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Catholic West vs Orthodox East

A cultural analysis of the Great Schism of 1054

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The current war in Ukraine has highlighted longstanding cultural divisions between the Euro-American West and the Russian East. Some of these divisions have roots going back to theological conflicts between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. These two churches parted ways in 1054 in an event called the Great Schism. One might assume that this ancient history has little relevance to us today. After all, the Great Schism was fought over arcane theological quibbles: the use of leavened or unleavened bread for eucharist, or whether or not priests should shave their beards. What could this possibly have to do with the war in Ukraine? In this post I will argue that these theological details were only the tip of a massive iceberg. The real divisions between the Catholics and Orthodox churches were tectonic cultural and political forces which set the East and the West on radically different paths.

Eastern vs Western Models of Statecraft

In the fourth century, two very different models of statecraft emerged in the newly Christianized Roman Empire. One was proposed by St. Augustine in the West, and the other by Eusebius of Caesarea in the East. Augustine was writing during the collapse of western side of the Roman Empire at the hands of barbarians. This gave him a pessimistic outlook about humankind’s potential to create a heavenly kingdom on earth. Instead of returning the earth to its paradisiacal glory, Augustine argued that it was the responsibility of the Christian church to hold corrupt political actors accountable and to stand in judgement against the inevitable wickedness of the world. Heaven would have to wait until the next life.

The other side of the Roman Empire was experiencing much greater peace and prosperity, and Eusebius of Caesarea was hopeful about humankind’s potential to build the kingdom of God on earth. He believed a righteous emperor could rule over a Christian kingdom, returning the world to the paradisiacal experience of the Garden of Eden. In Eusabius’s view, there could be no separation between politics and religion. Church patriarchs and roman emperors would to rule together in divine harmony.

These two visions would have profound implications for political development going forward. In the East, Eusabius’s harmonious vision would quickly devolve into caesaropapism (one ruler’s absolute political control over religion, which continues in Russia to this day.) In the West, Augustine’s division between church and state would lead to a centuries-long power struggle between kings and popes. This struggle would weaken the executive power of mediaeval kings and allow alternative political actors like parliaments to emerge, setting the stage for the West’s current system of divided government.

Roman Beginnings (3rd and 4th Centuries)

The timeline above is an attempt to graphically illustrate the historical origins of the East/West divide. It starts with the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 285AD. His enormous empire had become ungovernable. So Diocletian made the risky decision to divide his dictatorship into four parts: with two emperors in the East and two emperors in the West, an arrangement called tetrarchy. Predictably, the tetrarchy devolved into a series of civil wars that were finally put down by Constantine the Great in 306, who returned the empire to his sole rule. Constantine moved his imperial capitol from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). This new city was built along lucrative trade routes. It was more defensible than Rome had been. Constantinople prospered and became a new center of power, the empire’s “second Rome.” (It lasted another thousand years before it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire). In the meantime, the western side of the empire collapsed under the onslaught of repeated barbarian invasions.

Barbarians in the West (5th and 6th Centuries)

During the 5th century, Visigoths and Ostrogoths ran roughshod across the western half of empire, destroying imperial administration and culture. The Catholic church was the last Roman institution still standing. The ensuing “dark age” turned out to be a golden opportunity for the church to renegotiate political relationships with its new barbarian neighbors. The first Pope to recognize this potential was Leo the Great, who began claiming that Rome had jurisdictional preeminence over the entire Christian church, both East and West. He also began condemning the caesaropapism that had taken root in the East, which helped consolidate his Rome-based rule.

The West Becomes the East (6th and 7th Centuries)

After Pope Leo’s death, the western church returned to friendlier relations with their eastern counterparts during a 6th century period known as “Romanitas.” Emperor Justinian was its dominant figure, erecting the magnificent Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople and pioneering a new rule of law called the Justinian Code.

During the seventh century, waves of eastern clerics began flooding into the West, forever influencing the liturgical and theological character of the Catholic church. These refugees were fleeing persecution in Constantinople, which had been overrun by heretics including monophysites, monothelites, and iconoclasts. Additional refugees came from areas devastated by Islamic incursions into the eastern half of the empire. Although the refugees created a new eastern-style church in the West, they had no love for the old caesaropapist regime in Constantinople. With support from the refugees, western church leaders organized the 649 Lateran Synod to condemn practices in the East. This was the first time an official synod had met without imperial approval and set a precedent for western ecclesiastical independence from eastern rule.

