Review: “For the Life of the World” (Ecumenical Patriarchate Social Document)


The Ecumenical Patriarchate recently published its document “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church,” a kind of omnibus of positions on the Church’s position toward the world. It is published with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his holy synod.

It is, in a very real sense, the EP’s answer to the Moscow Patriarchate’s “The Basis of the Social Concept” (published twenty years ago), which the head of the EP project referred to as “admirable though rudimentary.” Rather than being an improvement on the MP document, the EP document actually represents a significant departure or hedging on numerous Orthodox Christian teachings, which is unsurprising, considering the list of contributors, all of whom belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and many of whom are well-known to support (whether by teaching or by omission) revision of traditional Church teaching.

We will not give a line-by-line review here, but we will touch on some of the most problematic parts of this document and hope that its drafters will receive this critique and revise their contributions accordingly. That is not to say that these are the only problems with it, however.

There is actually also much to agree with here, but given this blog’s focus, we will aim mainly at the heterodoxy among the orthodoxy.

(NB: This review represents the contributions of multiple O&H blog authors and collaborators working together.)

Marriage and Sexuality

This is probably the subject most lacking in the document, and there is none of the Biblical sense that sexual immorality is bound up in idolatry and results in being vomited out of the land. It also seems (§19) to accept “sexual orientation” simply as a given with no sense that one might be re-oriented, which is what repentance actually is. That is not to say that one can simply revise one’s desires by an act of the will, but ascetical struggle against sinful desires is the essence of sexual morality. None of this Biblical, patristic teaching is present in the document.

Sex outside marriage: In §18 and §19 of the document, we get the teaching on sexuality. It prescribes “lives of sexual continence, both inside and outside of marriage,” which sounds good if one defines continence in those contexts traditionally — no sex at all outside of marriage and faithfulness to one’s spouse within marriage. But actually the document does not define continence anywhere, and §20-24 treat sexuality within marriage (therefore being what is included in “continence”) without even mentioning St. Paul’s teaching on abstinence for the sake of prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). One is therefore left with no affirmation that abstaining from sex either inside or outside of marriage is called for but only that there be “continence.” Is sex outside marriage okay? One could read this either way, but based purely on internal definitions, the more obvious conclusion is that it is indeed okay within limits.

Marriage: Further, while references to marriage are made being a conjugal union of a husband and wife, there is no clear statement that marriage is only possible between single husband and single wife, one man and one woman. In our current day, such an omission is unthinkable if one is to retain the teaching of the Church on this subject. Would the authors sign a document saying “Marriage is permissible only between one man and one woman”? At best, we’re left not knowing. They certainly did not say so here, and if there is anywhere that this should be said, it’s in a document like this.

Clergy remarriage: §22 mentions that the remarriage of divorced clergy is put forth as possible, although described as “exceptions to the canons regarding the remarriage of divorced clergy.” This is almost unthinkable for most of the Orthodox Church, even if a few exceptions have indeed been made here and there. But putting this directly into such a document essentially codifies the exceptions now as the rule. If you want to be remarried as a divorced clergyman, simply apply to the proper office, and we’ll get back to you.

Contraception: It is also notable that contraception (§24) is explicitly condoned within certain limits. While there are certainly many Orthodox teachers today who would agree with that, to state that the Church “has no dogmatic objection” to non-abortive contraceptives is a controversial and still-debated claim. By contrast, the MP document (XII.3) does not outright either condone or ban contraceptives, but is actually more complex here, mentioning that not all contraceptives are abortive and that the best form of “birth control” is abstinence within marriage, and 1 Cor. 7:5 is directly quoted.

Pornography: Despite being one of the most pressing sexual sins of our time, it is mentioned only in passing and not outright referred to as sin, but only as one of “any number of obsessions and addictive fixations” (§70). This may be where the lack of pastoral formation on this document is most obvious.

Violence

While the document laudably condemns violence, in one of its many overstatements, it claims: “In the end, we may justly say that violence is sin par excellence. It is the perfect contradiction of our created nature and our supernatural vocation to seek union in love with God and our neighbor” (§43). But this is simply not true. If there is any sin which the Scriptures condemn as the sin above all others, it is idolatry. Indeed, nearly every statement from God that begins stating His commandments begins with a statement of Who He is and that He expects Israel not to go after other gods. And bound up in idolatry (as we mentioned before) is sexual immorality.

