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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. The Russian Orthodox Church’s basic teaching on human dignity, freedom and rights (Report to the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow, June 26, 2008)
THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX
CHURCH’S BASIC TEACHING
ON HUMAN DIGNITY, FREEDOM
Report to the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church,
Moscow, June 26, 2008
The document that is presented for your attention, entitled ‘The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights’, was developed by decision of the Holy Synod dated April 11, 2006. As you know, this decision was one outcome of the Tenth World Russian People’s Council, which adopted the ‘Declaration on Human Rights and Dignity’.This conciliar document elicited a lively reaction from Russian society and the world community. Interest in the work of our Church in the area of human rights continues and is not disappearing. The significance of these ideas consists, among other things, in the way they open up new horizons for the Church’s mission in modern society. These ideas have attracted attention from the representatives of government, science, culture and the media.
However, in its genre, the Declaration does not propose a detailed development of the theses formulated in it. That is why there appeared a need to develop a more detailed document with a serious theological justification. The ‘Basics’ presented now for approval by the Council of Bishops represent the result of two years’ work by a group of Orthodox priests, theologians, scientists and public figures.
It is well known that within our Church there exist differing attitudes toward human rights. The points of view expressed sometimes contradict each other. In selecting the participants in the working group, we tried to reflect the differences in the opinions existing in the Church on this subject. As a result, we obtained a kind of a micro model of the current debate in the church.
Between summer 2006 and June 2008 we held 15 working group meetings, including those of the subgroups responsible for writing individual chapters of the document. Within the process of elaborating the document we organized expert consultations with secular philosophers and lawyers, which made it possible to discuss the relevant scientific approaches to the problems of human rights which exist in the relevant sciences. Additionally, serious research and reference work took place between meetings.
Many of the ideas formulated in the group were presented on the platforms of international organizations, at conferences, at round tables, and in numerous interviews and articles. Often they were discussed in private conversations and during formal meetings with representatives of Christian denominations and traditional religions, as well as with state and public figures, scientists and cultural representatives.
Public statements of His Holiness the Patriarch were of particular importance for representation of the human rights topic. Thus, his speech in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in October 2007 allowed a wide range of people to acquaint themselves with the Orthodox vision of human rights at the highest level. Considerable effort went into the preparation of this document.
Why is it important to introduce a document on human rights on behalf of the Church? Human rights are a reality we must contend with, whether we want to or not. A modern person lives not only within public and state institutions that are based on human rights but also feels the impact of ideology generated by this idea. Human rights are declared as the central principle for construction of the legal systems of countries falling under the spiritual aegis of the Russian Orthodox Church. Additionally, many believers living
in the diaspora - mainly those in Western countries - are under the domination of this concept. In view of this fact, the Church is called to raise its pastoral voice and express its vision of human rights.
I should state that the group members started their work with mixed feelings toward the proposed theme. On one hand, we could see a positive impact of human rights on people’s lives. Concerns to be seen as complying with these rights in the postwar years led the Soviet state to hold back its persecution of believers. However, over the past decade we have seen how human rights can become an instrument directed against the spiritual and moral foundations of human life. Today, through an appeal to human rights, attempts are made in our societies to strengthen a worldview which is nonreligious, ethically relativistic and hedonistic. This is happening not only in the countries of the canonical territory of the Russian Church but also in many others.
It was obvious to the working group that human rights is a borrowed category, having originated from the Western nations on a particular ideological basis and under specific historical conditions. However, the evident fact that human rights were born outside of the Orthodox tradition was deemed an insufficient reason to reject the debate on the value of this concept. In the history of the Church and of our peoples there are many examples of concepts that, being borrowed from other cultures, organically entered the Church and national traditions.
We, in our work on the document, have tried to reach agreement and develop a common church approach to human rights. It was a far from simple discussion. Sometimes a single problem would be discussed on several occasions. In our discussions, the only acceptable argumentation was that based on Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. All other arguments were not included in the text, though taken into account. Additionally, we did not start our work ‘from scratch’. Many of the ideas lying behind the detailed assessments of human rights had already been introduced in the earlier document ‘Basic Principles of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000).
There were, however, also general conceptions that served as the supporting points in our work. Otherwise, we could never be able to accomplish this conciliar process.The members of the group agreed, from the beginning, that the creation of a Church document on human rights needed to be guided by a soteriological approach. The Church is not engaged in politics, although its values are relevant to the political sphere. It considers the earthly life of man as the way of salvation, so its duty is to show what blocks believers from salvation and what promotes their salvation.
Given the soteriological approach, we sought to answer the following question: Are human rights ‘genetically’ related to Christianity, or they were born from sources foreign to it? As a rule, it is precisely the answer to this question that is most powerfully manifested the distinctive and differential position of our Church, and of the entire Orthodox world, in regard to human rights. The caution with which many Orthodox speak out on this subject is justified. Believers are afraid to take on board something alien and ruinous alongside with ideas that are good and right.
