A few years ago I took a class on Church history. Naturally, one of the major topics of study was the schism between the Churches of the East and West known as the “Great Schism.” But rather than just focus on the events of 1054 (the mutual excommunication of Pope and Patriarch), our professor brought us back hundreds of years to see how the seeds of division had been planted and nurtured well before that time. We learned how it was a complicated issue, how both sides had made their own mistakes, and how we as the Catholic Church needed to have the humility to recognize the major role we played in causing the problem.
It was a great moment of clarity and regret for me.
Most of all, though, I will never forget the interaction I had with a fellow student the moment we left the classroom. “Do you think that the Eastern people will ever come back to the Catholic Church?” he asked. Um… what?? Were you not just sitting there in class? Did you not see how it was not them who broke off from us but a tangled web of issues over the course of many centuries that produced a pretty mutual split? I was quick to answer: “Not with that attitude they won’t.”
Maybe a bit sharp, and I eventually explained what I meant and hopefully put together the pieces he had missed in class, but I stand by my statement: no unification will happen if we hold to the idea that we are the true Church without fault in the matter, and that they need to completely ascent to us. While the Protestant Reformation may have a different dynamic, the relationship between the Eastern and Western Churches, to me at least, is that of rival fraternal twin brothers: coming from the same mother, sharing the same history, and fighting all through our youth, we look different and have different perspectives but neither of us ultimately has a claim to being the more “true” brother. We share in our authentic status as the original Church of Jesus Christ and it is a great sin against the body of Christ that we remain apart.
Theological and practical issues do remain, and I am not saying that those do not matter or that one side cannot be more right than the other. What I am saying, and say quite emphatically, is that unification is not a matter of one side coming back to the other. From the start we were different, and different we will remain. But unification does not mean uniformity. When we look to history, we see that what separates us is not our language, culture, theology, or liturgical practice—these differences existed while we remained in communion with one another for centuries. No, sadly, history reveals that what most keeps us apart is our own desire for power and authority, the notion that we are the real and true Church that others must return to.
If you, like me, disagree with this very un-Christian notion that undermines the body of Christ and wish to see a more unified Church, then let’s begin by showing a little humility towards our Eastern brothers and sisters and work for something more than we have.
For more of a foundation in the issues that divided us a millennia ago, click here to watch this week’s video.