In the answer provided to the following question: Explanation of the bell, book, and candle ritual of excommunication the author states that it is a common misconception that excommunication implies someone has been kicked out of the church, it merely means that they have been barred from the sacraments. In other words someone who has been excommunicated is still part of the church.

I was wondering how this applies to large-scale excommunications, such as the great schism, where the West excommunicated the East and vice versa? Does this mean that the West and the East were actually still the same "undivided" (in a sense) church, but that the West considered Eastern Sacraments illicit and the East considered Western Sacraments illicit?

I ask because this would have interesting consequences for ecclesiology: From the Catholic perspective, other Christian bodies are still within "the one true church", however they are "excommunicated" which simply means that they are barred from the sacraments. In the case of the Orthodox churches, their sacraments are valid, but due to their "excommunicated" status they are illicit.

If this is true, it actually puts my mind at rest in terms of the whole "we are the one true church" position that both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches hold, because it allows them to both be correct: there are not two Churches claiming to be the one true church, there is only one, but there are excommunications at play within it that make it seem as though there are two (or more)

Scoping this to Catholicism.

PS: Potentially the word "anathema" has some role in all of this. Is an anathema different to an excommunication? Does receiving an anathema imply that you have been kicked out of the church?

  • 1
    As you might be aware, the Roman Catholic Church permits Eastern Orthodox to receive the Eucharist at Roman Catholic Liturgies and Roman Catholics to receive the Eucharist at Eastern Orthodox Liturgies; but the Eastern Orthodox Church neither allows Roman Catholics to receive at Orthodox Liturgies, nor Eastern Orthodox to receive at Roman Catholic Liturgies.
    – guest37
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 15:54

2 Answers 2


It is important to note that when we speak of the "schism" between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church that began in the 11th century, that it was not the first time that the Orthodox Church was out of communion with Rome. In fact, the division was seen as completely reversible until the pillaging of Constantinople during the 4th crusade.

The word "schism" in my mind conveys a sense of permenance and or/finality. In this sense, I feel that the Great Schism only acheived the status corresponding to its name after no viable path to reconciliation appeared possible.

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    – Wtrmute
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:55

in these cases, it is always useful to look at the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

So schism does not imply mutual excommunication; it merely implies that a certain party will, while not holding any belief which is contrary to the teaching of the Church (which would make them a heretic), still refuses to recognise the authority of the Bishop of Rome, or those Bishops which are in communion with him. Naturally, if a bishop excommunicates the Pope, by definition they refuse to submit to his authority, and therefore incur in automatic schism.

Naturally, the Code itself also prescribes a penalty for those who incur in schism, which, not surprisingly, is excommunication:

Can. 1364 §1. Without prejudice to the prescript of can. 194, §1, n. 2, an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication; in addition, a cleric can be punished with the penalties mentioned in can. 1336, §1, nn. 1, 2, and 3.

§2. If contumacy of long duration or the gravity of scandal demands it, other penalties can be added, including dismissal from the clerical state.

Therefore, according to Canon Law, Constantinople could not excommunicate Rome without incurring in automatic excommunication for herself. The practical result is that schism does not imply excommunication, but excommunication does imply schism (when it doesn't imply worse — heresy or apostasy).

Note, however, that the state of schism was sadly a rather common occurrence in the First Millennium Church. Fr Adrian Fortescue reported in his book on the Eastern Orthodox (page 96) that, in the period from AD 323 (the year Arius published his theories on the nature of Jesus) to AD 852 (the year Fortescue claimed the Photian Schism took place), Constantinople and Rome were in schism:

  • for 55 years during the Arian troubles (343–398);
  • for 11 years due to St John Chrysostom's deposition (404–415);
  • for 35 years during the Acacian schism (484–519);
  • for 41 years due to Monothelitism (640–681);
  • for 61 years due to Iconoclasm (726–787).

Added up, that yields an impressive 203 years out of 529. Adding the four years of the Photian schism, we have 207 years of schism between the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 — when Emperor Constantine notionally adopted Christianity — and the Great Schism in 1054.

  • This answer has lots of juicy info (thanks for that), but it doesn't answer the actual question posed (perhaps it wasn't clearly stated or prominent enough), namely "Does this mean that the West and the East were actually still the same "undivided" (in a sense) church, but that the West considered Eastern Sacraments illicit and the East considered Western Sacraments illicit?" Do you have any insights with regard to this question?
    – user35774
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 4:51
  • I thought I had answered it: Schism means breaking ("refusal") of communion, which means there is no longer a single community. It's right there in Canon 751. Therefore the Church is divided. You could talk about some mystic invisible union in a transcendent level like the Protestants normally do, but definitely neither Catholics nor Orthodox can subscribe to this kind of interpretation (again, as both Canons 751 and 1364 plainly state).
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 5:48
  • The Catholic Church knows such an invisible union: partial communion, see Lumen gentium. You should mention the that the exact rules on excommunication you cite are from 1983. So what was back in the 11th century? In addition such an penality does not apply on (simplified) the children of those originally excommunicated. -> -1
    – K-HB
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 23:54

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