Apology for the Fourth Crusade

Image: Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I with Pope John Paul II.

The sack of Constantinople by armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 ranks as one of the odder and most lamentable events of the broader medieval crusading movement. This is because Constantinople was the Christian capital city of the Byzantine Empire, obviously an odd target for Christian crusaders. Historians debate the causes of the crusaders straying so far from their original destination of Egypt, whether it can be blamed on duplicitous Venetians, or was instead an accident of history- with one misfortune after another leading the- by then- excommunicated, misguided, and desperate crusaders to Constantinople.

In terms of consequences, some have argued, unconvincingly in my view, that the sack of Constantinople so weakened the Byzantine Empire that it is at least partly responsible for its eventual conquest by the Turks in 1453… more than two centuries later. A lot can happen over two centuries. Others argue the broader crusading movement instead artificially preserved the Byzantine Empire as it was severely threatened by Turkish military expansion into Asia-Minor in the late eleventh century. Turkish aggression prompted the calling of the First Crusade in 1095 which restored control of considerable territories to Byzantine authority (e.g. the city of Nicaea, much of Asia-Minor, etc…). The aggression of Muslim armies was an issue that the Byzantines continued to struggle with from 1095 until the events of 1204 (before and after as well). Thus, the unique circumstances of the crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople in 1204 is (at least in part) a reflection of the pre-existing military and (especially) political weakness of the Byzantine Empire, rather than its cause.

Regardless of the causes or consequences, the historical memory of this event has long impacted relations between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The city of Constantinople, as both the spiritual and political capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, was a jewel of the medieval Christian world. The Byzantine Empire’s effort to defend its frontier against Muslim armies seeking its conquest over many centuries frames the crusaders sacking of Constantinople as a stab in the back by fellow Christians. Moreover, the reported abuse of the city by the crusaders, during the three days of looting that followed its conquest, shocked contemporaries, including Pope Innocent III, who harshly rebuked the crusaders for attacking fellow Christians in such a way. Yet even with Innocent’s apparently sincere condemnation of the act, the city was not restored to Byzantine control until the Byzantines reclaimed it for themselves in 1261.

Nearly eight centuries later, in 2001, Pope John Paul II, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation with Orthodox Christians, stated what many (including Orthodox Christians) have framed as an apology for the event. This happened during his visit to Greece, a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country, on May 4th in 2001. While visiting with Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece, the pope gave a speech that explicitly drew attention to the historic mistrust between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. He noted that Catholic/Orthodox relations were burdened by past controversies that needed to be overcome and that there was a need for a “liberating process of purification of memory” concerning historical occasions when members of the Catholic Church had sinned against “their Orthodox brothers and sisters.” The pope then announced;

“Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret… To God alone belongs judgment, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds, which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people.” (Pope John Paul II)

While a remarkable admission of guilt by a pope for historical injustices committed by Catholics, it is important to emphasize the limits of the apology. It was not an apology for the crusades, more broadly, or the principle of crusading itself (as some have suggested). I don’t think any pope could really do this as such an apology would represent a troubling and historic challenge to papal and Roman Catholic ecclesiastical tradition in an unprecedented way. Indeed, numerous past popes, saints, and historic Catholic councils had promoted, sanctioned, or directly called for crusades. A general apology for the broader phenomenon of crusading would suggest they were all in error. Rather, Pope John Paul II’s apology was targeted at Orthodox Christians specifically for the events of the Fourth Crusade.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, accepted Pope John Paul II’s apology three years later, on the 800th anniversary of the attack on Constantinople. In April of 2004 he declared that he and the entire church hierarchy under his jurisdiction, “receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade. It is a fact that a crime was committed here in the city 800 years ago.” Further explaining his decision to accept the apology, Bartholomew noted, “The spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection … incites us toward reconciliation of our churches.” (Patriarch Accepts Pope’s ApologyOnline– scroll down) In response, in June 2004, Pope John Paul II repeated his apology during Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to the Vatican. In doing so, the pope once again emphasized the effort to bring greater reconciliation between modern Catholic and Orthodox Christians, a goal that seems to have been clearly sought by both the pope and patriarch.


Above Image: In 2002, while studying abroad in Turkey, I had the opportunity to take part in a private audience with Patriarch Bartholomew at his headquarters in Istanbul. I was there with a group of students from the University of North Florida studying Byzantine history under the direction of Prof. Paul Halsall. My friend William Milsten quietly snapped this picture of me listening attentively as the Patriarch graciously welcomed and spoke with us. The white bag on his desk had been placed there by a priest assisting the Patriarch just as we entered the room. It was full of small, beautiful, crucifixes that he blessed and gave to each of us. Interestingly, in light of the subject of this blog post, the Patriarch had a picture of Pope John Paul lI prominently displayed on a mantle behind his desk (which you cannot see here).

Addendum: I asked my friend and fellow medievalist Florin Curta, a leading expert on medieval eastern Europe, to glance over my comments here to see if he felt I was missing an important point or making an error somewhere. He forwarded the following insightful comments.

“I see no errors… I would have pointed out, however, that the sack of Constantinople created problems of legitimacy on the Orthodox side as well. Take the appointment of Michael IV Autoreianos as patriarch of Constantinople at a moment when the city was under Latin rule, and the patriarch was in Nicaea. The appointment created a rift in the Greek-Orthodox church, with such prominent churchmen as Demetrios Chomatenos, Archbishop of Ohrid, denying any legitimacy to that patriarch and his successors (of which Germanos II was his contemporary). Then the issue of autocephaly for other Orthodox Churches. Rus’ remained under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople (temporarily in Nicaea), but both Serbia (in 1219) and Bulgaria (in 1235) gained (or regained, in the case of Bulgaria) independent churches, precisely because the patriarch of Constantinople wanted to diminish the authority of the archbishop of Ohrid who had sided with the rulers of Epirus, Nicaea’s rival in the struggle to rebuild the Byzantine Empire.

It is probably too much, but the whole issue of phyletism (for which see https://orthodoxwiki.org/Phyletism) derives from the granting of autocephaly to the Bulgarian Church in 1235. The Orthodox Church has no centralized structure, such as the Catholic one, but that is precisely why autocephaly is such a problematic issue, for it is not clear what is more important–Orthodoxy or nationalism? One may say, in fact, that that whole issue originated in the political situation created by the Fourth Crusade. It would be a stretch, but not an incorrect conclusion.”  (Florin Curta, May 26, 2016)