Orthodoxy, Human Rights & Secularization

by Davor Džalto, Effie Fokas, Brandon Gallaher, Perry Hamalis, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and Gregory Tucker

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a clear reaffirmation of the “dignity and majesty of the human person” (1.1) in Christian doctrine. Moreover, the exalted status of the human person is here grounded in its ultimate vocation to deification. While the human being is brought to perfection beyond this life in God, sanctification begins now, in this world, in relation to others. To this end, the Church recognizes that she must speak with her “prophetic and pastoral voice” and act in the contemporary world to foster that “peace, justice, freedom, fraternity, and love” which characterizes the Kingdom of God.

In order to do full justice to the profound witness to the Gospel offered by this document, further serious reflection and dialogue is required on some of its key ideas. For, while this text contains moments of deep insight into the condition of the contemporary world, it also shows the effects of a long period in which the Church has failed to practice her synodality and lost the art of addressing the most important issues of the day with reason and clarity. Attention should be focused on the understanding of key concepts, particularly secularization and the secular world.

First, the text criticizes various aspects of life in the contemporary world which it considers detrimental to human flourishing in Christ, but frequently without explanation or developed analysis of the named concerns. This issue is most clear in the list of modern evils provided at the beginning of the document (2.2), but it persists throughout the text, where negatively-construed ideas such as “the ideology of liberal globalism” and the influence of mass media (6.8), and positive ones such as commonly-acknowledged “basic Christian and humane principles” (6.11), are presented without precise exposition.

Related to this is the piecemeal application of human rights language. The text relies on human rights to guarantee a public voice for the Church and freedom of religion for individuals, yet it limits the scope of human rights, insofar as they diverge from the Church’s moral teachings (5.3). Rather, the Church should endorse the idea of inalienable human rights, without qualification or discrimination, as a baseline corollary to its Gospel teaching of the dignity and sacred character of human life, which is divinely conferred and endures even when human beings transgress moral boundaries taught by the Church.

The ethical implications of the Gospel are no longer self-evident in the contemporary world— even in Orthodox countries where the Church has a voice in the public sphere and direct political influence. The ambiguity within this document enables it to be interpreted as appealing to caricatures rather than making clear and sustained arguments grounded in the Gospel and the Church’s long tradition of engagement with social and moral issues which threaten human growth towards God.

Second, the negative presentation of secularization and secular society is of grave concern. “Secularism” heads the list of contemporary vices, which “create infinite anxiety for humanity today,” and it is aligned with true evils such as “violence…the plague of drugs and other addictions…[and] the restriction of human rights” (2.2). The document implies that secularization, construed as the disavowal and silencing of religious and moral voices in public life, is at the root of all contemporary moral crises. In short, secularization is treated as the modern-day original sin.

This presentation is worrying in several respects. It demonstrates a very narrow understanding of secular societies, which is now widely rejected by sociologists and theologians engaged in analysis of the contemporary world. Furthermore, the critique of an entirely western understanding of secularization reveals the anti-western ideology standing behind the text, which fails to take account of the global situation, in which secularization has occurred outside the Western European and North American contexts. In actuality, secular political spaces are not defined by a high wall between religion and politics, but a differentiated public and legal order that maximizes pluralism. In secular societies, the differentiation of spheres (political, legal, economic, religious, etc.) has become an essential tool for the restraint of state power and the protection of human liberty. Thus, while it is right to reject secularism as an anti-religious ideology, the Church should discerningly approve of secularization, in order to ensure that her life is not restricted to certain precarious political spaces, but made available to all people. Secularization liberates the Church from political confinement, enabling the Gospel to be freely chosen as a way of life.

The contemporary secular space, far from being irreligious and immoral, in fact aims to guarantee a diversity of moral and religious voices, coupled with respect for the human person and its intrinsic freedom, which this document upholds as essential to Christian teaching. While secularization can lead to a clash of ideologies and disagreement about the acceptable limits of diversity, truly democratic secular societies place a high value on human freedom and seek to nurture peaceful and just coexistence, encompassing all difference, not at the expense of distinct traditions and cultures, but with the goal of ensuring their flourishing. Within this broader vision of secular society, the Church is afforded the opportunity to expand her divine mission to evangelize peoples and cultures.

While God continuously reveals himself in love for humankind, and desires the perfection of his creation, he nonetheless respects the essential freedom of the human person which he implanted in the beginning. Only in freedom can the human being manifest the irrevocable image of God, living into its natural potential as a creature formed by God, by choosing freely to act in accordance with his will. The Church is therefore called at all times and in all places both to witness to the vision of the human person transfigured by unshakable fidelity to the will of the Father, as seen preeminently in Jesus Christ and thence in the lives of the saints, and to defend the freedom of every human person to self-determination unto life or death in light of this knowledge. We must heed the words of our Lord: “Fear not!” It is time to begin a sustained dialogue with the contemporary world and to embrace the pluralism and freedom of secular society as an opportunity for mission, remembering always that, “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that, through him, the world might be saved” (John 3.17).

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Davor Džalto is Associate Professor and Program Director for Art History and Religious Studies at The American University of Rome President of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity.

Effie Fokas is a Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and Research Association of the London School of Economics Hellenic Observatory.

Brandon Gallaher is Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology at the University of Exeter.

Perry Hamalis is Cecelia Schneller Professor of Religion at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

Gregory Tucker is a PhD student in the Theology Department at Fordham University.