Last week, the Eastern Orthodox Church, a communion of 14 autocephalous, national churches with roots in the Byzantine Christian tradition, concluded an historic synod on the island of Crete. Decades in the planning, the Pan-Orthodox Council, known officially as the Holy and Great Council, was meant to gather patriarchs from all 14 churches for deliberation on a series of issues in contemporary church life, including marriage, fasting, the Orthodox “Diaspora,” and relations with non-Orthodox Christians. At the last minute, four national churches, including the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, declined to attend—a fact which, notwithstanding the protests of the Council’s supporters, seems as a practical matter to undercut the Council’s significance. Nonetheless, the Council is noteworthy for what it had to say on several topics, including the persecution of Mideast Christians and human rights in general. On the latter, the Council’s documents reveal, once again, important differences with the consensus understanding in the West.
First, though, a word about the churches that stayed away. From what I can tell, most (but not all) of these churches demurred in part because of concerns about what the Council might say about relations with other Christians. Ecumenism occasions much dispute within the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some, especially in monastic communities, believe that ecumenism implies that Orthodoxy has abandoned its claim to represent the one true church. Even referring to non-Orthodox Christians as “churches” can cause controversy.
In its declaration, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” the Council adopted (with all respect) a rather lawyerly solution. Yes, the document indicates, there is only one true church, and that is the Eastern Orthodox Church. But “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her and believes that her relations with them should be based on the most speedy and objective clarification possible of the whole ecclesiological question.” In other words, the Council accepts that, historically, other Christian communions have been called “churches” (some of them, even, have been called “Orthodox Churches”!) and will work to clarify the situation. It’s an irenic statement. We’ll see how it is received, especially by those within the Orthodox fold who do not think clarification necessary.
Notwithstanding this hedging on the “ecclesiological question,” the Council did go out of its way to decry the persecution of Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, in the Mideast today. In fact, it condemned the persecution of other religious minorities in the Mideast as well. The encyclical issued at the conclusion of the Council states, “The Orthodox Church is particularly concerned about the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. In particular, she addresses an appeal to governments in that region to protect the Christian populations – Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians – who have survived in the cradle of Christianity. The indigenous Christian and other populations enjoy the inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights.” The Council refers to two Christian bishops, one Eastern and the other Oriental Orthodox, who were abducted two years in Syria and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
The Council’s official documents also speak about human rights generally, demonstrating, once again, how important the idiom is in contemporary debate. Today, everyone from secular lawyers to church patriarchs declares a commitment to the ideal of “human rights,” based in the concept of “human dignity.” It is the price of admission to polite discussion. But the Council’s documents reveal, once again, how differently people understand those terms. In today’s human rights discourse, people use the same words, but mean very different things.
The Council’s official documents are not always so easy to follow, but, taken together, they stand for these propositions: human dignity derives from the fact of divine creation; human freedom, correctly understood, is the freedom to progress toward spiritual perfection in Christ; and a secular understanding of human rights, which promotes Continue reading