The First Rending of Christendom
St. John Damascene and the Great Schism
St. John Damascene was a truly brilliant writer, with a thorough knowledge of Scripture, the Church Fathers and Greek philosophy which made his apologetics, like those of later Scholastics and modern apologists, impenetrable and utterly convincing. The only true resistance to his case could be from sentiment, politics or some other irrational and worldly source, not from the Faith itself or from logic. If only the Protestant revolutionaries, as well as those sadly influenced by them over the centuries to perpetuate a western version of the Iconoclasm, would have read St. John Damascene with openness and honesty, the obstacle of icons could be easily dismissed. It is also fascinating to see both the influence of earlier saints, such as Dionysius and Gregory, in St. John’s writing, as well as the truly Catholic nature of his thought, as in his recognition of the validity of Tradition and his sacramental imagination, using arguments often repeated by apologists today.
Despite this Catholic nature of his writing, which made him equally venerated by the East and West, he is often claimed to be an Orthodox saint due to his home and foundation in the East. This leads into another related point, namely the tragedy of the Photian or Great Schism of 1054. It is interesting and confusing to trace the development of this schism, to try and uncover what caused it, its justifications and possible reconciliation. It seems to me that both sides could have a case against the other for fault in it: Constantine moving the capital, perhaps unnecessarily, to Constantinople and thus dividing the empire, then exerting excessive authority over the Church and her councils which would be emulated by later Roman and especially Byzantine emperors; the Iconoclasm which was almost entirely repudiated by the West, under the leadership of the pope, while many in the East preferred to side with their emperor and his prideful preference for icons of himself over those of God and the saints; the use of arbitrary anathemas, excommunications, bribery and conciliar trickery by both sides during the schism itself; and finally the Latin occupation of the crusaders which, in many ways, caused the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire and thus left them open to later Islamic conquest and influence.
While the authority of the pope is certainly supreme, as councils themselves testified in the early Church, the attempt of many popes to act as Roman emperors rather than heirs of St. Peter led to the confusion of exactly where papal authority comes from and thus to many in the East seeing their patriarchs of New Rome as the de facto popes. However, the submission of the Church in the East to the authority of the secular rulers above that of the pope was a great error that made it difficult for them to combat the heresies, such as Arianism and Iconoclasm, promoted by the emperors, and even to fight against assaults from later secular governments such as the Soviets, whereas the political neutrality and integral supremacy of the pope gave the West a constant voice of correction against secular incursions.
The loss of incredible works of art and learning, both during the Iconoclasm and the Latin occupation, are great tragedies in their own rights, and one can only wonder what was lost during them and will likely never be regained, yet the tragedy of the schism itself was even worse and continues to divide the Church today. Thankfully, since Vatican II and subsequent popes, some of this rift seems to be healing, and many in the West today have come to a deeper appreciation of the East, especially in its theological, liturgical and iconographic traditions, with many even choosing to attend Eastern Catholic liturgies, admiring their adherence to tradition and theological depth which is often lacking in modern Latin rite Masses. Nevertheless, there are still points of division, including differences in culture and politics, and much bitterness among eastern Christians against western historical offences and doctrinal disagreements that can only be corrected in time.