His All-Holiness the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew – « Ecclesiology as Ecology: Orthodox Insights »

His All-Holiness the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew

« Ecclesiology as Ecology: Orthodox Insights »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

The Church of Constantinople is widely known for its ecological initiatives. It was the first to highlight the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the ecological problem, to stress the importance of the Church’s contribution to its handling, to showcase the ecological dimensions of the eucharistic and ascetic ethos of Orthodoxy, and to propose ways to protect the natural environment.

Already in 1989, our blessed predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, in his Encyclical on the occasion of the Feast of Indiction, underscored the magnitude of the ecological problem in our time, referred to its anthropological roots and promoted the truth of a Eucharistic relationship with creation. “The abuse by contemporary man of his privileged position in creation and of the Creator’s mandate ‘to have dominion over the earth’ (Gen. 1:28), has already led the world to the edge of apocalyptic self-destruction … The Church in each Divine Liturgy continuously declares that humankind is destined not to exercise power over creation as if it were its proprietor, but to act as its steward, cultivating it in love and referring it in thankfulness with respect and reverence to its Creator.”

Ever since, the first day of September has been declared by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a “Day for the Protection of the Natural Environment,” when “prayers and supplications for all of creation are offered up in the Holy Center of Orthodoxy,” while simultaneously “the Orthodox and Christian world in its entirety, together with the Holy Great Church of Christ” are called to “offer every year on this day prayers and supplications to the Maker of all, both in thanksgiving for the great gift of Creation and in petition for its protection and salvation.”

During our Patriarchal tenure, a series of ecological initiatives and actions, international meetings and conferences, theological and environmental gatherings and seminars, nine international, interdisciplinary and interreligious ecological symposia on a boat have taken place and included participation from various politicians, religious leaders, theologians, environmentalists as well as other academics and scientists. There were also two significant environmental statements: a “Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics” (Rome-Venice, June 10, 2002) that we signed with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, along with a Joint Message that we issued with His Holiness Pope Francis on September 1, 2017, on the occasion of the “World Day of Prayer for Creation.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s environmental initiatives have contributed to inter-Orthodox and inter-Christian, together with interreligious and interdisciplinary dialogues on the preservation of nature by inspiring parliaments, organizations and researchers from the broader fields of science to become involved with the protection of the environment. Moreover, we did not only reach out to Orthodox faithful, to Christians and other believers, but rather to every person of goodwill, while expressing our conviction in the responsibility of every individual and our confidence in the positive contribution of all. We believe that the younger generation − which envisions a world that will function as a true “household” (οἶκος) for all humankind and strives toward this very purpose − holds this message very dear to its heart.

Humanity’s “Modern Sins”

The twentieth century was the most violent century of history, not only in regard to violence among humans, but also in relation to humanity’s cruelty against nature, animals and plants, the atmosphere, aquifers, rivers, lakes and oceans. It is very difficult to refute that this destruction of the natural environment is connected with humanity’s domineering relationship over nature, which has emerged as a dimension of modern civilization. Modern man, self-ordained as the subject of history and complete dominator of his fate, has transformed nature into an object, which can be manipulated and exploited at will and at whim, thereby leading to worldwide ecological destruction. Undeniably, science and technology, the great powers of our time, have achieved many benefits for the world; but on the other hand, they have also fueled a sense of arrogance against nature. It appears that scientific knowledge cannot reach the depth of our soul and mind. Man knows, and yet continues to act against his knowledge. Knowledge has not resulted in repentance, but instead given rise to cynicism and other obsessions. Today, humanity is inevitably paying a heavy price for all that scientific and technological development has offered and continues to offer the world.

The primary model of economic development today is tied closely together with these advancements of science and technology. Contemporary globalization escalates ecological problems and functions against the true benefit of humanity. In the name of maximizing profit and short-term benefit, conditions of life on this earth are destroyed, economic decisions are taken and developmental strategies are chosen without consideration of their ecological impact, while ecology is sacrificed οn the altar of economy.

Contemporary eudemonism, both individual and social, functions at the expense of creation’s integrity. The satisfaction of as many needs as possible by individuals and masses requires and imposes the extreme exploitation of natural resources and diverse forms of environmental burden. The human being has been converted into a being of having. This unprecedented extent of the ecological crisis in our time is a dimension of the domination of a civilization of “having,” which constitutes the core of a contemporary economically-centered and pleasure-centered civilization. The domination of this possessive mentality and pursuit of only what is useful or beneficial renders the ecological problem still more threatening. The natural environment is thus in danger more than ever before in the history of humankind.

