Speech of Bartholomew I of Constantinople, given on November 11, 2019, at the College of Europe, Bruges, Belgium
In our time we face a world changing rapidly, full of new challenges and unforeseen possibilities for development and progress. When confronted with the contemporary challenges, what should the required stance for the Christian Churches be? How could they make good use of their precious spiritual and moral heritage, their deep anthropological knowledge and their philanthropic traditions? Over the last decades, we have witnessed a re-evaluation of the role of religion for human existence. It is not by chance that, in our present day, the talk about the coming “post-religious age” has been replaced by the discourse of a “post-secular period,” in which religions claim and play a prominent public role and join all the remarkable efforts of humankind. As Pope Emeritus Benedict writes: “complete secularity” (Profanität), “which was aimed for in the West, is something deeply foreign for the civilizations of the world. They are convinced that a world without God does not have any future.”
Religion remains a central dimension of human life, both at the personal and social levels. Without reference to religion, it is impossible to understand the past, to analyse the present, or to imagine the future of humanity. Unfortunately, the ongoing outburst of religious fundamentalism and the terrible acts of violence in the name of God and religion give to the modern deniers of religious faith arguments against religions and support the identification of religion with its negative aspects. The credibility of religions depends largely on their commitment to peace, the way to which is, in our times, interreligious dialogue and common witness in view of the great contemporary challenges.
Dialogue is the most effective means for addressing problems and it promotes confidence and mutual acceptance. It is as such a gesture of solidarity and a source of solidarity. Never in history have human beings had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people and the global community simply through encounter and dialogue. While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there have also never been greater chances for communication and cooperation. Humanity is called to react and act collaboratively, working as a whole for our common presence and future. Nobody—not a nation, nor a state, not science and technology, nor a church or a religion—can face the current problems alone. We need one another; we need common mobilization, common efforts, common goals.
The attitude of the Orthodox Church towards the modern world is not a defensive one. We do not reject modernity and its contributions to progress. Neither do we regard it as a threat to our identity. We discern autonomy from autonomism, protection of individual rights from individualism. At the same time, we fervently call upon the representatives of modernity to avoid identifying Orthodoxy with anti-modernism, conservatism, traditionalism, orthodoxism and ethnophyletism, as well as associating Orthodoxy with the rejection of individual rights and individualism and with the incapacity to accept secular ethics and the secular state.
And above all, we hold that in the Orthodox tradition and theology, reason (λόγος) and freedom (ἐλευθερία) are highly appreciated and respected. We have never sacrificed reason to a supreme authority. We have never rejected human freedom and synergy in the name of the sinfulness of the fallen human being. We are continuing this tradition when we support the core values of Orthodoxy, person-centred ethics, respect for human dignity, peace and reconciliation, love and philanthropy, the protection of the environment. This magnificent tradition is properly expressed in the documents of the Holy and Great Council.
In this spirit, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is also unshakeably committed to openness. We engage in inter-Christian, inter-religious, inter-cultural dialogue, we discuss with secular institutions, with contemporary philosophy and modern science. As an example of our activities, we would like to especially stress on our common commitment with Pope Francis in ecological and social issues. The Church of Constantinople is widely known for its environmental initiatives. The Ecumenical Patriarchate was the first to highlight the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the ecological problem, to stress the importance of the Church’s contribution to its handling, to showcase the ecological dimensions of the eucharistic and ascetic ethos of Orthodoxy, and to propose ways to protect the natural environment. We have not only reached out to Orthodox faithful, to Christians and other believers, but rather to every man of goodwill, while expressing our trust in the responsibility of every individual and especially connecting our hopes of the positive contribution of all. We consider that the new generation—which envisions a world that will function as a true “house” (οἶκος) for all humankind and strives toward this very purpose—is interested in our message, to be especially important. The very life of the Church is respect indeed and care for creation in tangible forms, as well as the source of its ecological actions. The protection of the natural environment is an extension of all that is experienced in the Church. Ecclesial life is applied ecology.
