Primer 1 - B

A Basic Primer of Orthodox Catholicism and its difference with the Roman Jurisdiction of the Catholic Church


The Church & the State:

The Byzantine Church has often been called a “state” or “national” Church. This is misleading and, not to mention, offensive. It is true that the Byzantine world became more Greek language wise and geographically as a result of the defection of the non-Greek speaking areas of Syria and Egypt during the period of the ecumenical synods. Also, the schism between Eastern and Western Christendom further isolated and confined Christian Byzantium. These loses were considerable and tragic for both the Church and the empire. Although the Church is “eastern” by virtue of its geography, it is Catholic and Orthodox in its theology and tradition. Through out history, the Byzantine Church itself was never as confined or isolated as the Byzantine Empire. This was due to the vigor of the Church’s missionary drive in Eastern Europe and the Slavic world, soon after the iconoclastic controversy is proof of this.


The Slavic Conversion:

Patriarch Photius, one of Byzantium’s most educated churchmen, initiated the evangelization or christianization of the Slavs. His choosing of the brothers Cyril and Methodius for this mission was a sign of genius as well as missionary insight, as both the brothers spoke the Slavic dialect which was in use at that time among the Slavic settlers near their native city of Thessalonica. Once they received their commission, from Patriarch Photius, Cyril and Methodius set about creating an alphabet, which we call the Cyrillic alphabet. They then translated the Scriptures and the liturgy. This was the origin of Church Slavonic, the common liturgical language still used by the Russian Orthodox and other Slavic Orthodox Christians. Their first mission to Moravia was unsuccessful due to the fact that they were forced to flee by German missionaries and the changing political situation at the time, but their work was not in vain. It wasn’t too long before Byzantine missionaries, including the exiled disciples of Cyril and Methodius, turned to other areas. Most of the pagan Slavic world, including Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia had been converted to Byzantine Christianity, by the beginning of the eleventh century. Bulgaria was officially recognized as a patriarchate by Constantinople in 945, Serbia in 1346, and Russia in 1589. All of these nations, however, had been converted to Christianity long before these dates. The conversion of Russia actually began with the baptism of Vladimir of Kiev in 989, on which occasion he also married the Byzantine princess Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II.


The Creation of an Orthodox Commonwealth:

The expansion into the Slavic world had the effect of creating an Orthodox “Commonwealth”. Byzantine art, literature, and culture were no longer confined within Byzantium’s own political frontiers, but now extended far and wide into the Balkans and the northern part of Russia to create a single Byzantine Orthodox commonwealth. The Slavic nations were not only Christianized, but also civilized by the Byzantines. So it can be said that the saving message of the New Testament was also accompanied by the gift of civilization, which was a major factor in the formation and future development of the Slavic culture. Not only was the conversion of the Slavs pivotal in the destiny of the emerging Slavic nations but it was equally decisive for the future of the Church. It was in this missionary vigor which preserved Byzantine Christianity’s universality. The inclusion of Slavic Orthodoxy into the Orthodox fold permanently enlarged the Church’s area of geographic distribution. The Slavic element also brought immense riches into the Church. Few peoples have embraced the Orthodox faith with as much ardor and devotion as the Slavs.


The Split between East and West:

Western Christianity at this time was zealously imposing a uniform Latin liturgical language on converts, while Byzantine Christianity refused to do so. Greek was seldom used as a missionary language among the Slavs. The Byzantines avoided the principle of a single liturgical language. The Cyrillic alphabet and liturgy, which employed the vernacular language of the peoples, created native-speaking Churches in the Balkans and elsewhere. In short, Orthodox Christianity insisted on preaching the Gospel in the ordinary language of the people so as to be directly and immediately understood by the new converts. That, after all, is the goal of Christian missions. It is no wonder that in the history of Orthodoxy, the legacy of the “Apostles to the Slavs,” Saints Cyril and Methodius, is among the most precious.


Now, we need to examine one final event in the life of the medieval Church – the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. This tragic division was not a sudden event, but rather a prolonged process that spanned centuries. The cracks and fissures in Christian unity were visible as early as the fourth century. Thus the traditional date of 1054, marking the beginning of the schism and the excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius by papal legates, is inaccurate.