It is certain that the ecological crisis is a dimension of the overall crisis of contemporary civilization. Thus, the solution to the ecological crisis cannot be sought on the basis of the same logic that created it in the first place. The destruction of nature begins in the mind of the human being, and it is only natural that its therapy should begin there as well. The crisis that we face is not merely ecological. It is, as we have repeatedly stated, a crisis concerning the way we envisage ourselves and imagine the world. Therefore, before we can effectively deal with the problems of our environment, we must change our self-understanding and worldview. What is required is nothing less than a Copernican revolution in our hierarchy of values − in other words, a radically new ethos.

Just as with all contemporary challenges, it is our conviction that we cannot address and resolve the ecological problem without the involvement and contribution of religions − the great ancient powers of the spirit, which are focused on nurturing and developing the human being’s existential core. This is why we consider the promotion of the natural environment’s protection to be a central focus in the dialogue of religions and interreligious collaboration.

Religions and churches can provide a significant contribution to the development of an ecological ethos. Thus, having already briefly mentioned the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s initiatives deriving from the institutional conviction of our Church, we shall present the theological principles on whose very foundation the Church of Constantinople establishes and expands its ecological activities.

Toward an Ecclesial Ecology

The study of Orthodox Tradition proves to be an inexhaustible source of vital truths for humans and the world. Of course, within the texts of the Holy Fathers, one cannot find ready-made solutions and answers for the easy handling of contemporary problems. Diligent study, rigorous theological work, a dedicated heart and an open mind are always required in order to discover and adequately articulate any theological proposal. Moreover, we are obliged to address the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Orthodox teaching, whether these exist within Orthodoxy or originate from outside. The most interesting observation here is that these same attitudes, which postulate that Orthodoxy is closed or introverted, ethnocentric or fundamentalistic, and unwilling to engage in dialogue with other Christians or the contemporary world are viewed with critical disposition by those outside of Orthodoxy, while conservative groups inside Orthodoxy see it is a form of praise − as an authentic Orthodox temperament and approach in the tradition of the Church Fathers.

From an Orthodox theological point of view, the ecological crisis is a byproduct of “sin,” the gravest crisis of man’s freedom, which disconnects human beings from God and has devastating consequences for human self-consciousness, as well as for interpersonal relations and our relationship with creation. When God said to Adam and Eve “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), He did not grant them authority to subjugate, exploit and destroy nature, but rather He stressed the responsibility that humanity has for creation, as expressed in the second chapter of Genesis, with God’s exhortation to Adam to “till and keep” his house (Gen. 2:15). The interpretation of the biblical quote “be fruitful and multiply” as the primordial and foundational domineering stance of humanity over creation, constitutes an intentional misunderstanding of the divine commandment and entirely contradicts the spirit of the Scripture as well as the environmentally friendly traditions of Christianity.

In this spirit, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church underscored in its Encyclical (par. 14) that “the roots of the ecological crisis are spiritual and ethical,” and that “the rupture in the relationship between man and creation is a perversion of the authentic use of God’s creation.” The response to the ecological crisis, at least “on the basis of the principles of the Christian tradition,” requires a radical change in behavior against creation and “asceticism as an antidote to consumerism, the deification of needs and the acquisitive attitude,” and presupposes “our greatest responsibility to hand down a viable natural environment to future generations.” For an Orthodox approach to the ecological problem “turns our attention to the social dimensions and the tragic consequences of the destruction of the natural environment.”

The Orthodox Church’s ecclesial identity and theology are clearly the foundation of its unabating care for the natural environment. This means that Orthodoxy’s interest for the protection of creation was not just a reaction to the contemporary ecological crisis. It was first and foremost an opportunity for the Church to express, enhance and promote its eco-friendly principles and practices, as well as its gratitude (as Eucharist) and glorification (as doxology) for God’s “very good” (Gen. 1:31) creation. The present ecological problem is the occasion but not the cause of the Orthodox Church’s ecological stance.

