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from issue no. 01 - 2004

Primacy or hegemony? The history of a split

950 years after the schism between the Christians of the East and West (1054) and 800 years after the fourth crusade (1204): two fateful dates, closely linked not only by their anniversaries

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Pope Saint Leo IX (1049-1054) and Michael Cerularios, Patriarch of Constantinople, illumination from a Greek 15th century manuscript, National Library, Palermo

Pope Saint Leo IX (1049-1054) and Michael Cerularios, Patriarch of Constantinople, illumination from a Greek 15th century manuscript, National Library, Palermo

When on 7 December 1965, at the closure of the Vatican II Council, the mutual excommunications that had occurred in long-ago 1054 were «cancelled from memory» by Latins and Greeks, that date of more than nine centuries earlier undoubtedly became more widely known. Undoubtedly more than it was at the epoch of the events.
If one keeps to the sources, in fact, as good historic methodology teaches, the first datum that strikes one is that «the schism of 1054 is altogether ignored by contemporary Byzantine historiography», as all authors remark in citing the History of the Byzantine Empire by Georg Ostrogorsky, still the authority in the West also. That date constituted and constitutes a caesura only for the historiography of a certain part of Christendom. It is no accident that it was chosen to open the fifth volume of one of the more demanding “Frank” historiographical endeavors of recent years, the Histoire du christianisme by Desclée (translated already into all the chief languages), dealing significantly with the Apogee of the papacy and expansion of Christendom (1054-1274), where the date instead «does not mark a break in the general history of the Byzantine Church» (ibid., p. 16).
For that reason it will not be out of place to focus the attention also on interpretations as well as sources. Never as in this case does one have to turn not just to the sources but to interpreters for understanding. Because in this history of a split «the facts can be emphasized in one way or the other», admonishes Giorgio Fedalto, one of the historians who can boast most experience on the issue (Le Chiese d’Oriente, vol. I, p. 112).

The facts
Let us begin with the facts. Without emphasis.
The year 1054 was the last year of the weak government of Constantine IX, husband of Zoë, the last representative, with her sister Theodora, of the Macedon dynasty. With that dynasty (whose history, in 1917, on the eve of the end of every Empire, was narrated with passion by Léon Bloy in Constantinople et Byzance,) the Byzantine Empire had reached its apogee, but after the death of the great Basil II (†1025) was on the wane. That is not just any odd fact. As it is not just any odd fact that for more than a century and a half this powerful dynasty had on the whole maintained friendly relations with Rome. «It was not, counter to what has often been thought, Byzantine “caesaropapism” that provoked the split… It was a peculiar combination of factors, in which a strong papacy alien to any compromise was opposed by an equally strong patriarchy, absorbed by an awareness of its own dignity and flanked by a weak Empire» (Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine Empire.
The Basilica of Santa Sophia, built under the Emperor Justinian (527-565), consecrated in 537, turned into a mosque after the Ottoman occupation of 1453 and now a museum, Istanbul, Turkey. On 16 July 1054 the Papal Legate Umberto da Silvacandida placed the Bull of excommunication against Byzantine Patriarch Michael Cerularios on the altar of Santa Sophia

The Basilica of Santa Sophia, built under the Emperor Justinian (527-565), consecrated in 537, turned into a mosque after the Ottoman occupation of 1453 and now a museum, Istanbul, Turkey. On 16 July 1054 the Papal Legate Umberto da Silvacandida placed the Bull of excommunication against Byzantine Patriarch Michael Cerularios on the altar of Santa Sophia

