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The Great Schism: When The Catholic And Eastern Orthodox Churches Split


Now it's time for a regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories in the news by parsing some of the words associated with them. Today's word is schism. We expect to hear that word this week as Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, and Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, traveled to Greece to meet over the plight of refugees. But that meeting raises the question of why there's an Eastern and Western church to begin with. That divide is called the great schism. To help us understand this, we invited Monsignor Paul McPartlan to stop by our studios. He's a professor of systematic theology and ecumenism at the Catholic University of America.

PAUL MCPARTLAN: It's a great pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: Needless to say, people have devoted centuries of debate and study to this. But as briefly as you can, can you tell us what happened that drove the two branches of the church apart?

MCPARTLAN: Well, schism is really a break of religion...

MARTIN: So I pronounced it improperly - schism.

MCPARTLAN: Well, there are two possible pronunciations.


MCPARTLAN: Some people say schism; some people say schism.


MCPARTLAN: So it's really a break of relations between two Christian communities or churches. Really, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church date back to the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire. The west was centered on Rome. The east was centered on Constantinople. They were in communion with one another in the first millennium. But of course, there were always differences between them. The west spoke Latin. The east spoke Greek. So there was always a danger of miscommunication. And in 1054 itself, there was friction between the papal delegate, Cardinal Humbert, and the patriarch of Constantinople. The cardinal excommunicated the patriarch. The patriarch in retaliation excommunicated the cardinal. And this was, unfortunately, simply never resolved.

MARTIN: At the core of this, are these theological differences, or are these really more reflective of geographic differences?

MCPARTLAN: That's certainly part of it, and differences of culture, differences of language. I would certainly say that deep down there are no fundamental theological differences between east and west. In fact, there are some today who even think that still really at his one church, Pope John Paul used to talk about the two lungs of one church, and the church needing to breathe again with its western lung and its eastern lung. And that's a lovely image of unity.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. What is the significance of these two central figures meeting at this particular time? What should we draw from the fact that they are meeting?

MCPARTLAN: Well, I think we should draw from that fact a great sense of the growing warmth and closeness between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church at its most senior levels. The pope and the ecumenical patriarch have had good relations ever since the pope was inaugurated. The Pope went to Constantinople at the end of 2014. So there's a great sense of warmth and rapport between the two of them.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of this being a moment that we'll look back on as being an important historical moment in the life of the Church?

MCPARTLAN: I do think that this is an historical moment in the life of the Church. I mean, as Catholics, we believe that the pope we are given is given to us by the Holy Spirit. Many Catholics feel that Pope Francis is an immense gift to us at a very crucial time in the history not just of the Church but of the world. And I think it's very heartening to see how wide an appreciation the pope has gained from people of religion and also of no particular religion. They see a man who shines a light in the midst of a lot of darkness today.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Monsignor Paul McPartlan. He is professor of systematic theology and ecumenism at the Catholic University of America, which is here in Washington, D.C. Monsignor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCPARTLAN: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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