The biblical teaching on creation and the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son and Logos of God − what the late Fr. Georges Florovsky called the eternal mystery and the basis of our faith and hope − establish the affirmation of creation in Orthodoxy. In assuming human nature, the Son and Word of the Father also assumed material creation in its entirety. It is through the Incarnation that the human race and all of creation are saved.

The very life of the Church is respect and care for creation in tangible form, as well as the source of its ecological actions. In this regard, the protection of the natural environment is an extension of all that is experienced in the Church. Ecclesial life is applied ecology. The Church, as a divine and human communion, is a victory over the powers from which the destruction of the environment stems, as well as over sin, self-justification and self-centeredness. The Church constitutes an event of communion, love and solidarity. The Saints and Martyrs of our faith, the liturgical life of the Church, its asceticism and monasticism, pastoral ministry and devotional life, as well as the perpetual desire for eternity, constitute a way of living in which the natural cosmos cannot be regarded as an object of exploitation or as useful material for human needs, but is perceived instead as an action and creation of the living Triune God.

A Eucharistic and ascetic ethos

In this spirit, then, we stress to everyone that the Church’s answer to the contemporary ecological problem is the development of its Eucharistic identity and its ascetic ethos. In the ancient tradition of the Church, there exist two inexhaustible sources and proven ways of a correct relationship with creation. We are referring here to the Holy Eucharist, which prescribes a Eucharistic way of life, and the way of asceticism.

The Eucharist forms the very core of ecclesial life. The Church is fully realized and revealed in the Eucharist, extending into every aspect and dimension of life for the believer in the world. The Greek word eucharistia signifies “thanks” and is understood as the deeper essence of the liturgy. In the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy is also called “Sacred Eucharist.” In calling for a “Eucharistic spirit” and an ethos, the Orthodox Church reminds us that the created world is not our possession or property, but rather a gift from God the Creator. Therefore, upon receiving such a gift, the proper response is to accept and embrace it with gratitude. Thanksgiving underlines the sacramental worldview of the Orthodox Church. From the very moment of creation, this world was offered by God as a gift to be transformed and returned in gratitude. In fact, thanksgiving is a distinctive characteristic of human beings, who are Eucharistic creatures, capable of gratitude and endowed with the power to bless God for the gift of creation, as well as to thank and praise God for the world with love and joy.

In the Eucharistic sacrament, we return to God what is His own: namely, the bread and the wine, together with and through the entire community, which itself is offered in humble thanks to the Creator. In response, God transforms the bread and wine − namely the whole world − into a mystery of encounter and communion. Thus, we are able to embrace all people and all things with love and joy. Everything in the natural world, whether great or small, has unique importance for the life of the world. Creation and humanity correspond fully and cooperate with one another. Everything becomes a form of exchange, assuming its original vision and purpose, just as how God primordially intended.

Within the liturgical tradition and sacramental life of the Church, there coexists an expression of a Eucharistic vision of creation and the believer’s relationship with it. This principle was again underscored by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in its Encyclical:

In the sacraments of the Church, creation is affirmed and man is encouraged to act as a steward, protector and “priest” of creation, offering it by way of doxology to the Creator – “Your own of your own we offer to You in all and for all” – and cultivating a Eucharistic relationship with Creation (par. 14).

It should also be noted, however, that a joyous spirit is incompatible with every form of introversion and indifference for creation or with the devaluation of the material world.

The ascetic ethos constitutes a precious aspect of the Orthodox tradition, which is especially relevant to the subject of creation’s protection. Ascesis is another word for the believer’s complete participation in the life of the Church and for the communal experience of its Eucharistic essence. In this sense, ascesis is not a privilege or duty of monastics alone, but rather a spiritual discipline common to all faithful and nourished by the Eucharistic experience. Indeed, ascesis is an ecclesial event, not an individualistic enterprise. In the ascetic life, self-centeredness and self-realization constitute spiritual transgression and sin.

The kernel of the ascetic spirit is sacrifice, which we believe is the missing dimension in our environmental ethos and ecological action. Christians must practice abstinence, self-restraint and voluntary self-limitation in their consumption of food and natural resources. We must make a crucial distinction between what we need and what we want. Fasting and other similar ascetic practices allow us to understand that all things we take for granted are provided to us by God to satisfy our needs and to be shared fairly among all people. They are not ours to abuse and waste them.

