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The Great Schism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism


Myroslav MARYNOVYCH, a philosopher and a former Soviet dissident, reflects upon the schisms in the Christian Church and a possible future rapprochement.


The great church schism of 1054 marked the division of Eastern and Western Churches. But if we studied this event only in the context of this bipolarity, we would, I think, bypass an important fact of modern Christianity having actually three poles, and the third pole, Protestantism, in spite of its separation from the hierarchal Apostolic heritage also contains in itself certain features of the formerly one Christian Church. That is why, it would be, firstly, interesting to examine the relationship between of these two great schisms in the church history  the schism of 1054 and the schism of the Reformation  which, as far as I am concerned, can be juxtaposed. Secondly, I am firmly convinced that we must not restrict ourselves to simple condemnation of them. These schisms were allowed by God to happen and that means that there are some providential signs standing behind them, and we, as students of the first grade of the ecumenical school, have to try to uncover their meaning.


In spite of the fact that there is a great variety of ecclesiastic forms and directions in Christianity of today, we can easily see three main branches of Christianity that have arisen in the course of history  Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. The main, principal features of these branches of Christianity are reflected in their development with such clarity and constancy that, despite the kaleidoscopic changes of historical eras and political systems, we can discern certain archetypal, primordial prototypes, those determining causes which lie in the very basis of existence. In fact, our scrutiny reveals that in the modern Christian consciousness all the three Christian branches are responsible for different functional features.

Eastern Orthodoxy is more often associated with the immutability of tradition, conservatism, church archaism, piety and deep respect for spiritual asceticism. It is usually held that Eastern Orthodoxy is looking back into the past, in which resides the Truth abandoned by people  but not by Orthodoxy!

The most characteristic features of Roman Catholicism are believed to be the emphasis placed on the hierarchal structure of the church, including the principle of the papal infallibility, on the necessity of organizational unity of the church, and respect for the doctrinal authority and canonical law, which in its turn, derives its strength from the respect for the Roman Law.

Protestantism has proved to be, in the history of the Christian church, a Christian movement which possesses a particular liability of organizational forms and of functional theology. Protestantism has the ability to adjust itself very quickly to the changes in life situations, to look for, and find suitable theological formulas, change them or abandon them, to show initiative and extraordinary mobility.

What are the criteria that can be used in examining these branches of Christianity? On the one hand, the cult of the spiritual asceticism of Eastern Orthodoxy is profoundly different from the cult of logic and law in Western Catholicism. This difference marks heterogeneity of cultures, in the perceptions of the world.

On the other hand, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism can be called representatives of, corre-spondingly, conservatism, changeability, and hierarchal centralism. Such features can be described as functional.

The two great schisms of the Christian church  the one of 1054 and the later one caused by the Reformation of the sixteenth century were, from my point of view, qualitatively different as far as their primary causes were concerned. The schism of 1054 was, by its nature, a split caused by cultural and civilizational differences. The continents of the Eastern and Western Christian civilizations, which initially possessed different parameters, drifted apart. The logical and rational character of Western Christianity could not, at that time, continue to coexist within one church, with the image-laden-emotional character of Eastern Christianity, and they moved away from each other, forming two Christian hemispheres, each of which was not either to overcome or substitute the other one.

It should be noted, however, that this schism made its impact on the functional level (mentioned above) as well. It is Eastern Orthodoxy that keeps its treasure of the past  the past that has not made it to the present. That was how one of the above mentioned principles  conservatism  came to be established. Eastern Church could not  and did not want on principle to respond to the changes of epochs. It was in Roman Catholicism that the potential for change continued to be present, though several centuries later it caused a crisis within this church.

The split that was caused by the Reformation was of a different nature. It occurred within the boundaries of only one civilization, the Western one, and that is why it did not involve the emergence of any qualitatively different cultural and civilizational features. Its functional character was a determining factor. Protestantism was ripening within the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries as a great potential of changes which were for some time held back by the ossified structures of the then church, which in the important parameters of its existence had drifted away from the Gospel imperatives. Due to a number of circumstances, this potential could not find fulfillment within the framework of the then church, and because of that, its Protestant core eventually broke away from it, conquered a part of Europe with a great zeal, and later, crossed the ocean, and began searching gropingly for the approach to the Truth that had to be found yet once again. Thus, another principle was established  changeability.

