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Toward Understanding Diversity in Unity

by Brother John Samaha, S.M.

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Attitudes among Catholic and Orthodox peoples on the Church and their place in it not only stem from their strong national feelings, but are also deeply rooted in their ecclesiastical history and religious thought. For while the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ is unified, the Church certainly is not uniform in all aspects.

Until the schism of the East, which occurred after more than a thousand years of Christianity, the Church was organized on a kind of federal basis. Each flexible grouping included a particular geographical area and Christians of similar background and heritage. Within each of the five distinct areas was a chief bishop called a patriarch.

The five patriarchates were named for their see cities: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. Each patriarchal see was a major center of early Christianity. Rome was often referred to as the Patriarchate of the Western Church. The other patriarchates were in the East. Antioch, the first headquarters of the Church until St. Peter moved to Rome, was an important center of Christianity for several centuries. Constantinople developed into the most important and powerful patriarchal see, for it was the capital of the Byzantine and Roman world.

The Great Schism dividing East and West split the Church and was reflected in the political spheres. It was a gradual, almost imperceptible severance extending over centuries. The difficulties concerning Photius in Constantinople in the ninth century opened the first wound of separation since the withdrawal of the Assyrians (Nestorians in Mesopotamia and Persia) and of the non-Chalcedonians (Monophysites in North Africa and Asia Minor) in the fifth century. Then the complex problem between East and West in the eleventh century involving Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, ended in a gigantic division. The previous minor schism culminated in the major separation of Constantinople and Rome.

The breach in 1054 was mended temporarily by the union following the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, but it ruptured once again in 1282. A more promising settlement after the Council of Florence in 1439 lasted until 1472.

The Turkish Muslims who conquered Constantinople found it advantageous to widen this rift. Consequently, the three other Eastern patriarchates were separated. While only Constantinople formally broke from Catholic unity, the rest of the Byzantine Church followed, taking millions of faithful with a true priesthood and valid sacraments.

Western European Christians soon began an unfortunate pattern of intervention in the East. The Crusades aggravated the tension after the schism of 1054. Actually they were more damaging to the cause of reunion and had an effect worse than any of the prior complications. In addition to sacking Constantinople and establishing a new kingdom of Jerusalem, the Crusaders imposed Western authority and practice on the East.

This intrusion of the West in Eastern patriarchates undermined any sense of equality and mutual respect. The Patriarch of the West permitted a Latin hierarchy to be set up in Constantinople and Jerusalem, areas in which a Greek hierarchy already existed. Gradually, “Latin” and “Latinization” became synonymous with Roman interference in – and Westernization of – the Church in the East. Eastern Catholics’ resentment grew.

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Tags: Unity Eastern Christianity Catholic-Orthodox relations Religious Diversity