Conciliarity and unity: these are the two keywords that stood out at the “pan-Orthodox” Council which took place in Crete from June 19 to 26. The long-awaited summit, which has been more than 50 years in the making, was marked by the controversial bailout of some Orthodox Churches, notably the Russian Orthodox Church. Out of 14 autocephalous Churches, 10 turned up at the meeting (Orthodox Patriarchate, Patriarchate of Alexandria, Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Serbian, Romanian, Greek, Cypriot, Albanian, Polish and Slovak Churches). Four were absent (Moscow, Georgia, Bulgaria and Antioch). It is probably worth saying that this time that those who took part in the summit were right. It was a very rich debate and some important documents were signed during the course of the meeting. Two concluding documents were produced: a Council encyclical and a general message that sums up the issues addressed in the encyclical.
The crux of the summit was unity among Orthodox Churches, the development of a common path that can cut through today’s many challenges. In general, the contents of the documents seem to be very much in tune with Pope Francis’ magisterium on a number of issues (environment, immigration, globalization and dialogue among Christian traditions and interreligious dialogue, family). As such, the solid understanding between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, and the pope, as well as the meeting between the pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, were particularly meaningful; it is not surprising that one of the various texts produced by the Council has specifically to do with relations with other Christian traditions. One important focus area was the Middle East and the drama that the region’s Christians and population as a whole are going through. The complexity and variety of the issues discussed during the summit will in time be looked at in greater depth, but a quick review of some of the main underlying questions is still possible, starting with the concluding texts approved by the leaders of all Orthodox Churches present in Crete. Let’s look at each of these in order.
First, the subject of unity was clearly defined: “The key priority of the Council,” the concluding message reads, “was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church. Founded on the Eucharist and the Apostolic Succession of her Bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruits.” “The Orthodox Church,” the document goes on to say, “expresses her unity and catholicity “in Council.” Conciliarity pervades her organization and the way decisions are taken and determines her path. The Orthodox Autocephalous Churches do not constitute a federation of Churches, but the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
Dialogue, ethics and the environment
Dialogue among the Orthodox Churches and other Christian traditions is still fundamental. However, as the text points out, “the explosions of fundamentalism observed within various religions represent an expression of morbid religiosity. Sober inter-religious dialogue helps significantly to promote mutual trust, peace and reconciliation.” Regarding the relationship of the Christian faith with science, the Orthodox Church “avoids placing scientific investigation under tutelage and does not adopt a position on every scientific question”; it emphasizes, however, that science cannot answer underlying existential questions that seek out the meaning of life and the world. As such, “the Orthodox Church attempts to provide a thorough bioethics which is founded on Christian ethics and Patristic teaching. Along with her respect for the freedom of scientific investigation, the Orthodox Church at the same time points out the dangers concealed in certain scientific achievements and emphasizes man’s dignity and his divine destiny.”
The various documents also dedicate ample space to the issue of the environment and problems linked to the protection of creation. Bartholomew has shown a deep sensitivity to such issues for some time now, in tune with Francis’ concern for the environment and his “green” encyclical, “Laudato Si’.” “The present-day ecological crisis,” the document reads, “is due to spiritual and moral causes. Its roots are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants, and to climate change.” Hence value is given to choices such as the rejection of hyper-consumerism — a sort of abstinence from consumerism — which go against the current. The document gives room to an ascetical ethics, with a thought to the next generations to whom creation will be handed. This is closely tied to an economy that sees itself as omnipotent: Orthodoxy, the Christian leaders say, “is also opposed the making of the economy into something autonomous from basic human needs and turning it into an end in itself. The progress of mankind is not connected only with an increase in living standards or with economic development at the expense of spiritual values.”
“The Orthodox Church,” the text adds, “does not involve herself in politics. Her voice remains distinct, but also prophetic, as a beneficial intervention for the sake of man. Human rights today are at the center of politics as a response to the social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state.” Bearing this in mind, the Church leaders emphasize the importance of guaranteeing every aspect of religious freedom, from a person’s individual conscience to freedom of worship. Naturally, the situation in the Middle East, the suffering of Christian populations and of other minorities and people in the region in general, was among the issues raised. The document calls for equal rights for all.
Middle East and migration
“Very particularly,” the concluding message reads, “she expresses her deep concern about the situation of Christians and of all the persecuted minorities in the Middle East. She calls on the governments in the region to protect the indigenous Orthodox and other Christians and all the populations who have an inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights. Our Council appeals to all parties involved to make systematic efforts without delay to bring to an end the military conflicts in the Middle East and wherever armed hostilities persist and to enable all those displaced to return to their homes.” The document then appeals to the civil authorities, the citizens and the Orthodox Christians in the countries in which the persecuted are seeking refuge, to do their utmost to welcome them.
Finally, secularization is cited as one of the challenges of the modern world, a secularization that is becoming increasingly invasive. In this context, the document explains that accusing the Church of conservatism in the face of progress is unfair and unwarranted because Christian societies bear the indelible mark of the Church’s contribution to their cultural heritage as well as to their development and civilization. The document also highlights the importance of the family not only as a social principle but also as a principle of faith.
The subject of immigration is also highlighted as a problem that is characteristic of our times and one which society also has to face up to: “The contemporary and ever intensifying refugee and migrant crisis,” the Encyclical reads, “due to political, economic and environmental causes, is at the center of the world’s attention. The Orthodox Church has always treated and continues to treat those who are persecuted, in danger and in need on the basis of the Lord’s words: ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, and was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me’ … At no time was the Church’s philanthropic work limited merely to circumstantial good deeds toward the needy and suffering, but rather it sought to eradicate the causes which create social problems.”