To rehumanise the world

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew both stress the importance of Christians working together to rehumanise our world.

‘For what is, indeed, truly Christian is essentially social. Faith is not limited only to the “soul”, without any interest for the social dimension, but rather, it also plays a pivotal role at the level of society.’

The words of His All Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, embrace not only the message of the Common Good, but offer a powerful affirmation of the call for Christian engagement in society. Sometimes called "The Green Patriarch", the spiritual leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide was addressing the silver jubilee conference of the Catholic charity, Centesimus Annus pro Pontifice Foundation (known as CAPP). The Foundation was established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1991 to build on his vision that we must place the human being at the centre of all economic activities and make the social teaching of the Church better known.

The mere attendance of the Orthodox Patriarch at a conference run by a pontifical foundation is a milestone event. In an extraordinary address, he combined his own experience - working for decades on promoting inter-religious cooperation, defending human rights and enhancing environmental protection - with the core message of Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark Centesimus Annus encyclical.

Published just two months before the Patriarch was installed as leader of the Orthodox community in 1991, Centesimus Annus offered a reinvigoration of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church a century after the seminal Rerum Novarum, the first key document articulating what is known as Catholic Social Teaching. This year’s jubilee conference sought once again to draw on this major (but largely unknown) body of Christian thinking, in an era of rapid technological advancement, global ecological challenge and social strife. Bringing together professionals and luminaries from academia, science, technology and business, as well as from the Churches, the conference sought to confront problems facing the world today, just as they were addressed in the succession of social writings since Rerum Novarum was published in 1891.

Inviting the Patriarch to speak, Cardinal Parolin, the Cardinal Secretary of State remarked: 

‘the realisation of the common good must remain the goal of every expression of social life - from the family to social and church groups and [economic] enterprises… from cities to regions and States, right up to the community of the Family of Nations - because, in the common good, we find the constitutive element that gives significance and purpose to social existence’.


Cardinal Parolin (left) alongside Patriarch Bartholomew, speaking before dignitaries of the Centesimus Annus conference in the Vatican.

‘The common good… gives significance and purpose to social existence’.

The conference addressed the challenge of this era of individualism, focusing on digital technology that divides, foments hate and separation and which works against the relational nature of human beings. Indeed Patriarch Bartholomew places emphasis on what he sees as a worldwide ‘crisis of solidarity… which puts the very future of humanity at risk’. He identifies the crisis as originating in three key areas: economy and ecology, science and technology and society and politics. The problems generated by this crisis ‘affect human beings at the very core of their existence and dignity’. 

Over 120 years ago, Rerum Novarum addressed the effects of the industrial revolution on ordinary families and communities across the world. It was a groundbreaking at the time and still makes for powerful reading. 

Now, the Patriarch’s address points to the consequences of contemporary systems that dehumanise and devalue people, which degrade nature and society. In an extensive critique of our obsessions with economic growth and markets, the exploitation of the poor and the natural world, individualism and scientific nihilism, he identifies problems in our societal structures from a uniquely Christian perspective. His powerful contribution adds great depth and connects holistically the many struggles we face in our attempts to build a shared, common life.

Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, but its message continues to resonate today. In a time of technological and economic disruption, it calls for a more cohesive society that supports workers and their families.

‘If we see the human being as homme machine, we can easily transform the human person into an object. If we regard the human being as a person created “in the image” of God, then our attitude changes… Indifference for man is indifference towards God and His Commandments. God is present, wherever love, fraternity, and solidarity exist.’ 

The address suggests that it is possible to break out of this deadly trajectory of indifference - through building the common good and by personally showing our love for God and for others. Whilst we are faced with a crisis perpetuating human misery and damaging the social fabrics of our shared community, we are also presented with, as the Patriarch identifies, an opportunity for our Christian communities to ‘function as a positive challenge to individuals and peoples, offering an alternative model of life within the contemporary culture that bestowed humanity with precious gifts, but at the same time seems to push people to live for themselves, ignoring the others with whom they are sharing the same world’. 

The Patriarch highlights both in his words and his presence the imperative for Christians to work together within their societies to build the Common Good, to recognise what is needed to to fulfil our calling and to live out the values of Christ underpinning everything we do. 

Emphasising that attending church on Sunday and listening to the Word of God is not enough, he challenges the people of the churches to go further, pursuing a deeper understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ: to hear God and do his work here on Earth. He stresses that the Common Good cannot be built without the participation of the whole Christian body and the unique understandings that each unique church tradition can bring. 

‘We need each other; we need a common agenda, common mobilisation, common efforts and common goals. It is our deep conviction that in this effort, the contribution of our Churches remains crucial.'

It is worth reading the address in full. Its inspiration lies not only in its serious analysis of the challenges that we face but also in the confidence that our shared  Christian tradition offers an understanding of the human person and of the world, having the potential to be a powerful antidote. 

The address is but a small insight into the work of CAPP and its sister movements across the Christian family. But in speaking on these issues, the Patriarch is asking vital questions about how we live out our faith and how we should apply ourselves to build a common life for all people. In bringing together expertise across many disciplines and traditions, this address - and the many other discussions at the conference which are worth exploring - give an insight into the depth of work going on, and the vast potential of Christians to play a pivotal role in rehumanising systems which have lost their soul.

‘Our faith strengthens our commitment of human action, and it widens our witness for freedom, justice and peace. We are all called to common responsibility for the common good. We must work towards solutions for the challenges that we jointly face.’ 


Tom Ketteringham



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