World Chronology, Lesson 33. The Great Schism (1054 AD)

Return to World Chronology | Return to Study Center

In this course, we have read the history of God’s saving work in the world, from the call of Abraham through to the Christianization of Europe in the time of Charlemagne. Even the terrible Vikings bowed before the Cross. It would seem that in a short time all the world would be renewed and the time of Our Lord’s return would be at hand. However, in God’s mysterious wisdom, the ability to ruin what was accomplished was left to men in the Church. Therefore, while the branches of the Church reached to the ends of the earth, and the walls of the Church were fortified and raised to the heavens, there always remained danger within. Christians had the power to ruin Christianity.

Worse, there were warnings all throughout Sacred Scripture that such ruin would come. The Apostles spoke of great troubles that would come upon the Church. While the martyrs offered their lives for Christ and filled the Church with holy examples, the Church’s holy leaders warned of dangers within. St. Paul said:

“Take heed to yourselves and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the Church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch!”

Again, he warned St. Timothy:

“Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist.”

Therefore, while we read of thousands coming into the Church in the first century, we also read of warnings that the peace and unity of the Church would be threatened from within by false teachers. Our Lord Himself warned men that “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” and the threat of division left Christendom ever in danger. Of course, Christ comforts our hearts and assures us that He would never leave the building of His church entirely to men, but would build it Himself and would protect it forever. Nevertheless, men would be allowed to do their damage, as Judas Iscariot was allowed to do his.

Classes of Unbelievers

Let us take a moment to understand the different kinds of unbelievers that are found among men. There are five different classes of unbelievers which should be carefully distinguished. They are: Atheists, Deists, Infidels, Heretics and Schismatics. The Baltimore Catechism provided us with the following definitions:

An atheist is one who denies the existence of God, saying there is no God. A deist is one who says he believes God exists, but denies that God ever revealed any religion. An infidel properly means one who has never been baptized. Heretics are those who were baptized and who claim to be Christians, but do not believe all the truths that Our Lord has taught. A schismatic is one who believes everything the Church teaches, but will not submit to the authority of its head–the Holy Father.

Of these five classes, the first three exist outside the Church, while the latter two must rise up from within. St. Paul was clearly warning Christians about the dangers not from outside, but from within and therefore, the foreseen dangers would come from heretics and schismatics. We find that, throughout history, St. Paul’s warnings were sadly fulfilled.

Examples of heretics and schismatics can be found before the end of the first century. St. Paul experienced the division himself among the Christians in Corinth, to whom he wrote:

“I beg you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no schisms among you: but that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been signified unto me, my brethren, of you, by them that are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

and again,

“Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received and wherein you stand. By which also you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: And that he was buried: and that he rose again according to the scriptures: And that he was seen by Cephas, and after that by the eleven. Then was he seen by more than five hundred brethren at once: of whom many remain until this present, and some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen by James: then by all the apostles. And last of all, he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due tine…so we preach, and so you have believed. Now if Christ be preached, that he arose again from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

St. John wrote in his third epistle:

I had written to the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, doth not receive us.

Therefore, seeing false teaching and division was already present in the Church while the Apostles still lived, how much more certain would it be that these evils would trouble the Church after they had died? Heresy and schism were present amidst the miracles and authority of the Apostles. How much stronger would it be as the Church’s leaders descended from them?

Councils and Creeds

We have seen in the Church’s history that such divisions were met and overcome by the summoning of Councils, at which bishops from throughout the world gathered to do what St. Paul urged the Corinthians. The Church’s leaders gathered and discussed controversial questions with great care and humility and with fervent prayer. When conclusions were reached, the bishops, as one, submitted their judgments to the world for all Christians to believe and obey. We have seen this in the Apostles’ Creed of the first century, in the Nicene Creed of the fourth century and others that followed. Each council silenced a heresy that threatened the Church and disciplined its sources. The Church emerged from each council stronger and more unified than before and the evil that was intended by men was used by God for good. Such is the wisdom of God, whose ways are above our ways, whose thoughts are above our thoughts.

Orthodox Catholic Christianity was the Christianity that conquered Europe under Charlemagne. It was the Christianity of the Apostles, of St. Augustine, of St. Benedict and the rest of history’s holy men. Orthodox doctrine was well established throughout Christendom.

