The Papacy in History – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

As I was reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, I was surprised to read his gloss on the schism between East and West. Of course, I read some things which I expected, such things like it would be dishonest to “place the whole guilt on either side and justify the other accordingly“, and that the dogmatic division centered around Papal supremacy claims and the addition of Filioque into the Creed. However, I was not expecting some of the admissions that came when he sought to speak on the origins of the Papal claims. He openly admits that the view which sees special God-given rights being given to the Bishop of Rome in order to govern the entire Church were “expressed with great clarity” in the works of Pope Leo the Great (see here for more info) in the 5th century (pg. 239). He also says that this conception of ecclesial government “contradicted the idea of the structure of the Church which the whole East had always held” (pg. 240). This leads him to see in the 5th and 6th centuries, already, a division between “two ecclesiologies” which are not merely distinct, but also “mutually exclusive” (ibid). Even more surprisingly is that he emphasizes that the part of the East’s fault in the division of the Church was her lack of confronting that issue and for lacking any “consistent reaction to the growth of the Papacy” (ibid). In no unmistakable terms, he makes clear what the Papal claims were:

The theory of the ‘power’ (potestas) of the Roman primate was openly proclaimed in Rome in the era of the ecumenical councils, and the Protestant canonist Theodor Zahn has formulated it as follows: ‘Rome is the head of the Church, without it the Church is not the Church, and only through union with Rome do the separate communities become part of the Catholic Church’. But the East did not perceive , or did not want to perceive, how this theory clearly contradicted its own doctrine. Rome always clearly followed its own policy, but the East, without ever really accepting it, until the ninth century never once expressed its nonacceptance or rejection of it in any clear way. They always tried to conceal disagreement in diffuse and ambiguous phrases. When Catholic scholars now assert, on the basis of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, that the East recognized the primacy of Rome at that time but later rejected it, it is rather difficult to answer the charge on the basis of formal historical evidence, since one may in fact conclude from the history of those two councils that the Greek bishops admitted the special prerogatives of the Roman bishop…Even more characteristic of this eternal compromise with Rome was the signing of the formula of Pope Hormisdas by the Eastern bishops in 519, ending the thirty-year schism between Rome and Constantinople. The whole essence of the papal claims cannot be more clearly expressed than in this document, which was imposed upon the Eastern bishops…’The Easterners not only did not object in time to the growing mystique of papal dogmas’, wrote a Russian historian, ‘they not only silently signed the papal formulations, but they themselves, by their appeals to Rome, heedless of the juridical implications, supported the sincere illusions of the Romans that the Greeks, too, shared the Western concept of the Papacy’.” (ibid 240-41)

My breath was nearly taken away when I read this. Fr. Schmemann might be famously known for his being a liturgical theologian, but when he studied at the University of Paris (1940-45), he did his thesis on theocracy and the Eastern Roman Empire (wiki), as well as teaching Church History at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute for 6 years before he began a career at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. I am not sure of how well astute a historian he was, but I trust he was at least more than average in his familiarity with the history of the Latin and Greek schism.

Now, while much concession is made on behalf of Papal claims, he did not believe the East ever really accepted them, nor did Fr. Schmemann believe that the Papal theory was of Apostolic origin, for he roots the expansion of Papal claims in the fall of the Western Empire where from the Roman Church became “the only light in the approaching chaos” (pg. 239). Thus, the above is meant to be somehow an apologetic for the legitimacy of Papal claims, or that the East accepted them as legitimate.  Rather, they tolerated it and failed to respond in contradiction. But how can that be? How can it be that the men of old who could so much as cry “fire” when the slightest bit of heresy is suspect be so easily persuaded to accept all of this? Fr. Schmemann recognizes the difficulty of leaving this question alone. He roots the silence of the East contra Papal claims in that the East’s adoption of the Byzantine Imperium as the divine vehicle for structuring the Church around the Emperor as sealing itself separately from the Latin West which was turning more and more to reliance on Papal authority as its own vehicle (pg. 242). He goes so far as to say:

“..the canonical way of thinking in the East was unlike that of the West. From the time when

the Imperial authority became Christian, it was held that all questions concerning outward organization of the Church should be solved in conjunction with that authority, and that therefore ecclesiastical canons should be sanctioned by the Emperor and become law of the land as well. The East’s insensitivity to the depth of its divergence from Rome in its understanding and experience of the Church resulted primarily from the merging of Church and State in the ecclesiastical cast of mind in Byzantium” (Pg. 244).

So there you have it. As a result of many factors, the Greek East and Latin West grew separately, but the above being the principal fork in the road diverging the two.

