We often think schism is caused by heresy, but often it is the case that a heresy is merely propped up as an excuse for the schism, when the real motives lie elsewhere.
In his essay, “Cultural Polarity and Religious Schism,” the great historian Christopher Dawson wrote:
Behind every heresy lies some kind of social conflict, and it is only by the resolution of this conflict that unity can be restored.
He gives as an example the Armenian schism at the time of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
Yet even from the beginning it is obvious that the passions which filled the steets of Alexandria with tumult and bloodshed and set bishops fighting like wild animals were not inspired by a pure desire for theological truth or even by purely religious motives of any kind.
Dawson goes on to analyze the sociological causes behind schisms, including that of Protestantism in Europe during the time of the Reformation, but I want to focus more specifically on the Orthodox schism.
It seems clear to me that the Orthodox schism from the Catholic Church was caused by motives other than theological. Indeed, reading the history of the events of the schism, the rift between the Latin West and Greek East, coupled with the overweening pride of the leaders on both sides, it is clear that such deep cultural, political, and geographic differences contributed to the schism more than the relatively minor theological differences.
So while the theological problems need to be intensely worked on–which is just what the Catholic-Orthodox commissions are doing currently–the real healing of the schism will only come through deep humility on the part of both parties…and a willingness to extend the other the benefit of the doubt.
In my view, it is the Catholic Church and her leaders who must bend the knee in apology first. The bigger man must lower himself. And, I would point out that JPII and Pope Benedict have already done this multiple times:
1. After raised to the chair of Peter, Benedict promptly dropped the title “Patriarch of the West”
2. JPII returned a revered icon to the Russian Orthodox Church
Interestingly, both of these actions were met with derision in several Orthodox quarters, calling to mind the aphorism, “let no good deed go unpunished.” But it doesn’t matter. The important thing is for the Catholic Church to continue to show humility, which by God’s grace will soften the hearts of the Orthodox and ultimately allow Christ to heal the schism.
Dawson ends his essay on a hopeful note:
I believe that the age of schism is passing and that the time has come when the divine principle of the Church’s life will assert its attractive power, drawing all the living elements of Christian life and thought into organic unity.
For since Christ is the Head of the Church and the Holy Spirit is the life of the Church, wherever there is faith in Christ and the Spirit of Christ there is the spirit of unity and the means of reunion.