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Western Christianity

General Essay on Western Christianity

For most of its history the church in Europe has been divided between the Latin-speaking west, whose centre was Rome, and the Greek-speaking east, whose centre was Constantinople. Cultural differences and political rivalry created tensions between the two churches, leading to conflict over doctrine and ultimately to schism. Historians identify three incidents which mark the separation between the two churches: the Photian schism (863-7), the mutual anathematizing of the two churches in 1054, and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth crusade.

The Photian schism was the result of a dispute between the Byzantine patriarch, Photius (c. 820-891), and Pope Nicholas I. In 858 Patriarch Ignatius was deposed by Emperor Michael and succeeded by Photius, a soldier and scholar with very limited clerical training. Pope Nicholas I declared Photius' election invalid and condemned and excommunicated Photius when he refused to resign. In response to this Photius convened a church council in 867 in which he condemned and excommunicated Nicholas and refused communion with Rome. In the same year, however, a new emperor, Basilius, deposed and exiled Photius and reinstated Ignatius. The schism was finally brought to an end in 870 by a synod in Constantinople.

The second and lasting schism ocurred in 1054. Behind this schism lay a long-standing dispute between the eastern and western churches over the nature of the Trinity. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, which is accepted by almost all Christian traditions as a valid formulation of the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit is described as one "who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified". From the 6th century a number of Latin churches added the word "filioque" (and the Son) to the creed in order to affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. This amended version of the creed received official acceptance by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014.

The churches in the east could not accept this formulation and sought a degree of independence from Rome. In 1024 the Byzantine emperor sent an embassy to Pope John XIX with the request that the Patriarch of Constantinople be allowed to act independently of Rome within its own jurisdiction. This request was rejected by Rome. In response, Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered all the churches of the Latin rite in Constantinople to be closed. This in turn led Rome to anathematise Cerularius and Cerularius to anathematise the Roman legates who excommunicated him. The effect of the excommunication was to establish the independence of the Greek church from the Latin church and to permanently divide Christian Europe.

For the majority of ordinary Christians such theological and political disputes between the east and the west were of little consequence. For many eastern Christians the principal source of hostility between the two churches was the fourth crusade. The crusades were a series of wars launched by the church from the 11th to the 13th centuries with the purpose of recovering the holy lands that had fallen under the control of the advancing Muslim armies. During the fourth crusade (1202-1204) the Latin Christian armies attacked, captured and sacked Constantinople. A Latin patriarch was appointed to rule over Constantinople and the Greek church was placed under the authority of the Pope. In 1261 the Byzantine empire regained Constantinople but, greatly weakened by the conflict, was unable to withstand the advances of the advancing Islamic armies and in 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire.

In addition to having to deal with conflicts between itself and the eastern church, the western church also had to contend with divisions within itself. One consequence of the crusades was that western Christians came into contact with a number of independent movements that were strong in south-eastern Europe. The most important of these, the Bogomiles, taught that life is divided between spirit, which is good, and matter, which is evil. Such was their aversion to matter that initiates to the movement were forbidden sexual intercourse, wine and meat. Those in western Europe who adopted such beliefs came to be known as Catharoi (pure ones). Such was the strength of the Cathars at the beginning of the 13th century - particularly in the South of France - that Pope Innocent III inaugurated a crusade against them which led to the destruction of the cities in which they were predominant and, by the 15th century, the annihilation of the movement.

The second of these movements, the Waldenses, was founded by a certain Peter Waldo who, on hearing the Gospel preached, was inspired to give up all his possessions to the poor. Waldo and his followers sought to establish a form of Christianity that was based solely upon the Bible and, consequently, attacked perceived non-biblical practices such as worship of the saints, taking of oaths and the taking of life. In 1184 the Waldenses, as they came to be known, were declared heretics by the pope and subjected to persecution and discrimination. In spite of this they have survived to the present day, and have communities in Italy and South America.

In the 14th century another independent sect arose which acquired the pejorative name "Lollards" (mening mutterer or mumblers). The Lollards gained the support of one of the most eminent theologians of the 14th century, John Wycliffe (c. 1329-1384) of the University of Oxford. During the 14th century it was widely believed that the social hierarchy reflected the will of God and, therefore, obedience to one's master was a form of obedience to God. Wycliffe challenged this view by arguing that the only authority to which people were accountable was God. Similarly, he challenged the authority and power of the church by admonishing the church to return to the simplified organisation of the New Testament. Theologically, Wycliffe attacked the doctrines of the Mass (that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ) and called for the Bible to be translated into English.

Wycliffe's ideas had an important influence on a Czech Theologian called John Huss (c. 1369-1415). Like the Lollards, Huss and his followers challenged all rituals and practices which they regarded as without a biblical basis and demanded that communion be given to the laity in both kinds. In 1414 Huss was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance, where he was arrested, accused of heresy and put to death by fire (July 6, 1415). Huss' followers (known as the Hussites) continued in spite of their leader's death and a series of crusades launched against them by the Catholic chuch.