The Great Schism

While the Church’s doctrine was established and heresy put down by the time of Charlemagne, her authority was ever under attack. St. John said that Diotrephes was motivated not by a desire to teach falsely, but by a desire for preeminence. St. John was no stranger to this evil desire, for it was found among the twelve apostles earlier in their time with Christ:

“They came to Capharnaum. And when they were in the house, Jesus asked the disciples: “What did you speak of along the way? But they held their peace, for in the way they had disputed among themselves, which of them should be the greatest.”

You will remember the latter days of the Roman Empire, when the Empire was divided by West and East. The western empire was ruled from the eternal city–Rome, while the eastern empire was ruled from the great new city Constantinople built at Byzantium, where Europe and Asia met. The division between east and west was not limited to political power in the old empire, but continued within the Church. Great and ancient churches stood at Constantinople and at Rome and though Rome was the clear center of Christendom, whose first bishop was St. Peter himself, whose patron was (originally) the Emperor himself, there were many in the East who believed that the supreme authority of the Roman bishop–the Pope–was coincidental and not necessary at all. Ultimately, questions arose over practical matters in the Church that can only be settled by authority. This was not, therefore, a question of Christian doctrine, but once again a question of preeminence among bishops. “Which of us is the greatest?”

It is important for us to emphasize that the differences between the eastern and western churches was real. The language of the eastern Churches was Greek, which shows their remaining connection to the Hellenistic world of Alexander and Greek civilization. The language of the western churches was Latin, tying them all to Roman civilization–and this in a time when very few men knew multiple languages. Improved teaching of Grammar and the classical liberal arts was yet to come for Christendom. There were real cultural differences between Christians in the east and in the west that made common worship or common prayer impossible. The differences between east and west were not spiritual or theological, but practical and philosophical. Different ideas of rites and liturgies existed and, the more important men believed those rites and liturgies to be, the more important the division became to them. Ultimately, these matters would need to be settled by authority and that was the question: Was there any such authority in the Church?

Worse, in the early Church there were five principal centers of Christianity, each ruled by a patriarch: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Of these, only Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem could be called “apostolic” centers, established and governed by Apostles themselves. However, because they shared the culture of Constantinople, the eastern centers tended to look to Constantinople for leadership. When the Emperor made Constantinople his center of government, he encouraged all Christians to look to his city as their center and they were led to it for political reasons. Thus, the power of the church at Constantinople was due to its political advantages, not its spiritual authority. This informal alliance of eastern churches, joined with the support of the emperor, led to development of what seemed to be a universal Christianity, centered at Constantinople. However, no one except Constantinople questioned Rome’s authority as “Mother Church”. In 451, under the emperor Theodosius, a council met at Chalcedon which attempted to establish Constantinople as “the New Rome”. It published this rule, which may be difficult for you to understand, but is worth the effort:

“Following in every way the decrees of the holy fathers and recognising the canon which has recently been read out–the canon of the 150 most devout bishops who assembled in the time of the great Theodosius of pious memory, then emperor, in imperial Constantinople, new Rome — we issue the same decree and resolution concerning the prerogatives of the most holy church of the same Constantinople, new Rome. The fathers rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of new Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honoured by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equalling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her. The metropolitans of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, but only these, as well as the bishops of these dioceses who work among non-Greeks, are to be ordained by the aforesaid most holy see of the most holy church in Constantinople. That is, each metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses along with the bishops of the province ordain the bishops of the province, as has been declared in the divine canons; but the metropolitans of the aforesaid dioceses, as has been said, are to be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, once agreement has been reached by vote in the usual way and has been reported to him.

Notice that this attempt to make Constantine second to Rome, provides us with all the proof we need to know that the Christian world understood very plainly that Rome was the center of Christendom! This movement was accepted by all–but rejected by Rome. Political power had no right to establish authority in the Church, whose authority was given by Christ, through His chosen apostles, whose “kingdom is not of this world.” In history, this attempt to place the Church under the authority of the secular ruler is called “Erastianism“. We will see that the jealousy of political rulers held against the spiritual supremacy of Rome always leads to efforts to seize that authority by violence and division among Christians. The Catholic Encyclopedia described the nature of this problem very helpfully:

“[This] was not a movement arising in all the East; it was not a quarrel between two large bodies; it was essentially the rebellion of one see, Constantinople, which by the emperor’s favour had already acquired such influence that it was able unhappily to drag the other patriarchs with it.”