The group had a clear understanding that the Church’s answer cannot be modernistic, based on a distorted interpretation of the ecclesiastical heritage, on emotions and political passions. It can only rely on the spiritual, historical experience of the Church, which is exactly the approach that the fathers of the Church followed towards the Hellenistic culture. They accepted and assimilated everything that could serve the Christian message and rejected everything that was incompatible with it.
Many terms of Orthodox theology were borrowed by the holy fathers from the Hellenic philosophical tradition but were then reworked and filled with the fullness of the Christian message. This did not hurt the purity of Christianity. Just as the theology of the ecumenical councils was not a compromise with pagan philosophy, the present document is not a compromise with secular philosophy and ethics. Doctrinal and ethical issues cannot have compromises. The task was to formulate the unchanging gospel truths in the language that is now understood by many people.
Given Holy Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, it is impossible to state that human rights are divinely founded. Being the inventions of human beings, and various earthly institutions - state, law, various associations of people and so on - human rights should not conflict with God’s revelation. Human rights have different ideological sources. On one hand, they were born in a culture that had been enlightened by Christianity for centuries. On the other hand, they reflected and absorbed ideas that appeared in an environment that distanced itself from the gospel truths during the Renaissance and in modern times. However, despite a marked weakening of religious commitment in the public morality of Western countries, until relatively recently, commitment to the Christian system of values still existed. Today the situation is completely different. Moral consent is lost not only in society but also in many Christian communities.
We, in the meetings of the working group, sought to determine what had been borrowed from Christianity into the concept of human rights and belongs to the Christian heritage. It is precisely dignity and freedom, concepts that provide the basis for the institution of human rights, that are closely connected with the Christian message.
Thus it was therefore decided to dedicate the first two chapters to the theme of dignity and freedom. However, after being borrowed from Christians, these concepts became worldly and deprived of their religious and spiritual content. Largely because of this, the secular concept of human rights existing today began to work against the preservation of moral values as presented in the evangelical tradition.The situation emerging in many countries and societies is fraught with very dangerous consequences, as approaches to morality that contradict the Gospel are fixed in legislation and therefore can be forced upon believers by law. In other words, today the theme of human rights takes on a pronounced soteriological dimension. For this reason it has be well understood theologically and ecclesiastically in order to form a basis on which to build our preaching and pastoral work.
The Sacred Bishops’ Council was presented with the text having the following structure and content.
The introduction speaks of the role that human rights play in modern society, and sets out the soteriological approach to human rights.
The first chapter is titled ‘Human Dignity as a Religious and Ethical Category’. It is not coincidental that the document begins with a review of the concept of dignity. Many international deeds and the national legislations of many countries speak about dignity as die basis of the system of human rights. For example, in the introduction to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it is declared that human rights ‘derive from dignity, which is inherent in human personality’.
The concept of ‘dignity’ is of Greek-Roman origin. Its most accurate translation is ‘value’. The ancient world had its own idea about the value of the human being, usually associated with a person’s family, social or civil status. Even today many people believe that social, political or property status is an important aspect of personality. With the spread of Christianity, however, the value of a person began to be comprehended differently. Christianity helped spread an understanding of the value of each and every human being as a creation of God.
The document reflects this concept in the following sentence: ‘According to the Biblical revelation, God not only created human nature but also endowed it with qualities in His image and after His likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26).’The holy fathers too used the term dignity,’ equating it to the image of God. Thus, in Oration 14 ‘On Love for the Poor,’ St. Gregory the Theologian, correlating it with the act of Divine creation, wrote: ‘God has endowed all human beings so generously so that by distributing His gifts equally He may also show the equal dignity of our nature and the abundance of His grace.’
The text of the document also refers to the Christological argument of human value: ‘The incarnation of God the Word showed that human nature did not lose its dignity even after the fall, for the image of God in it remained indelible, which means an opportu-
nity remained for the restoration of human life in the fullness of its original perfection (....) The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ assumed human nature in its fullness except for sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) shows that this dignity does not apply to the distortions resulting from the fall.’ This is also embedded in the liturgical texts of the Troparia from the Order of the Funeral of the Dead: ‘I am an image of thy glory ineffable, though I bear the brands of transgressions (....) O thou who of old didst call me into being from nothingness, and didst honour me with thine image divine, but because I had transgressed thy commandments hast returned me again unto the earth from which I was taken. Restore thou me to that image, and to my pristine beauty.’
The document emphasizes the religious and moral dimension of dignity, which is absent in the secular understanding, with its non-religious vision of the value of human personality. This nonreligious understanding is offered today as a universal one, despite the fact that the majority of mankind is religious. The document says: ‘The human being as bearing the image of God should not exult in this lofty dignity, for it is not his own achievement but a gift of God. Neither should he use it to justify his weaknesses or vices but rather understand his responsibility for the direction and way of his life. Clearly, the idea of responsibility is integral to the very notion of dignity.’
