Papal Reformation and the Great Schism: III
Fr. John Strickland · March 20, 2014
In this conclusion to his account of the Great Schism, Fr. John reviews the leading controversies that aggravated relations between Rome and Constantinople during Pope Leo IX's military confinement, and how they resulted in the latter's posthumous act of excommunicating Patriarch Michael Cerularius in 1054.
Welcome back. In the previous segment of this episode on papal reformation and the Great Schism, I discussed the papal reformation of Pope Leo IX. Leo was the most ambitious pope to reign for two centuries, since the time of Nicholas I in the ninth century, and his pontificate gave expression to the desire for many in Western Christendom to see an end to simony, the sale of Church offices, and what was called Nicolaitism, the continued practice of clerical marriage. Traveling throughout the West, Leo had convened synods where his reforming policies were enacted, but in the summer of 1053 the papal reformation was suddenly and unexpectedly called into question. Leo IX decided to take up arms against the Normans of southern Italy, and in the battle of Civitate that followed, his entire army was defeated and he himself, the pope of Rome, was taken prisoner. By the end of 1053, he was held as a prisoner in the city of Benevento, unable to continue his reforming travels throughout Western Christendom.
And it was exactly at this moment that a new challenge to the papal reformation appeared before Pope Leo’s mind, and this challenge came not from the West but from the East. In this final segment of the episode, I would like to turn to the events that came to be known as the Great Schism of 1054. In order to do that, it would be valuable to review some of the controversies that existed between Rome and Constantinople which would play out in the confrontation of that year.
One was jurisdictional. There was a jurisdictional controversy connected to relations between Rome and Constantinople, relations that were highlighted by Leo’s policy in southern Italy. What was the jurisdictional controversy? Well, it stretched all the way back to the beginnings of Church history. Rome and Constantinople had both developed distinct understandings of jurisdictional relations. Rome had come to identify with St. Peter who, of course, settled in Rome and died there as a martyr in the first century, though he had also spent time at Antioch, though no patriarchs of Antioch had historically made the claims that the popes would later on.
Well, Peter, who died in Rome, was seen as being one of the very earliest leaders of the Roman Church and provided it with a status of primacy in relationship to other centers of Church administration. Peter himself, of course, had been first among the apostles. One of the gospels lists all of the apostles, and then the author comes to Peter and states, “And then there was Peter, and Peter was first,” “primus” in Latin. Primacy comes from that word. So there was a kind of Petrine primacy that was visible in the New Testament, but nowhere is that primacy defined in a jurisdictional sense; nowhere does Peter clearly exercise any kind of authority over other apostles.
As a matter of fact, the only model of apostolic authority that’s really offered in the New Testament is that found in Acts 15, when a council of the apostles is held in Jerusalem. This principle, which becomes the dominant principle in the East, especially at Constantinople, is often called conciliarity, and in Acts 15 all the apostles come together and they make a decision about a heresy, something troubling the Church, the practice of circumcision, and they resolve, all of them weighing in, Paul included, but also Peter, who speaks against the requirement of circumcision there, they all weigh in and agree that circumcision is not required. The apostle who stands up to issue their statement, significantly, is not Peter, who was first among the apostles, but James, who seems to have exercised some sort of jurisdictional authority at the Church in Jerusalem at this time.
So Petrine primacy was certainly in the New Testament record, but it was never defined. Peter was never shown to actually exercise authority over the other apostles. Even the famous statement where Peter answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” correctly in Matthew 16, even at that point when Peter receives the keys to the kingdom and [is] told that what he binds and looses will be loosed accordingly in heaven, well, the same authority is given to all the apostles in John’s gospel, chapter 20, when Jesus breathes on all of the apostles. So Petrine primacy was there, but never defined; conciliarity was there and was described or defined in the New Testament.
