In January the Ecumenical Patriarchate approved a social document, titled For the Life of the World, that formulates guiding principles for the role of the Orthodox Church—and the responsibility of Orthodox Christians—in the modern world. In his letter of endorsement, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew praised the theological commission that drafted the document for having addressed “the complex challenges and problems of today’s world, without at the same time overlooking the favorable potential and positive perspectives of contemporary civilization.” The document will be available on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and published in print by Holy Cross Orthodox Press in April.
For the Life of the World, which runs to about 33,000 words, provides helpful general guidelines for Orthodox Christians struggling to navigate contemporary challenges. It begins with the fundamental contours of an Orthodox Christian worldview and concludes on a prayerful note, with an expression of hope for personal and social transformation. Its approach to critical and controversial issues—including racism, poverty, human rights, bioethics, technology, and climate change—is both rigorous and pastoral. The work of a dozen scholars throughout the world (including Commonweal contributor David Bentley Hart), the document is an unmistakably collaborative “achievement,” as the Ecumenical Patriarch describes it in his endorsement. It is the tangible result of extensive hierarchical assessment and comprehensive synodal approval. In their preface, the editors describe the project as “a complicated, not to say contentious, undertaking.” The aim was to delineate an Orthodox “ethos”:
It is impossible for the Church truly to follow Christ or to make him present to the world if it fails to place this absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very center of its moral, religious, and spiritual life. The pursuit of social justice and civil equity—provision for the poor and shelter for the homeless, protection for the weak, welcome for the displaced, and assistance for the disabled—is not merely an ethos the Church recommends for the sake of a comfortable conscience, but is a necessary means of salvation, the indispensable path to union with God in Christ; and to fail in these responsibilities is to invite condemnation before the judgment seat of God. (§33)
Notwithstanding its broad scope, the document does not hesitate to offer pointed commentary on controversial topics. For example, it has this to say on inequality:
Among the most common evils of all human societies—though often brought to an unprecedented level of refinement and precision in modern developed countries—are the gross inequalities of wealth often produced or abetted by regressive policies of taxation and insufficient regulation of fair wages, which favor the interests of those rich enough to influence legislation and secure their wealth against the demands of the general good. (§35)
On the refugee crisis:
The developed world everywhere knows the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers, many legally admitted but also many others without documentation. They confront the consciences of wealthier nations daily with their sheer vulnerability, indigence, and suffering. This is a global crisis, but also a personal appeal to our faith, to our deepest moral natures, to our most inabrogable responsibilities. (§66)
And the Church encourages the faithful to be grateful for—and to accept—the findings of the sciences, even those that might occasionally oblige them to revise their understandings of the history and frame of cosmic reality. The desire for scientific knowledge flows from the same wellspring as faith’s longing to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of God. (§71)