Reduction of the religious and moral dimension of dignity leads to neglect of the theme of sin. This does not mean there is no concept of evil for the secular consciousness. However, overcoming evil is considered as a search for a perfect mechanism for interconnecting the desires of different individuals rather than overcoming a kind of natural damage within man, as evidenced by Christianity. It is believed that human rights are the best means to provide such interconnection. Meanwhile, the document states: ‘Sin overturns the hierarchy of relations in human nature. Instead of having his body controlled by the spirit, in sin the human person submits to the flesh, i.e., the situation brought into focus by St.John Chrysostom: ‘We upset the order and the onset of evil occurred so as to oblige us to follow the bidding
of the flesh.”13 A man must honestly recognize the inconsistency of his life, when sinning, to his God-given dignity. In his life, a man can become so distant from his dignity that ‘it takes so much effort of will to discern and even admit the natural dignity of a villain or a tyrant.’
Based on the above statement, we formulated the following thesis: ‘Considering the state of human nature darkened by sin, it is important that things dignified and undignified should be clearly distinguished in the life of a person’ The document gives the following clarifications: ‘Dignified is a life lived according to its original calling laid down in nature .... The patristic tradition describes this elicitation of the image of God as deification .... The God- given dignity is confirmed by a moral principle present in every person and discerned in the voice of conscience. This is what St. Paul writes about it in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘The work of the law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or otherwise excusing one another’ (2:15). Thus, the moral norms inherent in humanity, just as the moral norm set forth in the divine revelation, reveal God’s design for human beings and their calling. These norms are guidelines for a good life worthy of God-created humanity. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who showed the greatest model of such a life to the world.’
The description of an unworthy life is as follows: ‘A life in sin is unworthy of the human person, as it destroys him and inflicts damage on others and the world around him (.. )Under the influence of sin, a person in his relations with others acts as an egoist who is preoccupied with indulging himself at the expense of others. Such a life endangers the individual, society and the surrounding nature, as it violates the harmony of existence and results in spiritual and physical suffering, illness and vulnerability in the face of consequences brought about by the erosion of the environment and ultimately death.’
Consequently, a person has both dignity and unworthiness. Dignity is an ontological characteristic, while unworthiness is an em-
13St.John Chrysostom, Discourse 12.5 on the Book of Genesis.
pirical one.The document states: ‘The patristic and ascetic thought, and the whole liturgical tradition of the Church, refer more to the human indignity caused by sin than to human dignity. Thus the Prayer of St. Basil the Great, recited by an Orthodox Christian before Holy Communion, reads: ‘Wherefore I, although unworthy both of Heaven and earth and of this temporary life; even I, a wretched sinner who has given himself over to every evil desire, despair not of salvation, though I have been wholly subject to sin, a slave to passion, and have defiled thine image within me, who am thy creation and thy work; but trusting in thine infinite compassion, draw nigh unto thee.”
Human sin is overcome through awareness of one’s own unworthiness. This is an indispensable condition of repentance: ‘A special importance in restoring a person to his appropriate dignity belongs to repentance based on the awareness of his sin and the desire to change his life. A repentant person admits that his thoughts, words and actions are not consonant with the God-given dignity, and he acknowledges his indignity before God and the Church. Repentance does not humiliate a person but instead gives him a powerful stimulus to seek spiritual self-cultivation, making a creative change in his life, preserving the purity of the God-given dignity and growing in it.’
The first chapter concludes with the following words: ‘According to the Orthodox tradition, a human being preserves his God-given dignity and grows in it only if he lives in accordance with moral norms because these norms express the primordial and therefore authentic human nature not darkened by sin. Thus, there is a direct link between human dignity and morality. Moreover, the acknowledgment of personal dignity implies the assertion of personal responsibility.’
The second chapter is devoted to another fundamental category that serves as a basis for human rights: freedom. The chapter was titled ‘Freedom of Choice and Freedom from Evil.’Today, freedom is generally understood as freedom of choice. Of course, freedom of choice is an important characteristic of human nature and one of
the manifestations of God in human nature. Accordingly, the document provides a quote of St. Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Man became Godlike and blessed, being honoured with freedom (αὐτεξουσίῳ)’14.
The meaning of this freedom is that a person should voluntarily live in communion with God but should not do so under duress. The text states: ‘The image of God can be either darkened or illumined, depending on the self-determination of a free individual .... God has put freedom at the service of human wellbeing. In exercising it, a person should not harm himself or those around him.’
We, however, know the property of a fallen human nature, as described by St. Paul: 'I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate doing (...) It is no longer I who does it, but it is sin living in me.’ (Rom. 7: 15, 17). Later, the document states: ‘Therefore, a human being cannot dispense with God’s help and close cooperation with Him, as He alone is the source of every good thing.’
