[Editor’s Note: Aristotle Papanikolaou is professor of theology, the Archbishop Demetrios Chair of Orthodox Theology and Culture, and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He is also Senior Fellow at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion. In 2012, he received the Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the Humanities. Among his numerous publications, he is the author of Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion, and The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy. He is also co-editor of Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity, Fundamentalism or Tradition: Christianity after Secularism, Christianity, Democracy and the Shadow of Constantine (Winner of 2017 Alpha Sigma Nu Award in Theology), Orthodox Constructions of the West, Orthodox Readings of Augustine, and Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new project, an Orthdox Social Ethos document.]

Camosy: Creating an Orthodox Social Ethos document is a massive and important project. How did it come about?

Papanikolaou: Given his position as global leader of Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, felt the need to provide pastoral guidance specifically to Orthodox Christians, and to open dialogue with both religious and political actors toward confronting the many challenges we are facing on a global scale. This document, though not an official document of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, represents in a more systematic and coherent form a vision he has been articulating since he became Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991.

He appointed the theologians listed in the document, who worked collaboratively for a couple of years. There was input from bishops in central positions throughout the world, who submitted the pastoral concerns in their regional dioceses. The document also passed through the hands of more well-known theologians, such as Kallistos Ware and John Zizioulas, a number of external consultants and specialists, as well as members of the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Not surprisingly, the document went through many stages before it reached its final form.

Why an Orthodox Social Ethos and not an Orthodox Social Teaching or Doctrine?

The emphasis in the document is on a core axiom of Orthodox theology, one that can be traced consistently in the Orthodox tradition from the New Testament’s exhortation to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), through the Greek, Syriac, and pre-Reformation-Latin fathers, up until the renewal of Orthodox theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That axiom is theosis (deification). The focus is on transformation of the cosmos — of human and non-human life — in its relation to God the Father, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. That transformation is the realization of a way of being in the world. The goal, then, was less a call to obedience, which perhaps the word “teaching” could convey, and more to project a vision that could provide a way first of all for an open conversation, but ultimately for a transformation towards patterns of relationality that would render human and non-human life irreducibly unique, to be more of what God intended for creation.

Still, even an ethos can provoke disagreement or opposition. Catholics know this all too well, especially in post-Vatican II context. I note that this document has been endorsed by the Ecumenical Patriarch. What kind of authority does it have in the Orthodox world? Or is that even the right question to ask?

As is well known, there is no hierarch in the Orthodox Church who is equivalent in both authority and jurisdiction to the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. With that said, the Ecumenical Patriarch does possess a primacy in relation to the other Orthodox hierarchs who are heads of autocephalous churches, even if the scope and nature of that primacy is constantly being debated. The reality, however, is that the Ecumenical Patriarch symbolizes global Orthodoxy in a way not possible for other Orthodox hierarchs, whether they be leaders of autocephalous churches or not.

Nationalism has tethered itself so deeply to the autocephalous churches that when someone sees the Patriarch of Moscow, they see Orthodoxy in Russia; they don’t expand their imagination to global Orthodoxy. And that is why the “The Basis of the Social Concept” produced by the Russian Orthodox Church and released in 2000 was largely ignored by the rest of the Orthodox churches. It is only in the person of the Ecumenical Patriarch that global Orthodoxy is iconized and this is evident especially in his leadership as the “Green Patriarch,” or if he meets the Pope, as an example; in these particular roles, he does not simply represent the Orthodox Christians within a geographical border.

Given this reality, insofar as he initiated the process for this document and that it has his endorsement, even if it is not an official document of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it conveys a message about Orthodoxy that will be widely discussed not simply within the Orthodox world, but beyond. It will become the reference point for “what the Orthodox think” in a way not possible for documents produced by local autocephalous churches. In that sense, it will have an authority lacking in other local documents of its kind.

Can you do some broad-based comparisons between Orthodox Social Ethos and Catholic Social Teaching? What are some important similarities and differences?

I’m not an expert in Catholic Social Teaching, but my sense of it is that it is usually associated with papal encyclicals issued since the nineteenth century, the most famous of which was Rerum Novarum, that specifically address social issues such as poverty, labor, economics, politics, family, human rights, etc. For the Life of the World is similar in scope in that it deals with these issues.

There are, however, several differences. First, my sense of CST is that it is cumulative — in other words, it constitutes a body of moral teachings related to social issues that has accumulated over the past 200 years mainly through the papal encyclicals. For the Life of the World is more modest, as it lacks the detail contained in social encyclicals of the popes, but it also aims to provide the framework within which those details could eventually be filled out. For the Life of the World attempts to establish the foundation on which social issues should be addressed, which, again, is the Orthodox understanding that humans and all of creation were destined for theosis, that creation itself is sacramental.

The document, to some extent, carries forward the tradition of many of the fathers and mothers of the Church who spoke against social injustice, a tradition revived in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russia, but has since been muted within the Orthodox Church. It is somewhat of a mystery that the most famous contemporary Orthodox theologians, such as Vladimir Lossky, John Zizioulas, Georges Florovsky, to name a few, almost never speak to social issues. This document extends their rich theological thinking, which could be considered an extension of the patristic theological tradition, into the social arena.

In spite of the forceful tone of certain parts of For the Life of the World, its intent really is to provide theotic signposts — ways to think about social issues consistent with the theotic core of Orthodox theology.

Can you see this document being used as a bridge for dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians? 

Absolutely, insofar as these types of documents within the Orthodox Church do not really exist. Prior to this document, there is nothing with which to dialogue, except local documents. And, again, given that this document emerged from the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, it will acquire a global significance, making this the document that which will serve as a basis for dialogue in a way not possible with documents produced by local Orthodox churches.

My own prediction is that this document will be the one used in undergraduate and graduate courses for those looking to incorporate the Orthodox perspective; it will be studied by theological ethicists — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike; it will become the reference point for intra-Christian and inter-religious dialogue; it will be the document that will hopefully shape political actors interested in the “religious” perspective in such a way that they simply do not caricature the Orthodox position as pre-modern and unwilling to discern the sign of the times.