The Great Schism: How the Christian Churches Split

The long-lasting rivalry between Rome and Constantinople reached its peak in the 11th century, leading to a split between the two churches, known as the Great Schism.

Oct 12, 2021By Igor Radulovic, MA History Education, BA Art History
pope paul vi council of nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Nicholas Church, Demre Turkey, 6th century CE, via Britannica; with Pope Paul VI, Giancarlo Giuliani, 1972, via


The first serious theological disagreements which directly caused schisms in the church occurred after the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, and again at the council of Constantinople in 381.


The priest Arius‘ denial of Christ’s divine nature was one of the reasons the Council of Nicaea convened. He embodied the spirit of elite Greek culture, present in cities such as Alexandria, and he fell under the influence of various dualistic and gnostic schools. This resulted in his rejection of the Holy Trinity and his understanding that if Christ was the Father’s creation, then there was a time when he did not exist, and he was therefore not of the same essence. With such an attitude, he denied the very core of Christianity, which is why the church declared him a heretic.


These early disagreements were a sign of things to come. Regular theological disputes in the Church would contribute to a major split between Orthodox Christianity and the Catholic faith, in the so-called Great Schism of 1054.


Before the Great Schism: The Church in the Middle Ages

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Map of the Byzantine Empire, via Britannica


The Christian Church grew into a powerful organization after the Roman Empire recognized and strengthened it, prior to the Barbarian overthrow of the West.  Gifts and bequests increased the possessions of the Church, which had a similar organization to the Roman Empire itself. Parishes were the smallest church units and had a priest at their head. Wider areas were called episcopates and were governed by a Bishop.


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During the Middle Ages, the Church persevered in charitable deeds and often founded and supported institutions that cared for orphans, the elderly, the infirm, and the sick. In this period, there was a so-called five-headed church, that is, a church that consisted of five patriarchates. In the West there was Rome, and in the East, there was Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Roman high priest called himself the “Pope,” which comes from the Greek word papas, meaning father.


Before the Great Schism occurred, Christianity in the West grew strong, a process reflected in the conspicuous increase in the power of the bishops. In many ways, they increasingly took over the authority of former local governors. Indeed, the bishops had the means and were in the position to perform tasks that previously fell under the jurisdiction of local Roman grandees.


Ecumenical Councils and Orthodox Christianity

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Council of Nicaea, St Nicholas Church, Demre Turkey, 6th century BCE, via Britannica


Christian dogma was not given and defined, it was shaped through the discussions of theologians. Sometimes there were great and fierce conflicts between clerics, as evidenced by the teachings that the Church declared to be heresies.


The highest level of debate took place at the Ecumenical Councils. These were gatherings of bishops or their representatives from the entire Christian world. Decisions were made related to faith, teaching, order, worship, and discipline. They are held to be an inviolable authority on the teachings of the Church and were the only organ of church legislation, order, and structure. Hence, the decisions of the councils were obligatory for the whole Church, throughout history.


Orthodox Christianity recognizes only the first seven ecumenical councils, held from the 4th to the 8th Century, and no more. In addition to the first seven, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes as universal fourteen of its councils that were held in the period from the 9th to the 20th Century.  Orthodox Christianity does not recognize these later councils — held after the Great Schism — as universal.


Monasticism in the Church

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The Temptation of St Anthony, Master of the Osservanza Triptych, 15th century, via Yale University Art Gallery


Before the Great Schism, the Church was split internally in other ways. Christian believers who advocated for a poorer church retreated to the desert where they led a hard life away from various temptations. From among them arose monks who united in monastic communities and lived in monasteries. Monasticism was a reaction to the “utilitarianism” of Christianity. The most zealous Christians began to sever external ties with the world, which led to division and the emergence of monasticism.


The monastic movement began in Egypt in the fourth century and its founders were the Copts. Among them were saints such as Anthony the Great, Paul of Thebes, and Pachom. From Egypt, monasticism quickly spread to Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and further to Italy. Monasticism did not begin as an institution of the Church but was a spontaneous and sporadic phenomenon.