The fact is that, ‘having abused the freedom of choice, human beings lost another freedom (ἐλευθερία), i.e., the freedom to live in goodness that they had had in their primordial state. It is this freedom that the Lord Jesus Christ restores to them: ‘So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (ἐλευθεροι) (Jn. 8:36). It is impossible to find freedom from sin without the mysterious unity of man with the transfigured nature of Christ that takes place in the sacrament of baptism (cf. Rom. 6:3-6; Col. 3:10) and becomes ever stronger through life in the Church, the Body of Christ (cf. Col. 1:24).
Holy Scripture also speaks of the need for a person to make his own effort in order to be delivered from sin: ‘Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Gal. 5:1).The same testimony is given by the practical experience of a great number of holy men and women who have pursued spiritual feats and reconfirmed the possibility for every person to transform his life.’
14St. Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon on the Dead.
Given the above arguments, the conclusion is uncompromising: ‘Abuse of freedom and the choice of a false, immoral way of life will ultimately destroy the very freedom of choice, as it leads the will to enslavement by sin. It is God alone who is the source of freedom; He is the only one who can maintain it in a human being. Those who do not wish to part with sin surrender their freedom to the devil, who is the enemy of God and the father of evil and captivity. While recognizing the value of freedom of choice, the Church affirms that this freedom will inevitably disappear if the choice is made in favour of evil. Evil and freedom are incompatible.’
Defending this thesis in the modern world involves more than testifying. It requires confession, because the Christian understanding of freedom is incredibly difficult to be accepted by people who are accustomed to living in accordance with their own will. Considering that the choice in favour of sin is justified and must be protected by the state, they insist on public recognition of sin as one of the standards of behaviour. However, life shows that sin and evil result in the loss of freedom as well as in the destruction of society and personality.
The text provides a prophetic warning to the world, which makes absolute the freedom of choice: ‘In human history, the choice made by people and societies in favour of evil led to the loss of freedom and to the enormous loss of lives. Today, humanity may follow the same path if such absolutely vicious things as abortion, suicide, lechery, perversion, destruction of the family, and the worship of cruelty and violence are no longer given a proper moral assessment but are justified by a distorted understanding of human freedom.’
Given the Church’s experience of human freedom, the second chapter comes to the following conclusion: ‘The weakness of the institution of human rights lies in the fact that while defending the freedom (αὐτεξουσίον) of choice, it tends to increasingly ignore the moral dimension of life and the freedom from sin (ἐλευθερία). The social system should be guided by both freedoms, harmonizing their exercise in the public sphere. One of these freedoms cannot be defended while the other is neglected. Free adherence to goodness
and the truth is impossible without the freedom of choice, just as a free choice loses its value and meaning if it is made in favour of evil.’
The third chapter was given the title ‘Human Rights in the Christian Worldview and in the Life of Society.’ The beginning of this chapter contains a very important statement of the direct connection between law and morality: ‘Morality, that is the ideas of sin and virtue, always precedes law, which has actually arisen from those ideas. That is why any erosion of morality will ultimately lead to the erosion of legality.’ This is a very important thesis for any society, particularly for those where legal nihilism is a serious problem.
Additionally, in the light of the ideas of the first two chapters, the document defines the ‘Christian values with which human rights should be harmonized’. They form a system of coordinates from which we should develop and implement the concept of human rights.
First of all, ‘Human rights cannot be superior to the values of the spiritual world. A Christian places above his earthly life his faith in God and his communion with Him. It is therefore inadmissible and dangerous to interpret human rights as the ultimate, universal foundation of societal life to which religious views and practice should be subjected (...)
It is important to remember that government and social forces have a real ability and vocation to suppress evil in its social manifestations, but they cannot defeat its cause: sinfulness. The essential struggle with evil takes place in the depths of human spirit and can succeed only through the religious life of a person. According to St. Paul, ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the Heavenly realms’ (Eph. 6:12).
Orthodoxy encompasses an immutable conviction that society, in ordering its life, should consider not only human interests and wishes but also the divine truth, the eternal moral law given by the Lord and working in the world no matter whether the will of particular people or human communities agree with it or not. For an Orthodox Christian, this law - sealed in Holy Scrip-
ture - stands above any other rule, for it is by this law that God will judge the individual and nations standing before His throne (cf. Rev. 20:12).
Secondly, ‘the development and implementation of the concept of human rights should be harmonized with the norms of morality, with the ethical principle laid down by God in human nature and discernible in the voice of conscience.’
The Orthodox Church believes it is inadmissible that the believer’s view of the human being, family, communal life and church practice should be subjected to a non-religious understanding of human rights. Christians should respond to such attempts as did saints Peter and John, saying, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God’ (Acts 4, 19).
It is inadmissible to introduce, in the area of human rights, the norms that obliterate or cancel the Gospel and natural morality.The Church sees a great danger in the legislative and public support given to various vices, such as sexual lechery and perversion or the worship of profit and violence.’
