The Gradual Estrangement of the East and West

Prior to the division of the empire, the special position of three bishops known as patriarchs within the church organization was recognized: the Bishop of Rome, the Bishop of Alexandria, and the Bishop of Antioch. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, two additional patriarchates were recognized: the Bishop of Constantinople and the Bishop of Jerusalem. These patriarchs held authority and Jurisdiction over their tellow bishops in the Church. However, by virtue of his position as the successor of Saint Peter, the Bishop of Rome was held in a higher status and his see was of distinct importance since Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire.

While regarded as first among equals in the hierarchy, the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was not afforded any additional authority or powers. But the authority of the Roman Empire in the West collapsed in the fifth century when the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was definitively deposed by invading barbarians. The crumbling of the Roman Empire had given way toa mixture of regional governments and barbarian kingships, none of whom had Rome’s ability to cohesively construct the infrastructure of modern society.

In this void, the Pope in Rome assumed a role in governing not only his ecclesiastical subordinates but to secular rulers as well. It was the Papacy that acted as a monarch set up over the church and serviced in ways to provide unity, continuity and stability in the spiritual and political life of Western Europe and centralize the organization and activities of the church in the West. The Greek Patriarchs of the East were not involved in secular politics and governance as the Emperor remained ensconced in the East to maintain order and enforce the law. 4) In the West, the Pope became the absolute authority over all of the Western church, while in the East there remained a sense of a college approach holding to the doctrine that no single person had the ability to make changes in doctrine: that absolute authority rested with the Ecumenical council Just as it had from the times of the Apostles. (5) As long as the Pope did not interfere in the East, the Greek Patriarchs did not object. But conflict ensued when ambition the Pope tried to enforce his claim of supremacy and infallibility upon the East.

A second significant political cause of the gradual estrangement of the churches in the east and in the West was the rise of Islam in the seventh century. The Mediterranean had long been the established connection between the East and the West for both cultural and economic prosperity. With the invasion of Islam from Arabia, the Mediterranean passed in to Arab control and effectively cut off this vital connection along with the consequent commerce and free exchange.

At the ermination of the Islamic advance, the patriarchates in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were forfeited and innumerable Christians were living in the east under Islamic control (6) Isolated from each other the Western church proceeded to establish a “Roman” Empire of it’s own while the Eastern church consolidated itself and regrouped in order to once again establish their authority over the remnants of Christendom spared by the Muslim conquest. The largest single cultural issue to impact the estrangement of the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches may have been language.

At its core, language is an instrument of communication. Additionally, language shapes ideas and contributes to the formation and expression of thoughts. Deeper still, language is a symbol of culture and played a large role in the esteem held for each other by the Latin and the Greek Church. Dating back to Apostolic time the Roman Empire itself united the church and culture linguistically. Latin and Greek were understood throughout the Empire with Greek being the predominant language of business and commerce and Latin reserved for administrative and Judicial purposes.

However, by the year 450, educated men were o longer bilingual and few in the West could read Greek. After 600, few in the East could or would speak Latin even though they considered themselves to be a part ot the Roman Empire. (7) In the end, the West was completely Latinized while Greek became the prevailing language in the East. Christendom was split in two corresponding to linguistic boundaries. Language is a symbol of culture and shapes ideas. The difficulties of language can be subtle and intricate.