A Catholic Perspective on “For the Life of the World”
On the publication of Berufen zur Verwandlung der Welt. Die Orthodoxe Kirche in sozialer und ethischer Verantwortung, Schriften des Ostkircheninstituts der Diözese Regensburg Bd. 6 (Regensburg: Pustet, 2021).
In his preface to the social ethics document “For the Life of the World,” Archbishop Elpidophoros of America invited the Orthodox faithful, as well as Christians of other denominations and all people of good will, to engage with the text and enter into a discourse about it. In response to this invitation, the author, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, has thoroughly analyzed the text, written in the spirit of the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, and appreciated its significance.
The social ethics document was intended to continue the engagement with the modern world begun by the Holy and Great Synod of Crete in 2016. In view of new questions and challenges, additional efforts were needed to provide forward-looking impulses for the church and its faithful. A comparison with the synod documents shows that the social-ethical document contributes a significant facet to this. Documents of social-ethical content published earlier by the Russian Orthodox Church were included in the study in order to be able to answer the question of continuities or new accents. Access to the world of thought and to the understanding of the social-ethical document is opened not least by the manifold contributions and publications of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and many Orthodox theologians. It was neither intended nor possible within the framework of this study to attempt to fully cover the diversity of positions and statements of Orthodox theology on the broad spectrum of topics covered by the document. The inclusion of a selection of contributions by hierarchs and theologians rather served the goal of approaching the text in the horizon to which it belongs, namely that of Orthodoxy. In doing so, it has become apparent that “For the Life of the World” has been consistently drawn from specific aspects of modern Orthodox theology developed over decades.
Although the document does not contain a section explicitly devoted to the theme of “globalization,” its basic orientation is so consistently global that an element of its purpose can be discerned therein. The horizon should be broadened as opposed to a national approach. The resulting global orientation of the text refers, on the one hand, to the now worldwide spread of Orthodoxy. Thus, the Orthodox diaspora, including its specific experiences and challenges, is valorized and receives an appropriate perception alongside countries with a majority Orthodox population. The consistently “nation” transcending perspective led to re-evaluations in the context of a whole series of individual topics. These include, for example, an updating of the role of the church in society and state in section II, which arises from a relativization of historical realities of the Byzantine Empire for today’s Orthodoxy. The rejection of a “Byzantinization” as a horizon of expectation in ecumenical dialogue can give impetus to this. The same applies to the encounter of Orthodoxy with other religions and cultures. In section VI, the topic of “inculturation”—in this form probably for the first time in an official document of the Orthodox Church—could thus be rolled up. Above all, however, it becomes perceptible to the readers of the document that Orthodoxy can and wants to speak out on issues that touch people’s everyday lives. This is especially true in the case of challenges that are of an international magnitude. In this respect, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with its international orientation developed successively over decades, had taken on a pioneering role, which can now have a stronger impact back on Orthodoxy as a whole.
The dissolution of boundaries between questions of ethical relevance that characterizes the socio-ethical document becomes particularly tangible in the discussion of technological progress, with changes in interpersonal communication, or with the urgency of preserving creation. Initiators as well as authors of the socio-ethical document have taken up these and similar challenges of general significance and have made a specifically orthodox assessment. From this a signal can go out to the entirety of Orthodoxy, namely to broaden the horizon in contrast to an often almost exclusively national approach and to involve itself in larger, even global contexts.
Already the encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch of December 2017 referred to the “signs of the times” for the upcoming project. These signs include the fact that believers live in societies characterized by multiple plurality: a plurality of opinions, currents, ways of seeing and interpreting; a plurality of Christian denominations, of religions and worldviews; a plurality of socially relevant actors, including the churches. This sign of the times was responded to in Section III, § 15 with clear recognition and with an encouragement of the faithful to active, positive shaping of the common good within the framework of democratic conditions. In this way, the Orthodox Church refrains from claiming an exclusive form of interpretative sovereignty, as it may have historically once belonged to a single church and been enforceable (cf. also, among other things, the rejection of a “debilitating and in many respects fantastic nostalgia for some long-vanished golden era” in Section II, § 10). The consequence of this is no longer to insist on a certain historical “possession” of the church, but rather to focus on the faithful, their questions and problems.
In fact, the document proves to be consistently focused on the faithful. The number of topics has been limited in order to facilitate the faithful’s engagement with the text by focusing on the essentials and making it easily manageable in scope. The language of the document is designed to explain and convince. Only in very few places, for example, on the subject of “protection of children from abuse” in Section III, is the language that of an authoritative directive. But not only in form, but also in content, the pastoral concern is at the center of the text. Wherever appropriate margins appeared, no decision was dictated, but the choice of the ethically correct solution was left to those directly concerned, i.e., the faithful.
The socio-ethical document has been found to be theologically oriented and “through-composed” in its argumentation. In the theological introduction, the keyword “loving communion” is of particular importance. This is a characteristic formulation, which establishes a cross connection to the theological conception of the Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas. In this respect, a significant approach of modern Orthodox theology has been taken up, based on the interpretation of God’s love for his creation and a loving response of man to it. A second basic feature of the theological introduction consists in the derivation of social-ethical responsibility of believers from the biblical commandment to love God and neighbor. Thus the argumentation was sharpened to the probably most central instruction of the gospel, supplemented by the aspect “natural knowledge of God”. With this approach to the justification of a duty to act in a socially ethical way, which is taken directly from the Holy Scriptures, the theological introduction offers a familiar horizon of understanding beyond the primary circle of addressees from Orthodoxy, i.e. for Christians of other denominations and even for non-Christians.
However, the discussion of theological aspects is by no means limited to the introductory passages of the sections. The argumentation repeatedly falls back on theological aspects and thus shows their connection with phenomena of the time and the modern world. The reference to the Holy Scriptures has special weight, regularly enriched by references to the theology of the Fathers and the liturgy. However, the document by no means stops at an interpretation of these theological sources of knowledge. Rather, a specific use of central theological aspects or even individual terms can be detected, which runs through the entire text and in this way connects the individual parts with each other or brings them into a contextual connection. All in all, the theological explanations give the reader the impression of great unity of thought. A side effect of this inner stringency of the socio-ethical document is that text passages in which compromises had to be sought or on whose topic there is not yet a “prevailing opinion” stand out relatively clearly, as do isolated gaps or breaks in the argumentation.
Some of the valuations made in the document are likely to lead to an internal Orthodox discussion. It can become fruitful if it transcends autocephalous monologues in favor of an Orthodox witness in the world. At the same time, the Orthodox Church has positioned itself as an essential actor for a social discourse to be led worldwide. It is able to give it essential and forward-looking impulses. Last but not least, the document opens up a new field for intensified exchange between the Christian churches. It does not seem unrealistic to assume that dialogue can lead to cooperation in the field of social ethics and that cooperation can lead to a significant rapprochement between the churches. This would correspond well to the challenges of the time.
Dietmar Schon O.P., Dr. theol. habil., is director of the Eastern Church Institute of the Diocese of Regensburg and lecturer at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Regensburg.