East and West

Pope Leo IX stared down from the ramparts with horror.  On the battlefield before him lay an army of corpses.  Once vigorous men of war, they had marched under the papal banner at his command to this forsaken place in southern Italy, a town named Civitate.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

This post is the first in reviewing this second book from what is intended to be a four-part history of Christendom – from Pentecost to our day.  Strickland begins with a brief review of the events immediately prior to the Great Schism of 1054.  And he begins with this battle, taking place in the prior year.

The intent was to rid southern Italy of the Normans.  Never before had a Pope raised an army under his banner.  He came to this after failing to receive help from Byzantium – no surprise, given the low state of relations at the time.  He did receive a battalion from the emperor, Henry III.  Beyond this, he raised and financed his own army.

He had consecrated its violence by equating combat with martyrdom.  Dying beneath the papal banner had become, in his case at least, a path to salvation.

The Pope’s army greatly outnumbered the Normans, yet were beaten.  A Norman commander, Robert Guiscard, managed to outflank the papal forces.  They were destroyed, while their leader watched helplessly.

The environment at the time included the Western Church just coming out of more than a century of scandal – the Vatican serving as a brothel, with nepotism and bribery rampant.  Michael Cerularius, in the East, claimed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch”; translated to Latin, this seemed to imply a universal jurisdiction, even over the pope.

The aftermath of the battle saw the townspeople of Civitate throw the pope through their gates and into the custody of the Normans.  It could have been worse – at least the Normans were Latinized Christians.  He remained in captivity for nine months.

One day, Cardinal Humbert would come to see him with a message.  Leo must dispatch a legation to Constantinople, in order to deal with this issue of the Ecumenical Patriarch.  Further, there was contempt in the East for the Latin liturgical practices.

The Latins were wrong, according to the Eastern view, for introducing unleavened bread and in insisting that priests shave their beards and practice celibacy.  The parish priests of the East had been married, with children – this was recognized since the seventh century Council in Trullo.  But Western reformers, Humbert among them, sought to change this.

The terminally ill Leo would send Humbert and a delegation to confront Patriarch Michael.  It was hoped that this would convince Michael to change his views.  The alternative, on which he may or may not have reflected, was that it would result in the final straw to tear the Church in two.  As we know, and as was developed at the end of the first volume, this is precisely what occurred.

Strickland has previously developed the Eastern idea of symphony: the emperor, as head of the state, was expected to rule in harmony with the bishops.  Within this framework, he would issue laws, raise taxes, support the clergy, and suppress heresies.  The emperor was subject to divine law, but the bishops were subject to the emperor.  One ruler, one authority.  This was the vision of Eusebius.

This as opposed to the view of Augustine, with his vision of two cities and which carried influence in the West.  Augustine saw the wickedness and corruption of earthly rulers; he lived through the fall of Rome.  His statement that colorfully captures this sentiment:

For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Augustine’s city of God would not be disconnected from this world; it held a duty to judge society and be the source of its renewal. To do this, it must have authority outside of and apart from the emperor.

As has to be obvious, my Western mind is rather biased on this topic.  Given how history has played out, even in the East and even during the height of Eastern Christendom, it seems a false hope that those with the skills to rise to political authority also have the humility to rule with Christian charity.

In fact, what we have seen come about is Eusebius’s vision turned on its head.  Today’s “emperor,” instead of humbling himself before the Church, now humbles the church to his cause.  Neither the vision of Eusebius nor the vision of Augustine have won the day (although Augustine’s did hold, not perfectly and sometimes poorly, in the West until the Reformation).


Yet this is one of the key points through which Strickland will compare and contrast East and West.  And, from what I have seen and given his background, he seems to view Eusebius’s vision more favorably for Christendom than the vision of Augustine.

It isn’t like the Western Church – both before the Great Schism and leading up to the Reformation – always presented a good manifestation of the City of God.  Glass houses and thrown stones and all that…. Both East and West have fallen short.

In any case, my hope is that I keep a mind open enough to properly entertain Strickland’s arguments…

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.