Reconsidering the Sacramental Break Between East and West: Canons, Crusades, and Context

Orthodox Christians living in the United States are generally aware of the fact that outsiders cannot receive the sacraments of the Orthodox Church.  The only exception to this rule—and it is a recent exception—is that Christians from other traditions can marry an Orthodox Christian in a ceremony led by an Orthodox priest or bishop so long as the incoming partner has been baptized in the name of the Trinity.  In canonical terms, this exception is precisely that—an exception made on account of pastoral necessity (i.e. oikonomia), it is not a change in dogmatic policy.  But that begs the question, how exactly did it come to pass that the Orthodox Church forbid sacramental union (baptisms, marriages, the Eucharist, etc.) with Western Christians in the first place?  A careful reading of the historical sources reveals that the canonical grounds for refusing sacraments to Western Christians are more tenuous than most recognize.  Equally problematic is the extent to which the modern reflection on these canonical and ecumenical questions has been hindered by a combination of intellectual stagnation and an ecclesiastical super-structure that, in the post-Byzantine world, has largely failed to resolve important theological questions.

The Ecumenical Councils and writings of the Church Fathers that form the basis for Orthodox canon law all predate the schism between East and West by hundreds of years.  As a consequence, specific canonical interpretations about the legitimacy of the Western Christian traditions (and whether or not any Western doctrines qualify as “heresy”) are always an attempt to adjudicate a theological question on the basis of older, pre-existing regulations that were prompted by different theological concerns.  Thus, even the most well-known questions that differentiated the Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the Middle Ages (such as filioque or Purgatory) were never explicitly addressed by canon law.  The one exception to this, of course, is the debate over papal authority but there are so many conflicting canonical precedents dating to the fourth and fifth century that the appeal to canon law in this regard has always failed to resolve the issue.

Because the application of canon law is an exercise in interpretation, it is important to note that the very history of interpretation can be almost as important as the actual canonical regulations because it is through the process of interpretation that a legislative ideal becomes a practical reality.  And it is here, in the Byzantine interpretation of canon law, that we find the initial interpretive precedents that prevent sacramental union with Western Christians.

Although the Byzantine period was rich in canonical reflection, there was only one interpreter, Theodore Balsamon, who explicitly forbids giving the Eucharist to “Latins.” Balsamon was Chartophylax (i.e. head of the canonical court in Constantinople) during the latter part of the twelfth century.  Responding to a specific question from the Patriarch of Alexandria about whether or not Orthodox clerics could give the Eucharist to Latin soldiers who had been captured in battle, Balsamon judged that they should not unless the prisoners were willing to renounce those doctrines and customs “that are different from ours.” Balsamon did not offer any specific theological reason.  The contextual key to understanding Balsamon’s unprecedented ruling, of course, is the fact that he was writing during the Crusades, when cultural and political animosity between Eastern and Western Christians were reaching their peak.  Balsamon was, himself, personally affected by the Latin colonization of the Eastern Mediterranean—he was elected Patriarch of Antioch in 1185 but was never able take possession of his See because Antioch was, at that time, a Crusader kingdom.

The second influential medieval canonist who took up questions concerning sacramental union with the Latins was Demetri Chomatenos, who was Archbishop of Ochrid during the 1220’s.  With respect to the Eucharist or even praying alongside Latins during a worship service, Chomatenos’ record is mixed.  He discouraged monks on Mt. Athos from communing with any monastic houses that commemorated the bishop of Rome (Ponemata #54), but he may have also judged (the authorship is disputed) that each Orthodox bishop is able to decide for himself whether or not he will give the Eucharist to Latins (Response to Constantine Cabasilas). The fact that these questions were even put to him at this time, approximately 170 years after the schism of 1054, demonstrates the extent to which there was a great variety of opinion and practice (even among monastic communities) with respect to Western Christians.  Perhaps the most problematic and precedent-setting of Chomatenos’s rulings, however, concerns marriage and divorce.  In the wake of the Crusader capture of Constantinople in 1204, many Byzantine aristocratic families aligned themselves with the Latin ruling party rather than the various factions of Greek resistance.  For the case in question (Ponemata #22), a leading member of the resistance sought an ecclesiastical divorce from his wife on the grounds that her father had hidden his allegiance to the Latins and that she had, in sympathy to her father’s cause, attempted to poison him after the marriage.  Chomatenos grants the divorce, arguing that it could never have been a legal marriage in the first place because the wife had not entered it in good faith.  To be sure, this was a divorce between two Orthodox Greeks.  Nevertheless, the ruling (wrongly) served for a long time as a canonical precedent that prevented Orthodox/Catholic marriage on the grounds that such a marriage could not be entered in good faith.

There is far more at stake in revisiting these episodes than simply bringing to light little-known canonical opinions from the era of the Crusades.  At stake are the very foundations of modern Orthodox assumptions about the restrictions preventing sacramental unity with Western Christians, especially Roman Catholics.  Historians have long known that the pronouncements of excommunication leveled by papal and patriarchal officers in 1054 had little practical impact on sacramental co-mingling between Latins and Greeks in areas with mixed populations (including Mt. Athos). But the implementation of a canonical interpretation was of a different order than a general excommunication because it had the potential to exert real change in the way that Christianity was lived by ordinary people. It is precisely for this reason that the canonical opinions of Balsamon especially, but also Chomatenos, are so important for the subsequent development of Orthodox posture vis-à-vis the West. 

It is often asserted in populist histories of the Byzantine Church that it was the Crusades, not the Schism of 1054, that caused the permanent rift between Christian East and Christian West.  The role played by Crusade-weary Balsamon and Chomatenos partially  bears-out such a thesis.  But it should be noted that the real impact of Balsamon and Chomatenos’ rulings was not felt during the Byzantine period when the Patriarchs of Constantinople typically pursued efforts of reconciliation with Western Christians.  Rather, it was in the wake of the Ottoman captivity of the Orthodox Church, beginning in the fifteenth century, when Ottoman sultans deliberately selected anti-unionist clerics to lead the Christian community that these Crusade-era canonical restrictions against sacramental union with Western Christians began to take hold in the Orthodox imagination.  With the collapse of Byzantium, the richness and varied nature of Orthodox canonical debate gradually fell into a steep decline—a decline from which it has never recovered.  And it was in this period of intellectual decline that Balsamon’s legacy gained a disproportionate hold on subsequent canonical assumptions in Orthodox canon law.  As an example, we might note that in the year 1484 the Church of Constantinople (under pressure from the Ottoman government) passed a conciliar decree officially adopting Balsamon’s restriction against sharing the Eucharist with Latins.  That conciliar degree remains in effect today.

To be clear, there are theological questions that will need to be addressed before sacramental unity can be restored.  But it is truly unfortunate that Balsamon’s and Chomatenos’ canonical opinions, which now dominate our approach to Western Christianity, both failed to offer precise theological or canonical arguments for their proscriptions against sacramental unity.  Instead, these interpretations emphasize political and cultural animus against the Crusaders and those Greeks who conspired with them.  When we combine this lack of theological engagement with the fact that the Orthodox ecclesiastical structure has not successfully organized an authoritative gathering of its autocephalous members in more than twelve hundred years, one wonders when, or even if, the questions surrounding sacramental unity with Western Christians will receive the honest and prayerful treatment they deserve.


George E. Demacopoulos

Professor of Theology

Director, Orthodox Christian Studies Center

Fordham University