The settling of accounts began on the margin, in southern Italy, for centuries the object of opposing jurisdictional claims by the Roman and Constantinopolitan patriarchates. The story would be too long to tell. Suffice it to say that, from the early years of the 11th century, «the interweave of papal policy with the interests of the Normans and of the German emperor in southern Italy created a new situation in this region», writes the great Byzantine scholar Hans-Georg Beck in the History of the Church edited by Hubert Jedin (vol. IV). In effect the support given by Rome not only to the Normans, settled in Puglia and Campania at the expense of the Byzantines, but also to the revolt of the latinized Greek Meles in Bari caused uproar to Byzantium. And, would you believe it, precisely in those years reference to the reigning pope began to be dropped from the liturgy in Constantinople and, vice versa, only then (1014) is the Filioque inserted into the Roman liturgy. Not earlier, as the philologist Vittorio Peri has shown with skill in various essays now collected in the second of the two scholarly volumes Da Oriente e da Occidente. Le Chiese cristiane dall’Impero romano all’Europa moderna, Editrice Antenore, Roma-Padova 2002.
At the moment of the schism, however, circumstances seemed likely to produce a coming-together encounter rather than a clash. In fact, around the mid 11th century, an anti-Norman operation was in prospect, the outcome of an agreement between Byzantines, Germans and Latins worked for by Argirus in Bari, the son of the Meles mentioned above. The reforming papacy intended to shake off the weight of Norman protection also. No account had been taken, however, not only of them, but also of Michael Cerularios, the patriarch of Constantinople whose «tempestuous not to say revolutionary personality represents an exception in the history of the Byzantine patriarchs» (History of the Church, edit. Jedin, vol. IV). To prevent the agreement, he caused a break, closing the Latin monasteries and churches in Constantinople, and entrusting anti-Latin propaganda to the pen of Leo, an official of the Constantinopolitan Palace elevated to the Bulgarian See of Ochrid (against its own tradition, the Byzantine Church was also exerting centralist pressure at that time).
The person charged with replying for Rome was Umberto da Silvacandida who compiled more than ninety errors committed by the Greeks. He was a revolutionary also, in a palatium lateranense that was beginning to be transformed into curia (that is, court) precisely by Leo IX: «the real great makers of the reform» (p. 12), such as Umberto, did not formally belong to it, writes Edith Pásztor, who has specifically studied the question in various essays contained in Onus Apostolicae Sedis. Curia romana e cardinalato nei secoli XI-XV; their doings «by then took place clearly above the structures of the palatium» (pp. 12-13). The traditional offices were emptied of meaning. Umberto, coming from the same reforming milieu as Leo IX and appointed by him to the suburbicarian See of Silvacandida, was not made member the staff of the palatium by nomination as librarian (that is Secretary of State). «Nevertheless he was given a leading role in his policies and in the preparation of various official acts and letters. It was the first time that a suburbicarian bishop took an active part in the affairs of the Roman Church without having the post of librarian» (ibid, p.11). The forms are never indifferent.
So true is it that Pope Leo IX, in the guise of war-leader that did not belong to him, armed an army and took personal charge of the operation against the Normans in Puglia, getting beaten and captured in fact in June 1053.
But it was precisely this weakening of the papacy that reinforced the reasons for the understanding between Byzantines and Latins. Thus, in January 1054, the papal legates headed by Umberto da Silvacandida were sent to Constantinople to reknit the fabric of the agreement and were greeted with honor by the emperor. The embassy, however, failing to take account of the fact that a revolution was going on in Byzantium also, made the mistake of considering the emperor their major point of reference. So the Patriarch took umbrage. So did Umberto. The dialectical row broke out. Umberto got his previous polemical reply translated into Greek and became involved in a deplorable dispute in which he branded as heresy, in their home place, many usages of the Greeks, legitimate even if not matching the Latin tradition. The clash ended with the deposition on the altar of Santa Sophia, on 16 July 1054, of the Bull of excommunication of Patriarch Cerularios and his followers. He, at the synod summoned the following day, turned the excommunication back against the Latins. So «the coming-together, that was to sanction an agreement, became the cause of greater attrition » (Fedalto, Le Chiese d’Oriente, vol. I, p. 113).
The crusaders plundering Constantinople in May 1204, Jacopo Negretti, known as Palma il Giovane, Ducal Palace, Venice

The crusaders plundering Constantinople in May 1204, Jacopo Negretti, known as Palma il Giovane, Ducal Palace, Venice

With all that, it was not a matter of anything really new: the dispute caused, among other things, not by two men over-attached to their respective traditions, but by two revolutionaries, had merely become sharper. The Jesuit Wilhelm de Vries, who died in 1997 after devoting all his long life to keeping the dialogue with the East alive, went so far as to say some years ago (unfortunately it seems still valid) that «properly speaking, Orthodoxy and Catholicism are farther away from each other today than they were then, toward the mid 11th century» (Ortodossia e cattolicesimo, p. 75).
What precipitated the situation?
The events that followed.

