I've come upon numerous instances where a pre-11th century person or artifact is associated with either the Orthodox or Catholic church. The most recent example is in Francis Fukuyama's "The Origins of Political Order", where Gregory I is titled "pope of the catholic church" and where further the "influence of the catholic church in Europe in the 7th century" is discussed. The wikipedia page about Gregory I also states that he was a "Pope of the Catholic Church from 3 September 590 to 12 March 604 AD".

Technically, at that time before the Great Schism, there were no major denominations in the Christian church. For example, the pope should be considered the Patriarch of Rome, equal with the other patriarchs. While I'm aware that "catholic" can mean "universal", these instances are clearly in the modern connotation of a Christian denomination and are not exclusive to the Catholic faith, but also prominent in the Orthodox case.

What should we call the pre-schism Christian church today? Or, if there is an accepted name, why isn't it used instead of Catholic and Orthodox when referring to events, people, etc. before the Great Schism?

  • 8
    There were other groups. You may find it interesting to read up about Arianism etc
    – user31561
    Jul 17, 2018 at 8:22
  • 11
    It was a common shorthand (so often inaccurate) to describe the two arms as the Eastern and Western churches rather similar to the two arms of the Roman Empire (or former parts of the Roman Empire); another common description was the Greek and Latin churches.
    – Henry
    Jul 17, 2018 at 10:51
  • 4
    This may not answer the question of what is properly called, or should properly be called, but in orthodox circles the understanding is that there is no distinction between the orthodox church before and after the schism, but rather it represents a continuum, so there is no special name for it. Jul 17, 2018 at 22:42
  • 10
    The problem is that there isn't really a universally accepted, neutral term for the pre-schism Church. The Orthodox consider it to be continuous with the modern Orthodox church. The Catholics consider it to be continuous with the modern Catholic Church. Protestants (generally) might consider it to be truly continuous with neither. Jul 18, 2018 at 15:19
  • 3
    @lonesomeday In the Orthodox's defense, they're simply right and the Catholics were the ones introducing innovations. Protestants necessarily don't consider The Church continuous with either since they believe their different sects represent the True Church, which was presumably corrupted with the growth of its political power. However, that doesn't mean the pre-1054 church wasn't orthodox; just that it doesn't really matter which strain of imperial corruption hewed closer to its original form.
    – lly
    Jul 19, 2018 at 8:18

6 Answers 6


This is incredibly complicated and almost always misleading.

For example, in many countries the Catholic Church is called strictly the Roman-Catholic church. The higher up members of that community that acknowledges the papal supremacy call their own organisation most often just "the church". In that they are sharing this endonym with most other sects of course, Christian or not, in antiquity and today.

Then there are the early and still valid Notae ecclesiae:

The Four Marks of the Church, also known as the Attributes of the Church, is a term describing four distinctive adjectives — "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" — of traditional Christian ecclesiology as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed completed at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381: "[I believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

Or, in the Latin, then in Greek:

Et unam, sanctam, cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam.
Εἰς μίαν, Ἁγίαν, Καθολικὴν καὶ Ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν.

[Quoted from:] "the 'Nicene Creed'. It is the only authoritative ecumenical statement of the Christian faith accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and the major Protestant denominations."

Then there is that dating problem. Choosing 1054 as the cutting point for the schism is totally unhelpful in that, except for having an answer in quizzes.

When did that schism begin?

Was it as early as 180 because of Quartodecimanism? Or as late as 1729, when Congregatio de Propaganda Fide actually forbid the community of sacraments.

There are a few options to consider as good names for "the church" before the 11th century:

  1. The completely correct: "church".
  2. The established: "Catholic church".
  3. The commonly understandable: "the universal church"
  4. The technically/historically descriptive: "Pentarchical church" or "Chalcedonian church" (as mentioned in comments by @NSNoob).

They all have advantages and disadvantages. Is the Chalcedonian church just the congregation in that locality? Is pentarchical just referring to the exact five sees? How ecumenical is the universal church?

Still other formulas like pre-schism Christian church etc. might be used.
It would very much depend on context, intended audience and readership which description to choose. It will be necessary to not just use "the word" (i.e. "a word") and be done with it.

There is no real solution for this as too many names have been proposed and used already. In any text you will likely have to define the way you are going to use that word to avoid misunderstandings. Without a given and strictly defined timeframe the words change their generally understood meaning. Without such prolegomena, confusion in a general audience is not just a possibility but will arise.

Bonus question to ponder about after having wrecked your brain on when the East-West schism started: Is it still in effect or did it end? If it ended, when did it end?

The ban and counter-bans from 1054 were abolished at the end the Second Vatican Council in 1965. But:

East and West since 1054
"Even after 1054 friendly relations between East and West continued. The two parts of Christendom were not yet conscious of a great gulf of separation between them. […] The dispute remained something of which ordinary Christians in East and West were largely unaware".