But the fact is that in the life of the early Church, as the centuries passed, Rome was always assigned a primacy, being first among all the other centers of Church life, and this primacy consisted both of honor, namely that he was, because he was the descendent of Peter, first among the others, and also administrative centrality: Rome simply was, for three centuries, the capital of the empire in which the early Church grew and flourished. When Constantinople was founded, known as “New Rome,” it was assigned a status similar to Rome, at least by Eastern Christians at such Ecumenical Councils as Chalcedon. New Rome, Constantinople, was seen to be virtually equal to old Rome in its authority, though this was contested by such Church leaders as St. Leo the Great.
Then finally, in terms of this kind of history of jurisdictional tension or controversy, there formed by the fourth century a group of five patriarchs in the Church known as the Pentarchy, the rule of five, and this included Rome first, Constantinople second, and then the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Significantly in the time of Pope Nicholas I in the ninth century, this understanding, so cherished in the East, was repudiated when Nicholas I rejected, probably on very sound historical grounds, that any apostle had actually founded Constantinople, the Church there, and that furthermore, since the other three Eastern patriarchates—Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—had all fallen under Arab and therefore Muslim domination, Nicholas I claimed that Rome was the only so-called apostolic see that was left in the jurisdictional life of the universal Church.
So there was, in other words, a kind of legacy, then, of East-West estrangement that was connected to jurisdictional controversies. Another important controversy that affected the outcome of Pope Leo IX’s Latinization of southern Italy in the eleventh century was an ecumenical controversy, that is to say, a controversy over the title in Greek “ecumenical,” which can be translated either as “pertaining to the civilized or inhabited earth,” as it literally means in the Greek language from which it comes or, in Latin translation, as having relevance for the universal Church, “ecumenical” sometimes being translated as “universal.”
Well, the title “Ecumenical” first became an issue in the sixth century, when the patriarch of Constantinople, John the Faster, declared himself to be “Ecumenical Patriarch.” This title was translated as “Universal Patriarch” into Latin, and was immediately challenged by Rome, whose pope at this time was St. Gregory the Great. Interestingly, we just commemorated Gregory the Great yesterday on the calendar of the Orthodox Church. I have a son named Gregory who’s named after him, so I take note of these things.
In any event, Gregory the Great objected to John the Faster’s use of the title, noting that Peter himself was never called a “universal apostle,” so how could any of the successors to the apostles claim to be a “universal apostle”? It’s quite interesting in this lively debate between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople in the sixth century that St. Gregory the Great’s corollary to this argument was that any universal title should be rejected. He actually even rejected the title of “Universal Pope” for himself when one of the other patriarchs of the East, Patriarch Evlogius of Alexandria, called him that, and I can quote Gregory the Great whose statement about this is quoted by John Meyendorff in a book called Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 AD, and this is what Gregory said, writing to Patriarch Evlogius about what he considers to be the unacceptable title of “Universal Patriarch” and “Universal Pope.”
I beg you (Gregory wrote), never let me hear that word again, for I know who you are and who I am. In position you are my brother, in character my father. I gave therefore no commands but only endeavored to point out what I thought was desirable. I said you ought not to use a title such as “Universal Bishop” in writing either to me or to anyone else, yet now in your last letter notwithstanding my prohibition, you have addressed me by the proud title of “Universal Pope.” I beg Your Holiness, whom I love so well—(It’s so beautiful how Gregory writes there, so gently)—not to do this again. (Very stern as well, right?)
I do not consider that anything is an honor to me by which my brethren lose the honor that is their due. My honor is the honor of the universal Church. My honor is the united strength of my brethren. Then and then only am I truly honored when no one is denied the honor which is justly his, but if Your Holiness calls me “Universal Pope,” you deny that you are yourself that which you say I am universally. God forbid! Far from us be the titles which inflate men’s pride and deal a wound to charity.
So a very beautiful and very powerful corollary is drawn there by St. Gregory of Rome, pope in the late sixth, early seventh century, in reaction to claims about universal jurisdiction by any single leader, patriarch, pope, or otherwise, of the Church.