Monasteries were initially considered by ecclesiastical and secular authorities to be a phenomenon operating outside official institutions and there was tension between the church clergy and monastic communities. In time, the church accepted the emergence of monasticism and began to build monasteries, but some monks also left the monastic communities, because they were still in some senses, in contact with the world.


Major Disputes Between the Two Churches

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Assumption of the Virgin Mary, by Peter Paul Rubens, mid-1620s, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington


The papacy was increasingly strengthened by reforms that emphasized the Church’s Universalist pretensions. However, the Byzantines in the East insisted on the inviolability of their own sphere of interest and pointed out some deviations from the western church.


Unlike the Western Church, the Eastern Church had developed to function under a firm imperial, secular authority. Perhaps on this basis there were growing differences between East and West. Both Churches considered themselves universal — the labels “Roman Catholic Church” and “Greek Orthodox Church” used today, are modern terms.


Still, both Churches have almost the same beliefs. The most famous differences between them concern the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Eastern Church holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, while the Western Church claims that it proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church also does not recognize purgatory as a transitional state between Heaven and Hell.


Today the Eastern Church, unlike the Western Church, allows divorce based on adultery, and allows married men to become priests. The churches also disagree on papal infallibility, the immaculate conception, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


The Question of Supremacy

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Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, from the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 12th century, via Britannica


The Church schism or Great Schism was not entirely the result of some great religious differences, but rather rivalry, strife, and snobbery. For years, Popes in Rome and Patriarchs in Constantinople clashed over the baptism of the Eastern Slavs as well as ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Dalmatia and southern Italy. In addition, the Byzantine Empire rejected the Pope’s supreme position in the Church, because Rome was by then a large village in their eyes, a provincial city without an empire and subordinate territory. Constantinople on the other hand was the seat of wealth and power and was therefore eligible to become the ecclesiastical capital.


The popular propaganda among western theologians of the 11th century was that until the 10th century the patriarch of Constantinople was under the canonical jurisdiction of Rome. This was confirmed by the fact that during his enthronement he was sent a pallium from Rome, like any other bishop. This fact, according to their claims, confirmed the primacy of Rome over Constantinople. The final Great Schism was the result of mutual accusations of interference in each other’s affairs and spheres of influence, which may have been the fault of intolerant people within the Church, who failed to have any constructive conversations.


Schism Instead of Agreement

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Map of the Great Schism, via Britannica


In Constantinople, on July 16, 1054, negotiations were held between the two patriarchates that would have an infamous end. The Roman delegation, led by Cardinal Humbert, had already been in Constantinople since April. Pope Leo IX himself was detained in the castle of Benevento by the Normans from February 1053. They had captured him after a battle led by the pope himself.


The Patriarch of Constantinople was Michael Cerularius, a capable person with experience working for both the church and the state. The long stay of the cardinal and his entourage in Constantinople came under the protection of the emperor, while they engaged in fierce theological discussions. On the 16th, at evening prayer in the magnificent church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the representatives of Pope Leo IX laid a papal bull on the altar, excommunicating Patriarch Cerularius. After the Byzantines refused to take the bull, one of the deacons from the Hagia Sophia threw it out of the church. This Great Schism was the end of the unified Christian Church.


Consequences of the Great Schism 

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Pope Paul VI, Giancarlo Giuliani, 1972, via


The papal representatives left Constantinople on July 17, and on July 19, the patriarch expressed a desire to meet with them. That is why they returned, although they did not go to the meeting. After that, the envoys finally left the Byzantine capital. Duke Argyros, a commander in southern Italy who also openly showed solidarity with the introduction of Latin rites in the area, was also expelled from Constantinople.


On July 20, Patriarch Michael held a council in Constantinople, which was attended by twelve metropolitans and two archbishops. The bull of papal legacies by which the anathema is pronounced was translated into Greek. It was condemned at the council, and five days later it was burned in the city.


The Great Schism or East-West Schism has never been overcome or smoothed over. Although a formal removal of the mutual anathemas was carried out in 1965 between the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, unity between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism was not achieved.

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By Igor RadulovicMA History Education, BA Art HistoryIgor is a historian and a history teacher from Podgorica, Montenegro. His main focus are contemporary history and controversial historical topics. He still likes researching different periods, spanning from ancient to modern history.