There was no single event that marked the breakdown. Rather, the two churches slid into and out of schism over a period of several centuries, punctuated with temporary reconciliations.
— Wikipedia East-West Schism

If you want to refer to the church or churches before the caesarian date of 1054 it would be probably easiest and most pragmatic to say "pre-1054 church(es)".

  • 12
    Small-c "catholic" means "universal" anyway. Hence why it's referenced as such in the (Latin and English translations of) Nicene Creed.
    – user21811
    Jul 17, 2018 at 15:44
  • 1
    Not all catholics are Roman Catholics. Maronites, Malankares, Chaldeans, Byzantine rite catholics such as the Ukranian greco-catholic church, are Catholic, but not Roman. The same could be said, in the 1st millenium, of the Celtic church, the whole Greek/Byzantine church, the Maronites, and of all portions of the eastern churches that accepted the classic councils such as Nicea. E.g., in Bede discussions about the date of Easter with the Celtics, their differences never raised heresy accusations, it was just different traditions.
    – Luiz
    Aug 1, 2020 at 19:18
  • 1204 is always a safe bet.
    – Spencer
    Aug 1, 2020 at 23:13
  • @Luiz Many - if not most - Anglicans consider themselves catholic, as per the Nicene Creed.
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 24, 2021 at 3:57
  • @TheHonRose Most protestants probably consider themselves as members of the "catholic" and "orthodox" church of Christ as in the literal and calchedonian/nicenian meaning of the words. But what I meant is that a Maronite or other Eastern Rite catholic is as Catholic as the pope, even if he is not Roman. They are in full communion, and under the pope only as pope, not as chief bishop / patriarch of the roman rite. Thus it may be necessary to avoid the expression "Roman Catholic" in some contexts, if one wants to consider all non-romans in full communion with the pope.
    – Luiz
    Nov 25, 2021 at 0:05

First of all, @LangLangC's answer is excellent. I intend only to expand on it.

The unified Eastern (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latin-speak) churches called themselves "orthodox" as opposed to the many heresies (like Arianism). They also called themselves "catholic" -- universal. They were united in religion, but administratively united only in theory, as they were much more fragmented administratively than we, today, think a unified church would be. Travel was hard even in the still-thriving Eastern Empire, and in the West, travel was very slow.

I expect that the old language of being "in communion" probably better describes the situation. Each city had its bishop and one or more churches. So you'd have the church of Milan, the church of Hippo, the church of Antioch, etc. The churches which considered themselves orthodox were "in communion", that is they recognized each others' sacraments, shared scriptures and confessions, recognized each others ordinations and accepted each others' members when travelling. They generally adhered to one or another of the ancient patriarchates.

So the church then was a much more decentralized thing than the church today. Note that this was mainly the effect of difficult travel -- especially in the Byzantine Empire the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople exercised as much control as politics would let them. In the West, Rome's authority was necessarily entirely moral, and the East tended to forget that Rome still existed.

Some of the split between East and West is nearly as ancient as the Church itself. There was always a split in language and Constantine, the same Emperor who legalized the church, also was the Emperor who split the Empire!

Now fast forward six hundred years as the East climbs to the peak of Byzantium, while the West sinks to the worst part of the Dark Ages -- and then it all reverses, with Islam conquering one piece after another of the Eastern Empire, and the new, vibrant Medieval civilization is growing in Western Europe. The East resents the barbarian West trying to tell it what to do. The West resents the effete, snobbish East trying to conquer it and tell it what to do. And communication between the two got even worse as the Mediterranean got even more infested with pirates and travel grew even more difficult.

But everyone agreed that they were one church -- as long as you don't try to tell us what do, but do follow our instructions…

The final schism in 1054 was simply the last step of administrative separation when the hierarchies of the Eastern and Western churches excommunicated each other. (They were no longer "in communion".) This was basically an administrative thing. They continued to recognize each others' sacraments, ordinations, etc., but declared it to be unlawful to participate in each others' services.

As it happened, the Eastern church kept the title "orthodox" and the Western church kept the title "catholic" -- as far as I know, that was essentially historical accident, as the modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches both describe themselves as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" and as "orthodox." (It's possible that the East called itself Orthodox because the richer East was the source of most of the heresies and orthodoxy was more of an issue there.)

  • 2
    Re: "Constantine, the same Emperor who legalized the church, also was the Emperor who split the Empire": This is not true; on the contrary, Constantine united the empire (until his death). No?
    – ruakh
    Jul 17, 2018 at 23:56
  • 5
    @ruakh Like just about anything in history, my answer was oversimplified. (I think it may be a rule that "Any answer short enough to be understood is not long enough to be correct.") True, the first split occurred under Diocletian, and true, Constantine brought the whole Empire under his own sole rule again. But Constantine also made the (IMO critical) decision to create an Eastern capitol. But by pretty much any definition the split of the Empire was Constantine +/- fifty years.
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 18, 2018 at 0:05
  • 4
    @ruakh - He split it administratively into two sections, and built a new capitol in the eastern half (Constantinople). They were theoretically two halves of the same empire for quite a while afterwards, but he did originate that exact division.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 18, 2018 at 20:48
  • @ruakh The empire was split and unified before and after Constantine. Yes Constantine defeated the Augustus who ruled in the east and unified the empire and upon his death he decided the empire among his sons who fell int another civil war amongst themselves.
    – user27618
    Jul 21, 2018 at 3:03

Question: What is the pre-schism Christian church called today?