Such notions are present in our lives. Additionally, there is the ‘emergence of legislative norms and political practices that not only allow such actions but also create preconditions for them by imposing them through the mass media, education and healthcare systems, advertising, commerce and services. Moreover, believers - who consider such things to be sinful - are forced to accept sin as admissible or are subjected to discrimination and persecution.’
Thirdly, ‘human rights should not contradict love for one’s homeland and neighbours. The Creator has laid down in human nature the need for communication and unity, saying, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). The love of a person for his family and other loved ones cannot but spread to his people and the country in which he lives ....
The acknowledgment of individual rights should be balanced with the assertion of people’s responsibility to one another. The extremes of individualism and collectivism cannot promote a harmonious order in the life of society. They lead to the degradation of
personality, moral and legal nihilism, growing crime, civil inaction and people’s mutual alienation.
The spiritual experience of the Church, however, has shown that the tension between private and public interests can be overcome only if human rights and freedoms are harmonized with moral values and, most importantly, only if the life of the individual and society is invigorated by love. It is love that removes all the contradictions between the individual and those around him, making him capable of enjoying his freedom fully while taking care of his neighbours and homeland.’
This section of the document emphasizes that: ‘Certain civilizations ought not to impose their own way of life on other civilizations under the pretext of human rights protection. Human rights activity should not be put at the service of interests of particular countries. The struggle for human rights becomes fruitful only if it contributes to the spiritual and material welfare of the individual and society.’
Fourthly, ‘the realization of human rights should not lead to the degradation of the environment and depletion of natural resources. The rejection of divinely-revealed guiding lines in the life of both the individual and society leads not only to disorder in interpersonal relations but also to people’s disastrous clash with nature, which has been given to human beings by God to possess (cf. Gen. 1:28). The unlimited desire to satisfy material needs, particularly excessive and artificial, is essentially sinful, for it leads to the impoverishment of both the soul and its environment (....) The recognition of human rights does not mean people can squander natural resources in favour of their egoistic interests. Human dignity is inseparable from the calling of human beings to take care of God’s world (cf. Gen. 2:15), to be moderate in meeting their needs, and to preserve the richness, variety and beauty of nature.These truths should be taken into account with all seriousness by society and the state in defining the basic goals of socio-economic and material-technical development. It should be borne in mind that not only the present but also the future generations have the right to use the natural wealth given by the Creator.’
The conclusion of the third chapter is expressed in the following words: ‘From the perspective of the Orthodox Church, the political and legal institution of human rights can promote the good goals of protecting human dignity and contribute to the spiritual and ethical development of the personality. To make it possible, the implementation of human rights should not come into conflict with God-established moral norms and traditional morality based on those norms. One’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family. The exercise of human rights should not be used to justify any encroachment on religious holy symbols, cultural values and the identity of a nation. Human rights cannot be used as a pretext for inflicting irretrievable damage on nature.’
The fourth chapter was given the title ‘Human Dignity and Freedom in the System of Human Rights.’ It contains an Orthodox reading of the fundamental rights and freedoms in the light of the biblical and patristic understanding of human dignity and freedom. This chapter particularly emphasizes the connection with the Basic Principles of the Social Concept, which already expresses some of the Church’s views on human rights issues.The chapter begins with the following statement: ‘There are various traditions of interpretation of rights and freedoms as well as national peculiarities in their implementation.The modern system of human rights is widely accepted and has a tendency for even greater specification.There is no commonly accepted classification of rights and freedoms. Various legal schools unite them in groups according to various criteria. The Church, by virtue of her basic calling, suggests the consideration of rights and freedoms from the perspective of their potential role in creating favourable external conditions for the improvement of personality on its way to salvation.’
Everything begins with the gift of life. That is why the right to live is considered at the very beginning of the fourth chapter. The document states: ‘Life is a gift of God to human beings. The Lord Jesus Christ preaches: ‘J have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (Jn. 10:10). God gave the Prophet Moses a commandment
that ‘you shall not kill.’ Orthodoxy does not accept terrorism but instead condemns it as armed aggression and criminal violence, just as it does all other forms of criminal activity that take away human life.
Neither is life restricted to temporal limits in which the secular worldview and its legal system place the individual. Christianity testifies that temporal life, precious in itself, acquires fullness and absolute meaning in the context of eternal life. Priority should therefore be given not to the efforts to preserve temporal life by all means but to the desire to order it in such a way as to enable people to work together with God in preparing their souls for eternity.’
Additionally, with reliance on the Saviour’s commandments, ‘The Church honours the feats of martyrs who served God even to death and the feats of confessors who refused to renounce Him in face of persecution and threats. Orthodox Christians also honour the heroism of those who gave their lives on the battlefield, fighting for their homeland and neighbours.
