28 June 2021
28 Jun 2021

The church and social justice

An encounter, with an ecumenical focus and the Church's commitment to social justice, between Fratelli tutti of Pope Francis and Per la vita del mondo, towards a social ethos of the Orthodox Church, signed by Patriarch Bartholomew in 2020.

by  Samuele Bignotti

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Let us consider the reading of these documents “from below, just like those who read Fratelli tutti (hereafter FT) by Pope Francis and Per la vita del mondo Towards a social ethos of the Orthodox Church (hereafter PVM) signed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as he looks at his neighbors saying: “What I read is true. We are so close, yet we don’t know each other ”.

This is an in-depth study to find a convergent gaze, to look at the world from the same perspective as the “neighbor” who belongs to a different Christian denomination.

Structure and method

The signatures at the bottom of the two documents in question let us imagine two different teams of collaborators. PVM was published on March 27, 2020, signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on January 18, and represents the ripe fruit of a reflection at the request of the Council of Crete in 2016, carried out by the theologians of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and published in the United States. The analogy with Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council is evident for the similar synodal point of origin, but for the sake of practicality it is preferable to compare PVM to FT.

The structure of the document marks the various social areas in which the Church, starting with the Eucharist, offers a light for contemporary man to orient himself in the darkness of these times. After the introduction, which centers the reader in the Eucharistic perspective, the following chapters are listed: Introduction, The Church in the public sphere, The Course of Human Life, Poverty, Wealth and civil justice, War, Peace and Violence, Ecumenical Relations and Relationships with Other Faiths, Orthodoxy and Human Rights, Science, Technology, The Natural World, and the Conclusion.

We can see a broad look at those areas of human life that are questions for people in the 21st century, for example the role of the Church in society, the tension between war and peace, the digital dimension into which everyone is moving in these times, relations with other religions, human rights and bioethics. From this list we can deduce the attempt to indicate a Christian ethos that witnesses the Gospel in relation in human situations, with honesty and pragmatism . The Trinitarian anthropological theology of one of the theologians of this team shines through: Kallistos Ware, who wrote: “The person is social or he is not. The authentic human being is not self-centered, but exocentric. I am truly human, truly personal, only if I relate to others, in the image of the Holy Trinity ”.

Ware has added serious subtitles to chapter, as if to suggest each time a specific approach to the theme and a relationship to the Eucharistic. At first these phrases seem out of place, but the succession of quotes taken from the Byzantine liturgy of St. Basil strengthens the Eucharistic perspective: It is time to serve the Lord, we entrust our whole life to Christ God, sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant us to serve you in holiness all the days of our life. Remember, Lord, all those who remember the poor, For the peace of the whole world …

The conclusion affirms that “The social ethos of the Church is realized not only through the implementation of ethical prescriptions, but also and more fully in the liturgical expectation of the Kingdom of God” (PVM 80) and the reference to the liturgy as before is evident as a “School” of Christian ethics, a place where one can acquire a lifestyle of communion with the whole human race and above all with one’s neighbor, who is very often a brother or sister in Baptism.

In addition to the liturgy, extensive reference is made to biblical and patristic sources. PVM seems to say that the essential teaching of Christian ethics is already affirmed in the apostolic age, as can be seen in the Acts of the Apostles. PVM seems to embed the apostolic community in today’s world, placing today’s issues before its eyes in order to receive a sure orientation. There are clear indications of direction, and the text does not fail to admit some mistakes of the past.  At the same time PVM promote new steps, accuse the guilty and open new horizons. The deductive method leaves no room for misunderstanding; the structure and approach seem typical of a church in dialogue with the world, including other Christian denominations.  This is clear in  the inevitable reference is not only to the broad social teaching of the Catholic Church beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891) but also the significant works of the Protestant Churches, starting from the first post-war period and, in particular with the work of the Ecumenical Council of the Churches from the 1970s onwards.  It also includes the first systematic text of Orthodox social doctrine, produced by the Russian Church in 2001 and then reworked in the following decade.

By scrolling the FT index you can see themes similar to those of PVM, even if the perspective is different: The shadows of a closed world, A stranger on the road, Thinking and generating an open world, A heart open to the whole world, The best politics, Dialogue and social friendship, Paths of a new encounter, Religions at the service of fraternity in the world.