The Reformation, without doubt, invigorated Catholic Church giving a robust start to Jesuits, who can be looked upon as a mirror reflection of this church. At the same time, expelling from its body the dynamic Protestant core, in the period that started after the council of Trent Catholic Church started rolling, in a theological sense, in an opposite direction. In the times of Counter-Reformation, such principles as centralism, hierarchal character and soteriologic exclusivity had acquired in the Catholic Church ultimate and complete forms which had dominated in this church until the Second Vatican Council. Thus the third principle was established  centralism.

From then on, each principle, now acting separately, on its own and devoid of hindrance from the others, began freely and unstoppably specializing. From a certain point of view, such specialization had a positive effect, since it gave each principle a chance to develop and enrich its internal content. However, the separation from the other principles and competition with them led to the growth of dogmatism within each of these principles. Arnold Toynbee wrote that church was in danger of becoming the object of idolatry in a measure in which it was convinced that it was not just a source of truth, but the only source of Truth in its full and final manifestation.

In the schism, not only the unity of the Christian church was lost, but the integral trueness. In the words of Patriarch Athenagoras (18861972; ecumenical patriarch from 1948; Athenagoras was, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a great protagonist of the reconciliation of all Christians; at his own initiative, Athenagoras met with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964, the first time the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches had conferred since 1439. In 1965 the two leaders agreed to a revocation of the mutual excommunication decrees of 1054; this historic event was accomplished through simultaneous services in St Peters Basilica in Rome and the patriarchal church in Constantinople), Now I can see only those truths which have been made partial, shortened, which have found themselves at the wrong places and do not pretend to contain the inexhaustible mystery. None of the Christian churches has been the true one after the schisms since the truth of Christianity is not possible without its fullness. Without being perfect, each of the Christian churches, had, at the same time, retained some of the virtues of the unified conciliarity of the Apostolic church that gave them the aura of truth, validated their existence and opened the gate of the future.

Each of the churches has withstood the tribulations and temptations because it had in itself some of the divine fire. But the burden it carried was not an easy one. The earthly pride and arrogance of their clergy resulted in its taking steps which were to be disavowed (or maybe, will have to be disavowed in the future). The fallibility of such steps made their divinity from time to time questionable, led to further schisms, and sowed in the hearts of the church luminaries a conceited conviction in their own infallibility and self-sufficiency. Representatives of each of the principles discussed above shut themselves up in their own exclusive uprightness, and lost, in various degrees, an ability to understand their opponents from the other two principles.

In other words, a price had to be paid for the freedom of the inner specialized development. The perfection of the developed form began to lead to the losses caused by the excessive specialization, and what seemed an unquestionable asset gradually turned in a liability. The history of the church provides many examples of this.

Thus, on one side of the historical divide, Eastern Orthodoxy sank into its tenacious Tradition. Eastern Orthodoxy, inspired by the duty it took upon itself to carry the evangelical glad tidings through all the times and epochs, has isolated itself from the flow of time and made itself intemporal. Only through such self-devotion can one submerge into the majestic act of the ancient Orthodox liturgy amids the frenetic rhythms of the early twenty-first century. For many western Protestants who know little about Orthodoxy, to be present at such a liturgy is akin to travelling back in time, whereas the hearts of the Orthodox faithful are filled with joy at the thought of being able to sing glory to God in a fashion very similar to the one current among the Fathers of the Church.

However, the boon of intemporality is necessarily fraught with the danger of stagnation. In the course of time, Eastern Orthodoxy runs into an increasing difficulty of differentiating the spirit of tradition from its forms. The historical form which was created during the first millennium of Christianity for expressing the church truth and for spirited interaction with it stopped being the means and became the value in its own right. The pompous ritual has almost completely eclipsed the vibrant evangelical piety so profoundly expressed in icon painting. Liturgy tends to be perceived increasingly more through its aesthetics, with all the sensitive receptors of the soul and progressively less by the mind through penetration into the logic of the liturgical language and action. The Divine Ire, perceived in a simplified way, has almost ousted the living personal communication with God through mastering His Word, that is the Bible. To be guarding the truth by hiding it under the expensive gold cover has become a task more important that using it in everyday life.