At the same time the Church condemns suicide, since those who commit it do not sacrifice themselves but instead reject life as a gift of God. In this connection the Church cannot accept the legalization of so-called euthanasia, meaning assistance to those who want to die, which is actually a combination of murder and suicide.
The right to life should imply the protection of human life from the moment of its conception. Any intrusion in the life of a developing human personality is a violation of this right. Modern international and national legal acts seal and protect the life and rights of the child, adult and senior citizen. The same logic of human life protection should be applied to the period of life from its conception to birth.’
It was necessary, in this section, to express the Church’s attitude to the constantly relevant problem of the death penalty, even though it had already been discussed in the Bases of the Social Concept. That is why the position of an earlier Church document is repeated here word for word: ‘While admitting that the death penalty was acceptable in the time of the Old Testament and there is no instruction to abolish it ‘either in the Holy Scripture of the
New Testament or in the Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church’, we cannot but recall that ‘the Church has often taken upon herself the duty of intercession for those condemned to death, asking mercy or mitigation of punishment for them.’15 In defending human life, the Church, whatever society’s attitude to death penalty may be, is called to fulfil this duty of intercession.’
It is therefore logical, in our classification of rights and freedoms, to position the principle of freedom of conscience after the right to life: ‘The individual can see the gift of freedom of choice, first of all, in the opportunity for him to choose particular philosophical guidelines for his life.’As St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes, ‘God made man free from the beginning, possessing his own power (.. ,)to obey the behests of God voluntarily and not by God’s compulsion.’16 The principle of freedom of conscience is in harmony with God’s will if it protects the individual against any arbitrary treatment of his inner world and against any forcible imposition of particular convictions upon him. In a secular state, freedom of conscience, as proclaimed and confirmed by law, enables the Church to preserve her identity and independence from people of other convictions and gives her a legal basis for the immunity of her internal life and public witness to the Truth. At the same time, ‘the freedom of conscience asserted as a legal principle points to the fact that society has lost religious goals and values’.17
Freedom of conscience is sometimes treated as the requirement for religious neutrality or the indifference of the state and society. Some ideological interpretations of religious freedom insist on the need to recognize all faiths as relative or ‘equally true’.This is inacceptable for the Church, which, while respecting the freedom of choice, is called to bear witness to the truth she cherishes and to expose its misinterpretations (cf.Tim. 3:15).
Society has the right to freely determine the content and amount of cooperation the state should maintain with various re-
15Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, IX. 3
16St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies. Chapter XXXVI. 1. 4.
17Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. III. 6.
ligious communities depending on their strength, traditional presence in a particular country or region, contribution to the history and culture of the country, and their civil attitude. At the same time, there must be equality among citizens before the law, regardless of their attitude toward religion. The principle of freedom of conscience does not present an obstacle for partnership relations between the Church and the state in social, educational or any other socially significant activities.’
Important aspects such as freedom of expression and freedom of creative work are also considered: ‘The freedom of thoughts and feelings, which presupposes the possibility for disseminating information, is a natural continuation of the freedom of ideological choice. The word is a principal means of communication between people and God and among one another. The content of communication has a serious impact on the well-being of the person and interpersonal relations in society. The individual bears a special responsibility for his words. ‘By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’, (Mt. 12:37) says Holy Scripture. Public statements and declarations should not further the propagation of sin or generate strife and disorder in society. The word should create and support good. It is particularly dangerous to insult religious and national feelings or to distort information about the life of particular religious communities, nations, social groups and personalities. Responsibility for words has grown exponentially in the modern world, which is experiencing the rapid development of the technologies for the storage and dissemination of information.
Human creative ability is essentially a manifestation of God’s image in the human being. The Church blesses creative work as it opens up new horizons for the spiritual growth of the individual and his knowledge of the created world. Creative work, being called to help reveal the potential of the personality, should not justify any nihilistic attitude toward culture, religion and morality. The right to self-expression for an individual or a group should not be implemented in forms that insult the beliefs and ways of life of other members of society.
Sacrilege toward holy things cannot be justified by references to the rights of an artist, writer or journalist. Modern law normally protects not only the person’s life and property but also symbolical values such as the memory of the dead, burial places, historical and cultural monuments and national symbols. This protection should be applied to the faith and things held sacred by religious people.’
The right to education is considered an important condition for the disclosure of human potential: ‘The goal of a person’s temporal life is to seek the likeness of God by means of virtue. Education is a means of individual learning or of incorporating a person in the life of society but is also a means of forming his personality in accordance with the design of the Creator. The right to education presupposes learning that takes into account the cultural traditions of society as well as the worldview of the individual and his family. Given the fact that most of the world’s cultures are based on religion, the comprehensive education and formation of a person should include the process of imparting knowledge about the religion that has created the culture in which the person lives. At the same time, the individual’s freedom of conscience should be respected.’
