Friday, October 2, 2009

Patriarchates, Bishops, and Popes - Is the Catholic Church the direct line from Peter?

Topic for today: The Bishop of Rome, the Five Patriarchates, and how the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches split.

Over the past weeks I have continued to study and discuss and read up on Church history, particularly as it relates to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. I have studied all of this before, but at that point I took it for granted that all I was being told was true, so it went in one ear and out the other. Now I look at Church history differently.

So - why the interest in the Great Schism? Well, as I look at the Catholic Church I continue to realize that for Catholics, doctrinal disagreements are really side issues. The most important issue is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is THE Church led by the Pope, whose authority is directly descended through the line of Popes from Peter. If you believe this is true, then all doctrine is wrestled through from WITHIN the church, and at some points you just have to say that you may not understand, but you trust the leaders that have been sanctioned by God to guide the Church.

Okay, so... this means that for me, I want to look back to the earliest Christianity again and attempt to understand how the Catholic Church can make this claim of authority, particularly over and above the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is just as old.

Please understand. I DO NOT mean to attack or destroy the faith of Roman Catholics. I mean to examine, to attempt to understand. Even if I do not believe in the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church, I still believe that it is an orthodox church that seeks to follow God, and so in that it is not so different than my own faith.

So - back to the Early Church and the Great Schism.


The Five Patriarchates of the Early Church

As early church spread like a wildfire from Jerusalem through the Roman world (above), the need for organized leadership eventually led to Bishops being appointed in the five leading cities with Christian populations (all appointments happened in the first 150 years of the church). As we see in Acts, initially the disciples were based in Jerusalem (see the Council of Jerusalem in Acts), but perhaps because of persecution the leadership quickly moved to Antioch. The church in Antioch is said to have been founded by Peter.

The other early Bishops were in Alexandria (center of Hellenistic culture and learning for a long period of time - and the early heritage of African Christianity), and Rome. Roman was the capitol of the Roman world and Paul refers to a growing church there. History tells of the great persecution of the Christians under Nero. Initially these were the three governing church patriarchates: Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. The patriarchates were each led by a Bishop. Rome did not lead the other Patriarchates - each Bishop was the Patriarch who led his own Patriarchate.


At the time of the early councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, Constantinople and then finally Jerusalem were also accepted as patriarchates. Constantinople was the head of the Byzantine empire, and with this growing political leverage it began to go head to head with Rome in terms of pure influence in the Church as a whole. The council of Constantinople confirmed this growing authority and a power struggle between the two Bishops began. To quote the Catholic New Advent website: "So we have the new order of five patriarchs — Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem"

An icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea

As the church grew and spread things became more complicated. Theology was developed, councils began to publicly define doctrine and condemn heresy. Christianity spread to distant lands out of the direct reach of the patriarchates (which Patriarchate heads up the surprisingly early rise of Christianity in Ireland??). There was also a growing cultural rift between the East and the West. The Latin-speaking Western church was generally under the leadership and influence of Rome. The Greek-speaking East included all of the other Bishops, with Constantinople as the largest. They began to develop separate traditions and practices. Rome had long thought of itself as the leader of the other Patriarchates, though this is not always clear or affirmed by other patriarchates.

Eventually Islam grew and Muslim rulers took over the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, leaving the Church with Bishops in Constantinople and Rome. Thus... the stage is set for a clash of power.


Some distinct differences that led up to the Great Schism between the East and the West, drawn from the New World Encyclopedia:

  • The Filioque—Traditionally, the Nicene Creed spoke of the Holy Spirit "proceeding" from the Father only, but the Western Church began using the filioque clause—"and the Son"—an innovation rejected by the East and later declared by the Orthodox Church to be a heresy.

  • Iconoclasm—The Eastern Emperor outlawed the veneration of icons, which was accepted by some and resisted by others in the East. Rome firmly objected to this policy.

  • Jurisdiction—Disputes in the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Sicily over whether the Western or Eastern Church had jurisdiction.

  • Authority and Power—Disputes over whether the Patriarch of Rome, the Pope, should be considered a higher authority than the other Patriarchs, or whether he should be considered merely primus inter pares, "the first among equals." Rome objected to the Patriarch of Constantinople calling himself the "Ecumenical Patriarch", which Rome felt insinuated his leadership of all Patriarchates.