The real interests of man are served only within an intact environment. So, we consider the approach of the ecological crisis in connection with social problems to be especially important. It is Pope Francis’ and our common belief that the current economic developments within the framework of globalization destroy social cohesion, solidarity and the overall function of interpersonal relations. It is precisely this spirit that the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015) and our Common Message with Him, On the World Day of Prayer for Creation (September 1, 2017), express. From the very beginning, we have supported the idea that serving our fellow human beings, preserving nature, environmental justice and social justice, are inextricably interconnected. It is quite characteristic that the Roman Catholic Church started by addressing social matters and continues its way to the Laudato Si’ Encyclical in 2015, which has the ecological issue at its core; while the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which, in 1989, began concerning itself with the care for the natural environment, today finds itself also engaged in a struggle for a culture of solidarity, for the protection of the sacredness of childhood, for the support of refugees, as well as in initiatives against modern slavery. Therefore, it was natural and beneficial for us to meet in our journey.
Our Church also has a fruitful encounter and cooperation with the Protestant world, bilateral dialogues and its long presence in the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. In the framework of this dialogue, aside from other issues, the idea of freedom in Christ, which is at the center of Luther’s theology, is considered as an essential point of reference, with particular emphasis on the relations between Christian freedom and the modern idea of a self-centred freedom, widely prevalent in today’s societies.
This modern freedom has at its fundament the idea of the autonomous human person and expresses itself as self-determination and self-realisation. The Reformation strengthened the position of the individual. Without Luther’s doctrine and actions, the freedom of the individual would not have become the Magna Charta of Europe. In this sense, Luther’s concept of freedom is very important for Christianity’s dialogue with the modern world. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants must advance this dialogue with theological seriousness and without theological minimalism, with the unshakable goal of a common Christian witness to the world.
In our days we observe in Europe a distancing from the tradition of solidarity and the transformation of society into a gigantic market. Even children are being converted through the educational system into consumerists. As it was rightly said, childhood has basically become a term synonymous with the incitement and exploitation of children’s needs and alleged desires. For us, Europe is a great experiment of solidarity on a continent that during the last century experienced the two most bloody and terrible wars in the history of humanity. It is a project of peaceful coexistence, freedom, justice and respect of human rights and of pluralism. In this sense, Europe is not a “Kopfgeburt,” that is, a product of the mind—as it has been called in the past by the renowned sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf—but rather embodies high human ideals and, we could say, an idealism. It is not possible for the European Union to merely exist as a plan of uniform economic politics and economic development, based on the principle of the “autonomy of the economy.”
The role of Christianity in the rise of human rights is a well-discussed topic and an agreement exists on the main points. Modern human rights presuppose the long schooling of our culture in Christianity and they bear its stamp. Their roots are found in the Biblical teaching about the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. The initially negative attitude of the Churches against them was not based predominately on theological criteria, but on historical circumstances and mutual prejudices.
In the Orthodox Church we are also convinced that the existing tensions between Orthodox theology and modern human rights are not primarily rooted in “principles,” but rather in historical contexts. It is saddening to note that some Orthodox scholars insist on regarding the discourse on human rights as an “imported” one, as being unfamiliar to Orthodox tradition. The Orthodox Church regards the support of the social content of human rights as crucial. Yet, the accentuation of social rights does not dispense us from the concern of individual rights. Human rights are indivisible.
We especially underline that human rights are not a threat to pluralism, as postmodernism claims, but rather they ensure the necessary conditions for free cultural expression and the respect of difference. Universality does not mean uniformity. In this sense, religious freedom, which is a constant concern of our own, belongs to the core values of the European Union. It is a fundamental human right to freely cultivate one’s particular identity. Nevertheless, pluralism can only function creatively on the ground of common core values. Otherwise, pluralism can devolve into nihilism, into the postmodern ideal of “anything goes.” This is, in fact, the negation of true pluralism, which is meant to be an expression of freedom, or, as Karl Popper stated, “the credo of the West.”
