* * *
Venerable hierarchs and other clergy,
Distinguished administrators and faculty,
Beloved students and guests,
It is a special privilege to be invited to address this auspicious assembly on such an important topic for our world and our time. It is also a special pleasure to be invited back to the Catholic University, where we have previously been recognized as an Honorary Doctor and consequently feel very much at home as a member of its eminent academic community.
Introduction: A Joint Mission
We should emphasize from the outset the appropriateness of your theme and tone. This is an ecumenical and interfaith conference entitled “Together for our Common Home.” And it is not by chance that this conference comprises a joint effort by two prestigious institutions of higher learning, which have together decided to explore what is arguably the most vital challenge facing humankind—namely, the protection and preservation of the sacred gift of God’s creation— and to do so from an inter-confessional and inter-religious perspective. Of course, it could not be otherwise because this subject pertains precisely to “our home,” a “common home,” which must be considered and confronted “together.” After all, the words and attitude that we use at any given point in time are never incidental or accidental, but must always be intentional and precise. Similarly, the terms and mentality that we adopt—like the issues that we choose to address—should indicate the focus of our concern and the method of our resolve.
In this regard, for more than three decades during our Patriarchal tenure, just as for more than three years of the most recent pandemic, we have learned that the most elementary and essential problems that we face as a planet and a people have an inevitable and undeniable impact on everyone and everything. Nothing exists in isolation; and no one exists independently. By the same token, our extensive experience at the forefront of environmental ministry, just as the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus, have demonstrated that only a conscientious, concerted and collaborative response can prove effective for our community and for creation as a whole. Everything we do individually and institutionally should be aimed at leaving behind a more peaceful, more equitable, and more sustainable world for the generations that follow.
This has always been the basic rationale and justification behind our deliberate effort to convene symposia, summits, and seminars which bring together representatives of the international community, adherents of the world’s religions, as well as leaders of the scientific, political, journalistic and advocacy domains. We are convinced that, just as we did not provoke or aggravate the imbalance of our planet unilaterally, we cannot restore or reconcile the balance of the natural environment without supporting one another and sharing the burden of sustaining the planet’s resources.
An Ecumenical Mandate
Such a communal and even global response to climate change is what we would describe as the ecumenical mandate of creation care. It implies listening to other Christian confessions and learning from other faith communities. It involves paying attention to and benefitting from other disciplines, such as science and medicine. After all, whether we are speaking of climate change or Covid-19, we are invariably dealing with unprecedented crises. And how we respond to such challenges defines our priorities as civilized and cultured human beings at this crossroads of history. Moreover, how we respond to such critical problems determines the role of faith and the responsibility of religion.
For instance, one of the vital lessons that we have learned from the pandemic is that we cannot play God—just as we cannot play politics—with science, because it directly affects the health of people. At the same time, with regard to climate change, we have become aware that we cannot play God—just as we cannot play politics—with our planet’s natural balance, because it immediately impacts the health of all creation. Ironically and unfortunately, the reasoning and strategy used to dismiss Covid-19 and climate change follow a similar pattern and are employed by the same people. Religious leaders are, therefore, called to guide believers and people of good will to welcome the essential role of science and scholarship as sacred gifts and indispensable instruments for salvation and sustainability.
Nevertheless, it is important for us to remember that the greatest threat to our planet—that is to say, the defining issue of our time—is not actually the novel coronavirus, but in fact climate change. This is because the growing but neglected cost from rising global temperatures will absolutely eclipse the current number of deaths from all the infectious diseases combined if climate change is not controlled. It came as no surprise to us that, in the wake of the pandemic, even the World Economic Forum appealed for “a great reset” of capitalism, arguing that sustainability will only be achieved through drastic lifestyle changes.
A Spiritual Worldview
This brings us to our final point regarding the relationship between religion and science, and more specifically the association between theology and ecology. Over the last decades, through our involvement and initiatives in raising awareness on creation care, we have repeatedly and passionately underlined the spiritual dimension of protecting nature. We have furthermore come to appreciate that whenever we narrow life—even religious life—to ourselves and our own interests, we are ultimately neglecting our vocation to transform all of God’s creation. The power of ecumenical dialogue lies in learning to open up beyond ourselves, beyond our own confessions or religions. Ecumenical commitment involves learning to speak the language of care and compassion so that we may be able—together—to face the common task of preserving our common home.
People sometimes presume that the involvement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the ecological crisis is an act of public relations or political activism. But nothing can be further from the truth. Because respect for creation is part and parcel of our faith; this is why the Nicean Creed speaks of the “one God, the Father, who holds all things together, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” The ecological crisis is not a political challenge; and it is not a scientific or a technological problem. It can only be fully resolved when people perceive the broader perspective of creation care. Unless we change the way that we perceive the world, then we shall continue to deal only with symptoms, not with their causes.
So the environmental ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a natural extension of its self-consciousness, rather than a circumstantial reaction to a new phenomenon. As we observed in our Encyclical for September 1st in 2020: “The very life of the Church is an applied ecology. The sacraments of the Church, its entire life of worship, its asceticism and communal life, the daily life of its faithful—all of these express and emphasize the deepest respect for creation.”
Conclusion: For the Life of the World
The Church, then, is called to incarnate the phrase “on earth as in heaven” that we recite in the Lord’s Prayer? But how is the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church to be manifested among us? How is the theology of the Church reflected in the life of the world? In simple terms, what does God’s Kingdom look like in human society and the global community?
The unfortunate reality is that the Church—and religion more broadly—is rarely prepared and often reluctant to respond to the most crucial problems of the world. That is, in 2017, we appointed a special committee of twelve theologians (clergy and laity, men and women) to “prepare an official text on the social teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed both in tradition across the ages as well as in the modern practice of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and in particular in the wake of the Holy and Great Council which met in Crete in June 2016 . . . in order to serve as a solid basis for reference and conversation on issues and challenges of vital importance that today’s world faces.”
This text, entitled For the Life of the World: Toward a social ethos of the Orthodox Church, is a direct consequence and continuation as well as part of the process of reception of the Holy and Great Council. Although completed before the pandemic broke out, For the Life of the World provides general parameters and guidelines for a much-needed social ethos that can inform and assist people to face the modern challenges of racism and poverty, human rights and bioethics, as well as technology and climate change. The purpose of the document is not to provide prescriptive answers, but to kindle a vital conversation about the role of the church in the world. The aim is to encourage and advance dialogue because it is only through dialogue and collaboration that we can effectively and responsibly tackle questions of climate change and ecological sustainability. In the final analysis, isn’t this what the title of your conference implies? “For our Common Home—Together!”
Thank you for this invitation and for your attention.