  • Ceasaropapism - initially the Emperor of Byzantium was in Constantinople and exercised heavy influence over the Church, which Rome objected to. This is ironic because eventually Constantinople fell and the Church became counter-cultural in the East, whereas in Rome the Church became THE political power and became deeply intertwined with the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.

  • Liturgical practices—The East objected to Western changes in the liturgy, such as the Western Athanasian Creed, with its use of the filioque.

  • Clerical celibacy—The practice of celibacy began to be required for all clergy in the West, as opposed to the Eastern discipline whereby parish priests could be married if their marriage had taken place when they were still laymen.
Eventually, the underlying tension came out into the open as the Bishop of Rome (now known as the Pope) demanded that the Bishop of Constantinople recognize Rome as the head of all of the Church, and the Bishop of Constantinople (now known as the Patriarch) refused. In fits of anger and resentment, both Bishops excommunicated the other, and so in 1054 the Church ceased interacting as a single body. Thus... the Great Schism.

So. How do we perceive this? There are side issues involved, but the real core is that Rome wanted authoritative supremacy and Constantinople wouldn't give it. It comes down to ecclesiology. Rome believes that authority was given by Jesus to Peter to rule the Church, and Peter as the first Bishop passed his authority from Bishop to Bishop (which eventually became known as Pope in Rome). Constantinople, on the other hand, believes that all of the Bishops are ontological equals, and the Bishop of Rome is merely the "first among equals". To give full authority of the whole church to one man was not okay with them.

Okay. I have to be honest and say that as I read history, the claims of the Bishop of Rome do not sound reasonable. If Peter was given the keys to rule the Church, why does Rome conclude that authority was passed directly to Rome, despite the fact that Peter also started the Church in Antioch and Jerusalem? If the church should have one supreme leader, why not have it be the Bishop of Antioch? To me, it doesn't make sense - and it hints at a hunger for power.

Perhaps it's just that I'm an American and I have that "balance of power" idea built into me, so the Eastern Orthodox idea of "first among equals" sounds much better than the supreme authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

There's also the filioque clause, which was the theological disagreement that sort of was the straw that broke the camel's back and began the final separation. The Pope decided to insert a new clause into the Nicene Creed. He changed it from "The Holy Spirit... who proceeds from the Father" to " the Holy Spirit... who proceeds from the Father and the Son." It's a small or large point, depending on how you look at it. The Eastern Orthodox have never accepted this change, and although it seems to be a fuzzy line, I find it rather difficult to argue with the Eastern position, considering it is nearly a direct quote from John 15:26.

The Fourth Crusade
My discomfort with the demands of the Pope that caused the Great Schism are sort of exacerbated by the actions of Rome following the Schism. Although the East and the West were officially separated in 1054, they were still thrown together as Christian people and lands against the massive threat of Islam political forces at the time. There were friendly relations between the two Churches, they simply existed as two separate bodies and reunion attempts were made several times. What is really horrifying is what happened in the Fourth Crusade. Generally the Crusades were seen as a broadly "Christian" project (of course, very misguided). During the Fourth Crusade the troops recruited by the Pope planned to invade Jerusalem but instead (without the Pope's instructions) switched tracks and sacked Constantinople, the head of Eastern Christianity.

Bible illustration of three Jews being killed by Christian Crusaders, 1250

Did you hear that? Western Christians sacked the capitol city and center of the church of their allies. When I was marveling over this to Isaac he said that it would be like American troops heading to Europe in WWII to help fight the Germans, and instead sacking and taking over London. Just horrible, unthinkable violence. What had been separate churches with friendly relations and and attempts for reunification became two enemy churches with deep grievances between them.

It's such a shame. These are the words of the Pope during the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, Innocent III.

"How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks...return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood,­ they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics."

So - ultimately after having looked at that history, I do not understand how the Catholic Church can claim to be the ONE holy apostolic Church. It would seem to me that the Eastern Orthodox Church has equal if not greater stake in this claim.

Oh, and in defense of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II finally reestablished a line of communication with the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch and formally apologized for the Fourth Crusade.


That Married Couple said...