Of course, the European Union did not come into existence ex nihilo. It is rooted in a long tradition of values, struggles for freedom and justice, and faith in the dignity of man. Without these roots, it would be impossible to identify itself as “Europe.” One of these roots is unquestionably Christianity. The historical path and the identity of Europe is directly connected to Christianity. We are convinced that it is impossible to understand and to assess the European culture, without reference to its Christian roots and Christian past. The fundamental values, ethics, education (παιδεία), art, science, economy, the social and political organization of Europeans, have Christian origins. It is our steady conviction that Christian Churches today can contribute to this culture, thereby strengthening the European identity. Concerning the particular contribution that the Orthodox Church can provide, we believe that this is related to the centrality of the social dimension of freedom, which safeguards against the conversion of human rights into endless individualistic entitlement. Our own view of Europe has an ethical and spiritual foundation and orientation. We discern the concept of a technocratic and economocentric Europe, a Europe whose priority is the economy and the functioning of the market, from a concept of Europe based on human dignity, freedom and justice. It is quite characteristic that these principles come to the fore when Europe’s unity and future are in question.
This crisis challenges the fundamental values of European civilization. It is impossible for the current migration and refugee crisis to be addressed by the values of a bureaucratic, technocratic and economically centered Europe. The solution must be based on the principles of the values of human rights and solidarity, which have at their core the protection of human dignity. The natural allies of human rights are Christian Churches. They are able to decisively address the issues of immigration and refugees, by implementing and cultivating a spirit of solidarity, and by supporting relevant initiatives and tendencies in the political and social world that have the protection of human dignity as their goal.
For us, the humanistic level of a society is judged by the treatment of the needy and suffering people in it. The support of our fellowmen in need, independently of social, political and economic perspectives are at the core of Christian ethics, of the commandment of love (Mt. 22:37-39). But the true faithful who really embraces and practices this commandment will not be satisfied only with this immediate help to their neighbour. They will take the next step: fighting against the causes of injustice and for the foundation of a society in which human dignity will be the highest value.
We hear it often stated that the last two centuries were times of struggle for freedom and equality. If this is true, then our century must become an era of fraternity and solidarity. We are convinced that the future of humanity is related to the establishment of a culture of solidarity. On the one hand, the term “solidarity” points to the struggle for social justice, freedom and dignity, while dynamically expressing the social and political dimension of the term “fraternity” formulated in the triptych of the French Revolution “Liberté – Égalité – Fraternité.” However, it also promotes the idea of law, of social justice and of the social content of freedom as co-freedom, as cooperation for the common good, and as co-responsibility for the common “οἶκος.” On the other hand, solidarity points to Christian fraternity, to the unconditional love for our fellowmen, and to the unbroken bond between the love toward God and love toward neighbour. Thus “solidarity” holds together the two unshakeable pillars of humanism and freedom: on the one hand justice, and on the other hand love.
The action of the Church cannot replace politics and it does not aim to do so. The Church can support all initiatives, tendencies and developments, which lead to an improvement of social standards, to justice and peace, and criticizes all anti-personalistic powers, which undermine social cohesion and solidarity, transform the human being into a consumerist, to the detriment of his fellowmen and nature, and of the lives of future generations. The most serious contemporary threat of solidarity is economism, the deification of market and profit. We reject “economic reductionism,” the reduction of the human being to homo economicus, the identification of “being” with “having.” We call for the respect of the social parameters in the economy, which are the basis for life in freedom and dignity.
The history of freedom does not begin with the birth of modern human rights. Indeed, in Europe and across the world, within the Christian framework, and despite occasional inexpediences, true freedom has been experienced and witnessed. The core of this freedom is not the claim of any rights but instead the renunciation of individual rights for the sake of love, which does not diminish the importance of human rights but actually increases our concern for human dignity and basic rights. In this sense, Christians are more humanist than humanists themselves, because the struggle to protect the human beings is not just a moral imperative; it is a commandment of a loving God.