What is the Eastern Orthodox Church?

In the eleventh century, the Catholic Church, formerly known as One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, experienced a split between the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Western Roman Empire into two separate churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. This split came to be known as the Great Schism. It was not only due to theological and ecclesial differences, but political ones as well, since the Western Church allied itself with the Frankish kings and the Eastern Church remained loyal to the emperor at Constantinople. The term "Orthodox" reflects the claim of the Eastern Church to have retained the original, patristic church dogmas, while the term "Catholic" reflects the claim of the Church of Rome to have an all encompassing authority on Christian matters. The Eastern Orthodox Church, governed independently by individual church bishops (patriarchs), rejected papal infallability, total authority of the pope, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and Purgatory, as well as theological differences with the Trinity, among other "heretical" doctrines. The schism was official by mutual excommunications between the Western Church and the Eastern Church in A.D. 1054, after the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Caerularius, formally criticized certain western practices, denied the supreme roll of the bishop of Rome, and refused to accept legates from the pope. The two churches were finally reconciled in 1965, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met to remove the excommunications by both sides.

An outcome of the First Crusade of the twelfth century, originally against Muslim forces, was the expulsion of the Greek patriarch in Antioch. During the Fourth Crusade of the thirteenth century, military forces under the Roman Catholic Church attacked Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks and many of the countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church came under Muslim control. Eastern Orthodoxy during this time was strongest in Russia (Moscow became known as the Third Rome), although it was eventually devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution and oppressed by Communism. The Eastern Orthodox Church came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Communion, a collective body of roughly 22 separate churches which share the same church doctrines. These include the autocephalous churches (churches governed by a bishop who answers to no higher authority) of Albania, Alexandria, Antioch, Bulgaria, Constantinople, Cyprus, the Czech Lands, Georgia, Jerusalem, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, and the Orthodox Church in America, along with the atonomous churches of China, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Mt. Sinai, and the Ukrain. The two largest churches of these include the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Three separate, distinct churches to break from the Eastern Orthodox Church include the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, and the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria (the latter two retaining their own popes).

        "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Luke 12:49-53)

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Reference sources: The Compact History of the Catholic Church, by Alan Schreck, ©1987 by the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office, published by Servant Books; New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/); Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/)