History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Eastern Church


While the western church was making great strides in the conversion of the new races who had overrun the greater part of Europe, the Christians of the eastern empire were torn by dissension, and unable to protect their territories against the dangers that threatened them from the Persians and later on from the followers of Mahomet.

Mahomet the prophet (570–632) was a native of Arabia, and both at home and in his travels abroad he was brought into contact from time to time with Christianity, Judaism and the principal religious systems of the east. From all these he devised a new religious system, the principal tenet of which was that there is but one God and that Mahomet is his prophet. Fired with enthusiasm by the visions and the promises of assistance which he imagined were given to him from on high, he presented himself to his countrymen at Mecca in the year 622, as the special messenger of God, but indignant at the threats hurled at all those who dared to oppose his progress they rose up against him, and expelled him from the city. Mahomet fled to Medina, the city of the prophet, and from this flight, known as the Hegira, the Mahomedan era begins.

In Medina the prophet was received with honour, and having gathered around him a body of devoted and loyal supporters, he advanced once more towards Mecca, captured the city by force and destroyed the idols that filled the Kaaba or Holy House. Before his death in 632 he had conquered the greater part of Arabia, and twenty years after his death Syria, Palestine and Egypt were reduced to subjection by the Caliphs, his successors. In the eighth century the whole of northern Africa fell into the hands of the Mahomedans, and from Africa they penetrated into Spain, where they were known in later ages as the Moors. Crossing the Pyrenees they advanced into Gaul. It seemed for a time as if Europe was at their mercy, but Charles Martel assembled an immense army, marched southwards, defeated them at Poitiers (732) and by this victory saved Europe from enslavement.

The religious system of Mahomet is contained in the Koran, which Mahomet alleged was revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, but which in reality is only a mixture of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, the apocryphal writings, and of Parseeism. According to his system there is but one God. Of this God, Abraham, Moses and Christ were the special messengers, but it was reserved for Mahomet, the greatest and last of the prophets, to complete the divine revelation. It inculcated also prayers, fasting and alms deeds, but made no attempt to lay down a definite system of morality or to insure internal sanctification.

Mahomedanism owes its rapid propagation partly to the personal qualities of Mahomet himself, partly to the injunction laid upon his followers to spread his doctrine by the sword and the promise of eternal enjoyment held out to those who would die for the Koran, and partly also to its loose system of morality, whereby the followers of the prophet were allowed to give full licence to their passions in the places which they conquered. The spread of Mahomedanism cannot be compared for a moment with the spread of the Christian religion, because, unlike Mahomedanism, Christianity was a new religion, inculcating doctrines opposed to all that was sensual in man, relying merely on the preaching of the Apostles and their successors for its success and obliged to contend against all the forces of the Roman empire. Its soldiers were the apostles and those they left behind them to take their place, and its only weapon was the Cross.

The Iconoclastic Controversy

Disunion seemed to have been the great characteristic of the Eastern Christians, as is evident from the fact that in the east all the great heretical systems that disturbed the peace of the Church found sympathy and support. For the westerns the Greeks entertained feelings of the greatest contempt, and more especially after the seat of the empire was removed from Rome to Constantinople the Greeks were jealous of the authority of the bishop of Rome, so that it required great tact and patience to keep them from separating themselves from the centre of unity.

Various causes of dispute between the east and the west arose from time to time, but the one that did most to disturb Christian harmony and that left behind it the bitterest memories was the controversy about images, known as the Iconoclastic controversy.

From a very early time the use of pictures and statues in the buildings set aside for religious service was customary both in the west and the east. On the walls of the Catacombs were sketched rude pictures, some of them real representations of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, some of them symbolic, and at a later time when Christian churches were built, it was customary to adorn the walls with sacred pictures illustrative of scenes in the life of Our Lord, of His Mother or of His saints. This was done because, as St. John Damascene said, "Images are for the uneducated, what books are for those who can read; they are to the sight, what words are to the ear." But in the east, grave abuses had crept in, and some people seemed inclined to honour the statues and the pictures as the pagans honoured their idols.

The Emperor Leo, the Isaurian (717–741), aware of these abuses, and anxious to conciliate the Mahomedans who had a great aversion for images, ordered that all statues and paintings should be removed from the churches, and in 730 he issued a command that these statues and paintings should be destroyed. But this command was resisted by both clergy and people, and they were encouraged in their resistance by Pope Gregory II. and Pope Gregory III., the latter of whom held a synod at Rome and condemned the imperial decree (731). The Emperor in order to revenge himself on the Pope despatched a fleet against Rome, and confiscated the territories of the Holy See in southern Italy and Sicily. The war upon images was continued by his son and successor, Constantine (741–775), and by Leo IV. (775–780). On the death of the latter the Empress Irene took up the reins of government, and appealed to Pope Adrian to convoke a general council for the settlement of the controversy.

