How do we know who started the “Great Schism?” First, we must understand what the Church is, what is schism in the Church, and then how the schism formed.
The one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, sometimes simply known as the “Orthodox Church” was began by Jesus Christ by the ordination of the Apostles to the title of Bishopric (cf Acts 1:20) through Saint Peter. He played the role of ordaining the other Apostles to their Bishoprics (cf Matt 16:18; Optatus Against the Donatists Book 1 Chap 10; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History Book 2, Chap 1, Par 2-3; John of Thessalonica Dormition Homily Chap 13). In this way, every Bishopric is Petrine and ultimately sourced in Jesus Christ Himself.
All Bishops succeeding from the Apostles are part of this Church provided they do not leave Her. The Scriptures and Fathers are unanimous in explaining that schism is the act of cutting oneself off from communion and setting up a parallel jurisdiction/church where the Church already is.
Many people confuse local breaks in communion as a categorical schism. Early Church controversies, such as the Meletian Schism and the disputes over the Council of Ephesus, demonstrate that there can be breaks in communion between individual local churches without there being two clearly delineated factions such as in a schism.
Historically, schismatics such as Novatian (a counter-Bishop of Rome) and the Donatists (who ordained their own bishop of Rome) not only locally went into schism, but spread their schism by ordaining Bishops in parts of the Church that have not left the fold.
A schismatic not only breaks communion, but he also creates a parallel church, ordaining a new bishop where a bishop already is. To quote Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Smyrnaeans, Chap 8) Hence, to install a schismatic bishop where a bishop already “appears” is definitionally un-Catholic.
And so, when determining who went into schism and how they did so, there is one overriding interpretative presupposition: that we follow the teaching of Saint Vincent de Lerins and uphold the “faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.” (Commonitorium Par 6)
In other words, one’s definition of schism must be how the fathers defined it, otherwise it is un-Catholic. Philosophical considerations and intelligent, but novel, interpretations are irrelevant. What makes the most sense to you is not as important as what made the most sense to the fathers. The issue of schism, like all doctrinal issues, must be understood along the lines of how the Church has always believed and practiced (Vincent calls this “consent”) everywhere and at all times.
The Meletian Schism in Antioch provides for us a real-world case study. Without getting into too much detail, Saint Meletius was the Bishop of Antioch, but was sent into exile during the Arian controversy. Lucifer Cagliari of Sardinia uncanonically and single-handedly (cf Socrates Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chap 6) ordained Paulinus II as Bishop of Antioch. Alexandria and Rome recognized Paulinus in place of Meletius and so Meletius did not commemorate them. After the death of Meletius, Saint Flavian was ordained to replace him and was recognized by the Council of Constantinople I. Saint Pope Damasus I (and then Saint Pope Siricius) and other western Bishops under his jurisdiction did not recognize Flavian, even though Saint Timothy of Alexandria, who attended the Council of Constantinople I, did. History vindicates Meletius and Flavian, who are saints—and not Paulinus, Evagrius, and other Paulinian successors. Sometime in the late 390s, Rome finally re-entered into communion with the canonical Church of Antioch.
The preceding episode illustrates how a schism began (Rome and Alexandria did not recognize Meletius) and how it was ultimately consummated (Rome and Alexandria entered communion with the parallel Bishopric in Antioch). The schism was only healed by re-entering into communion with the canonical Church of Antioch and ceasing recognition of the parallel jurisdiction. This is our key historical example as the authority of an Ecumenical Council and the universal veneration of saints clearly delineates the correct and incorrect parties in this matter.
The schisms of the Oriental Orthodox churches in Egypt, Armenia, and Syria are not the topic of this article, though it suffices to say that these churches both left communion and replaced valid Bishops against the canonical procedures they themselves recognized as legitimate. For example, the deposition of a Patriarch following canon law, such as that of Constantinople at the Council of Ephesus, is recognized by them; but the canonical deposition of Dioscorus of Alexandria at Chalcedon, for no consistent reason, is not.
The history of the schism of the Roman Catholic Church is not terribly complicated. While there were temporal disputes over jurisdiction over centuries (pertaining to Byzantine encroachments in Greece, the Balkans, and southern Italy which were all originally under Roman patriarchal jurisdiction), the bishops of Rome never responded by failing to recognize the ordination of bishops taken over by Constantinople, something that Canon 17 of Chalcedon (which Rome accepted) gave only 30 years to dispute. Furthermore, the change in jurisdiction was done legally as Canon 38 of Trullo allowed Church jurisdictions to change alignment with that of the provincial lines of the Byzantine Empire. When Pope Adrian I accepted, in his words, “all its canons,” he (implicitly) accepted these jurisdictional changes.
Why would Popes concede this? Pope John VIII, for one, traded jurisdiction in southern Italy and the Balkans in exchange for a military alliance.