In reality, there is no exact date. What really took place was a complex chain of events whose climax was only reached in the thirteenth century with the sacking of Constantinople by western Crusaders in 1204. We must also keep in mind that the events leading to the schism were not always theological in nature. Cultural, linguistic, and political differences were often mixed with the theological. Unlike the Copts or Armenians who broke from the Church in the fifth century and established ethnic churches at the cost of their universality and catholicity, the eastern and western parts of the Church remained loyal to the faith and authority of the seven ecumenical synods. They were united by virtue of their common faith and tradition, in one Church. The transfer of the Roman capital to the Bosporus brought mistrust, rivalry, and even jealousy to the relations of the two great sees of Rome and Constantinople. It was easy for Rome to be jealous of Constantinople since it was at a time that Rome was rapidly losing its political prominence. As a matter of fact, Rome refused to recognize the conciliar legislation which promoted Constantinople to second rank. The estrangement was aggravated by the German invasions in the west, which had the effect of weakening contacts. The rise of Islam with its conquest of most of the Mediterranean coastline, along with the arrival of pagan Slavs in the Balkans at the same time, further aggravated this separation by driving a physical wedge between the two worlds. The once unified world of the Mediterranean was quickly vanishing and communications between the Greek East and the Latin West had become dangerous and practically ceased by the 600s.


The Photian Schism:

In the ninth century the split widen further when the missionary ambitions of the two communions clashed over the Christianization of Bulgaria and Moravia. The election of Patriarch Photius even caused a temporary division which came to be known as the “Photian Schism.” But it was the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by the pope and the revival in 800 of a western “Roman Empire” which best illustrate how far the gulf had widened. For the East, the West was acting as if the Roman Empire, with its legitimate emperor in Constantinople, had ceased to exist. The Byzantine Empire’s claim to world sovereignty was being ignored. Charlemagne’s new “empire” was usurping the legitimate role of the Roman Empire in Constantinople. This was a threat to the unity of Christendom and, indirectly, the shared faith of the one Church.


These historical facts no longer exist today, yet the schism continues. We must the search for the ultimate root cause of the schism in the intellectual and theological differences rather than in the political, geographical, or historical factors. Two basic problems were involved, the primacy of the bishop of Rome and the procession of the Holy Spirit. These doctrinal novelties were first openly discussed in Photius’ Patriarchate. To repeat, by the fifth century Christendom was divided into five sees with Rome holding the primacy of honor. This was determined by canonical decision and did not entail hegemony of anyone local church or patriarchate over the others. For all of that, during the progressive split noted above, Rome began to interpret her primacy in terms of sovereignty, as a God-given right involving universal jurisdiction over the Church. Thus, the collegial and conciliar nature of the Church was gradually abandoned by the West in favor of supremacy of unlimited papal power over the entire Church. These ideas were given final systematic expression in the West during the Gregorian Reform movement of the eleventh century. Rome’s understanding of the nature of episcopal power was in direct violation of the Church’s essentially conciliar structure. The ecclesiologies of the East and the West were mutually antithetical making subsequent attempts to heal the schism and bridge the divisions, a failure. Rome insisted on basing its claims to “true and proper jurisdiction” (as it was put at the Vatican Council of 1870) on St. Peter. This Roman exegesis of Mathew 16:18 was unknown to the Fathers who had ruled on the Church’s organization. For them, St. Peter’s primacy could never be the exclusive prerogative of anyone bishop. All bishops must, like St. Peter, confess Jesus as the Christ and, as such, all are Peter’s successors. To believe other wise would be to violate the bishops’ charismatic equality; no one can hold a position superior to that of the others.