The West Confronts Its Barbarian Problem (7th and 8th Centuries)

For westerners however, there was a much more serious problem closer to home. A group of barbarians called the Lombards had been ravaging northern Italy. Although the Lombards were nominally Christian, they belonged to a heretical sect called Arians and they posed an existential threat to the survival of the Catholic church. Pope Stephen I appealed to another barbarian tribe, the Franks, for help.

Unlike the Lombards, the Franks were orthodox Catholics with ambitions to rule a Christian empire. The Franks had proved their metal by fending off an Islamic incursion at the battle of Tours in 732. In exchange for the Pope’s blessing for his new kingdom, the Frankish leader Pepin the Short defeated the Lombards. As part of the new Frankish-Papal alliance, the church was granted vast swaths of land in Italy called “Papal Sates.” Pepin’s son Charlemagne expanded the Frankish kingdom across Europe and ignited the Carolingian Renaissance.

Western vs Eastern Approach to Heresy

The Franks were completely uncompromising when dealing with the barbarian heresy of Arianism, which had been brought to the West by the 5th century Gothic tribes and spread throughout western Europe. By standing its ground, the Frankish church ultimately unified its territories around an extremely centralized and intolerant form of Christianity. This tradition of intolerance would later cause trouble for the West, but it made the church a political force to be reckoned with, one that could stand against the kings and emperors who would later challenge it.

This uncompromising approach can be contrasted with the more tolerant Eastern approach. While Eastern caesaropapism meant that emperors had absolute control over the church, in practice, caesaropapism was often extremely tolerant. In order to avoid unnecessary conflict, Eastern emperors often accommodated heresies sprouting up in their own empire, notably the monothelites and monothesites. Then when emperors noted that religious divisions had gone out of hand, they reassert control in excessive ways.

Additionally, because these emperors were powerful individuals exercising their discretionary judgement, they sometimes ended up enforcing one of the random heresies that had sprouted up (iconoclasm), without appealing to their own institutional church. This illustrates another great weakness of caesaropapism. The harmony and tolerance associated with it is an illusion. Without transcendent forms of institutional law, caesaropapist rule perennially becomes arbitrary and unpredictable. On the other hand, western institutional power, while sometimes oppressive, is nevertheless predictable and reliable, capable of restraining the whims of dictators.

The Donation of Constantine (9th Century)

At the Lateran Palace in Rome, there is a 9th century mosaic depicting the apostle Peter placing his hands over the heads of both Charlemagne and Pope Leo II. The political implications of this mosaic are unmistakable: Pope Leo and Emperor Charlemagne were to be co-rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. They were to rule over their respective branches of government (one political, one ecclesiastical) and were given their authority by St. Peter himself, the premier apostle of the Christian church. The justification for this arrangement came from a document called the Donation of Constantine. Later discovered to be a forgery, the Donation claims to be the work of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor. The document grants the Roman popes vast and improbable amounts of political authority.

Pedagogy vs. Devotion (9th Century)

Theologians in Charlemagne’s Frankish court were anxious to create a new, distinctly Western form of Christianity. They established Latin-based schools and universities. A new spirit of “correctio” dominated the Western church. It emphasized the centralization and systematization of political and ecclesiastical governance. A new pedagogical approach to artwork also emerged. This was a response to eastern debates about the proper use of icons. Iconoclasts in the East had banned the use of all liturgical artwork on the grounds that religious depictions were idolatrous. Eastern iconophiles like John of Damascus countered that religious depictions were not idols to be worshiped, but icons to be revered. God’s presence was manifest through the icon, just as God’s immaterial presence was manifest through the material body of Jesus Christ.

Frankish theologians argued that both the iconoclasts and the iconophiles were wrong. Liturgical artwork was pedagogical, not devotional. God’s presence could never be accessed through art itself. However religious artwork could inspire someone to become a better Christian. This emphasis on education through art was later expanded to include liturgical music, scripture, and sermon. Western worship was less about experiencing the divine presence and more about inviting worshipers to reform and educate themselves.