So that was a kind of controversy over the title of “Ecumenical” and the status of “Universal.” And then one final third controversy that came into play when Leo IX began to Latinize southern Italy was the controversy more recent of the filioque. Of course, I reviewed this controversy in the episode entitled “Frankish Christendom and East-West Estrangement.” The patriarchs of Constantinople, along with their other Eastern patriarchs, steadfastly and consistently rejected the interpolation of the word filioque into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and were joined by the popes of Rome in this much of the time. Leo III had made silver shields on which the Creed, without the filioque, was inscribed and placed in St. Peter’s Basilica in the early ninth century. Later in the same century, Pope John VIII had likewise resisted the interpolation of the Creed and sent delegates to Constantinople who met at the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 879-880, known sometimes as the Eighth Ecumenical Council by some Orthodox authorities.
By the early eleventh century, as we saw, the papacy finally admitted the use of the filioque in the Creed, and this can be dated to 1014, when Emperor Henry II was crowned by the pope, Benedict VIII, in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Creed thereafter included the filioque. That aggravated tremendously the relationship between Rome and Constantinople. Even a few years before that event, the popes of Rome had begun using the filioque when writing to the patriarchs of Constantinople, and that provoked, in the year 1009, a decision by the patriarch of Constantinople to remove the pope’s name from the diptychs, and that is the liturgical list of patriarchs throughout the Church that Constantinople recognizes. This removal of the pope from the diptychs did not represent a schism; there was still sacramental union East and West, but it showed that the patriarchs of the East were increasingly frustrated with the papacy’s decision to add to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
So that brings us, then, to the case of Patriarch Michael Cerularius, who was patriarch of Constantinople from 1043 to 1059, a contemporary of Leo IX of Rome and his counter-part in the East during the event known as the Great Schism of 1054. The first thing to say about Michael Cerularius was that he had a very remarkable character. He was Leo’s equal in ambition for reforming the Church. He in fact had undertaken efforts to reform the Armenian Church in the East that was partially incorporated into the Byzantine Church as a result of the expansion of the Byzantine Empire to the East. He proved to be Leo’s equal in ambition, but Humbert’s equal—Humbert being Leo’s papal advisor—in disdain for others and rudeness and temperament.
And when he, Michael, learned of Leo’s decision to begin Latinizing the Greek churches of southern Italy, he retaliated by Hellenizing the Latin churches in the Greek East. There were a number of Latin churches in Constantinople, and in the year 1052, Michael ordered the closing of those Latin churches in Constantinople as an act of retaliation against Pope Leo and his policy of Latinizing the Greek churches of southern Italy. He also commissioned a letter to be written to Leo IX by an associate bishop of his, Leo of Ochrid, attacking the Latin practices that were behind Leo’s Latinization. These practices included the introduction of unleavened bread, the origin of which I discussed in an earlier episode; fasting on Saturdays; and the exclusion of the “Alleluia” during Lent. Furthermore, Patriarch Michael, never one to show sensitivity toward other bishops, even the very pope of Rome himself, revived the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.”
How would Pope Leo IX respond to this provocation? Leo’s papal reformation had hinged upon the conviction that the pope of Rome is the supreme head of the universal Church. Such had been the statement made at the Council of Rheims, the very year Leo came to power. Now, with Patriarch Michael of Constantinople reviving the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch,” translated into Leo’s Latin as “Universal Patrariarch”—and by the way, in his captivity, Leo actually undertook lessons in the Greek language, but historians think that he couldn’t possibly have advanced far enough really in just a few months to grasp the distinctions between the Greek “ecumenical” and the Latin “universal”—so probably he read the word exactly as his predecessor, Pope Gregory the Great, had read it. Like Gregory the Great, he rejected Constantinople’s right to use the title “Ecumenical,” but unlike Gregory, he now asserted Rome’s right to use the title “Ecumenical” or “Universal.”
