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What is a Schism?

A schism is a split or division in a church or religious group concerning religious belief or organizational structure--one in which a church splits into two or more separate denominations-- too frequently denominations that are hostile to each other.

The greatest medieval schism was that between the Roman Catholic church and the Greek Orthodox church (which continues to this day). Roman Catholics have traditionally believed the Petrine doctrine. The Petrine doctrine is the belief that Saint Peter was given special authority by Christ that has since passed on to each Pope. In the Gospel narratives, Matthew 16:18-19, Christ states, "You are Peter [petrus], the Rock [petros], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. To you I will give the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." A similar verse is found in John 21:15-17. Medieval (and modern) Catholics would think of the Archbishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope) as being in direct apostolic lineage from Saint Peter. That means the particular archbishop of Rome who anointed later Popes had been annointed by earlier Popes all the way back to Saint Peter himself. Traditionally, each archbishop of Rome would inherit Saint Peter's special responsibilities and privileges--just as every other archbishop would normally receive the same traditional duties and powers that his predecessors had. Thus, the Pope (who was the Archbishop of Rome) inherited the same special authority Saint Peter had been given by Christ.

The Orthodox Greek church did not share this belief. Its constituents thought of the Pope as being the first among equals, an archbishop like any other. The Pope was thus like a Patriarch in Greek orthodoxy; i.e., he did not have special authority to command the whole church in spite of his unique prestige. The two halves of the medieval church in the West and the East argued about this, but that was the sum of the dispute for several centuries. The differences between the two halves of the old Roman empire was exacerbated by the differences in language as well. (Western Europe spoke Latin, but the Eastern half of the old Roman empire in Byzantium spoke Greek.)

In 1054 a political struggle took place between the Holy Roman Empire (created when the Pope crowned Charlemagne) and the Byzantine Empire. They could not reach a compromise concerning who was in charge. Western Christians believed the Pope in Rome was the supreme authority. The Eastern Christians believed the Patriarch and the council of Bishops of Constantinople together were the supreme authority. First, papal legates threatened to excommunicate the patriarch of Constantinople. Later, the pope actually did so. The Patriarch of Constantinople returned the favor by excommunicating the Pope, and diplomatic ties withered between West and East, with the two halves growing apart in language, custom, church ritual, and political ties.

In 1378, the Great Schism took place. Pope Gregory XI died and a Roman mob intimidated the French-dominated College of Cardinals into choosing an Italian candidate, Pope Urban VI, as head of the church. Urban upset these cardinals, who declared him deposed, and they elected a Frenchman, Clement VII. Clement set up a new papal court in Avignon, but Urban continued holding court in Rome. During the next three decades, England, Scandinavia, Germany, and northern Italy supported the Roman Pope. France, Scotland, Naples, Sicily, and the kingdoms in Spain supported the French Pope. The two popes placed the nations supporting their rivals under interdiction and excommunication--each condemning the other half of Christendom to damnation. This schism remained unreconciled until 1417.

In 1517, another major schism was Martin Luther's break with Rome after he posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg. Ultimately, this action splintered the church into rival protestant fractions that then continued to sub-splinter into ever smaller and ever more quarrelsome fragments. In Renaissance Britain, this process leads to another major schism when Henry VIII , desperate for a divorce, formed his own Anglican Church separate from the Roman Catholic Church. He disbanded all the British monasteries and nunneries, seized their properties as state spoils, and built his own nationalized Anglican Church, appointing himself head of the religious body. This allowed him effectively to divorce his wife and remarry to try again for a male heir to his throne. See Anglican Church. Click here to return to the schism entry for the literary vocabulary listings.



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