Very interesting. This is something I really don't know much about. I had thought they were basically the same, except Eastern Orthodoxy is based on country/ethnicity.

The whole thing is really sad, isn't it? Could you imagine if we really did have one universal church?

Anyway, here's a Catholic page that discusses this:
Though it might not be as in depth as you like, it has a bit different angle that's interesting.

Kacie said...

Yes, it is interesting and sad all at once. It would be amazing to see the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church unite, but I can't imagine the Eastern Orthodox ever being willing to take on the same view of the authority of the papacy that the RCC church has. They also have a variant view on Original sin - you can read more on this interesting blog:

I understand that the actual practices look very different in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church, despite the theology being very similar. My neighbors in Chicago were Orthodox and I visited their church - it was beautiful and fascinating, but not in English. :) That's one of the down sides to the Orthodox church in the US - because it has come here pretty recently with Eastern European/Russian immigrants, it tends to be very nationalistic and there are very few English services that are meant for a general American population. That is growing, though, and several evangelicals I went to Bible School with converted due to a vibrant Orthodox church in Chicago.

You wonder what it would be like if we had one universal church. I've often wondered and wrestled with that thought, especially because I believe in the sovereignty of God. That makes it quite mysterious to me - He has allowed the splintering of the Church. Is it possible that somehow He is glorified in the many different people that worship Him in different ways? Is it possible that more are reached because of the divisions, despite the fact that our divisions have undeniably awful effects as well?

I don't know. I still wrestle with that.

Anonymous said...

First off, I recommend "The Orthodox Church" (paperback) by Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware. The real big issue between the RC's and Orthodox is the total power of the Pope. Christ never intended on such a church structure via the Apostles. Further info on the Orthodox Church can be found at: Go to the tab "Orthodox Faith" and read the 4 on-line volumes by Fr. Thomas Hopko.

That Married Couple said...

Yes, it does seem like papal authority is perhaps the biggest issue. I browsed around and saw that many people were recommending the following two books regarding this, in addition to the one Anonymous mentions:
You Are Peter by Oliver Clement (an Orthodox)
Papal Primacy by Klaus Schatz (a Catholic?) (This is supposed to be very balanced.)
And also something by the Catholic author James Likoudis.

The blog post you mentioned was quite interesting. I would love to hear why the author, with his Orthodox leanings, is actually Catholic.

"Is it possible that somehow He is glorified in the many different people that worship Him in different ways? Is it possible that more are reached because of the divisions, despite the fact that our divisions have undeniably awful effects as well?"

I also wrestle with that. I think that God is always glorified when that is the intention of the worshipers. Diversity itself is not bad, and seems to me to be present to a greater or lesser extent in all denominations. I do think that Catholics could really learn a thing or two from Protestants sometimes; but that somehow just makes me mourn our division even more. Because could you imagine if we took all the strengths of the different churches and combined them? (Of course then we would have all the weaknesses, too - but let's be honest, we're all weak sinners, and the "strengths" are really gifts from God.)

So much interesting stuff to think about! And pray about. Thanks for broaching this large topic!

p.s. I "subscribed" to this post, so I'll get an email when anyone comments :)

Amy said...

Great summary! I would love to see more posts about Early Church history from you. :)

Pharmgirl said...

You might be interested in this series of posts:

Quite long, and I haven't had a chance to read all of them yet, but what I've read has been really good.

Anam Cara said...

I've just found this and perhaps no one will read it, but you might like the book Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick available from amazon.

Kacie said...

Thanks for the reco! Just added it to my wish list.

Nate Johnson said...


Thanks, it's great to see people respectfully thinking through these things. This doesn't address everything, but in regards to the question of why this bishop of Rome was considered the successor of Peter but the bishop of Antioch wasn't, I think the fact that Peter died in Rome (as opposed to Antioch or Jerusalem) probably carried a greater weight for the early Church than it would for many today. Presumably someone was appointed as bishop of Antioch, but that person couldn't be successor to Peter as having a primacy (whatever that meant at the time) over the universal Church because Peter was still alive.

I also agree with Anonymous in recommending the book on the Orthodox Church by bishop Ware.

Just some thoughts. Thanks!

-Nate (an mk from the PNG side!)