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C - 12 : Catholic Churches to the West - Orthodox Churches to the East

When travelling from Corfu to Venice, we will cross several borders - five state borders (Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy), the EU border (between Montenegro and Croatia), the Schengen border (between Croatia and Slovenia), four language borders - Greek, Albanian (Montenegrins on the coast speak Albanian), Croatian, Slovenian and Italian. But few notice one of the oldest borders for more than 1’000 years of European History. The borderline between the Orthodox Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West. Up to the Bay of Kotor, we will see orthodox Churches with their typical domes. Further west the catholic churches with campaniles modelled after the tower in San Marco Place dominate. Many Europeans were completely unaware of this border until it became divisive during the civil war in Yugoslavia (see )

Borderline between the Orthodox Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West How did this borderline arise and why does it still exist today? To understand, we need to go back to the beginning of the Christian Church which became quasi state religion under Roman Emperor Constantine the Great - yes the man who moved the Empire’s Capital from Rome to Constantinople and who confiscated the treasures of all other temples to finance his bankrupt Empire (see the blogs B - 15 and B - 11 from last year).

Spread of Christianity to 325 AD, the year of the Council of Nicaea One of the reasons Constantine chose Christianity as religion (apart from his mother being a devout Christian and the confiscation of wealth) was his aim to create a common cultural and religious base for his empire. We do not really know how familiar he was with Christian doctrine, but he must have realised that there were many people with different views on how to interpret the story of Jesus. Given that there were 3 historic Archdioceses (Rome where St Peter was executed), Alexandria (where Peter’s travel companion Mark established the first Christian community) and Antioch (where the disciples fled during the Jewish Rebellion in Palestine) and many isolated Christian communities, different interpretations of the Bible resulted from the geographical isolation. There was also no coherent rule book. Constantine thus convened the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 AD with 250 - 300 participants. They deliberated subjects such as the nature of Christ (God or human during his life), fixed the church calendar with Easter at its core and validated baptism for conversions. But these themes were the smoke screen for the real debate: who held power in the new state church. The contemporary church paintings give a clear answer. Constantine the Great was the Pontifex Maximus (as all other Emperors before him) and held ultimate authority in any religious matters. He chaired the Economical Council, confirmed that the Archdioceses of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch had extraterritorial jurisdiction, established the new Patriarch of Constantinople as his advisor and commissioned 50 bibles - the first time ever a decision was made which books would be part of the bible body (the Ethiopian and Kerala Church has still to this day seven more books in the New Testament; the books of Judas never made it).

Emperor Constantine the Great chairing the Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 Over the next seven centuries, seven more Ecumenical Councils followed which canonised Catholic Doctrine and organised the Church. Interestingly, they were never chaired by the Pope who run the Archdiocese of Rome but by the Patriarch of Constantinople who held - backed by the powerful Byzantine Emperor - considerably more power. We should remember that Constantinople was a city of 500’000 people whilst Rome had shrunk from 1 million to less than 50’000 by 600 AD.

Constantinople with the new double-town walls of Theodosius which would last to 1453 when the Ottomans took the city Of course, the Popes were unhappy with this arrangement but could do little. They had to wait until a equal power would balance Byzantine. They eventually got their chance with Charlemagne, the Frank Emperor, who unified Western Europe and created the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. It was powerful and big! When Empress Irene became Byzantine Ruler (first time a woman ruled Byzantine from 797 - 802 AD), Pope Leo III declared that a woman could not be the head of Church and arranged the coronation of Charlemagne in Rome in 800 AD. Of course, his motives were not pure but careful power considerations. With a new Emperor in the West, he could better defend Italy against the Arab raiders plus openly challenge the Patriarch of Constantinople. Even better, since Leo III put the Imperial crown on Charlemagne's head, he could argue that the power to appoint emperors was his, God's Deputy on earth. And that is exactly what he did. Very shrewd man, this Leo III.

The Frankish or Holy Roman Empire of German Nations at Charlemagne’s death

Coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD by Raffael - wonder why this painting is a key piece in the Pope’s art collection …? The dualism between Rome and Constantinople did not solve anything but created clash after clash. Whilst formally arguing about doctrines (the disputes were banal in nature), the real argument was whether the Pope or the Byzantine Emperor was the head of church. Whilst both sides excommunicated each other, none could interfere into the others political domain. Thus the church split along the Empires’ borderline. The line is still visible in today’s landscape since the Ottomans - the true successors of the Byzantines - preserved it. To the west, Catholic Churches, to the East Orthodox Churches. Or in terms of our sailing, the borderline is between Ulcinj and the Bay of Kotor. God must have a very great heart to tolerate such human follies

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