Inevitably, a most terrible thing happened. Christendom was torn in half by a horrific schism that divided the Church in half. This, in the history of the world, is called the Great Schism. Let us look at several steps that led to the formal division of Constantinople and Rome.

The Schism of Photius

As we have said, the danger of schism has always been known to the Church, and the motivation to it–the desire for preeminence–tempted even the Apostles. The Great Schism of the Church did not happen overnight, and the same controversy that caused the Great Schism has caused schisms since, which we will study later in this course.

The first major step toward schism in Constantinople was the work of one man Photius (815-897). Photius was a gifted man born into an influential family in Constantinople. He was raised with an extraordinary classical education and added to that education his own diligence and natural ability, making him a man of extraordinary learning. Photius was honored with important positions in the government, but soon found himself placed in a strange position in the Church.

From 846-857, the bishop of Constantinople was Ignatius. He was a good bishop who governed the Church faithfully. In 857, one of the emperor’s friends committed a great sin and Ignatius refused to allow this man to receive Communion. This decision by the bishop embarrassed the emperor and his friends, and they moved to replace Ignatius with a man who would be more concerned with the approval of the emperor. The emperor, who is known as “Michael the Drunkard” in history because of his immoral lifestyle, wanted Photius to serve as the bishop of Constantinople. The emperor tried to force Ignatius to step down from his office, but the bishop refused. Ignatius was banished from the city and sent to an island from which he would have no influence. The emperor then sought to persuade the Pope to support his request for a replacement bishop and the Pope sent representatives to Constantinople to hear both sides of the dispute. The emperor was able to bribe the Pope’s men and they gave him their support. Adding to the mess, Photius was ordained a priest in less than a week, and then ordained by a “bishop” who had been excommunicated!

Ignatius, however, was able to send a letter to the Pope explaining the situation and the Pope restored Ignatius as bishop of Constantinople and excommunicated the men who had received bribes from the emperor. The emperor and Photius elected to ignore and disobey the Pope and cast Ignatius into prison. The Pope’s letters were destroyed and Photius led a rebellion against the Pope and the Latin Christians, accusing them of five evils that had nothing to do with the real issue:

  1. fasting on Saturdays
  2. beginning Lent three days after eastern Christians
  3. forbidding priests to be married
  4. forbidding priests to confirm Christians
  5. adding a word (filioque) to the Nicene Creed.

These were presented as the great evils against which eastern Christians should fight and many were persuaded by Photius to join in this evil rebellion against the Holy Father. Photius, with the emperor’s support, demanded that the Pope change his decision or prepare for war. The Pope, standing fast against this evil, refused. Photius had reached the height of his arrogance and Michael the height of his wickedness–when the Lord judged between them. The emperor was suddenly murdered and all of his men were banished from the city by the new emperor–including Photius. Ignatius was restored as bishop of Constantinople and in 869, Pope Adrian II summoned the Fourth Council of Constantinople, where Photius was excommunicated and order was restored.

From the beginning of this schism, Photius used all of his knowledge and skill to stir the people against Rome–and he had great success. He flattered the emperor while away and earned his favor. The emperor brought Photius back from exile and shortly thereafter, the good bishop Ignatius died. The people whom Photius had stirred against Rome rallied to seek to have Photius named as the successor to Ignatius. The emperor respectfully applied to Rome for approval and, strangely, Pope John VIII restored Photius to the Church and approved of his ordination.

Photius then found himself with a great platform to lead Christians in his cause against Rome. He gained the support of other bishops and called a false council at which the bishops voted to reject all that had been approved in the council called by Pope Adrian II. The Pope sent representatives to attend the council, but they were influenced by Photius and granted him his wishes. Photius sent the conclusions of the council to Pope John VIII for approval, but upon learning of what had been done, the Pope excommunicated him again. Sadly, Photius represents the potential evil that education and ability can produce among Christians when not governed by humility and obedience. Despite his great gifts and privileges, Photius died an excommunicant, to be remembered forever as a frustrated schismatic.

