Why the sacramental break between East and West?
Michael Peppard February 24, 2014 - 5:59pm
Well-educated Catholics know a thing or two about why the Great Schism, separating the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, occurred in the eleventh century. But most of us know just that -- only a thing or two. I'll include myself in that group: when students ask me, I say something about the filioque and papal authority.
A recent piece by historian George Demacopoulos posted on the blog of the Greek Archdiocese of North America shows the importance of contextualizing the split in the fuller contexts of canon law and the Crusades. He asks: "[H]ow exactly did it come to pass that the Orthodox Church forbid sacramental union (baptisms, marriages, the Eucharist, etc.) with Western Christians in the first place?"
A careful reading of the historical sources reveals that the canonical grounds for refusing sacraments to Western Christians are more tenuous than most recognize. Equally problematic is the extent to which the modern reflection on these canonical and ecumenical questions has been hindered by a combination of intellectual stagnation and an ecclesiastical super-structure that, in the post-Byzantine world, has largely failed to resolve important theological questions.
Demacopoulos goes on to describe the rather sparse canonical engagement with the question of sacramental communion. And the two canonists who did engage the issue, Balsamon and Chomatenos, were "Crusade-weary" sources whose opinions were not evenly followed. Demacopoulos argues it was only during the later "Ottoman captivity of the Orthodox Church," a "period of intellectual decline," that "Balsamon’s legacy gained a disproportionate hold on subsequent canonical assumptions in Orthodox canon law."
Demacopoulos admits, of course, that major obstacles to sacramental unity remain. But it is salutary to learn the historical contextualization of the two canonists whose viewpoints still "dominate [the Orthodox] approach to Western Christianity." In this one prominent historian's assessment, at least, they "both failed to offer precise theological or canonical arguments for their proscriptions against sacramental unity. Instead, these interpretations emphasize political and cultural animus against the Crusaders and those Greeks who conspired with them."