I would argue that the first church council at Nicea produced the Nicean Creed and it coins the term, "holy catholic and apostolic Church".

"We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church".

Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholics have restated this creed as a profession of beliefs since the fourth century AD. Thus the pre schism church is properly called the catholic church with a date or text next to it which denotes it as pre-schism.

Less anyone thinks this answer expresses a Roman Catholic bias, I would argue it was the Western Roman Catholic church which came under greater influence of the pagan invaders which more diverged from pre schism Catholic doctrine. The Orthodox Church remains even today (or last time I looked at it closely) closer to the original unified Catholic church, pre schism. Given that, it's not so much that one church left the other, but that distance, foreign influences, and politics resulted in both east and west separating from each other along the lines controlled by the Byzantine Empire.


Ignatius of Antioch
The earliest recorded evidence of the use of the term "Catholic Church" is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 107 to Christians in Smyrna. Exhorting Christians to remain closely united with their bishop, he wrote: "Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church"

This designated the "true" or "universal" (community) church from several sects, schism & heresies


What is the pre-Schism Christian church called today ?

A far better question would be :

Why were the pre-Schism Christian churches able to coexist, despite their mutual theological differences1, as a unified whole ?

to which the best possible answer is that they simply weren't aware of them, since church history shows that, whenever they took note of the existence of such obstacles, long-standing schisms would eventually ensue :

1 These differences, albeit tacit, were already there. Africa and the Middle East have always held slightly different approaches with regards to Christology, just as East and West have always held mildly different approaches concerning ecclesiology and the procession of the Holy Spirit.

  • Most ancient Germanic tribes converted to Arianism, and most modern Germanic nations to Protestantism, so that one might be tempted to argue a certain consistent historical tradition of Germanic resistance, opposition, or adversity to official Roman religion. A faith-based quest for ethnic identity, perhaps ?
    – Lucian
    Mar 16, 2019 at 5:43
  • One should also mention here historical hybrids, such as the monothelitism of the Maronite Church, standing midway between Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, as well as Eastern Catholicism, constituting a link between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
    – Lucian
    Mar 16, 2019 at 6:03

This is the book you want to read. Although it was in decline by the 11th century, the largest church at one time was the Church of the East. I don't remember if it was based on Arianism, but it was started by a heretical bishop who was kicked out of the Eastern Roman Empire and spread all the way to the Pacific.

At the end of the book the author, who's a real historian presents some evidence that it served as the inspiration for Islam as well.

The Lost History of Christianity

And reading one of his other books, there was never one Church. The original Church was the Egyptian Coptic Church. It may have been one official governing body that ruled all the churches but there were many differences between different churches in early Christianity that often ended in violence between the different sects.

That is in this book

The Jesus Wars

  • 4
    "The original Church was the Egyptian Coptic Church" Er, no.
    – lly
    Jul 19, 2018 at 8:13
  • @Alen, Yes in Antiquity, Christianity in the East was larger than Christianity in the West. Originally there were many churches, but after Rome legalized Christianity , Emperor Constantine's next order of business was to unify the church. Yes this took many decades(8 Emperors). Yes the first crisis in the Catholic Church was dealing with all the heresies(different kinds of Christianity). The Arian heretics who dominated the church for a few decades after Nicea, were centered in Egypt because Arius whom the heresy was named after taught in Alexandria.
    – user27618
    Jul 20, 2018 at 22:54
  • @Alen, Arians believed that God the Father predates Jesus the son. That God essentially made Jesus, and thus Jesus wasn't eternal. Coptics Believe that Jesus had basically two distinct forms, As a god and as a human. Coptics separated from the Catholic church around the time of Nicea and like Arianism was an early Christian heresy. Both from North Africa, although Coptics never controlled the church. You are also right that Christianity was an early model for Mohamed as was Judaism. Both are precursors of Islam as Judaism was the precursor to Christianity.
    – user27618
    Jul 20, 2018 at 23:04
  • 1
    @LangLangC yes of course you are right only most of your points occur before Christianity beliefs were consolidated and unified. I was speaking of the Christian church’s first crisis. The church who’s beliefs were defined at Nicean. Flip flopped by Constantine’s death and became an Arian institution for decades. The organization who’s defining creed (Nicean creed) is a list of bullet items refuting heresies. It is not a controversial statement to say heretics where the churches first crises.
    – user27618
    Jul 21, 2018 at 2:54
  • 1
    @JMS Depending on definitions: I concede that your points are just as valid as mine. Jul 21, 2018 at 2:58

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