A more positive feature of western medieval Christian life was the establishment of a number of important religious orders. Two motives inspired the establishment of these orders: the desire to return to a more austere form of monasticism characteristic of the early Benedictine orders and the desire to spread the Christian faith within and beyond Europe. The earlist of the medieval orders, the Carthusians, was founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084. The Carthusians are distinguished by their austere lifestyle and based on isolation and almost perpetual silence.

A second order, the Cistercians, was founded in 1098 by twenty-one Benedictine monks. Like the Carthusians, the Cistercians sought a simple austere lifestyle which was symbolised by their robes made of cheap, undyed wool. The best known Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153), founded seventy monasteries during the 12th century.

Equally austere were the Carmelites, an order founded by Christian settlers on Mount Carmel in Palestine towards the end of the 12th century. Carmelite life combined both solitude and community; each member of the community lived in an individual cell, meeting other monks only for the eucharist and communal work. In 1452 a Carmelite order of women was established. The most famous Carmelite nun was Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who founded her own convent in 1562 and is one of Roman Catholicism's most famous mystics.

The Franciscan order (the friars) were founded by Francis of Assissi, one of the greatest medieval saints. While on a military expedition I 1205, Francis, inspired by a dream, decided to leave behind his life of wealth and pleasure and devote himself to the sick and the poor. In 1206 he rebuilt the ruined church of San Damiano and over time gathered a group of followers. In 1209 the order received papal approval, and I 1212 an order of Franciscan nuns was set up by St Clare, an early convert of St Francis.

The Dominicans were an order of priests founded in 1216 by Dominic de Guzman with the purpose of preaching and teaching the Gospel in the new cities of Europe. The Dominicans contributed greatly to medieval university life by using science and philosophy to present Christian theology in a systematic way. After a period of decline the order revived in the 14th century under the influence of Catherine of Siena (c. 1347-80), famous for her mysticism and compassion for the sick and imprisoned. The order ssuffered during the reformation and French revolution, but revived in the 19th and 20th centuries to a point at which it now has 7,500 members working in 86 countries.

Like the Dominicans, the Jesuit order was founded with the purpose of propagating the Christian faith. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), was a soldier who, while recovering from battle wounds, was inspired by a work on the life of Christ to entirely devote himself to the church. In 1540 Loyola established the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits), an order distinguished from others by its members wearing ordinary clothes rather than a distinctive religious habit and their expressed commitment to total obedience to the pope. As a result of missions to Asia, Latin America, North America and Africa, the order has now established itself worldwide.

The dominance of Rome in western Europe came to an end in the 16th century through the Protestant reformation. At this time the majority of countries in central and northern Europe broke away from the authority of Rome and established churches which placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the local prince, monarch or government. These churches, which came to be known as Protestant, sought to return to the early style of Christianity practiced by the churches of the New Testament and to rid themselves of the non-biblical accretions which they believed to have sullied the church.

In response to the Protestant reformation the Roman Catholic Church sought to strengthen itself by ridding itself of the corruption that had plagued it during the 14th and 15th centuries. The reform process, known as the counter-reformation, clarified and elaborated church doctrine and allowed for the enforcement of doctrine through the establishment of the Roman Inquistion. While the reforms were widely accepted in the Roman church, there were those who felt that they were excessively centralising. An important figure in this respect was the Flemish theologian Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), who experienced difficulties because of his sympathy with certain Protestant doctrines, particularly the irresistibility of grace. Jansen's views were published in 1640, two years after his death, in a work entitled the Augusinus. In 1653 the work was condemened by Pope Innocent X Those Catholics who continued to support Jansen's views went into exile I Holland where, in 1723, the Jansenist Church of Holland was formed. The Jansenist Church, which is sometimes referred to as the Dutch Old Catholics, continues to the present day.

The second major schism over doctrine within Roman Catholicism happened in the 19th century. The twentieth ecumenical council (Vatican I), held from December 1869 to October 1870, was called with the purpose of combatting the rationalism, materialism and atheism that was growing in Europe and other parts of the world. One of the mechanisms used to combat these developments was the strengthening of papal authority. This principle was given dogmatic form in the doctrine of papal infallibility that was promulgated by Vatican I. The doctrine of papal infallibility states that statements made on matters of faith or morals made by the pope speaking from the throne are guaranteed the assistance of the Holy Spirit and therefore are free from error. A number of Roman Catholic churches in Germany and Austria refused to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility and separated themselves from the authority of Rome. To their numbers was added the Polish National Catholic Church, which was founded in the United States in 1897 by Polish immigrants who had entered into conflict with the Roman hierarchy over a number of ecclesiastical matters.


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