And how could the papal reformation continue in the face of such a challenge? Enter Cardinal Humbert. Humbert had been promoted at the papal court in the first year of Leo’s pontificate and had become Leo’s leading advisor. He had been elevated to the cardinalate by Leo in 1051 and appointed papal secretary in 1053. He was an uncompromising advocate for papal supremacy over the entire universal Church. I can quote here an author named Tom Holland who wrote a book called The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West who writes the following about Humbert and his character and his vision of papal supremacy:
“The royal priesthood of the holy Roman See constitutes an empire both heavenly and earthly.” This vaunting claim (and he was quoting here Humbert) was made by a man renowned not for excitability but rather for his emotionless, indeed chilly, powers of reasoning. Humbert of Moyenmoutier was a monk from the same region of Lorraine in which Leo had served as a bishop, and the two men had long been confidants, summoned to accompany the pope to the Lateran (that’s the palace in Rome where the pope worked). The haughty and brilliant Humbert had soon emerged as his effective number two. Boldly he set about pushing Leo’s claims to leadership of the Church to ever more potent extremes. Stitching together musty precedents with a lawyerly dexterity, the Donation of Constantine not the least, Humbert found himself able to demonstrate with great conviction a most momentous conclusion: that the papacy had an ancient entitlement to rule the entire Christian world (all of Christendom).
Yet even that was not the limit of where his logic led him. For such is the reverence among Christians for the holder of the apostolic office of Rome, Humbert coolly insisted, that they preferred to receive the holy commandments and the traditions of their faith from the mouth of the head of the Church rather than from the Holy Scriptures or the writings of the Fathers. Here was justification in effect not merely for papal weight-throwing but for permanent revolution.
In this quote of Humbert which includes a statement that the pope of Rome actually has authority at least equal to if not preferred over the Scriptures and the Fathers—those are his words—listeners may hear an echo of the very thinking that accompanied arguments by Frankish theologians in the ninth century that the papacy of Rome had an actual right to alter the Creed, to add to it in the case of the filioque, by virtue of the fact that Rome had a supreme relationship to other patriarchates of the Church, of the universal Church, so that even Ecumenical Councils were not equal to the authority of Rome in making decisions about the content of the Creed.
Listeners will recall that it was a Frankish theologian named Ratramnus of Corbie whom I discussed in an earlier episode who actually asserted at the very commission of Pope Nicholas I, who broke communion with Patriarch Photius in the ninth century, Ratramnus actually asserted on behalf of Pope Nicholas I that just as the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 had had the authority, as he put it, the right to add the clauses that it did to the Nicene Creed, so also did the pope of Rome, for, as Ratramnus argued, this same right was given to the Romans.
And, in fact, Cardinal Humbert asserted that the interpolation of the filioque in the Creed, which, as we know, dated to just about a generation earlier, 1014—of course, this time we’re talking about right now, Leo IX’s captivity is 1053—1014, just a generation earlier, and only then had the filioque been adopted by the papacy at Rome, and Humbert, though this had been done very recently, asserted that it was legitimate insofar as it was the decision of the universal pontiff, the pope of Rome. And that, he thought, settled it.
So Humbert was committed to the principle of papal supremacy, and that conviction now dominated what was left of the papacy of Leo IX. As papal administrator during Leo’s confinement, Humbert was given great authority to direct the affairs of the papacy. And it was he, Humbert, who received Bishop Leo’s letter, commissioned by Patriarch Michael Cerularius, during a tour of southern Italy in 1053. And he translated this letter, and his translation of this letter for the pope exaggerated further its uncompromising tone. Michael himself was, like Humbert, a very uncompromising person, and Humbert only magnified this in the translation he presented to the pope.
So Leo IX, languishing in his captivity, languishing as he was as a prisoner of war, decided to issue an ultimatum to Patriarch Michael Cerularius. In 1053 he wrote letters to Michael that asserted the superiority of Latin practices when they differ from Greek ones. He was probably ignorant of the fact that unleavened bread and the use of the filioque were in fact recent Western innovations, but nevertheless he asserted their superiority over the use of leavened bread and the absence of the filioque in the East. Leo also asserted papal supremacy, very much like how Humbert had framed it. And emphatically, in his letter to Michael Cerularius, Leo cited the Donation of Constantine. This is the very first known use of the Donation of Constantine to assert papal supremacy in history.