There is at least some remnant of this sensibility in this statement from the document: “No offense against God is worse than is the sexual abuse of children, and none more intolerable to the conscience of the Church” (§16). Yet this actually contradicts the statement on violence. How can violence be the “sin par excellence” if pedophilia is the worst possible offense against God and the most intolerable to the Church’s conscience? Does this mean that what is most offensive to God is not the sin par excellence? Maybe the writers just needed a better proofreader.

The proofreader might have also caught this statement: “No moral injunction constitutes a more constant theme in scripture, from the earliest days of the Law and the Prophets to the age of the Apostles, than hospitality and protection for strangers in need” (§66). So now we have the hospitality to strangers as the most constant moral theme of Scripture, which apparently is not the worst offense against God or the sin par excellence.

Another overstatement about violence: “The Orthodox Church rejects capital punishment, and does so out of faithfulness to the Gospel and to the example of the Apostolic Church” (§48). This is yet another controversial and quite debatable statement. The whole paragraph gives the authors’ rationale, but, like contraception, a lot of the history and even current practice in the Church say otherwise.

One might of course take a stand against capital punishment, but one cannot say that “The Orthodox Church rejects” it. That’s simply not true. This is another place where the “rudimentary” MP document (IX.3) takes a more sophisticated and nuanced view, saying both that the New Testament does not abolish the capital punishment established in the Old Testament and also that the Church has often interceded with civil authorities to show mercy.

Asceticism

Asceticism is mentioned in a number of places in the document, and it’s worth seeing what the context of all of them is:

In §5, asceticism is about being unselfish in caring for creation. In §15, it is the same thing. In §20, it is about self-sacrifice in marriage. In §23, it is about self-sacrifice in parenting. In §31, it is about bearing up under illness. §74 is about creation care again. In §78 it’s the same again. In §79 it is used as a synonym for “joyful mourning.”

What is missing here? Asceticism, in the teaching of the Church, is about re-orienting the will toward God, about putting to death the sinful desires of the flesh. It is fundamentally a God-ward action. That orientation toward God is missing here, and the sense that the purpose of asceticism is holiness is also absent. One gets the idea that asceticism just means “don’t be selfish” and possibly also “be brave during crisis.” It does include those things, of course, but that is not its fundamental meaning.

Things to Condemn

There is a severe imbalance throughout this document, mostly a failure of nerve to deal with false teachings that are being promulgated within the Church (some, sadly, by this document’s authors!). But it would be one thing if strong language were never used in the document at all, and we could simply write that off as its style. But the authors have no problem withstanding certain people to their faces.

For instance, the strongest language in the document is used against phyletism/nationalism/racism: “And it must be incumbent on every Orthodox community, when it discovers such persons in its midst and cannot move them to renounce the evils they promote, to expose, denounce, and expel them. Any ecclesial community that fails in this has betrayed Christ” (§11). But where is the call to expose, denounce, and expel those who teach that sexual immorality is permissible, that such are traitors to Christ?

“The Orthodox Church condemns their views without qualification, and calls them to a complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with the body of Christ” (ibid.). Where is the condemnation and call to complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with those who teach sexual immorality? You can find those calls in the Bible, but not here. It might be uncomfortable to the modern sensibility, but God’s abhorrence for those sins is pervasive in the Bible. That does not mean that racism, etc., are not sinful, but are they really at the very top of the sinful heap? There is no condemnation in this document for the things condemned the most in the Bible.

And what are the other things that this document explicitly “condemns”? In §6, it’s “the luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute.” In §9, it’s “every kind of institutional corruption and totalitarianism.” In §20, it’s hostility to marriage. In §32, it’s again about exploiting the weak and poor. In §34, it’s current social conditions. In §38, it’s “moral derelictions in the allocation of civic wealth.” In §39, it’s usury. In §45, it’s violence. In §82, it’s “cruelty and injustice, the economic and political structures that abet and preserve poverty and inequality, the ideological forces that encourage hatred and bigotry.”

