Background on the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches

Posted: Friday, January 03, 2003

Orthodox Christian Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have been separated since the Great Schism in 1054 in a dispute over papal authority and interpretation of their creed.



The Roman Catholic Church has 1 billion followers and its leader is the pope, the bishop of Rome. Peter, the most prominent of Jesus' 12 disciples, was the first bishop of Rome and was martyred there, giving the position -- and the city -- its distinction to Christians.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of 200 million Orthodox Christians. His church in Constantinople -- modern-day Istanbul, Turkey -- was founded by Andrew, the brother of Peter.

There are more than a dozen independent or autonomous Orthodox churches, run by patriarchs or archbishops. Russia's Orthodox church, under Patriarch Alexy II, is the largest. Although Bartholomew is ''first among equals'' of Orthodox leaders, he does not have the pope's power.



The dispute is rooted in a decision by Emperor Constantine in 330 to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, later Constantinople. The decision created a power struggle between the popes and patriarchs.

Constantine also convened the council that formulated the Nicene Creed, a confession of faith that delineates the roles of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.



The creed is their main theological division.

Originally the Nicene Creed read: ''I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Son.''

By the year 800, it had been altered in the West to: ''who proceeds from the Father and the Son.''

The East accused the West of encouraging a false church doctrine.



Attempts to reconcile differences were made in 1274 and in 1439, but ended in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Most serious attempt to rekindle dialogue came in 1965, after the Second Vatican Council and Ecumenical Holy Synod withdrew a series of anathemas -- or damnations -- issued in 1054. Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met twice in 1964 and once 1967.

Dialogue began again in earnest when Bartholomew was elected in 1991. His attempts suffered a setback over Russian complaints that Catholics were attempting to proselytize what they considered Orthodox lands in the former Soviet bloc.

Travels by Pope John Paul II have also helped promote contact between the churches.

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