This approach to artwork reflects the West’s emphasis on God’s transcendence, as opposed to the East’s emphasis on God’s immanence within His creation. Western church architecture is vertically oriented with tall spires pointing to a God residing in the heavens, not on earth. Eastern church architecture is domed, symbolizing the union of heaven and earth.

Latin vs Slavic (9th Century)

The eastern church was less centralized than the western church. Consequently there was more local variation in eastern Christian devotion. This included the use of local languages in church liturgy. In the 9th century, slavic missionaries to Moravia (modern day Czech Republic) created a new Slavic alphabet and translated the Bible into Slavonic. This infuriated the Latin-only Frankish theologians, who chased the Slavic missionaries out of Moravia and into Bulgaria. From there, the Slavic mission expanded, eventually taking root in Kiev and planting the seeds for the future Russian Orthodox church. Tensions grew between the East and West leading to the Photian Schism of 863. The schism was reversed by the pro-eastern Pope John VIII, who was then assassinated by Frankish partisans.

While this obsessive insistence on Latin might seem elitist and oppressive, it had important implications for the development of the West. A Latin-only church divided of the West into sacred (Latin) and secular (vernacular) realms. Illiterate rulers in Europe also relied on church clerics to conduct their business and a common language facilitated the emergence of international networks of administration and trade which became important in the development of capitalism. Additionally, Latin-only monastic communities had access to translations of classics by Plato and Aristotle, which kept the classical tradition alive in Europe, fostering developments in science and philosophy. Russian scholars on the other hand, could usually only read Old Church Slavonic, which cut them off from the western classical tradition.

A Low Point for the West (10th Century)

When Charlemagne died, his kingdom was divided between his sons, greatly weakening Frankish imperial power and imperiling the security of the church. Vikings began plundering the wealthy monasteries of northern Europe. Short-sighted and corrupt Popes became obsessed with the excessive legalism of Frankish “correctio,” rather than addressing more pressing needs. In one particularly notorious event, the cadaver of a pope who had been dead for five months was exhumed and put on trial. By declaring the dead pope illegitimate, the prosecutor hoped to delegitimize other appointments the pope had made when he was alive.

With the collapse of imperial power and authority, feudal lords began taking over monasteries and church parishes, leading to a proprietary system of church governance. It was a period provocatively referred to as “the Rule of Harlots.” Although church leaders were supposed to be celibate, during the 10th century, popes and their mistresses had illegitimate children who then inherited church positions. The abandonment of celibacy marked a return to an eastern-style patrimonial system based on inheritance. The relative corruption and ineffectiveness of the church in this period illustrates just how important the principal of celibacy really was, and why the eastern church’s weakness resulted in part from the fact that they never embraced clerical celibacy. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama goes so far as to suggest that our current Western emphasis on meritocracy originated in merit-based Catholic rule facilitated by celibate priests with no children.

A Western Reform Movement and Ottonian Caesaropapism (10th Century)

The corruption of the 10th century led to a reformist backlash originating in the monastery of Cluny. Cluniac monks were celibate hardliners who dreamed of taking control of Rome and restoring order to the church. Over the course of the 10th century, Cluny became a monastic empire with satellite groups all over Europe and an alternative base of Catholic power.

A German named Otto the Great reconquered the divided kingdoms of Charlemagne and rode to Rome at the head of an army and forced the Pope to crown him emperor in 961. Otto enlisted help from Cluniac reformers and retook control of the Roman church, ushering in a period called the Ottonian Renaissance. However the Ottonians were thoroughly caesaropapist. While the Cluniac reformers were happy to be back in Rome, they still resented the ultimate control their German overlords held over them.

The Norman Italian Invasion and the Great Schism (11th Century)

The Viking raids of the 10th century had been forestalled by granting them a large swath of French territory called Normandy. But the newly christened Normans couldn’t resist their life of plunder. In the early 11th century, a group of Normans moved to central Italy, threatening the church’s Papal States. Pope Leo XI raised an army which was defeated by the Normans at Civitate in 1053. Leo declared that his dead soldiers were were now saints and martyrs (setting an alarming precedent for the western crusades to come) and the Normans imprisoned him.