There is a different perspective, for various reasons. The first reason is due to the team that worked on the drafting, in fact it is edited by the Catholic Church with contributions from various episcopal conferences around the world. The second is of a temporal nature: the months elapsed between the publication of PVM (27 March 2020) and FT (3 October 2020) were characterized by the spread of Covid-Sars19 and each person became aware of the relevance that their neighbors had, the neighbor asking or offering help. The third reason is to be found in the previous pronouncements of Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015), with which FT constitutes a trilogy based on brotherhood, especially in profound harmony with the encyclical on the care of creation, in which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is mentioned among the first for his daring promotion of the protection of the planet.

The method of Pope Francis and his collaborators seems to be to gather the voices of men and women from every part of the world, through his visits or the messages of local bishops, to re-read what was heard in the light of the Word and return it to the whole world as an announcement of a new possible world. From the aforementioned titles you can see a tone of openness to new possibilities, such as glimpses of hope starting from the biblical icon of the parable of the “Good Samaritan”. The diagnosis of the initial situation and the social references denote a preference for the inductive method, where any reader is offered an interpretative key to reality, which is represented here by the parable of Luke 10: 25-37. This passage is the narrative description of Christ’s charity, which becomes the model of universal brotherhood and social friendship. (cf FT 94)

In the text of PVM, the Church looks at the world from the perspective of the Kingdom: “She lives this life on the threshold between earth and heaven, and testifies from generation to generation of things not yet seen. It dwells among the nations, as a sign and image of the permanent and perpetual peace of the Kingdom of God and as a promise of the perfect healing of humanity and the restoration of a created order, shattered by sin and death “(PVM 80). The pages of FT instead portray Christians as called to be universal brothers, in the manner of Charles de Foucauld of whom it is written:

“He went directing his ideal of total dedication to God towards an identification with the least, abandoned in the depths of the African desert. In that context he expressed his aspiration to feel any human being as a brother, and asked a friend: “Pray to God that I am truly the brother of all the souls of this country.” Ultimately, he wanted to be “the universal brother”. But only by identifying with the last did he come to be the brother of all. ” (FT 287)

Are these two irreconcilable perspectives? A careful look shows that the two perspectives are not irreconcilable, indeed, they converge. They look like two neighbors looking in the same direction. The example of the neighbors leads us to find where the gazes of the two texts meet and reach today’s humanity.

 Goals and recipients

Both documents we are discussing refresh the awareness of Christians on the identity of the Church in the world and her social commitment as a promoter of integral human development. It reaffirms that, united with Christ, by its very nature the Church already has objectives and recipients: to follow Christ in proclaiming the Kingdom to the poor  and to correspond to the missionary mandate “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit “(Mt 28:19). One of the common objectives of the two documents is to improve the condition of the world, understood as the environment and the peoples who inhabit it. Pope Francis, for example, reiterates the source and the sides on which social commitment should be activated:

All the commitments that derive from the social doctrine of the Church “are drawn from the charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the whole Law (cf. Mt 22: 36-40)”. This requires recognizing that “love, full of small gestures of mutual care, is also civil and political, and manifests itself in all actions that seek to build a better world”. For this reason, love is expressed not only in intimate and close relationships, but also in “macro-relationships: social, economic, political relationships”. (FT 181)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew hopes that Christians will be a living and courageous part of civil society, promoters of justice and mercy for all.

Christians can and often must participate in the political life of the societies in which they live, but they must always do so in the service of the justice and mercy of the Kingdom of God. Such was the injunction from the early Christian period: “We have been taught to respect the powers and authorities set by God, provided that this does not compromise us ”. At times, this can involve participation through imperfect obedience, but can at times be civil disobedience and even rebellion. Only the Kingdom of God is the first and last loyalty of the Christian, and all other covenants are at best provisional, transitory, partial and accidental. (PVM 9)

These two brothers in Christ participated in the prayer for peace in Rome on 20 October 2020. It represents a bridge made not of stones, but of people, all full of mutual respect to give hope to the world with their witness. From this perspective we see numerous invitations to personal and community conversion, so that the Gospel of Christ is announced to all. PVM addresses Christians, above all the Orthodox, with the clear invitation to announce their faith with their lives; while FT was written as a message intended for anyone with the courage to dream of a better world:

“We dream as one humanity, as travelers made of the same human flesh, as children of this same land that hosts us all, each with the richness of his faith or convictions, each with his own voice, all brothers!” (FT 8)

Ecumenical interweaving

The gazes of the brothers in Christ facing the world from their own ecclesial tradition find more and more points of encounter and their points of view seem closer than they seemed to be before. It can be noted at this point that both PVM and FT devote ample space to ecumenism and do so above all by looking in the same direction, that is, towards the present world, and with the same glasses, those of the Gospel of Christ and of the Christian Tradition from the Fathers to today.

