February 6, 2021

When Roman Catholics Detested Photios the Great as One of the Greatest Enemies of the Church

If you read pretty much any Roman Catholic text dealing with Photios the Great, the Patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and from 877 to 886, before Francis Dvornik's The Photian Schism: History and Legend was published in 1948, it would appear that many Roman Catholics could hardly contain their utter contempt for him. One source of contempt that can be found online and yet you wouldn't expect to be so biased is the entry "Photius of Constantinople" in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia. Though this is somewhat more mild than most things written about Photios in the West at the time, which often styled him as one of the worst heretics in Church history, it still offers a veiled glimpse. Below are a few excerpts from this entry to show how much Roman Catholic scholars detested Photios even in this esteemed work of the early 20th century.

It begins as follows:

"Photius of Constantinople, chief author of the great schism between East and West...."

After branding Photios the primary person at fault for the Great Schism that took place in 1054, it goes on to give information about his origins solely based on hostile documentation:

"Symeon Magister says that his mother was an escaped nun and that he was illegitimate. He further relates that a holy bishop, Michael of Synnada, before his birth foretold that he would become patriarch, but would work so much evil that it would be better that he should not be born. His father then wanted to kill him and his mother, but the bishop said: 'You cannot hinder what God has ordained. Take care for yourself.' His mother also dreamed that she would give birth to a demon. When he was born the abbot of the Maximine monastery baptized him and gave him the name Photius (Enlightened), saying: 'Perhaps the anger of God will be turned from him'."

To the credit of the author, he reluctantly adds after this:

"These stories need not be taken seriously."

After praising the erudition of Photios, he then speaks of his sudden rise from layman to Patriarch of Constantinople:

"He was hurried through Holy Orders in six days; on Christmas Day, 857, Gregory Asbestas of Syracuse, himself excommunicate for insubordination by Ignatius, ordained Photius patriarch. By this act Photius committed three offences against canon law: he was ordained bishop without having kept the interstices, by an excommunicate consecrator, and to an already occupied see. To receive ordination from an excommunicate person made him too excommunicate ipso facto."

Following this, the author goes on to state some historical fabrications, saying that Photios at first subjected himself to the authority of the Pope, but then turned his allegiance to the emperor. This leads to the following entry:

"In 878, then, Photius at last obtained lawfully the place he had formerly usurped. Rome acknowledged him and restored him to her communion. There was no possible reason now for a fresh quarrel. But he had identified himself so completely with that strong anti-Roman party in the East which he mainly had formed, and, doubtless, he had formed so great a hatred of Rome, that now he carried on the old quarrel with as much bitterness as ever and more influence."

Building the case that Photius was the "chief author" of the Great Schism, who turned the hearts of the people of the East against Rome, the author concludes the history with these words:

"Photius had left a powerful anti-Roman party, eager to repudiate the pope's primacy and ready for another schism. It was this party, to which Cerularius belonged, that triumphed at Constantinople under him, so that Photius is rightly considered the author of the schism which still lasts."

Thus it was because of Photios that Constantinople remained defiant to the Pope's authority, which led to the Great Schism in 1054. If not for this, he could have been a great man, laments the author:

"Had it not been for his disastrous schism, he might be counted the last, and one of the greatest, of the Greek Fathers."

Further casting all the blame of the Great Schism on Photios, the author then attacks his character:

"And yet the other side of his character is no less evident. His insatiable ambition, his determination to obtain and keep the patriarchal see, led him to the extreme of dishonesty. His claim was worthless. That Ignatius was the rightful patriarch as long as he lived, and Photius an intruder, cannot be denied by any one who does not conceive the Church as merely the slave of a civil government. And to keep this place Photius descended to the lowest depth of deceit. At the very time he was protesting his obedience to the pope he was dictating to the emperor insolent letters that denied all papal jurisdiction. He misrepresented the story of Ignatius's deposition with unblushing lies, and he at least connived at Ignatius's ill-treatment in banishment. He proclaimed openly his entire subservience to the State in the whole question of his intrusion. He stops at nothing in his war against the Latins. He heaps up accusations against them that he must have known were lies. His effrontery on occasions is almost incredible."

He goes on to then speak of his continued veneration in the East, while revealing his own contempt for Photios, as much as he tries and fails to be an objective scholar:

"They have canonized him, and on 6 Feb., when they keep his feast, their office overflows with his praise. He is the 'far-shining radiant star of the church', the 'most inspired guide of the Orthodox', 'thrice blessed speaker for God', 'wise and divine glory of the hierarchy, who broke the horns of Roman pride'. The Catholic remembers this extraordinary man with mixed feelings. We do not deny his eminent qualities and yet we certainly do not remember him as a thrice blessed speaker for God. One may perhaps sum up Photius by saying that he was a great man with one blot on his character---his insatiable and unscrupulous ambition. But that blot so covers his life that it eclipses everything else and makes him deserve our final judgment as one of the worst enemies the Church of Christ ever had, and the cause of the greatest calamity that ever befell her."

When Francis Dvornik's The Photian Schism: History and Legend was published in 1948, the attitude toward Photios in the West began to somewhat change in scholarly circles, with a new appreciation for his scholarship and a clearer understanding of his motivations and of the historical situation at the time. If one wants to see how this attitude changed, just read the entry "Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople" in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 11) which was published in 2002, and is an example of good scholarly development.