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Weary of Constantinople’s efforts to impose its will on the local church, the non-Greek-speaking rural populations near Alexandria and Antioch, as well as the Church of Armenia, refused to adhere to the council’s condemnation of the heresy and broke from the churches of Rome and Constantinople. Distinct churches were created in Armenia and in the rural areas near Alexandria and Antioch. Those Christians who remained in full communion with the Universal Church in the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire were recognized as Melkites, or royalists, from the Syriac word for king, malek.

These divisions all took place within the East. By the middle of the 11th century, however, a dispute developed along the East-West frontier. Since Theodosius divided the Roman Empire, the peoples inhabiting these lands had become culturally, linguistically and politically estranged. Rome identified with Latin culture and language. Constantinople embraced Greek culture and language.

Conflicts surfaced. In 1054 the churches of Rome and Constantinople severed relations. Eventually the Greek-speaking churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem also severed ties with Rome. These Eastern Christians identified themselves as “Orthodox,” while those in the West called themselves “Catholics” (both terms may be aptly applied to both churches).

With the exception of the Italo-Albanian Church in southern Italy and the Maronite Church of Mt. Lebanon, Catholicism disappeared from the East.

Partial Reunions. The councils of Lyons (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1439) attempted to heal the rift between the Roman and Eastern churches. Agreements with individual church leaders and patriarchs – often made under economic and political duress – were reached but seldom embraced by the people.

The dedication, erudition and wealth of Catholic missionaries in the East – who were filled with zeal following the 16th century Council of Trent – impressed the Orthodox. Eventually small pockets of Eastern Catholic communities were founded. The Church of Rome was now at a crossroads. For more than 500 years, to be Catholic was to be “Latin” Catholic.

The authorities in Rome were confronted with the issue of whether the new converts needed to become Latin in order to be Catholic. It was decided that they could become Catholic and still retain their Eastern traditions. Later several Eastern Catholic dioceses and patriarchates, corresponding in part to existing Orthodox patriarchates, were established. There are now 21 Eastern Catholic churches, all in communion with the Church of Rome.

A Tradition of Division. The history of Christianity has seen expansion and division. In general, the Universal Church is divided between East and West. Eastern Christianity itself is divided into the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental (or pre-Chalcedonian) Orthodox churches, the Orthodox churches and the Eastern Catholic churches.

Christ’s plea for unity echoes this unfortunate situation. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that for centuries the Christian world had become comfortable with the arrangement. Until the birth of the ecumenical movement, which seeks the unity of Christians, the division of the Universal Church had been an accepted fact.

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Tags: Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Church history