Equally upsetting to the Orthodox East was the western interpretation of the procession of the Holy Spirit. Like the primacy issue, this also developed gradually and entered the Creed in the West almost unnoticed. This theologically complex issue involved the addition by the West of the Latin phrase “filioque” (“and from the Son”) to the Creed. The original Creed which was sanctioned by the synods and still used by the Orthodox Church today did not contain this phrase; the text simply states “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, proceeds from the Father.” The Latin phrase was unacceptable to the Byzantines since it implied that the Spirit now had two sources of procession, the Father and the Son, rather than the Father alone. In short, the balance between the three persons of the Trinity was altered. The Orthodox Church, then as now, believes that this is theologically indefensible. In addition to the dogmatic issue raised by the filioque, the Byzantines argued that the phrase had been added unilaterally and, therefore illegitimately, since the East had never been consulted. Only another ecumenical synod could introduce such an alteration. The synods which had drawn up the original Creed, had expressly forbidden any subtraction or addition to the text of the Creed.


The Fall of Constantinople:

The great misfortune for Christianity was the fall of Constantinople in 1453. For Eastern Christendom it was nothing short of a disaster, since the entire Orthodox communion of the Balkans and the Near East found itself suddenly isolated from the West as a result of the Ottoman conquest. For the next four hundred years it would be imprisoned within a hostile Islamic world, a world which it little in common either religiously or culturally. Only Orthodox Russia managed to escape this fate.


This new Ottoman government that rose from the ashes of the Byzantine civilization was neither primitive nor barbaric. Islam did, at that time, tolerated Christians as another People of the Book and recognized Jesus as a great prophet. As a result, the Church was not obliterated nor was its canonical and hierarchal organization disrupted in any significant way, so its administration continued to function. One of the first things allowed by Mehmet the Conqueror was the election of a new patriarch, Gennadius Scholarius. The Hagia Sofia and the Parthenon, both of which had been Christian churches for nearly a millennium were taken over and converted into mosques by the Muslims, countless other churches in Constantinople and elsewhere, remained in Christian hands. It is also striking that the patriarch’s and the hierarchy’s positions were strengthened, and they were given, not only ecclesiastical, but also civil power over all Christians living in Ottoman territories. Since Islamic law does not make a distinction between nationality and religion, all Christians, regardless of their language or nationality, were viewed as a single millet (nation). Thus, the patriarch, being the highest ranking hierarch, was therefore invested with civil and religious authority and made ethnarch, head of the entire Christian Orthodox population, which meant that all Orthodox churches in the Ottoman territory were under Constantinople.


But, in all honesty, all of these rights and privileges, which included freedom of worship and religious organization, seldom reflected stark reality. In fact, the privileges of the patriarch and of the Church were at the mercy and whim of the Sultan, as all Christians were looked upon as little more than second-class citizens, and Turkish corruption and brutality was not a myth. It was the “infidel” Christians who experienced this more than anyone else. Another devastating factor for the Church was that it could not bear witness to Christ. It was very dangerous, if not impossible to do missionary work among Muslims, whereas conversion to Islam was completely legal, but if converts to Islam returned to the Church, they would be put to death by the Muslim authorities. Also, new churches could not be built, church bells were not allowed to be rung, and finally, the education of the clergy and of the Christian population were either of a rudimentary sort or it ceased entirely.


Results of Turkish Corruption:

The Church could not remain immune from the affects of the Turkish system of corruption. Sadly, the patriarchal throne was often sold to the highest bidder, while the investiture of a new patriarch was accompanied by a huge payment to the government. As result, in order to recoup their losses, the patriarchs and bishops taxed the local parishes and their clergy. Worse yet, the patriarchal throne was never really secure. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries few patriarchs died a natural death while in office. The forced abdications, exiles, hangings, drownings, and poisoning of patriarchs is well documented in history. If the patriarch’s position was precarious, so was that of the hierarchy. Patriarch Gregory V was hung from the gate of the patriarchate in 1821 on Resurrection Sunday (Easter). This followed up with the execution of two metropolitans and twelve bishops. To this date, the gate of the patriarchate still remains closed in St. Gregory’s memory. The above summary imparts to you the persecutions, decay, and stark humiliation that the Eastern Church was forced to suffer under Ottoman Turkish rule. Add to this, the militant communist atheism under which most Orthodox suffered following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and you will get some semblance of the dislocation and suffering of Eastern Christians during the last five hundred years. The serious problems that the Western Church had to face following the French Revolution and the secularization of western society in general, pale in comparison to what was faced by the Orthodox Church.


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