I truly admire how Fr. Schmemann can seek to be as honest with the historical record as he was, but I still have some doubts about certain aspects of his gloss. While I agree that the Byzantine Imperium, and the whole theocratic ideology associated with it, I think he has, in fact, missed the import of many representatives of the East who not only accepted and relied on the authority of the Pope over the universal Church, but even supported this by the whole Petrine-rationale that was being proclaimed by Latin Saints such as Popes Leo and Celestine. How could it be that he missed the life and writings of St. Maximus the Confessor? It was he who, when commenting on the manner in which Pyrrhus, a former Bishop of Constantinople and heretic, should return to the unity of the Church, said this about him:

“…Let him [Pyrrhus] hasten before all else to to satisfy the Roman See, for if it is satisfied all will [then] agree in calling him pious and orthodox…, [that] Apostolic See which has received universal and supreme dominion, authority, and power of binding and loosing over all the holy churches of God throughout the world, from the incarnate Son of God Himself and also by all holy councils” (Migne PG 91:114; taken from Eastern Orthodoxy’s Witness to Papal Primacy by Stanely Jaki, pg. 5)


In an epistle to the East, St. Maximus describes Rome in the following manner:

from the extremeities of the world all in every part, who purely and rightly confess the Lord, look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and to its confession of faith, as it were to the sun of eternal light, receiving from it the bright radiance of the sacred dogmas of our fathers, according to what the six inspired and canonical sacred synods have purely and piously decreed, interpreting the symbol of faith. For, from the coming down of the incarnate Son of God among us, all the Churches in every part of the world have held and considered that greatest Church alone as the base and foundation, seeing that, according to the promise of our Saviour, the gates of hell shall never prevail against it, that it possesses the keys which conduct to a right confession and faith in Him, that opens the way to the only true religion to such as religiously approach, and closes and places a seal upon every heretical mouth that speaks...” (Migne PG 91:144; ibid, pg. 6)

The above are characteristic of the way in which many Greek Saints described the authority of the Apostolic See. We could recounts the histories and citations from Sts. Stephen of Dor, Theodore the Studite, Anatolius of Constantinople, Athanasius the Great, and Sophronius of Jerusalem, most of whom were separated by centuries apart. And that is merely the tip of the iceberg.

I would also say that the Greek East was not the only side which supported the ideology of the Byzantine-Christian theocracy surrounding the Emperor as the new David. Many Popes who are both Sainted and upheld for their great influence were duly submissive to the ideology behind this. Even the Formula of St. Hormisdas, as mentioned by Fr. Schmemann was itself a utilization of the secular arm by the Pope’s to enforce submission and communion in the East. But while the Greek East and Latin West were playing ball with the Emperor and the State, so long as the latter played according to the rules, it was the Papal West which re-asserted the ecclesial rights of the Episcopate surrounding the Pope, the true Head of the universal Church, when the Emperors decided to violate their role and transgress the boundaries given to the state. The Byzantine East became permanently faced toward itself as time went on through and past the time of Photius, and the West moved in its own legacy with the Papacy and the Frankish Empire through and past the time of Charlemagne unto the rise and expansion of Western power in the late Medieval era. But what I don’t think we should swallow here is this claim by Fr. Schmemann that the East never accepted the Papacy, and only tolerated it willingly for ulterior motives, nor that the Imperial theocracy made her not focus so much on what the West was claiming. None of that is consistent with the theoretical support given to the Papal claims by many Eastern saints.

I think the challenge of history is very much a pressure towards the Eastern Orthodox side. However, with that said, modern events are proving to be a pressure against both the veracity of Catholic claims as well as history. We can speak of history all we want, but can we honestly say that what St. Maximus said above about the Apostolic See of Rome could be said with an occupant such as Jorge Bergoglio? Would we expect St. Athanasius or St. Jerome to applaud the Vatican after reading the recent Instrumentum Laboris (wonderfully criticized by Cardinal Brandmuller) for the Amazonian Synod to be held in Rome (no less) later this year? There is much more to say on this, but we have veered away too much from the purpose and point of this article. Until next time.








4 thoughts on “The Papacy in History – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

  1. Comment

    Yes I agree with your critique Erick. Any time a historian starts saying words like “the whole east” “always” “never” it is often very difficult to prove, and this goes for the west too. In reality, there were multiple competing parties and visions of ecclesiology which clashed for centuries. It is good though, that Schmemann at least implicitly faces the imperial power in the east. From my view, it is the power of the Emperor and his political ambitions which are most often ignored by EO apologists, who like to think the Seven Councils never had anything to do with political ambition. History is a messy thing, and our confessional loyalties start to get strained when we read it honestly. Thank you for your continued honesty and frankness. The knife certainly goes the other way as we Catholics endure the New Iconoclasm.

  2. You have a great gift and talent in speaking and teaching about the papacy as it relates historically and was promulgated in the 1st millenium in the context of East-West Church relations. I would continue this. I would also consider, though, the “last temptation” of Saint Maximos.

    As Catholics, we also have to grapple with the humanity of Saint Peter, who publicly denied his Master three times and was converted by a special grace and intervention of the Lord: Peter is indeed the Rock but it is Christ the Lord who rescues the Church.

    I would also consider the texts from the council that effected briefly the reunion of East and West. Pope Eugenius went along with Conciliarism for a long while until he began to notice the tyranny the council was beginning to impose on Christians: “liberation” from the Papacy increasingly became a true tyranny for Christians under the attempted conciliarism. The Pope lamented this and was angered about how sincere Christians were being used by the coonciliarists. Eventually, he took the historical accident and opportunity of the Greek envoys and ambassadors, secular and religious, desire to meet in a different city to basically organize a kind of Papal coup and take the driver seat of the council, after which everything just fell into his lap and everyone deserted the wolves in sheep’s clothing who were controlling the progress of the council previously. But as near as we can tell the Pope was playing along with conciliarism in practice: imagine how scandalized the faithful of that age must have been as they witnessed this public contradiction of Catholic dogma by the Pope himself as he allowed his office to be subjugated to the will of a council?

  3. Pingback: Erick Ybarra

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