Having written these letters to Michael, Leo dispatched Humbert to Constantinople, ordering him to compose and to deliver there his ultimatum to Patriarch Michael Cerularius, early in the following year. And then, with Humbert’s embassy to Constantinople having departed Rome, in April 1054, Pope Leo IX died.
So we come finally to the event known as the Schism of 1054. There had been earlier excommunications between Rome and Constantinople in the history of the Church. Listeners will recall the Acacian Schism and the Nicolaitan, or known in the West as the Photian, Schism, but these were always healed. The Schism of 1054 was never healed.
In April 1054, the embassy of Cardinal Humbert arrived in Constantinople. It included not only Humbert but Frederick of Lorraine, who would become Pope Stephen IX later on. Arriving there, Humbert presented a letter that he had been commissioned to compose on behalf of the pope, a letter to Michael Cerularius. This letter asserted papal supremacy; it rejected the legitimacy of the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch” for Michael; and it defended Latin liturgical practices as being superior to Greek ones. Humbert, interestingly, also presented a letter to the emperor of Byzantium, Constantine Monomachos—he ruled from 1042 to 1055—in which he, Humbert, challenged the legitimacy of Michael as patriarch.
It is significant that this embassy, within days of arriving in Constantinople, lacked any canonical or legal legitimacy. It had become null and void as a result of Leo IX’s death. Nevertheless, Humbert, driven as he was to fulfill Leo IX’s commission, continued the embassy’s work. We know for sure that he knew of Leo IX’s death—[it] had been reported to him immediately—but he ignored it. It’s also interesting that the new pope, Victor II back in the West, was unaware of the details of the embassy as it was playing out in Constantinople and the letters that were being composed there on behalf of the pope. He may not even have known of the embassy’s very existence.
But what Cardinal Humbert found in Constantinople was a very confusing situation. On the one hand, Emperor Constantine Monomachos welcomed him and gave him a very warm reception in the capital. Michael, predictably and obnoxiously, refused even to meet him, and simply ignored his presence there. Patriarch Michael kept Humbert and the embassy waiting for many days, which was a great insult to their dignity as legates of the pope of Rome.
As the days advanced and Humbert’s temper grew more and more sour, a monk from the Studion Monastery in the capital (a monastery known for its long history of supporting the papacy, often against the heretical tendencies of not only the emperors of the East but also patriarchs who supported them), named Nicetas Stethatus composed a letter to Humbert which sought to soften and elaborate Constantinople’s concerns with Leo’s policy of Latinization, but in this letter written by Nicetas Stethatus, the same criticisms of Latin practices from a Greek point of view were repeated. Humbert’s response to it, rather than being placated or assuaged, was contempt and fury. He translated Nicetas’s second name, Stethatus, into Pectoratus, which means a “beast that crawls on its belly,” and he declared that the monk must not have come from a monastery but a brothel.
So having rejected any grounds for a compromise with this limited effort at compromise with Monk Nicetas Stethatus, Humbert continued to await Michael’s response, but sadly it never came. Patriarch Michael Cerularius himself was in no mood for charity. Michael continued to ignore the presence of Humbert, so finally Humbert had had enough. On July 16, in the year 1054, he organized a final confrontation with the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, at none other than the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and just as the clergy were preparing for the Divine Liturgy, Cardinal Humbert marched into the church, up to the altar table, and hurled down upon it, the very altar table of Hagia Sophia itself, a papal bull of excommunication. He turned, and he marched out of the cathedral.
He was chased by a Greek deacon who pleaded with him at the entrance to reconsider, telling him that such an act may have unexpected, unintended consequences and may be very difficult in the future to heal. Nevertheless, Humbert was unmoved by the deacon’s pleas and appeals to the principle of charity, and, shaking the dust from his feet, in allusion to Christ’s orders to the apostles to turn their back on cities that refused to accept the Gospel, Cardinal Humbert and his entourage returned to Rome.
Join me next time, when I begin a new episode in the rise and fall of Christendom by exploring the consequences of this event, what might be called Eastern Christendom’s and Western Christendom’s parting of the ways, or, how the excommunication of 1054 became great.