The document, having listed the rights related to the internal development of the individual, proceeds to that person’s relationship with others and highlights the Orthodox attitude toward civil, political, social and economic rights. ‘Man, being endowed with free will, is called to actively exercise his dignity, particularly in relations with other people.’ Holy Scripture instructs the faithful to fulfill their family and socially important obligations as obedience to Christ (cf. Lk. 10-14; Eph. 5:23-33; Tit. 3:1). St. Paul made use of his rights as Roman citizen on more than one occasion in order to preach the Word of God. Civil and political rights offer the individual an ample opportunity for effective service of his neighbour. Using this instrument, a citizen can make an influence on the life of society and participate in governing the state. It is on the way in which an individual uses his right to elect and be elected, to join freely an association or a union, and to use freedom of expression and beliefs on which the welfare of society depends. (....)
The peoples under the spiritual care of the Russian Orthodox Church have developed in their history a fruitful idea of the need for cooperation between the authorities and people. Political rights can make a valid contribution to the society-state relations. To achieve this end, civil interests should have a real representation on various levels of power, and opportunities for civil action should be ensured.’
The problem of control and manipulation has an important place in the sphere of civil and political rights. ‘People’s private life, worldview and will should not become a subject of total control. Any manipulation over people’s choice and their conscience by power structures, political forces and economic and media elites is dangerous for a society. Such things as compilation, concentration and use of information about any aspect of people’s life without their consent are also inadmissible. Information regarding a person can be collected without his or her consent only in cases where it is required for the defence of the homeland, preservation of morality, protection of people’s health, rights and legitimate interests or the need to investigate a crime and exercise justice. In these cases too, information may be collected and used in compliance with the stated aims of law. The methods of collecting and processing information about people should not hurt the dignity of a person, restrict his freedom or turn him from a subject of public relations into an object of machine operation. The adoption of technical devices accompanying a person permanently or inseparable from his body will be even more dangerous to human freedom if it used to control his personality.’
The chapter also deals with socio-economic rights that affect an important part of human life: ‘A person’s earthly life is impossible without the satisfaction of his material needs.The Book ofActs tells the story of the first Christian community, in which the level of material care for its members was particularly high (cf.Acts 4:32-37; 6:1-6). The right use of material wealth does matter in the cause of salvation. It is therefore necessary to give a clear moral dimension to such rights and freedoms as the right to property, the right to
employment, the right to protection against arbitrary treatment by an employer, freedom of enterprise and the right to a dignified living standard.
The exercise of economic rights should not lead to the formation of a society in which the use of material wealth is turned into a predominant (or even the only) aim of a society’s existence. One of the purposes of economic and social rights is to prevent the confrontational stratification of society. Such stratification is contrary to the commandment to love one’s neighbour. It creates conditions for the moral degradation of society and the individual. It generates the feeling of alienation between people and violates the principle of justice.
Society has the important responsibility of taking care of those who are unable to secure their material needs. Access to education and vital medical care should not depend on an individual’s social or economic status.’
Collective rights have been discussed for many years. It was decided that attention should be given to them as well. If a person identifies with a certain community, the community must also have the rights that constitute a balance with individual rights. ‘The rights of an individual should not be destructive to the unique way of life and traditions of the family or for various religious, national and social communities. God has set forth, in human nature, the desire of a human being to share in communal life (cf. Gen. 2:18). In the fulfilment of God’s will for the unity of the human race, an important role belongs to various forms of communal life realized in national, public and social associations, while it is in the Church, the divine-human organism, that God’s commandment of love for God and neighbour is fully revealed (cf. Mt. 22:37-39).
Communal life begins in the family. For that reason, St. Paul speaks of the family’s participation in the Mystery of the Church (cf. Eph. 5:23-33). It is in one’s family that a person gains an experience of love for God and his neighbour. It is through the family that religious traditions, social way of life and the national culture of a society are handed down. Modern law should view the family
as the lawful union of man and woman in which natural conditions for raising children are created. Taw is also called to respect the family as an integral organism and to protect it against any destruction provoked by moral decay. In safeguarding the rights of the child, the legal system should not deny his or her parents a special role in education, which is inseparable from their worldview and religious experience.
It is also necessary to respect other collective rights, such as the right to peace, the right to the environment, and the right to the preservation of cultural heritage and internal norms regulating the life of various communities.’
The fourth chapter concludes with the following words: ‘Unity and inter-connection between civil and political, economic and social, individual and collective human rights can promote a harmonious order of societal life on the national and international levels. The social value and effectiveness of the entire human rights system depend on the extent to which that system helps create conditions for personal growth in God-given dignity and the extent to which is relates to the responsibility of a person for his actions before God and his neighbours.’