While those things are certainly worthy of condemnation from a Christian point of view, what is most notable is what’s missing. There is no condemnation of heresy, of schism, of teaching that sin is not sin, of sexual immorality, etc., things which are pernicious and pervasive in our time. The strong language is put in service of a single view of social justice but not in service of many of the things the Scripture tells us that God Himself condemns.

Mission

There is no section on evangelism. The closest one gets is Part VI (paragraphs §50-60), which deals with the Church and other religions. Nowhere in those eleven paragraphs is there a call to preach the gospel to members of other religions or to the non-religious. This is a shocking omission.

If you search on the words gospel or mission, you will find them used to refer to (a laudable) concern for the poor and oppressed. If you search on the word evangelism (or evangelize or evangelical), you will simply not find it.

There is zero commitment or even suggestion here to bring the gospel to all nations, to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you search for the word apostolic, you’ll find it used only to refer to a time period or to episcopal authority. Nowhere is the sense of being “sent out” to preach the good news intended.

If you read the whole of Part VI (especially §55-60), you will see that it begins with a clear statement of the Orthodox Church being uniquely the Church. This is good. If you continue to read it, however, you will see that it is almost a point-for-point rehashing of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.

§56 on Islam is especially concerning, even going so far as adopting the “peoples of the book” language that Islam itself uses. There are multiple statements about finding positive aspects in Islam to affirm, yet the only negative statement in it is disagreeing with Islam’s views of the Trinity and Incarnation. Is there nothing else we might disagree on with Islam? The paragraph is of course not meant to be a full apologetic, but there is plenty to condemn about Islam’s teachings and jurisprudence. Given the document’s lack of reticence in condemning all kinds of other things, would Islam’s treatment of women, minors, non-Muslims, etc., not warrant even a mention?

Missing in Action

Besides having no missionary outlook, the authors don’t seem too interested in the Bible. While Scripture is mentioned a number of times, it is of course (as we’ve mentioned above) very out of balance.

They don’t like the word Biblical, though, using it just once in §67 to refer to the command to take care of strangers. Scriptural also gets used just once (§34), referring to wealth inequity. Bible is never used, and Scripture gets used just nine times.

Word counts aren’t everything, of course, but out of 32k+ words, you’d think that the core of Orthodox tradition for doctrine and praxis would get featured just a bit more. The Bible is on the center of our church altars, but not in this document. It is always in the mouths of the Church Fathers as the basis for their theology, but here it is cited sparingly mainly as proof-texts.

Conclusion

“For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church” is a flawed document with a number of good parts. It’s still worth reading.

The irony of its chief drafter referring to the MP document of twenty years ago as “rudimentary,” however, is that this document is in fact much less thorough (and not only because it’s rather shorter — just 75% of its length while being far more verbose), lacking in multiple categories and major pastoral concerns. That is not to say that the MP document is the last word on these subjects, but the comparison was invited by the EP group. And while the MP document describes itself as explicitly for the Russian Orthodox Church, the EP one is claiming to speak for the whole Orthodox Church.

Far from speaking for the whole Orthodox Church, this limited, provincial document instead positions the Ecumenical Patriarchate as potentially drifting apart from the Church’s teaching on a number of subjects. It is also notable that of all those responsible for creating this document, only one of them has ever been responsible for pastoring a parish, which may be part of what imparts such tone-deafness to it and its many blind spots. There are also no bishops and no monastics involved. In short, the people who are actually responsible for the care of souls in the Church were, it seems, not invited.

We therefore cannot recommend that this document be used for catechism nor as the basis for any authoritative theological statements, and indeed, we recommend that this document not be given to catechumens, parishioners or seminarians for their instruction. It should be read by those who can read theological documents with a critical eye, and further critique needs to be offered.

We commend these comments to the authors and hope that they will bring in pastors, bishops, monastics and Biblical scholars to correct and probably rewrite most of it.

19 comments:

  1. It sounds very much as though the EP is aligning itself with Pope Francis’s thinking. Thinking that has had a destructive and divisive effect on the RCC.