The seventh general council met at Nice in the year 787. It defined that though Christians do not honour images as gods, nor place their hope of salvation in them, nor give them the adoration due to God alone, still the use of images is lawful, and sacred images and pictures should be respected for the sake of what they represent. But this council did not put an end to the trouble. It was only on the accession of Theodora in 842 that the decrees of Nice were accepted, and the Feast of Orthodoxy was instituted to commemorate the overthrow of the Iconoclastic heresy.

A bad translation of the Acts of the council gave rise to a heated controversy in the west. Pope Adrian intervened, however, to explain his own position and the position of the eastern church. This intervention of the Pope and the learned defence of images by Dungal, an Irishman, helped to clear away misunderstandings and to bring back peace to the Church.

The Photian Schism

But hardly had the echoes of the Iconoclastic controversy died away than a new source of contention was found. Michael III. (842–867), surnamed the drunkard, was a man of very depraved character, and his uncle and minister, Bardas, instead of endeavouring to restrain him, encouraged him in his life of wickedness. Ignatius, the patriarch of Constantinople, denounced their scandalous lives and opposed their schemes. To punish him for his resistance he was deposed and Photius, a layman, was consecrated to take his place. But the followers of Ignatius were not inactive, and to make his own position secure, Photius sent an embassy to Rome to inform the Pope that much against his own will he had been chosen Patriarch. The Pope sent legates to Constantinople to decide between Ignatius and Photius, but unfortunately these men were not true to the trust reposed in them and allowed themselves to be cajoled into taking sides with Photius. The Pope, having learned the true state of things, annulled the sentence of his legates and restored Ignatius.

Photius was determined to uphold his position at all costs, and he endeavoured to stir up his countrymen against Rome. The introduction of Roman customs into Bulgaria, which the easterns claimed as part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, served to embitter men's minds and to strengthen the hands of Photius. On the accession of the emperor Basil, however, Photius was deposed (867) and Ignatius was recognised again as Patriarch. An Ecumenical Council, the eighth general council of the Church, was held to settle the dispute (869). In this council Photius was condemned, as were also the decrees against Rome that had been passed at a synod convoked by him at Constantinople.

On the death of Ignatius the emperor wished that Photius should be his successor. The Pope consented on condition that Photius should make a public apology for his conduct. Once seated on the patriarchical throne of Constantinople he continued his policy of opposition to Rome, and in the end Pope John VIII. was obliged to excommunicate him. Notwithstanding the sentence of excommunication Photius maintained himself as Patriarch until Leo VI. ascended the throne (886), when he withdrew to a monastery. But the day of separation between the east and the west was only postponed. About the middle of the eleventh century Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, issued a pastoral letter in which he renewed all the complaints alleged by the easterns against the Latin Church, and to this letter Leo IX. published a reply. His legates went to Constantinople to bring about a settlement, but the patriarch refused to meet them, and finally, in July, 1014, they entered the church of St. Sophia and placed upon the altar the sentence of excommunication. Unfortunately, the patriarch, by playing upon the national feelings of the people, was able to secure support. Since that time, though many efforts have been made to bring about a reunion, the eastern church has remained in schism.

The most important of these attempts at reunion took place at the council of Florence, in the year 1438. The Greeks, anxious to secure the help of western Europe against the Turks, professed themselves anxious for a reconciliation, and the emperor and his leading bishops consented to attend the council. After some preliminary discussion it was evident that the chief points of dispute between the two churches were Purgatory, the addition of Filioque  to the Creed and the jurisdiction of the Pope. In regard to the first both parties agreed about the existence of Purgatory, and the question of the nature of the punishment was left undefined. The second point was much more difficult. The Greeks contended that the addition of Filioque was contrary to the prohibition of the Council of Constantinople against additions to the creed and that in itself it was wrong, as it implied two entirely distinct principles from whom the Holy Ghost proceeded. In the end, however, they consented to accept the views of the western church. Finally, they agreed that the Pope was the Vicar of Christ on earth, and that to him was given the right to govern the Church. On their return to Constantinople the people, urged on by some of the bishops, refused to accept the terms of reconciliation, and in a short time the Turks surrounded Constantinople, captured the city and put an end to the existence of the Greek empire (1453).