The fifth and final chapter is devoted to the practical work in the field of human rights. It was given the title ‘Principles and Areas of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Human Rights Work.’ The topic of human rights and human rights activity is not a novelty in the life of the Church. Rather we attempt, with the help of a new concept, to express an activity that has always existed: ‘From old times till the present, the Orthodox Church has been engaged in intercession to the authorities for those who are unjustly convicted, humiliated, deprived or exploited. The Church also extends her merciful intercession to those who are justly punished for their crimes. The Church has repeatedly called to end violence and soften tempers during conflicts that have flared up during which the human right to life, healthcare, freedom and property has been trampled on. Finally, in the years of the godless persecution, Orthodox bishops, clergy and laity appealed to the authorities and society, striving to defend the freedom of reli-
giotis confession and advocating the right of religious communities to achieve broader participation in the life of the nation.’
Given such a rich tradition of representation before the authorities on behalf of people in trouble, even today the Church is called to ‘show concern, not only in word but also in deed, for the protection of human rights and dignity. At the same time, we are aware that human rights are often violated in the modern world and that human dignity is trampled down not only by the state authorities but also by transnational structures, economic actors, pseudoreligious groups, terrorist groups and other criminal communities. More and more often, human rights and dignity must be defended against destructive aggression by the media.’
The document singles out the possible areas for human rights efforts:
-Defending human rights to the free confession of faith, prayer and worship, preservation of religious and cultural traditions, observance of religious principles in both private life and public action;
-Opposing crimes on the grounds of national and religious enmity;
-Safeguarding the individual against the arbitrary actions of those in power and employers and against violence and humiliation in his family and collective grouping;
-Protecting life, the free choice and property of people during international, political, economic and social conflicts;
-Taking pastoral care for soldiers and protecting their rights and dignity in situations of hostilities and military service in peace time;
-Demonstrating concern for the dignity and rights of those who are placed in social institutions and penitentiaries with special attention given to the disabled, orphans, the elderly and other powerless people;
-Protecting the rights of nations and ethnic groups to their own religion, language and culture;
-Demonstrating concern for those whose rights, freedom and health suffer because of the actions of destructive cults;
-Supporting the family in its traditional understanding, as well as fatherhood, motherhood and childhood;
-Opposing attempts to involve people in corruption and other crimes as well as in prostitution, drug addiction and gambling;
-Demonstrating concern for a just economic and social order of society;
-Preventing efforts to use modern technologies and political manipulation for total control over the individual, his choice of a worldview and his private life;
-Promoting respect for law, propagating the positive experience of implementing and protecting human rights;
-Expertise in legal acts, legislative initiatives and other actions by the authorities in order to prevent encroachments on human rights and dignity and aggravation of social morals.
-Participating in public control over the law enforcement, particularly in the regulation of church-state relations and the execution of fair court judgments.
The question arise: who in the Church can lead human rights activity in the Church. The document gives the following answer: ‘The human rights work of the Russian Orthodox faithful can be carried out on both the church-wide level with the blessing of the Supreme Church Authority and on the level of public associations founded by lay people, many of which are already working successfully in the field of human rights. The Church, in her work for the protection of human rights and dignity, seeks to cooperate with the state and public forces. Choosing her partners in society, the Church remembers the words that Christ the Saviour gave to the apostles: Whoever is not against us is for us (Mk. 9:40).
Motivated by the Church’s teaching on human dignity, freedom and rights, Christians are called to take ethically guided social action. This can be expressed in various forms, such as witness be-
fore the authorities, intellectual studies, and campaigns in defence of particular groups of people and their rights. Without seeking a revolutionary reconstruction of the world but acknowledging the rights of other social groups to participate in social transformations on the basis of their own worldview, Orthodox Christians reserve the right to participate in building public life in such a way that does not contradict their faith and moral principles. The Russian Orthodox Church is ready to defend the same principles in dialogue with the world community and in cooperation with people of other traditional confessions and religions.’
I have endeavoured to accomplish two tasks at once: to summarize the content of the document and, at the same time, introduce the discussions through which it came into being. Along the way, I wanted to show the relevance of these topics for the Church’s mission in the modern world.
I now have a few words about the possible status of this document. It is proposed that it be seen as the development of the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. I beg to say that adoption of this document by the Council of Bishops will primarily serve missionary purposes, since it opens the possibility of defending Christian values in different spheres of public life.
The canonical structures, clergy and laity of our Church can be guided by this document in their socially significant statements and actions.
Given the importance of the theme of human rights in modern society, one can assume that this document will be interesting for the fraternal local Orthodox churches and promote the much- needed strengthening of oneness of the entire Orthodox world.
I would like to express the hope that systematic statement of the fundamental teachings of our Church on dignity, freedom and human rights will also provide a real contribution to the Orthodox witness, as implemented in dialogue with the non-Orthodox.
It can be expected that many of the positions expressed in this document, will be positively accepted by traditional religious communities throughout the world, thereby contributing to preserva-
tion of the rights and autonomy of the believers facing aggressive non-religious secularism.
I believe this document can serve as an important contribution to the dialogue of our Church with the public authorities of different countries as well as with public and international organizations in the name of peaceful, just relations between people and nations.
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