    1. One of my first thoughts, while reading this critique, was that this sounds like a modern, Roman document. I felt quite sad at this.

    2. You read my mind. This sounds like a typical Vatican document and an attempt to normalize theological and moral liberalism. Typically, in such documents, what is left unsaid is or more important than what is said.

  2. Typical modernist stance on violence, happy to live in countries made stable and protected by violence – first to condemn it.

  3. Your critique relies on a great deal of insinuation, and in some cases you seem to be digging *very* deep to find fault. For a best example (among many) you imply here that the document leaves the door open for marriage that is not between one man and one woman, while the document itself states the following:
    [From EP] “Marriage is the sacrament of love, or human love raised into the world of the sacramental. It is the only sacrament that involves two persons freely and equally bound one to the other by God. Mystically, man and woman, husband and wife, become one, as the rite of matrimony says: “Yoke them in oneness of mind; crown them into one flesh.” ”
    As such, it would seem there is a clear response to your question about whether the EP and his authors would sign a statement about marriage being between one man and one woman: they already did.
    A number of other critiques here seem to fall in a similar category. This just reads as though you passed judgment on the document first, and then started digging around for evidence of. Plenty to be dissatisfied about with the EP in general, and with this document, but we will not gain ground in correcting a straying hierarch (or any brother in Christ) if we cannot begin with a fair reading of his words, and a recognition that he is not wrong about absolutely everything (and might agree with us on more than we’d expect).

  4. The Patriarchate of Constantinople has long since ceased to exist as such. Yet more evidence of the need for its formal abolition.

  5. C.S Lewis’s Screwtape knows what’s going on here:
    «The use of fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make liberalism the prime bogey.»

  6. Having only read this critique and not the Source document, it very much reminded me of a political document from the United States, UN, or EU. I would not doubt that such influences played a part in the EP shaping, drafting, and releasing this. Same spirit and influences that made Vatican II and it’s intended consequences happen. Thankfully, the Orthodox version (conceived about the same time as Vatican II was) was a failure in 2016 and to no effect or authority.

  7. Wow! This wouldn’t even fly in the Traditional Protestant churches I grew up in! The authors obviously have an agenda not based on the sure foundation that is built by the study of God’s word. This is why the Bible repeatedly warns of false teachers.

  8. I sincerely hope that many Orthodox Christians around the world–clergy, monastics, and informed laity– read and reflect on this document, not as dogma, which it does not claim to be, but because it thoughtful, beautifully written, and addresses issues that we need to consider in the light of the Church’s Holy Tradition and not only our own parochial national and political loyalties. Because it is bold in addressing various issues of economics and nationalism contested around the world–while simply *assuming* that marriage, for the Church at least, is between one man and one woman–I doubt very much that this document speaks *for* the Church as a whole today, but it certainly speaks *from* the Church and *to* her members, in a way that we should consider as from our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Taken together with the social teaching document of the Church of Russia (MP) released two decades ago, it could serve as a building block of a more comprehensive and truly ecumenical statement of the Orthodox Church’s social teaching for the world today. We all know that such a statement would need more than the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch in order to be received widely. As an example of where the two statements already agree, consider the question of universal access to health care (discussed in section XI.3 in the MP document, and in sections 38, 40, and 63 of the EP document, although I think the EP document shows insufficient restraint on prudential matters of public policy by insisting that such care be “free”).
    FWIW, I’ve read all 82 sections of the EP’s latest document, and I disagree strongly with two particular claims of the above review. The review criticizes the EP document for not focusing sufficiently on the dangers of idolatry and how that leads to divine judgment, but in fact the document *does* focus on and reject many forms of idolatry, whether it is “the idol of cultural, ethnic, or national identity” (par. 10), of the internet and other forms of mass media (par. 17), of sexual “identities” that de-emphasize the image of God shared in common by all humans (par. 19), of economic wealth that is not used for love of God and neighbor (pars. 32-41), and of violence as a means of resolving problems (pars. 24, 25, and 69 with respect to abortion, par. 31 with respect to suicide and euthanasia, and pars. 42-49 with respect to war and capital punishment).
    The review also says that the EP document has “no missionary outlook,” when in fact it refers to: “[how] the conflation of national, ethnic, and religious identity… has often inhibited the Church in its vocation to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples” (par. 10); to Orthodox Christians’ responsibility to emerge from the Eucharist and “re-enter the world always anew as witnesses to God’s eternal Kingdom” (par. 12); to the Church’s “mission to all nations and persons” (par. 13); the Orthodox Church “as the concrete reality of the Christ’s mystical body in time, always bearing witness to ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’” (par 55); “interreligious encounters and dialogue… [as] important means through which respect for religious differences and proclamation of the truth are realized” (par 60); “[how] the Church is called at all times and in all places to witness…to a vision of the human person transfigured by fidelity to the will of the Father, as revealed in Jesus Christ… Her mission is to proclaim Christ and him crucified to all peoples and at all times, and to summon everyone into the life of God’s kingdom… this mission necessarily includes a sustained dialogue with contemporary culture, and the clear enunciation of a truly Christian vision of social justice” (par. 71); and how the Church’s “mission is to manifest the saving of God given in Jesus Christ to all creation: a love broken and seemingly defeated upon the cross, but shining out in triumph from the empty tomb at Pascha” (par. 82).

