Pope and Orthodox Christian leader issue unprecedented appeal for the environment

'Our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators,' wrote Pope Francis and Orthodox Christian leader Patriarch Bartholomew.

Pope Francis, left, is escorted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, during a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016. (Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister's Office via AP)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis and Orthodox Christian leader Patriarch Bartholomew have released a passionate joint appeal to protect the environment, marking the first time that a pope and the ecumenical patriarch have joined forces in such a way.

They made their appeal for the Earth, a major theme of Francis’ papacy, on Friday (Sept. 1), as Texans grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, South Asians coped with floods that have left millions homeless and scientists warned that such natural disasters will multiply if climate change is not addressed. 

Both the pope, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and the patriarch, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, expressed an urgent need in their appeal for global powers to take action to stave off the ravages of environmental degradation.

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The top clergymen wrote that they want those in positions of responsibility to follow the “consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation,” which many read as a backing of the Paris climate accord, an agreement by 195 countries to reduce carbon emissions.

President Trump, however, has said the United States is withdrawing from the agreement, a decision he announced just days after meeting the pope in May at the Vatican. At the end of that papal audience, Francis handed the president a copy of his landmark 2015 encyclical on protecting the environment, “Laudato Si’.”

With this political division over the Paris deal, and the increasing severity of natural disasters around the world, some have noted the added urgency these religious leaders — Francis, 80, and Bartholomew, 77 — may have felt to make a united plea for the planet.

Pope Francis, right, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I sign a joint declaration on the Greek island of Lesbos, on April 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Their message, planned in advance to coincide with a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, does not hesitate to describe the causes of threats to the environment, citing corporate greed and humanity’s plundering of natural resources. 

“Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets — all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation,” reads the appeal. “We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession.”  

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Francis and Bartholomew describe a “morally decaying scenario” where the “deterioration of the planet” affects the most vulnerable in every corner of the globe, as seen in parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal, where flooding has submerged some of the world’s poorest communities. 

“We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs,” the statement continues. “Our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators.”

This joint appeal reflects Francis’ understanding of Genesis 1:28, the biblical passage in which God gives man “dominion” over the Earth. Others have used the verse to defend human activity that endangers animals and pollutes. 

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But in “Laudato si’,” Francis rejects any interpretation that “justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” Instead he calls for Christians to be in “deep communion” with nature, which he writes is only possible with “compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”  

The pope’s approach is also in keeping with the eco-theology of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint whose name Francis chose for himself when he was elected pope. St. Francis, who greeted the sun and moon as brother and sister, and is frequently depicted in the company of animals, was so close to creation, the pope has noted, that he preached to flowers.

(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to RNS)

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