatory action of the life of the Church which included laity. One can point to 1054, but without the internet I'm sure that the consequences of the papal bull had little effect on the general populations of either East or West. History is always more nuanced than a two page chapter in a survey of (whatever) book.