A lesson quickly learned when studying theology is that the terms liberal and conservative are of little to no help. In a culture that demonizes such labels, there can be a deep desire to find a different language that transcends the volatility of these terms. Traditionally, theologians will use the terms Orthodoxy (correct belief) and Orthopraxy (the proper practice and application of our belief). When the terms liberal and conservative are removed in favor of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, one quickly finds that authentic Christian belief is a fascinating weave, providing a beautiful tapestry of the world that fails to fit nicely into a cultural ideology, limited by political designations.
One of the clearest examples of this transcendent tapestry is ecology and care for creation. As a priest for the Catholic Church that is pro-life, pro-family, pro-personal responsibility, and pro-subsidiarity, many find it contradictory for Catholics to also be pro-immigration, pro-workers rights, pro-solidarity, pro-preferential option for the poor, and pro-ecology. An example of this would be a good friend of mine who accused the Catholic Church of “liberalizing” in light of recent calls by the Church to care for creation, announcing that maybe he should become Greek Orthodox. The unspoken presumption was that the “more conservative” Greek Orthodox Church was surly “less green” than Catholicism. My friend was quite surprised when I informed him that the Greek Orthodox Church, in many ways, is “greener” than Catholicism. I find discussions like this helpful to explore the question of whether we are Christian first and political second or political first and Christian second?
These thoughts came to mind while reading the book Bartholomew: Apostle and Visionary. The book, with a forward written by Pope Francis, is a mix of the thought of author John Chryssavgis, archdeacon for Patriarch Bartholomew, and essays from world leaders, both religious and secular, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Patriarch Bartholomew’s leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church. In the fifth chapter of the book, Chryssavgis provides a clear summary of Greek Orthodox theology on the environment and Bartholomew’s contribution to this theology. The end of the chapter contains a reflection from Jane Goodall, UN Messenger for Peace.
Chryssavgis begins chapter five by explaining that Bartholomew views the environment first and foremost as a spiritual responsibility. Central to this spiritual perspective on the environment was his 1997 address in Santa Barbara, California in which he spoke of abusing the environment as being sinful. Combined with the longstanding Orthodox stance of seeking to heal creation, Bartholomew became one of the first prominent world religious leaders to warn of dire consequences for harming God’s creation.
In the Catholic Church, most people associate Pope Francis with ecology. However, one of the first strong voices for the preservation of the environment was Saint John Paul II. Drawing from his predecessors St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II called upon all Catholics to care for creation in his World Day of Peace address from 1990 entitled, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation.”
At the conclusion of this Message, I should like to address directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, in order to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all of creation. The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God (cf. Ps 148:96). (World Day of Peace 1990. St. John Paul II. Paragraph 16)
When looking at St. John Paul II, Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, we see not only a call to appreciate God’s creation, but we also come to understand that how we treat creation has a clear spiritual and moral dimension. Here is a brief summary of the Catholic Church’s emphasis on care for creation by Caritas Internationalis featuring Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
One of Patriarch Bartholomew’s most influential programs for addressing environmental issues in the Orthodox Church was to establish a Scientific Committee named “Religion, Science, and Environment” (RSE). Chryssavgis explains that RSE’s focus was both scientific and theological, seeking to bring together religious and scientific leaders from around the world to explore how to better care for creation.
This effort led to the development of the Waterborne Symposia held from 1995-2009. The first topic for the Waterborne Symposia to address was water. From a scientific perspective, water was focused upon because it is one of the most basic needs of life. From a theological perspective, water was focused upon because of the centrality of water in the life of a Christian through the Sacrament of Baptism. This dual focus was chosen by Patriarch Bartholomew to foster a harmonious relationship between faith and science with the shared goal of protecting clean water.
These reflections on the “Green Patriarch” bring me back to my friend who struggles with the environmental emphasis of Catholics and Orthodox. The mistake my friend made was to think that emphasis upon the care for creation reflected political motivations instead of spiritual and moral motivations. When approaching care for creation in light of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, we discover that care for creation invites us to reflect upon our sacramental vision of the world instead of our political vision of the world.
When we explore the range of sacramentality in different Christian denominations, what we find is that Christians with a high sacramentality (denominations that place strong emphasis on the role of God’s grace through the Sacraments) also place a high value upon care for creation, recognizing that God uses gifts of creation to bestow grace upon all people. This recognition of the importance of material resources in light of sacramental theology and sacramental practice shows that care for creation is primarily a matter of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. Therefore, Catholics and Orthodox are rather “green” in their theology in part because of their sacramental worldview.
Christian denominations with a low sacramentality (denominations that place less emphasis upon the role and importance of Sacraments as communicating God’s grace) tend to view care for creation in more political and economic terms, minimizing the theological, spiritual, and moral aspects of creation. It isn’t that denominations with low sacramentality place no value on creation, but their approach can tend to break more upon political lines, seeing ecology as being less theological and more sociological.
In the weeks to come, I will revisit the thought of Patriarch Bartholomew on care for creation. In particular, we will look at the specific sessions of the Waterborne Symposia. My hope is that, despite the volatility that can come from discussions about ecology (at least in the United States) that we can come to see care for creation not as a political endeavor, but a spiritual and moral imperative. Here is the video of Patriarch Bartholomew’s presentation in Santa Barbara, California in 1997 where he called harm to creation a sin.