Pope Francis expresses the appeal for believers of all religions with the idea of ​​one Father and says:

“Starting from our experience of faith and from the wisdom that has been accumulating over the centuries, also learning from many of our weaknesses and falls, as believers of different religions we know that making God present is good for our societies. Seeking God with a sincere heart, as long as we do not cloud him with our ideological or instrumental interests, helps us to recognize ourselves as fellow travelers, truly brothers “(FT 274)

He approaches the numerous fellow travelers that each of us can meet in the plural world that we live, made up of people who come from different cultures and religions. He says that some of these “drink from other sources” (FT 277), while for Christians the only source of universal brotherhood and social friendship is the Gospel. It seems to ask for a common effort from all, while demonstrating where the vocation of Christians to social commitment comes from and uses a very effective musical image:

As Christians we cannot hide that “if the music of the Gospel stops vibrating in our guts, we will have lost the joy that springs from compassion, the tenderness that comes from trust, the capacity for reconciliation that finds its source in knowing that we are always forgiven-sent.  If the music of the Gospel stops playing in our homes, squares, workplaces, politics and the economy, we will have turned off the melody that caused us to fight for the dignity of every man and woman “. (FT 277)

In a similar perspective, PVM also expresses the universal fatherhood of God towards all those who are on this earth (cf. PVM 55) and because of this it is shown that Orthodox Christians are open to dialogue with other Christian religions and denominations, because in it the mystery of the Incarnation is expressed.

The Church must devote herself to sustaining a dialogue with other Christians. Dialogue, in the Orthodox understanding, is essentially and first of all a reflection of the dialogue between God and humanity: it was initiated by God and conducted through the divine Logos (dia-logos), our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Permeating the whole of human life, dialogue takes place in all our encounters, personal, social or political, and must always be extended to those who adhere to religions other than ours. And in all our bonds and relationships, the Word of God is mystically present, always guiding our exchange of words and ideas, through a spiritual union of hearts in Him. (PVM 54)

The essence of dialogue becomes the proclamation of faith in Christ, the Word made flesh. On both sides, the theological reason for the Incarnation can be seen several times and this is the basis of our common faith summarized in the words of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: σαρκωθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένουας τῆς παρθένουας τῆς παρθένανα (itρανα he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became man).

The attitude of dialogue is prophetic in a divided world and we Christians are encouraged by these two men of God, Francis and Bartholomew, to improve everyone’s life starting from the place we live in, “from below” in the relationship of brotherly love. The theological background of the Incarnation brings us “neighbors” closer to each other in a relationship of lowering (kenotic) of mutual love, where the words of Kallistos Ware are confirmed: “to love one another” means “to lay down our life for each other “.


In conclusion, looking in the same direction and from the same perspective is a possible undertaking, not an easy one, but necessary for Christian witness to be made up of close gazes and prophecy for the world. Everyone will see that hope grows day by day as it approaches. It was shown how close we are, albeit with some differences and inconsistencies. The structure and method of each of these documents have been exposed and it has been understood how current they are for the courage to approach the issues that are often the occasion for debate.

The objectives and recipients reflect the message of the evangelical missionary mandate, of which both Francis and Bartholomew are promoters. In the vastness of these documents, ecumenical intertwining has been traced which opens up new perspectives for dialogue between Rome and Constantinople, but above all they can promote initiatives and projects from Catholics and Orthodox together towards the contemporary world.

Finally, it is hoped that these authoritative messages will be able to reach those who, “from below” of daily and fraternal life in a plural context, can recognize themselves close to anyone who is the son or daughter of the one Father and inhabitant of the only world. In this perspective, pluralism no longer frightens and is inhabited by the prophecy of unity in the Trinity.

As Pope John Paul II wrote at the dawn of the new millennium in reference to the great responsibility of Christians to generate a better future starting from their rediscovered unity, “after centuries of bitter controversy, the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities are increasingly scrutinizing with one a new look at this ministry of unity ”(Ut Unum Sint 89). The gazes of the baptized are renewed in the mystery of Christ and the Church to converge and meet ever more closely.


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