After all, just as the true nature of “God is love” (1 John 4:8), so too humanity is innately endowed with the task of loving. Asceticism in the Orthodox Church is always Eucharistic − a matter of sharing and communion, − and never individualistic. Christian asceticism does not mean the rejection of the world or life in the world, but instead the Eucharistic affirmation and use of these in a God-pleasing manner. The Eucharistic and ascetic ethos is not just a challenge for our arrogant and rationalistic, selfish and self-gratifying age, but actually provides an alternative model of relationship with creation and the consumption of goods, as well as with our fellow human beings.


One of our most passionate concerns throughout our Patriarchal ministry has been the protection of the natural environment, raising ecological awareness and sensitizing people to the consequences arising from the irreversible destruction of nature. Our deep commitment to creation care emanates from the very essence of our faith. Our ecclesiology, our faith and our worship strengthen this commitment for the protection of creation, promoting the Eucharistic ethos and use of the world, as well as the ascetic spirit in solidarity with creation and our fellow human beings. It may be said that the ecology of the Orthodox Church is encapsulated in the Eucharistic vision of the world, as well as in its ascetic spirit.

We are convinced that a theological perspective can not only assist in discovering hidden dimensions of the ecological crisis, but also reveal possibilities for addressing and overcoming this crisis. What is required is for us to overcome the ways in which we looked upon creation in the past, which implied an abusive and domineering attitude toward the natural world. The solution of the ecological problem is primarily a matter of acknowledging and adopting a new ethos.

The way to establish an ecological culture has to be ecological. There is no future that comes at the expense of nature. It is evident that the natural environment cannot continuously regenerate itself or endure extreme objectification and exploitation on the part of humanity. The ecological problem has clearly revealed that our world constitutes an integral unity; that our problems are common and universal; and that no initiative or institution, no people or nation, neither science nor technology are in a place to address the problem without cooperation and collaboration. For this very reason, multifarious mobilization, joint effort, convergence and a common journey are required.

In closing, then, we emphasize once again the unity of the protection of the natural environment and the respect for human dignity. Ecological and social problems are interconnected and must be treated together. Preserving nature and serving our fellow human being − environmental justice and social justice − are all inseparable. Additionally, our commitment to solidarity with creation and human beings has at its foundation the same ecclesial and theological principles. This double solidarity is the “new” ethos that stands against our “modern sins.” This is why, in our address at the ninth ecological symposium of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, entitled Toward a Greener Attica, subtitled Preserving the Planet and Protecting its People (Athens, June 5-8, 2018), we declared that:

The identity of every society and the measure of every culture are not to be judged by the degree of technological development, economic growth or public infrastructure. Our civil life and civilization are defined and judged primarily by our respect for the dignity of humanity and the integrity of nature.


Over the last three decades, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has proved a pioneer in highlighting the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the ecological problem and promoting ecological awareness. This interest was not purely a reaction to the contemporary ecological crisis, but primarily an extension of precious eco-friendly principles and practices in the life of the Orthodox Church—especially its Eucharistic worldview and ascetic ethos. Indeed, ecclesial life was and essentially remains applied ecology, as clearly emphasized by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (Crete, 2016). This Orthodox theological perspective not only assists in discovering hidden dimensions of the ecological crisis, but also reveals fresh possibilities for addressing this challenge. Within this framework, the unity of the protection of the natural environment and respect for human dignity constitutes the core of a culture of solidarity, which constitutes a contemporary ethos in the face of “modern sins.” Our commitment to solidarity with creation and all human beings is founded on the same ecclesial and theological principles. As we declared with His Holiness Pope Francis in our Joint Message on September 1, 2017, the “World Day of Prayer for Creation,” ecological and social problems are interconnected and must be treated hand in hand.


His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome (since 1991), occupies the First Throne of the Orthodox Church. As Ecumenical Patriarch, he has engaged in interreligious and intercultural dialogue throughout the world, especially among the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. His efforts to promote environmental awareness across the globe have earned him the title “Green Patriarch.” These initiatives, together with his inspiring advocacy for universal religious freedom and human rights, rank Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew among the world’s foremost visionaries in the pursuit of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and a culture of solidarity.


His All-Holiness Bartholomew

Archbishop of Constantinople-new Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch

Rum Patrikliği, 342 20


Istanbul (Turkey)