September 11, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Troubles brewing between east and west

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

Problems between the Eastern and Western Churches came to a head during the reign of Pope Nicholas in 858. However, those problems had been brewing for quite some time.

In this series, we noted the close connection between popes and emperors, especially Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor in 800. He was the first emperor in the west since 476. After that, the popes exercised secular—at least in the Papal States in what is now central Italy—as well as religious authority.

There were still emperors in the east, though, ever since Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). These emperors had a special place in the Eastern Church. It was the emperor who could call an ecumenical council, and the Church’s first eight councils were held in the east—from 325 to 870.

Actually, there were five patriarchates (governed by patriarchs) in the early Church: Rome in the west and Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem in the East. With the presence of the emperor in Constantinople, that patriarchate became the most important in the east.

Since Rome was the See of St. Peter, it was accorded the honor of primacy. Problems arose because the popes took “primacy” to include supremacy of teaching authority and jurisdiction, while the Eastern Church took it to mean only first in honor.

In 858, Emperor Michael III forced the abdication of Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople and replaced him with the layman Photius. When Pope Nicholas learned about this, he sent envoys to investigate, meanwhile refusing to recognize Photius. The envoys returned and spoke in favor of Photius, but the pope disavowed them. He deposed and excommunicated Photius.

Emperor Michael angrily protested this action, prompting Pope Nicholas to send him a lengthy letter defending the rights of the Holy See. This, in turn, infuriated Photius and the emperor. Photius held a synod in Constantinople that pronounced Pope Nicholas excommunicated and deposed.

Pope Nicholas died before word reached Rome, but the next pope, Adrian II, held a synod of his own in 869 that denounced Photius for his impudence. By this time, though, Emperor Michael had also died. His successor, Emperor Basil I, tried to make peace and asked the pope to send representatives to the Fourth Council of Constantinople. It upheld the condemnation of Photius, and restored Ignatius as patriarch.

Photius wasn’t finished, though. In 877, Emperor Basil restored him as patriarch and asked a new pope, John VII, to recognize him as such. Pope John needed help against the Saracens, so he agreed. Photius remained as patriarch until 886.

Photius is renowned for his missionary activity while patriarch, expanding the Church dramatically to the north. In 863, he sent the brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius to preach Christianity in Moravia (modern Czech Republic and Slovakia). They are honored today by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as patrons of the Slavic people.

Patriarch Photius also sent a mission into Russia in the 860s, but the firm establishment of Christianity in Russia didn’t happen until almost 140 years later.

The final split between the Eastern and Western Churches was still to come. †

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