The patriarchs of the Eastern Church could not admit the overriding jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome for a simple reason: they had long since been subordinated to the Greek emperors, and these would not till 871 abandon their claim to sovereignty over Rome and its popes. The patriarchs occasionally criticized, disobeyed, even denounced, the emperors; but they were appointed and deposed by the emperors, who called ecclesiastical councils, regulated church affairs by state law, and published their theological opinions and directives to the ecclesiastical world. The only checks on the religious autocracy of the emperor in Eastern Christendom were the power of the monks, the tongue of the patriarch, and the vow taken by the emperor, at his coronation by the patriarch, that he would introduce no novelty into the Church.
Constantinople—indeed all the Greek East—was now dotted with monasteries and nunneries in far greater number than in the West. The monastic passion captured some of the Byzantine emperors themselves: they lived like ascetics amid the luxury of the palace, heard Mass daily, ate abstemiously, and bemoaned their sins as sedulously as they committed them. The piety of emperors and of the moribund rich enlarged and multiplied the monasteries with gifts and legacies; men and women of high rank, frightened by omens of death, sought admission to monasteries, and brought with them an ingratiating wealth that would no longer be subject to taxation; others deeded some of their property to a monastery, which then paid them an annuity. Many monasteries claimed to possess relics of revered saints; people credited the monks with control of the wonder-working power of these relics, and offered their coins in the hope of making an unreasonable profit on their investments. A minority of the monks disgraced their faith with idleness, venery, faction, and greed; the majority were reconciled to virtue and peace; altogether the monks enjoyed a popular veneration, a material wealth, and even a political influence that no emperor could ignore. Theodore (759-826), Abbot of the monastery of Studion in Constantinople, was an exemplar of monastic piety and power. Dedicated to the Church by his mother in his childhood, he accepted the Christian mood so thoroughly that in his mother’s last illness he complimented her on her approaching death and glory. He drew up for his monks a code of labor, prayer, chastity, and intellectual development that could stand comparison with that of Benedict in the West. He defended the use of religious images, and boldly denied, before the Emperor Leo V, that the secular power had any jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs. Four times he was banished for this intransigeance; but from his exile he continued to resist the Iconoclasts till his death.
Differences of language, liturgy, and doctrine during these centuries drove Latin and Greek Christianity further and further apart, like a biological species divided in space and diversified in time. Greek liturgy, ecclesiastical vestments, vessels, and ornaments were more complex, ornate, and artistically wrought than those of the West; the Greek cross had equal arms; the Greeks prayed standing, the Latins kneeling; the Greeks baptized by immersion, the Latins by aspersion; marriage was forbidden to Latin, permitted to Greek, priests; Latin priests shaved, Greek priests had contemplative beards. The Latin clergy specialized in politics, the Greek in theology; heresy almost always rose in an East that had inherited the Greek passion for defining the infinite. From the old Gnostic heresies of Bardesanes in Syria, and perhaps from the westward movement of Manichean ideas, there arose in Armenia, about 660, a sect of Paulicians that took its name from St. Paul, rejected the Old Testament, the sacraments, the reverence paid to images, the symbolism of the cross. Like some advancing pullulation these groups and theories spread through the Near East into the Balkans, Italy, and France. They bore heroically the most merciless persecutions, and still survive as remnants in the Molokhani, the Khlysti, and the Dukhobors.
The monothelite controversy was more agitated by the emperors than by the people. And doubtless the people were not responsible for the filioque that so tragically advanced the schism of Greek from Latin Christianity. The Nicene Creed had spoken of “the Holy Ghost, who proceedeth from the Father”—ex patre procedit; for 250 years this sufficed; but in 589 a church council at Toledo made the statement read ex patre filioque procedit—“proceedeth from the Father and the Son”; this addition was accepted in Gaul, and zealously adopted by Charlemagne. The Greek theologians protested that the Holy Ghost proceeded not from but through the Son. The popes held the balance patiently for a time, and not until the eleventh century was the filioque officially entered into the Latin creed.
Meanwhile a struggle of wills was added to the conflict of ideas. Among the monks who had fled from Iconoclastic oppression was Ignatius, son of the Emperor Michael I. In 840 the Empress Theodora recalled the monk, and made him patriarch. He was a man of piety and courage; he denounced the prime minister Caesar Bardas, who had divorced his wife and lived with the widow of his son; and when Bardas persisted in incest Ignatius excluded him from the Church. Bardas banished Ignatius, and raised to the patriarchate the most accomplished scholar of the age (858). Photius (820?–91) was a master of philology, oratory, science, and philosophy; his lectures at the University of Constantinople had drawn to him a group of devoted students, to whom he opened his library and his home. Shortly before his promotion to the patriarchal see he had completed an encyclopedic Myriobiblion in 280 chapters, each of which reviewed and sampled an important book; through this vast compilation many passages of classic literature were preserved. His broad culture raised Photius above the fanaticism of the populace, which could not understand why he remained on such good terms with the emir of Crete. His sudden elevation from layman to patriarch offended the clergy of Constantinople; Ignatius refused to resign, and appealed to the bishop of Rome. Nicholas I sent legates to Constantinople to inquire into the case; and in letters to the Emperor Michael III and Photius he laid down the principle that no ecclesiastical matter of grave moment should be decided anywhere in Christendom without the consent of the pope. The Emperor called a church council, which ratified the appointment of Photius, and the Pope’s legates joined in the confirmation. When they returned to Rome Nicholas repudiated them as having exceeded their instructions; he ordered the Emperor to reinstate Ignatius; and when his command was ignored he excommunicated Photius (863). Bardas threatened to send an army to depose Nicholas; the Pope, in an eloquent reply, scornfully pointed to the Emperor’s submission to the marauding Slavs and Saracens.
We have not invaded Crete; we have not depopulated Sicily; we have not subdued Greece; we have not burned the churches in the very suburbs of Constantinople; yet while these pagans with impunity conquer, burn, and lay waste [your territories], we, Catholic Christians, are menaced with the vain terror of your arms. Ye release Barabbas, and kill Christ.27
Photius and the Emperor called another church council, which excommunicated the Pope (867), and denounced the “heresies” of the Roman Church—among them the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son, the shaving of priestly beards, and the enforced celibacy of the clergy; “from this usage,” said Photius, “we see in the West so many children who do not know their fathers.”
While Greek messengers were bearing these pleasantries to Rome, the situation was suddenly changed (867) by the accession of Basil I, who had murdered Caesar Bardas and had superintended the assassination of Michael III. Photius denounced the new Emperor as a murderer, and refused him the sacraments. Basil called a church council, which obediently deposed, insulted, and banished Photius, and restored Ignatius. But when Ignatius soon thereafter died, Basil recalled Photius; a council reinstated him as patriarch; and (Nicholas I having died) Pope John VIII approved. The schism of East and West was for a moment postponed by the death of the protagonists.