The Schism of Michael Caerularius

After his excommunication, Photius faded from the scene and for a time, the Church was calm again. However, Photius left behind an army of followers that hated Rome and preferred strife and division. Moreover, the spirit responsible for all of this evil was yet alive and well. They were all committed to a foolish desire to declare the bishop of Constantinople “the greatest” and divide the Church against itself. It was only a matter of time before they had a new schismatic to lead them. That new leader would be Michael Caerularius.

Caerularius became bishop of Constantinople in 1043, taking office when the Church had enjoyed peace for over 150 years since the schism of Photius. Whereas we might, at times, admit some appreciation of the arguments of Photius against Rome, Caerularius leaves us with nothing to approve of whatever. His evils begins in 1053 when, as patriarch of Constantinople, he declared war against the Catholic Christians and the Roman Church. This was done at a time when the Italian Catholics were threatened by attacks from Normans on Sicily and were in need of their brothers’ help. Instead, their brothers chose to fight them while they were distracted and vulnerable. Caerularius attempted to draw other church leaders in with him against the Pope by writing slanderously against him, but as time went on he lost support. Lastly, he decided to close all Roman Catholic Churches in Constantinople leaving the Latin Christians with no places of worship in the great city.

The Holy Father, having received Caerularius’ accusations and threat responded in his true authority and silenced the schismatic. The representatives sent from Rome to Constantinople not only defended the Church but converted some of their opponents to their side. While his efforts could do nothing against the true Church, he directed his energy toward political affairs and, by 1057, was the most powerful man in the eastern empire. When faced with opposition from the emperors, he led the people in rebellion to pull down whom he wished and then set his chosen men in their place.

One ruler, however, Isaac Comnenus, was able to resist Caerularius and brought him down. The emperor condemned the bishop of treason and blasphemy and banished him from the capital city. Caerularius died not in exile, but upon the sea as the ship that carried away was destroyed at sea. Another enemy had fallen, the Pope remained.


In this lesson, we learn of the sad division of the Catholic Church that reversed 1,000 years of Christian growth and civilization. We see that the fundamental evil behind this division was the desire of worldly men to allow the state to rule the Church for their own personal benefit. We see that a spirit of jealousy towards Rome’s privileged place in Christendom inspires men to destroy the unity of the Church, the happiness of Christians and the glory of God. We learned of the Great Schism, which was firmly fixed in 1053 after the schisms of Photius in the 9th century and Michael Caerularius in the 11th century. In lessons to come we will learn of more, for the spirit of schism was not finished causing damage to the Church from within after she had conquered her enemies without. Today, we refer to this separated division of Christians as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Memory Work

3500 BC – 750 BC: Ancient World
2000 BC – 1780 BC: Life of Abraham
1450 BC – 1410 BC: Hebrew Exodus
1200 BC: The Trojan War
1000 BC – 960 BC: Reign of King David
960 BC: The Temple of Solomon
753 BC: City of Rome Founded
750 BC: Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey
722 BC: Assyrian Captivity
600-535 BC: The Prophet Daniel in Babylon
586 BC: Babylonian Captivity
530-450 BC: Esdras the Scribe
509 – 31 BC: The Roman Republic
750 BC – 500 AD: Classical World
480 – 323 BC: Classical Greece
336 – 323 BC: Conquests of Alexander the Great
323 – 146 BC: The Hellenistic World
264 – 146 BC: The Punic Wars
100 – 44 BC: Life of Julius Caesar
27 BC – 476 AD: The Roman Empire
5 BC – 33 AD: Life of Jesus Christ
33 AD: The Christian Church Founded
50-100 AD: New Testament Written
70 AD: Romans destroy Jerusalem
313 AD:  Edict of Milan
476 AD:  The Fall of Rome
500 AD – 1500 AD: Medieval World
530 AD:  Writing of Rule of St. Benedict
800 AD:  Charlemagne Crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 AD:  Charlemagne Dies
793 AD:  Viking Attack on Lindisfarne
911 AD:  Normans Established
1054 AD: The Great Schism
1066 AD:  Norman Conquest
1500 AD – Present:  Modern World

Return to World Chronology | Return to Study Center

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: