Reformation Absent Great Schism?


Without the 500 year old example of a thriving Eastern Church not under Papal authority (thriving at least until the Islamic surge), would the Reformation of the 1500s occurred in the Western Church? Were the abuses of the Catholic Church so great (doctrinal, personal sin of bishops, or otherwise depening on your viewpoint)…or were the fallacies of Luther, Calvin and the other reformers so fatal (depending on your viewpoint), that the Reformation would have taken place anyway? Or is the Great Schism the foundation on which the schism of the Reformation is built?


My suspicion is that there would not have been widespread separation during the Reformation absent the earlier example of the Orthodox. With the Orthodox, you have Churches that are just as ancient as the Catholic Church and with just as good of an apostolic “blood line” which “authenticated” the position that one need not necessarily be under the jurisdiction of the Pope.


I never thought about it that way. But, I dont think I recall any of the Reformers vocalizing this thought.


I’m not sure how much direct impact it had. Luther certainly named the “Greeks” as examples in exactly the way you describe, but I doubt that this was more than a useful argument to him.

In so far as there was an impact, it probably had more to do with the Greek exiles in the fifteenth century jumpstarting Renaissance Greek scholarship, which shook people’s theology up considerably and brought traditional Latin scholasticism into question.

I would like to think that if the Schism had never happened, medieval Latin theology would have been more balanced and less captive to legal categories, and thus less open to the extreme but understandable critiques of the Reformers. But that’s highly speculative and quite wishful. . . . furthermore, this scenario would have had to involve Latins and Greeks being humble enough to learn from each other.



From the limited reading I’ve done on the Reformation, it doesn’t seem to me that the Orthodox played much of a role, either directly or by means of an example. Still, in another sense… Maybe this is a kooky analogy, but think about the four minute mile. For generations, it was thought impossible for anyone to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. Then, in the 1950s, Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier and, since then, its been done numerous times by numerous people. In other words, Bannister shifted the paradigm by proving that it could be done. Perhaps, in a like manner, the Reformers were able to contemplate a church in schism simply because it had already been done by the Orthodox 500 years earlier (or, if you are Orthodox, it had been done by the Catholic Church 500 years earlier :stuck_out_tongue: ). Pure speculation of course, unless you could find some discussion about the topic in the Reformation documents…


I am convinced that the Protestant Reformation would have occured whether or not there was a great schism between the east and the west.

The ‘Papal’ issue is overplayed in explanations of the Great Schism. The East never had a Pope, the bishop of Rome never had ‘Papal’ authority in the east. The churches were “in communion” with each other, they did not control each other.

In other words, the authority of the bishop of Rome was never strong enough to control the eastern churches. The final break came when Cardinal Humbert tried to bring down a Patriarch through excommunication, to no effect.

The actual sourcepoint of the Protestant break in the west was directly dependent upon latin theology. There is no theory of satisfaction in the east, therefore no theory Purgatory. Also no theory of treasury of merits and therefore no theory of indulgences.

None of this has anything to do with Papal authority. It has everything to do with western scholastic speculation.

The Old Catholic Encyclopedia describes some of the ecclesiastical problems as follows:

*…Closely connected with the above were various abuses in the lives of the clergy and the people. In the Papal Curia political interests and a worldly life were often prominent. Many bishops and abbots (especially in countries where they were also territorial princes) bore themselves as secular rulers rather than as servants of the Church. Many members of cathedral chapters and other beneficed ecclesiastics were chiefly concerned with their income and how to increase it, especially by uniting several prebends (even episcopal sees) in the hands of one person, who thus enjoyed a larger income and greater power. Luxury prevailed widely among the higher clergy, while the lower clergy were often oppressed.

*The problem I see mentioned in the above quote is the multiple benefices held by bishops. This type of abuse was not known in the east, because the ecclesiastical system could not accomodate it.

Sometimes men (even very young ones) were odained and given bishoprics, even Cardinals positions, because their wealthy backers (almost always successful parents or other relatives) would pay a “fee” to the appropriate office in Rome. This is Simony, a serious sin. The recipient of the high church office expected to make this money back through fees charged for dispensations and claims against the tithe in every parish in the diocese.

It isn’t that this kind of abuse could never happen in the east, but there was no Central Office to benefit by it or sanction the practices, so one simply does not read of such things (in the east) in any significant way.
The scientific and ascetic training of the clergy left much to be desired, the moral standard of many being very low, and the practice of celibacy not everywhere observed. Not less serious was the condition of many monasteries of men, and even of women (which were often homes for the unmarried daughters of the nobility). The former prestige of the clergy had thus suffered greatly, and its members were in many places regarded with scorn.*

Because of the acceptance of priestly celibacy as an option (but not mandatory), the east had far fewer disobedient priests in the matter of sexual impropriety. In the west there were times when concubinage was a widespread problem, so the men who preached, taught and confessed the village or town might be widely known to have a “live-in” girlfriend whom he cannot ever marry (often there were children), this was a source of great scandal and discouragement to western Christians who could lose their sense of piety and devotion.

The power of the Papacy is known to have ‘developed’ over time, and it consolidated control over the western church from the era of Charlemagne onward. But the process that began in the west reached into the east only very late and never was successful in taking over. Therefore the eastern church was spared many of the theological developments of the west, and escaped the worst ecclesiastical abuses of the west. No Pope ever appointed a Patriarch in the east before the schism, nor any other bishop. The opportunities for graft and Simony were thus limited, and the possibility of issuing (or selling) indulgences was completely out of the question.

I am not stating that the east was without problems (far from it!), but I am stating that the Protestant reformation/rebellion was a direct result of specific conditions and teachings in the west which did not even exist in the east.

I feel very strongly that if the schism had never happened, and the power of the Papacy spread unchecked into the east as it did in the west, the reformation would still have happened (starting with Luther, most likely) and spread into the east very rapidly.


Didn’t Luther contact the Eastern Churches for support, but they rejected him?


Not Luther.

I believe it was Phillip Melancthon. Patriarch Jeremiah disapproved of what he learned about their beliefs and famously broke off the communication.


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