Reflections on the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 and Lesser-Known Byzantine Atrocities

With reluctance, sadness, and regret, Catholics must forthrightly address the issue of the sacking of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (hence the center of Orthodoxy), in 1204 by the Latin Crusaders. Ideally, the numerous historical sins which members of both sides have committed - given the mutual acknowledgement of wrongdoing - should be left, for the sake of unity and good will, for the historians to mull over. Yet this incident was so tragic and has ever since been recalled with such pain and anger amongst Orthodox (and hence used as an "argument" against the Catholic Church) that it simply cannot be ignored even in the context of friendly ecumenical discussion. Bishop Kallistos Ware comments:

One would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic historian (or any Catholic who learns the details) who would defend what took place in this abominable, reprehensible catastrophe. Warren Carroll, one of the best orthodox Catholic historians of our time, candidly admits in his major series of volumes, A History of Christendom:

So the first thing to be noted is that this horrific event is morally indefensible, and that Catholics know and accept this. Secondly, and most importantly, the pope at the time, Pope Innocent III, neither knew about nor sanctioned in the least this massacre and sacrilegious pillage. In fact, he had forbidden the Crusaders, on pain of excommunication, to attack Byzantium, instructing the leader, Boniface of Montferrat, that: "The crusade must not attack Christians, but should proceed as quickly as possible to the Holy Land." He only found out the full horror of what had happened more than eight months later, and wrote to Cardinal Peter Capuano, denouncing the sack in no uncertain terms:

Yet there had been several similar scandalous atrocities or unsavory, treacherous incidents which occurred before the sack, on the part of the Byzantines, which have not received their due attention. For the sake of fairness and historical objectivity (not polemics and controversy), we will review some of these. Warren Carroll notes:

Bishop Ware also honorably writes about the Orthodox share of the blame in these massacres:

Catholic historian Warren Carroll recalls two other lamentable Byzantine incidents:

In conclusion, it is altogether to be expected that certain adherents (real or supposed) of both parties in any massive, long-running dispute such as that between Eastern and Western Christianity, will be guilty of serious sin. It has been established that the indefensible sacking of Constantinople was not without previous precipitating events on the part of the Byzantines, scarcely any less evil or immoral. Thus, the "sin" or "corruption" argument (as with Catholicism and Protestantism) cuts both ways (as is always the case). As such, it ought to be discarded, and ecumenical discussions profitably confined to matters of theology, liturgy, ecclesiology and moral theology.

In any event, the sacking of Constantinople in no wise disproves Catholic theological or ecclesiological claims, especially in light of the fact that the pope at the time, Innocent III, forbade such military travesties against fellow Christians on pain of excommunication, and excoriated the perpetrators for their abominations. These renegade "crusaders" were simply not acting as Catholics, neither in the sense of Catholic moral teaching, nor in terms of any sanction of papal authority. To draw a modern analogy, if some nominally Orthodox Serbian soldiers had wantonly massacred or raped Bosnian Muslims (as indeed occurred), it would not be at all fair for Catholics to say that this reflects ill upon Orthodoxy per se.

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The foregoing is not an attempt to "tone down" the events in 1204 (lest Orthodox think that). Quite the contrary. All I am doing is showing that the Orthodox did the same sort of things; in fact, one might say they were a major precipitating cause of 1204. This is not to say that the sad events of 1204 were excusable in any way, shape or form . . . but there are causes for things as well. The sack of 1204 was abominable; unspeakably hideous and evil.

Some Orthodox who object to the above presentation need to distinguish between "minimizing" and "explaining the background of." They are different things. I would never contend that these events didn't have an enormously negative effect on the Eastern Christian consciousness. To do so would be sheer stupidity. Many Orthodox, on the other hand, seem to think their side has never or rarely committed any atrocities against western Christians, which is patently false. Catholic-bashing is very fashionable: secularists, Protestants, and Orthodox alike indulge in it with impunity. I think it's time that "the other side" (ours) was heard for a change.

There is abundant sin to point out anywhere one looks. I say it has nothing to do with the bottom-line issues of which party more truly represents and embodies the apostolic Church. This doesn't disprove the institution of the papacy, or overthrow biblical proofs for same, or resolve the filioque question, or the relationship of faith and reason, or the other bones of contention.

I am basically arguing an "immoral equivalency" (all men being burdened by original sin), not that the Orthodox were worse. That is not the same as saying that the sack of Constantinople was better or worse than anything else. Even if it were the worse sin ever committed by a so-called Christian army in history (which wouldn't surprise me), that - in my mind - has nothing to do with the relative claims of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Nor would it prove that Catholics are "bad guys" and Orthodox "good guys." Such talk is kindergarten history and moral thinking.

I argue the same way vis-a-vis the 16th century events and Protestants, or concerning the Allies in World War II, or the North in the Civil War. This is my standard approach. Many Orthodox, on the other hand, casually assume that the West was worse historically. That said, I should point out that I am not very fond of the Crusades in general. It was a noble idea in theory which went radically and tragically wrong in practice (with a few notable exceptions). It is true, however, that the history of the Crusades has been distorted and abused, like virtually all history involving the Catholic Church at all (look at, e.g., the Spanish Civil War, where more than 3,000 clergy were massacred by the so-called "Republicans", or secular accounts of Columbus, or the "Black Legend" of Spain).