  9. §20 “As an Orthodox Christian enters adulthood, he or she will begin to follow one of three possible paths: married life, monastic life, or single life. While the three paths may differ in expression, they share the Christian calling in essence as the radical acceptance of love and sharing.”

    I don’t understand what the second half of this means.

    1. The point is that everyone is called to love and share themselves themselves have with others, which is at the heart of all three ways. 1. through marriage, obviously by giving yourself to your spouse and ideally to children as well. 2. Monasticism through living a live of love and communion with the other members of the community and sharing also with pilgrims. 3. Single life, this also fits because the Christian single life should never be lived out of a inward turned selfishness, but as a sacrifice in service of greater work, say spending your life doing mission work in obscure parts of the world where you’re unlikely to find a spouse and certainly couldn’t bring a family for one example out of many.

  10. Thanks for the review. Overall, I thought the review raised several valid points of criticism. But I have some mixed feelings about other of the criticisms.

    Where I Agreed Fully:
    * The ideological leanings of many of the authors is problematic, especially for a document presenting itself as “the teaching of the Orthodox Church”
    * The omission of bishops and monastics from the authors is problematic
    * The presentation of particular views of controversial and complex moral issues unilaterally as “the teaching of the Orthodox Church” — especially regarding contraception and capital punishment — is tremendously irresponsible, even where I’m personally sympathetic to some of those views
    * The document seems to represent an incomplete moral vision, focusing one-sidedly on the pet issues of characteristically “left-leaning” Christians, such as poverty-wealth disparity, immigration, civic inequality, prejudice, inter-religious harmony, etc. All these are real moral issues, but of course we need to transcend the political “right/left” divide in order to get a truly binocular vision of the Church’s moral teaching
    * The MP document is superior and more nuanced

    Where I Felt the Critique Was Weak or Incorrect:
    * It might be that the authors are not sufficiently emphasizing the Gospel and Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morals. But I think the authors’ critique goes too far. For example, it might be fair to argue that the document doesn’t speak out against the ideology of sexual progressivism, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to criticize them for not defining the term “continence”. The critique borders on reading the minds of the authors.
    * Pedophilia, and sexual abuse in general, *is* a form of violence against another, so I think the Editors’ criticism just misses the point there.
    * While I get their point, running a “Ctrl+F” on the words (or roots of) “Bible” and “Scripture” isn’t necessarily a good indicator of the biblical/scriptural basis of the document. You’d need to look at the scriptural references and allusions to analyze that. You’d likely get a similar result if you ran that “Ctrl+F” on St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”… How often would he explicitly be using the words “Bible” or “Scripture”?

    Apologies if I have misinterpreted anything. Overall, really enjoyed the read. Thanks!

  11. Interesting take on “phyletism/racism” from a Patriarchate that starts ethnic-based vicariates in other jurisdictions so they don’t have to get to know their neighbors and the Greeks don’t have to consecrate non-Greeks.

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