Back in Rome, hardline Cluniacs were busy reforming the church and were encountering resistance from the East. Fights broke out over the use of unleavened bread for eucharist, clerical celibacy, and the proper wording of the Nicene Creed (see the filioque controversy). As tensions increased, both sides began pressuring churches within their domains to adopt their respective eastern or western traditions. Greek churches in the West were forced to use unleavened bread, and Latin churches in the East were forced to use leavened bread. While these might seem to be minor squabbles, the conflicts were part of a larger battle over ecclesiastical preeminence. From the perspective of the Cluniac reformers, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Back in prison, the despondent Pope Leo granted a hotheaded reformer named Cardinal Humbert authority to negotiate on his behalf with Patriarch Michael Cerularius in Constantinople. Humbert was predictably offensive and provocative during negotiations, resulting in the mutual excommunications of both Pope Leo and Patriarch Michael Cerularius. The Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches had finally arrived.

Absolute Papal Supremacy and the Norman Alliance (11th Century)

The Great Schism occurred due to poor negotiations and irresponsible provocations by both Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch Cerularius. Both sides could easily have patched up their differences and focused on building a military alliance which was desperately needed to combat threats from Islamic and Norman invaders. However, the Cluniac reformers had no intention of ceding any authority back to the East.

The Cluniacs made the radical decision to form an alliance with the Normans in order to secure their power against the caesaropapist Ottonians in the North. This was an audacious betrayal of the Ottonians. The Normans were unpredictable, violent, and unpopular. The Ottonians were comparably civilized and had done much to support the cause of Cluniac reform. Nevertheless, the Cluniacs turned against the Ottonians in 1066 and gave the Normans their full support. Pope Alexander II granted William the Conqueror his blessing to invade England and let Robert Guiscard have Italy (including the Byzantine-held Sicily).

With the Normans on their side, the Catholic church was ready to take absolute control over its affairs. There would be no more imperial appointments to church offices. Political authority would be granted to the kings by the Pope, not the other way around. The great Gregorian Reformation had arrived, setting the stage for the 1075 Investiture Controversy, one of the West’s most important and foundational political events.

Western Reformation vs Eastern Transformation

Westerners usually reserve the word “reformation” for the 16th century Protestant Reformation. However the West had many reform movements and the 11th century Gregorian Reformation was ultimately just as important as the Protestant Reformation would come to be. In his excellent four volume history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, John Strickland quotes this biblical passage: “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed (reformed) by the renewing of your mind.” In his Latin translation of the Bible, western church founder St. Augustine used the word “reform” rather than the word “transform,” which would have been closer to the original Greek text. According to Strickland, Augustine’s choice of the word “reform” reflects a fundamental difference in the orientation of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Catholic church is oriented towards reformation while the Orthodox church is oriented towards transformation.

Western civilization’s laborious, conflict-ridden reformational movements have brought greater progress than the East’s mystical but often illusory hope in heavenly transformation. Projects such as Peter the Great’s modernization of Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, or Putin’s war in Ukraine all suffered from overly optimistic assessments about the potential of top-down dictatorial projects to transform society. European and American state architects are more realistic, opting for compromised reformations and conflict-based democratic solutions. The East should learn from the West’s success in this regard.

However the West can also learn from the East. For all of Putin’s bloviating and hypocrisy, he is correct when he says that the West is decadent, secular, and materialistic. We are experiencing a “meaning crisis” to borrow John Vervaeke’s phrase. The roots of this crisis are found, paradoxically, in exactly the same traits that gave the West its power and political superiority: our systems of government built on conflict rather than harmony, our secular individualism which arises from the separation between church and state, and the capitalist deracination that has made our world prosperous but disconnected from its historical culture. The West gave us modernism, but at a price. While the East should look to the West for inspiration in reforming its autocratic institutions, the West should look to the East for its faith in personal, divine transformation.


The material for this history comes from the first two volumes of John Strickland’s history of Christianity: Age of Paradise and Age of Division. Other sources include Charles Rivers Editors The Great Schism, Tom Holland’s Dominion, and Gary Lachman’s Return of Holy Russia.

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