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The Great Schism Explained

The Great Schism Explained

What Happened In 1054?
That was the year that Christianity split into two branches -- Orthodox and Catholic. The split was formalized when the spiritual leaders of the two competing branches excommunicated each other and their respective churches.

What Led To The Split?
The move followed centuries of worsening ties. Things went downhill in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, who was king of the Franks, as holy Roman emperor. That angered the Byzantine Empire because it made their emperor redundant. Moreover, the move was a slight to the Byzantine Empire, which after Rome fell in 476 had withstood barbarian invasions and upheld the faith for centuries. The Great Schism split Christianity into two competing branches, one in the east, based in Byzantium, and the other in the west, based in Rome. For this reason it is also often referred to as the East-West Schism.

So What Are The Differences?
Many of the differences between the eastern and western branches of Christianity can be traced to their origins. Eastern theology is rooted in Greek philosophy, while much of Western theology was based on Roman law. The result was theological disputes, for example, over the use of unleavened bread for the ceremony of communion. For the east, using leavened bread symbolized the Risen Christ, but for the Latins in the west unleavened bread was used just as Jesus had at the Last Supper. There were also disputes over whether the authority of the pope, the spiritual leader in Rome, extended to the patriarchs, religious leaders in the east.

Chances Of Reconciliation
Mutual excommunications had happened before, but had never ended in permanent schisms. Early hopes to mend the rift faded as time went on. In particular, the Greeks were outraged by the Latin capture of Constantinople in 1204. Western pleas for reunion (on western terms), such as those at the Council of Lyon (1274) or the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1439), were rejected by the Byzantines. More than 900 years later, in 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople removed the mutual excommunications, but the two branches of Christianity remain split today.

Where The Two Branches Stand Today
Catholicism is the single largest Christian denomination, with more than a billion followers around the world, most of them Roman Catholic. The Eastern Rite Catholics, who follow eastern rites but are under the Holy See, include the Byzantine and Ukrainian Greek Catholics. Among others there are Maronite, Coptic, or Chaldean Catholic Churches.

Eastern Orthodoxy is the second-largest Christian denomination, with more than 200 million followers, most of them under the Moscow Patriarchate. Aside from the Russian Church, other Eastern Orthodox branches include the Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Melkite, Romanian, and Italo-Albanian Byzantine Churches.

-- Written by Tony Wesolowsky