I am happy to acknowledge Catholic sins. Our Church has made various statements. The recent one about the Holocaust comes to mind. Many Jews also forget all the Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox martyrs to the Nazis, and continue to slander Pope Pius XII, who saved (by Jewish estimates) 800,000 Jewish lives. Why are Orthodox too often reluctant to recognize similar Orthodox sins?

To repeat: this material is offered as an attempt to "balance the scales." This is one of those events which is habitually presented in a one-sided fashion: all against the Catholic Church, and not a word about Orthodox sins. But events do not happen in an historical vacuum. As with my materials on Protestant Intolerance and Persecution, I seek to show that there are often no "good guys" to be found when we are considering the tragic events of history. A view which holds that either the Orthodox or Protestants were and are significantly morally superior to Catholics (either personally or institutionally) is absurd and farcical, and I consider this self-evident. As Solzhenitsyn (the Orthodox - albeit nominal - that I admire most) said, the line between good and evil runs through each individual's heart.

Why the perpetual one-sided presentations? I suspect because they are a convenient club to beat us over the head with. This is an old anti-Catholic tactic: ignore what the Church and the facts of history say on any given scandal or atrocity, and also ignore the similar skeletons in one's own closet. My view - again - is simply to maintain that sin is universal, and that it proves nothing one way or the other as to who possesses true doctrine and theology. It is when sin is institutionally sanctioned that I personally draw the line and make my choice as to what body preserves apostolic and traditional Christian morality.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the massacres of Venetians in 1171 were perpetrated, according to Carroll, "on the orders or at least with the tacit approval of the Byzantine government." The treachery of 1188 against Frederick Barbarossa and the Crusaders, by Eastern Emperor Isaac II, was obviously (by definition) from a position of high authority also (as the Byzantine Emperor was by nature also a leader in the Orthodox Church). Frederick asked the pope for approval for a crusade against Isaac but was turned down by the pope and soon thought better of it. Likewise, Patriarch Dositheus of Constantinople offered unconditional absolution to any Greek killing a westerner.

In other words, the Orthodox sins of this period against Latins were perhaps more serious, since they were authorized from the highest authority - hence institutionalized, whereas the pope in no way, shape or form sanctioned the sack of 1204. It comes down to the same old tragic flaw of caesaro-papism - precisely where the papacy differs from the Eastern outlook, since it transcends all human governments, rather than being co-opted and bought - so to speak - by them.

But when all is said and done, I see no point in adding up bodies for both sides. The point is that there is enough sin to go around, and the whole thing should be dropped, in my opinion, for the sake of unity. Both sides have acknowledged wrongs and it is time to move ahead. We can't change the past.

I refuse to view the horrible event of 1204 in isolation, because that is the truly biased and unbalanced (even bordering on infantile) method of reading history, and mitigates against learning from its lessons. It is a fundamentally liberal mindset which never looks back at history to learn (and speculate) why things happened the way they did - why we are in the boat we are in now. The fact remains that 1204 was not sanctioned from the top, whereas Eastern massacres and treachery in 1171, 1182, and 1188 were.To me, that is the cogent point in all this trading of horror stories, because it illustrates the difference in the integrity and principle of authority between the two camps at the highest levels.

I wonder why this incident is always brought up amongst Orthodox? What is the purpose of that? To prove the Catholic Church is evil? I think that's ludicrous. If it does not prove the evil nature of the Western Church, then of what use is it to constantly talk about this, when no one in their right mind (knowing the facts) defends it? I would never have written about either Orthodox or Protestant atrocities and unsavory incidents (as I prefer the proactive, positive approach) if my separated brethren had not bandied Catholic "historical sins" about with great disdain (and too often, glee). Once that is done, then I must "balance the historical record," just as (to use an analogy from politics) Rush Limbaugh gives the antidote to pervasive leftist bias in the media. It's always an uphill battle for us Catholics, because we labor under this avalanche of misinformation and emotional hostility.

The sad fact is, that the sack of 1204 is brought up far too often, and I don't think that is conducive to the desired goals of unity and ecumenism (especially once all the facts about it and its precipitating causes are understood). If we can hold a 795-year-old grudge, why not go further back? Let's hold a grudge against the Egyptians for enslaving Moses and the Hebrews back in 1400 BC or so. Let's begrudge Italy because the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. Let's get mad at Greece (Macedonia?) for Alexander the Great's many conquests. If time has no bearing on sin, then why not do that? The Serbians remember their battle of 1389 like yesterday, we are told, so why not 1204, too? Even secular society does better at forgetting than that. Look at our friendly attitude towards the Germans and Japanese, for example - a mere 50 years after they were both our mortal enemies in the greatest war of world history. Can't the Church do a little better than that?

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My friend William Klimon, an expert on Orthodoxy (who became a "Greek Catholic" on May 20, 1998), adds some relevant thoughts:

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Copyright 1998 by Dave Armstrong. All rights reserved.