Hence, no schism ever existed as the jurisdictional changes were affirmed in canon law and consented to—though they may be “unfair.” Consent is something important to understand. The Church consented to changing its jurisdictions to fit provincial Roman lines in the fourth century. Even before then, alignments changed. After all, being that Saint Paul died in Rome, technically every church he started was originally under local Roman jurisdiction. Yet, this changed soon afterwards. We know this to be true, because Rome never pressed local claims in areas like Crete and Asia Minor* which were originally Pauline Bishoprics, but were not by the third century (cf Cyprian Letter 74).
*It is possible that the “Easter Controversy” is an exception to this, with Pope Saint Victor I asserting his prerogative to excommunicate churches he believed to be under his local jurisdiction.
Amidst these territorial considerations, doctrinal changes were afoot and the western churches began adopting the Filioque in their creed. This was something that initially did not create a break as it was understood, according to Saint Maximus, that the Filioque did not contradict the belief that the Father was the sole eternal cause of the Spirit. As time persisted, it became clear that western Bishops no longer believed this, as evidenced by the infighting between Pope Adrian I and the Carolingian theologians exactly on this point at the turn on the 8th century.
By the next century, this created a break in communion between east and west amidst political squabbles. This was only healed when Pope John VIII, as verified in multiple letters of his in both Latin and Greek (a fact that means these letters are not forgeries), recognized only the Creed without the Filioque and affirmed the reunion Council of Constantinople IV (879-880). The earliest Latin canonists such as Ivo of Chartes (11th century) and Gratian (12th century) likewise “considered the Photian synod of 879-880 to have been duly approved by Pope John VIII,” citing Latin letters to this effect. Only later did western historians (in opposition to all extant primary sources) change their estimation of John VIII.
While the 879-880 AD council appeared to disallow Latin Christians from using the Filioque, it was obviously not interpreted this way by the Filioquist churches. To quote Pope Leo III from the turn of the 8th century, “it [the Filioque] may be sung in teaching, and be taught by being sung: but neither by writing nor by singing may it be unlawfully inserted into that, which it is forbidden us to touch.” Hence, Latin theology had accepted the existence of the Filioque and allowed it to “be taught by being sung,” but they officially did not put it in the actual Constantinopolitan Creed.
Hence, the Latin and Eastern churches made a truce which had maintained a status quo preceding the council. Eastern Bishops likely believed they had prevented the Filioque from being expounded (as this was the simplest understanding of the intent of the council in its own words). The West, in a face-saving move, admitted that on an official level the East was correct, but the council did not specifically condemn their peculiar doctrine.
Regardless of the merits of both sides, when discerning the issue of schism, the obvious question is who broke the truce. The answer to this question, which no Roman Catholic apologist disputes, is clearly the West.
In the early 11th century, the Roman church unilaterally changed the Creed—something the truce disallowed for. Then, they excommunicated Constantinople for allegedly “removing [the] filioque from the original Creed” amongst other things. This is both historically inaccurate and demonstrates who started the wrong fight in violation of an earlier truce.
At this time, to add insult to injury, the Normans conquered Byzantine Italy and with the assent of Rome, replaced bishops without the consent of local Christians. They also imposed Latinization, including the imposition of the Filioque. This was not only heretical, but also schismatic—it introduced a parallel Latin bishopric alongside pre-existing bishops such as Basil of Reggio.
At this point, the issue is local and a little “messy”—especially considering the Byzantines had centuries before “invaded” what was once indisputably under Roman jurisdiction. This was “just deserts.” However, the truce was obviously broken and the unmistakable sin of schism was to spread from a localized political squabble into an irrevocable split during the Crusades.
Repeatedly, the Western side was decisive in exacerbating matters. By the admission of Roman Catholic apologists, Western Christians repeatedly installed parallel bishops and enforced liturgical changes including the Creed—in effect creating another church from what once was one, holy, Catholic (as St Vincent defined it), apostolic Church. This includes setting up a parallel churches in:
- Jerusalem and Antioch (12th century).
- The Aegeans and Constantinople (13th century).
- Alexandria, despite the fact that Western Christians never occupied Egypt and Alexandria had up until that point in time maintained communion and even attended the Fourth Lateran Council (13th century)
- Baltic, Russian, Ukrainian, and Greek lands (13th to 17th centuries).
This state of affairs did not effectively cease for about six centuries. The pattern of schismatic actions is so patently incontestable, popular Roman Catholic apologist Erick Ybarra repeatedly conceded these actions were “wrong” and “criminal.”
In response, the Orthodox Church never set up a parallel church by any definition in a Roman Catholic land until the 19th century—a point so far after the schism it is irrelevant. Even to this day, the Orthodox have never made a titular bishop of Rome and there is only one example of using military force to install an Orthodox bishopric in place of a western Bishopric, that being Stalin’s forced conversion of the Uniates.*
*The eparchy of Chelm “controversy” was not a forced conversion by the admission of Uniates.
In conclusion, if one accepts Vincent’s canon, it must be discerned that the Roman church is regrettably in schism. They changed their doctrine of the Filioque, broke a truce not to add it to the Creed, excommunicated Orthodox Christians, and ultimately replaced their bishops—making a second church. With this knowledge, one can begin undoing the damage done—one step at a time.