The crusades
The two decades that followed 1054 were very bitter for the Byzantine Empire. It is not just histoire bataille that recognizes the two episodes emblematic, at the extreme edges, of a general falling-back in the defeat of Mazinkert by the Turks and in the loss of Bari, the last Byzantine stronghold on the Italian peninsula taken by the Normans, both occurring in 1071. In the East, in fact, the Empire lost Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia and Asia Minor definitively to the Turks. The reconquest of Sicily by Roger the Norman, and the winning of independence by Montenegro and Croatia deprived Byzantium of the last strongpoints in the West.
Although this débâcle, in the West, occurred under the high protection that Gregory VII gave to nationalistic movements, so to speak, it was to him that the new Byzantine emperor turned for help in the East. Gregory mentions this appeal in a letter of 1074: «The Christians of Outremer, who are being scythed down by the pagans with unexampled slaughter and daily slain like animals, so that the Christian people is reduced to nothing, driven by conditions miserable indeed, have turned to me imploring that I succor these our brethren in some way, lest - never let it be! - the Christian religion disappear in our time».
The acceptance of the appeal, at least in wish, since Gregory was never able to make it concrete, marks the real beginning of the crusades, of that armed movement that operated no longer by will of the Christian emperor but of the pope: «ad me», the Pope writes, the plea is addressed to me for me to succor our brethren. And as for that, in the same letter Gregory says he was moved to the endeavor also by the fact that the Church of Constantinople «concordiam apostolicae sedis exspectat». It seemed a dream could come true: Christendom reuniting under a single head who was at the same time the only pastor. A dream cultivated since the time of the Carolingians, when the direction imposed by them had distanced the Latins from the Greeks. In effect, if between the 8th and 11th century the gap, not merely political, of the West from the Christian East had widened, it was precisely because of the Carolingians, because of the stand they took on a doctrine of images divergent from that established in the II Council of Nicea and on the Filioque. «We are unaccustomed to speaking enough about the schism of the Carolingian Church from the Church of Rome and from the patriarchates of the Byzantine Church still in communion with her that took place between the 8th and the 11th century», Vittorio Peri writes tersely (Da Oriente e da Occidente, p. 738). «The beginning of the thousand-year schism between West and East found its historic genesis precisely in the schism of the Carolingian Church from the Greek Church of the East, not shared at the time by the Roman Church» (ibid., p. 742).
Let us go back to the end of the 11th century when, apart from any schism, the impetus to bring help to the brethren of the East and to liberate the Holy Sepulcher was so overwhelming that in July 1099 Jerusalem was liberated.
The Byzantine Emperor Basil II portrayed as master of the beaten Bulgarian tribes, frontispiece of a psalter in the Marciana Library of Venice

The Byzantine Emperor Basil II portrayed as master of the beaten Bulgarian tribes, frontispiece of a psalter in the Marciana Library of Venice

The tones of enthusiasm and of religious commitment of those years, however, already «cannot not be understood according to later historical criteria, even those of a few centuries after the enterprise», Fedalto warns sharply, because, on the one hand, the liberation of the Holy Sepulcher went along with the occupation of lands and the formation of principalities (cf. Fedalto, La Chiesa Latina in Oriente, vol. I, p. 82), on the other, the Gregorian reform was having its effects. «One can say without fear of mistake that the crusade would not have been possible without all that preparation that goes under the name of Gregorian reform and that found its major spokesman in Gregory VII. It is true that the reform was principally aimed at a spiritual revaluation of the Church, with the consequent correction of abuses and the re-establishment of pontifical and episcopal authority; nevertheless the phenomenon of papal centralization following on it had the effect of bestowing a very much more expressive dynamic on any decision, including those addressed to the civil order. The pope certainly did not conceive the Church as disembodied from temporal reality; if one is saved in history, it is exactly history that must be saved and redeemed by the Christian. Without an intervention in temporal affairs one is at the mercy of one’s foes» (ibid., pp. 76-77).
The unwise change of direction that was to lead to the taking of Byzantium in 1204 by the Venetians and the Franks (the name for all westerners in Byzantine idiom), and a posteriori to legitimate this by schism, lay in the logic of the movement of reform.
Plumbing the scandalous savagery of the Fourth Crusade makes no matter: however it was always to remain in the memory of the Greeks. It makes no matter to point out that Pope Innocent III had been deceived by the Venetians: by the very nature of the crusade, the responsibility fell on his head. It is better rather to consider that the crusade had been prompted by the idea that Christendom was a single entity, and that Latin. At the beginning, not least out of insufficient acquaintance with the detailed reality of Eastern Christianity; after a century and more, also out of a project of conquest. In the beginning that idea made it possible to come to the help of the brethren; after a century and more, to punish them as schismatics. It is no accident that the literature on the crusade, after the taking of Constantinople in 1204, as a result of which not only a Latin Empire of the East was established but also a Latin hierarchy in the East, deals more with the schism than with Jerusalem. Which also required liberating again, given that in 1187 it had been retaken by Saladin. But now «it was the schism of the Greek Church that mainly drew the attention of writers… The glorious period of appeals to liberate the Holy Sepulcher was over, another had ripened, that of evangelization… The crusade to which ever smaller numbers gave credit, had become something else: it was the occasion to open the way to the East for the Latin Church or, if one likes, to keep Islam far from Europe» (ibid, pp. 82-83). One could well say: the Christian East could have been wiped out by the fact of finding itself on the way to Jerusalem. «Since the Roman papacy was the center of any possible Christianity, those who did not recognize it as the sole canonical form in post-Gregorian Christian Europe, with oath of obedience and loyalty, thereby lost the legal title to occupy a church with goods and belongings» (ibid., p. 89).