By contrast, Protestantism gradually became the haven of theological freedom. Diverse theological currents and movements gave rise to various Protestant churches and religious communities, and the ability to change has become a characteristic feature of Protestantism. Protestantism acquired this distinctive feature thanks to Martin Luthers revolutionary approach to the problem of hermeneutics, according to which the church does not have a monopoly on the interpretation and exegesis of the Scripture  Man has the right to read and interpret the bible the way his conscience advises him.

Protestantism has freed the theological studies from the constraining fetters of the tradition of the church and of the traditional ecclesiastical forms, but at the same time it has come to face another problem, no less difficult. In the course of time, the ability to change which, no doubt, was an asset considering the rigidified forms of the then Catholicism, began to transform into the end in itself, not the means, into a virtue in itself. The changeability that was not restricted in anything became a liability. It is more difficult now for Protestantism to stop changing than to reform itself.

Inspired as it was by its commitment to be understandable to the people of any given time, era or epoch, Protestantism began to adjust itself to the changeability of times and did it to excess. The closer the world was getting to the twentieth century, the faster things were developing, and this ever increasing pace of development and change caused Protestantism (mostly its Evangelical movements) to catch and adopt the ideas that the secular world was producing in a great abundance. Protestantism has learned to use the Biblical truths with a great flexibility, accommodating them to the requirements of the time, but in the process of such accommodation, the truth was being desacralized, acquiring mostly the pragmatic, applied and instrumental meaning.

Modern Catholicism (after the Second Vatican Council) manages to avoid the extremes  stagnation in the archaic forms, or excessive changeability. On the one hand, having to co-exist in the modern world with Protestantism, Catholicism is forced to take up the challenge and give its own answers to the theological issues which Protestantism is probing into. Catholicism, being confident in itself and posing itself as the arbiter in the doctrinal matters, cannot ignore  or isolate itself from  the modern, current movements, the way Eastern Orthodoxy has largely been doing. On the other hand, Catholicism will never abandon the great respect for the tradition of the church  even for a simple reason that the papal infallibility legitimately is based on the principles of this tradition. Catholicism regards itself as an organizational axis of the one Apostolic Church, and it makes Catholicism keep itself equidistanced both from Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

However, the administrative-legal axis that seems to stabilize the advance of Catholics turns out to be its Achilles heel, when such administrative-legal approach is absolutized. On the one hand, administrative-legal thinking finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of compressing all the manifestations of the never-ending, perpetually changing life into one legal formula. In this way, the spiritual dimension is being unintentionally sacrificed for the logical-rational dimension. On the other hand, the emphasis on the organizational matters, on the hierarchal church structure and the unity of the church, which is presented as visibly united, has become the most characteristic feature of the Catholic identity. But it is this emphasis on the organizational and structural unity, which was viewed as particularly controversial after the decree of the First Vatican Council which established the infallibility of the pope, is considered to be the main obstacle on the way of the whole Christian world recognizing the supreme authority of the Roman pope in the Christian doctrinal matters. The principal of the supreme authority of the Roman pope, which was a means of integrating the church in the first millennium, went through certain transformations, and at last turned into the self-sufficient value in itself, and as such it has temporarily become an obstacle on the way of the church unification.

It should be noted that all these qualities of the three main features of modern Christianity  conservatism, changeability and respect for hierarchal structure are fully positive functional features of the Church in case they act in a balanced unison and complement each other. Changeability, if reined in, could fulfill the function of searching for new forms and would help the church adapt to the new, ever changing conditions. Judicious conservatism would help maintain the continuity of tradition and would thus prevent the church from being sucked into the vortex of the fleeting moments. And, lastly, a well-balanced hierarchal structure would provide stability for the inner structures of the church, without their autonomous position being infringed upon, and thus would help the church perform its functions steadily, sowing around its organizational axis.

The beginning of the twentieth century which was the starting point of the ecumenical movement was a significant milestone in the development of the Church. There have appeared the first signs of the fact that the process of centrifugal movement of the three analyzed features began to slow down, and that the potential of their separate development is being exhausted. The pendulum of history has reached its extreme position and now it can only start swinging back in the opposite direction. I am confident that the Christians of the 21st century will witness the increase in the pace in the process of convergence, with each of the three major entities of the Church beginning to soften its unyielding position and starting to seek rapprochement with the others. And if it does happen the way I predict, then we can say that we have studied the subject Schisms from the heavenly book of history, and that we can move on.


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