Reform and hegemony
Let us go back, chronologically and geographically, to the West in the second half of the 11th century. The «oath of obedience and loyalty» takes us back, in fact, to the formula of feudal homage which, in his chapter on Gregory VII - “Anti-feudal settling of scores by the Church” - Giorgio Falco saw as being abolished by the «most awful destroyer of the old world feudal and greatest creator of a new historical reality» (La Santa Romana Repubblica, p. 148). Contrary to what was and is claimed by this historico-philosophical idealism (with the reality of the mourning and ruin that goes with it), the Gregorian reform swept away feudal relations, it made them its own in order to sweep away previous arrangements of power. In post-Gregorian Christian Europe vassalage grew stronger, but with roles reversed. This thesis was explained in height and depth in the work of the late-lamented Cinzio Violante, lastly in the brief but most effective summary, almost his testament, Chiesa feudale e riforme in Occidente (sec. X-XII). Introduzione a un tema storiografico. «With the Roman ecclesiastical reform the process of feudalization of the Church did not slow down, indeed it accelerated… The “Christian reconquest of the world” to restore and extend Christendom and above all to ensure it again fresh prevarication by the secular powers, was conducted by the Church with feudal means, such as the creation of vassal states» (p. 149). «The papacy was not interested so much in landed property as in the possibility of having vassals available for use in military enterprises» (History of the Church, ed. Jedin, vol. IV). This is the real tangle: because, among other things, it was precisely «the financial demands of the struggle for the investitures and of the preparation for the crusades» (Violante, Chiesa feudale e riforme in Occidente [sec. X-XII], p. 157) that determined the «increasing inclusion of the Church, of all its institutions and – at a certain point – of the Apostolic See itself in the development of the monetary economy… In particular Gregory VII, Urban II and Paschal II, the proponent of poverty, were constrained, by the great new demands for expenditure that had been created for religious reasons, to fatten the pontifical finances with new revenues» (ibid.).
The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomacos, detail of a mosaic, Basilica of Santa Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomacos, detail of a mosaic, Basilica of Santa Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

It was not only because it aimed to correct abuses that the reform created disarray and resistance. Even the antipopes of the period (that is, the popes obedient to the emperor, of the West in this case), such as Clement III, were engaged in reforming the life of the clergy, that is, battling against concubinage and simony. «The Church of the kingdom of Germany itself, which was entirely under imperial control, now seems to us, in general, well ordered and functional in the 11th century… In reality the image that the pro-papal sources, in particular the “Gregorian” ones, gave of the Churches that resisted the Roman reform… was the outcome of strong ideological opposition» (ibid., p. 153). And which Church would have been more resistant than that Greek, which would have merited the worse press?
Saying this doesn’t put the sanctity of Leo IX in question, nor that of Gregory VII; it doesn’t put the Roman primacy in question. One is simply wondering whether that libertas, of which the first to speak was Leo IX himself, was not asserted also and above all out of a project of hegemony. The Histoire du christianisme recognizes frankly that «Rome was aiming at the setting up of libertas romana to the extent to which the pope took the place of the emperor and, offering in his way liberty to the Churches, at the same time guaranteed them his protection and his control» (p. 15). It was on this issue that, within the Gregorian party itself, Pier Damiani stood apart from Hildebrand and Umberto da Silvacandida, because he didn’t agree with the «passage from a substantially unitary ecclesiology, in which the temporal secular power of the emperor and the spiritual authority of the pope were an indivisible whole, achievable in various ways and through various institutions, to an ecclesiology whose fundamental assumption was instead the full libertas Ecclesiae» (Violante, Chiesa feudale e riforme in Occidente [sec. X-XII], pp. 132-133).
I do not believe, as many churchmen are led to believe, that the paean Giorgio Falco raises to this libertas is good for the Church; it is a part of the ideological battage that uses the Gregorian reform to bring water, indeed tears and blood, to such mills: «The Church was finally free, that is, after almost two centuries of desperate efforts, it had managed to reform the clergy, to extricate it from the tentacles of the laity and worldliness, and now moved with its hierarchic, immense, compact army, obedient to a single command, toward the conquest of European hegemony» (La Santa Romana Repubblica, p. 254). Such mills do not take care whether all this brings «a more frightful and universal war», necessary management of the future: «The reform that culminates with Gregory VII does not bring men peace; indeed a more frightful and universal war… Under the fervid, combative industry of the Roman centralizaton a second Europe, after that of Charlemagne, was taking shape, more stable, vast, aware of itself; the multitudes that pressed to come to the light – protagonists of tomorrow – were called as witnesses and participants in the struggle» (ibid.). Such mills do not care about the custody of the depositum but about hymning the «greatest revolution of the Middle Ages, of deeper political and religious faith… Gregory VII is the revolution and the future» (ibid., p. 255)
Pure emphasis.

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