The month of October saw two interesting announcements from, arguably, the world’s two most influential spiritual leaders.
On Saturday October 30th, the pope, the spiritual head of over one billion Christians, spoke to 100,000 Catholic children assembled from all corners of Italy in St. Peter’s Square. The seems to have had a number of lighter moments when the pope reminisced about his childhood, his dreams, and the desire to be taller. There was, however, a darker side to his speech, one which was tinged with no small amount of fear. Pope Benedict XVI urged the children to be wary of the kind of love that is peddled on the Internet and in the media. That kind of love is “incapable of chastity and purity,” and encourages people to “get used to love that’s reduced to merchandise for barter.” The pope promised children that embracing the image of love which is propagated in popular culture would lead ultimately to unhappiness.
Certainly the pope’s message is not without merit. The pornographic paradigm for love that is uncritically received by everyone, not merely children, from popular culture (especially the Internet) stands in desperate need of correction. It does, however, seem strangely inappropriate for the pope to be warning people about love received from the Internet when what most people fear, in fact, is the kind of love being received in Belgian churches. Aged though the pope may be, he could hardly have let the matter of the hundreds of reported cases of sexual abuse perpetrated on children by his priests. After all, the Vatican had just summarily denied those abuse victims the right to hold a rally in St. Peter’s Square. It is perhaps unfortunate that the pope should be preoccupied with the troubles of a post-Christian culture when his own eye is plagued with an even more burdensome plank of patently unChristian behavior.
A little over a week earlier, the Ecumenical Patriarch – spiritual spokesman of a meager and curiously obscure three hundred million Christians – wrote an article for CNN in which he addressed issues of the Christian duty to the environment. In it he expresses the strongly positive message that creation has a unitive effect which transcends doctrinal differences, even between atheists and Christians. This world is entrusted to humanity, either through divine prerogative or through simple circumstance. Regardless, concern for the environment has a truly universal appeal and thus the ability to truly universally unite humanity in action toward a positive goal. Whatever elements of fear appeared in the course of Patriarch Bartholomew’s message were tempered with a hope: “We are optimistic about turning the tide; quite simply because we are optimistic about humanity’s potential. Let us not simply respond in principle; let us respond in practice. Let us listen to one another; let us work together; let us offer the earth an opportunity to heal so that it will continue to nurture us.”
There is a great deal to commend the Patriarch’s message. Specifically noteworthy is the positive theology which he presents to justify his environmentalism:
Nature is a book, opened wide for all to read and to learn, to savor and celebrate. It tells a unique story; it unfolds a profound mystery; it relates an extraordinary harmony and balance, which are interdependent and complementary. The way we relate to nature as creation directly reflects the way we relate to God as creator.
The sensitivity with which we handle the natural environment clearly mirrors the sacredness that we reserve for the divine. We must treat nature with the same awe and wonder that we reserve for human beings.
Creation is no less a work of the Creator than human beings are, whatever dispositional distinctions we make between humanity and creation relative to the divine. This earth is no less God’s handiwork, and the respect which Christians in particular show for it reveals the respect we have for God’s work.
The Patriarch’s statement was not without detractors, members of the Orthodox community who for one reason or another met the article with palpable scorn. Some comments are beneath notice (e.g. “If he continues on this path I would not be surprised if, a couple of years from now, we’ll hear from the EP that Salvation will come through some UFO saviors”) except perhaps for the purpose of gentle mockery, but other comments have some legitimacy. The Patriarch quite clearly did not get the memo that much of the scientific literature on global warming has been challenged (though notably vindicated within its own circles). More importantly, the question is raised as to whether or not this is the appropriate focus for the Ecumenical patriarch. Certainly no one would deny that environmental ethics is out of bounds for religious discussion, but is it really the place of the Ecumenical Patriarch with all his duties and responsibilities to weigh in on hot button political issues? Consider, for example, this accusation:
Most disturbing however is the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s subordination of human freedom to the fashionable fundamentalism of the environmental movement. Orthodox Christians have not forgotten the 2004 visit of Patriarch Bartholomew to Havana that saw His All Holiness praise Fidel Castro as an environmentalist while showing indifference to the regime’s laundry list of crimes and personally neglecting Cuba’s dissidents. How is it that the souls imprisoned by one of history’s great butchers are not worthy of pastoral concern?
More crucially, the Patriarch bestowed on the communist leader the Order of St. Andrew in a move which greatly angered many Orthodox worldwide. Yet the Patriarch action was justified – as part of his explanation for his entire visit – thus: “[the Patriarch comes] bringing the same message that Jesus Christ brought 2,000 years ago. It’s the same message of peace, the message of reconciliation.” The church the Patriarch had come to consecrate had been paid for in part by a Cuban government that has been increasingly tolerant in its religious policy.
One may rightly ask if peace and reconciliation are the appropriate course, just as one could easily argue that the pope gains nothing by dwelling on the sex abuse scandal. Yet, it is hard to avoid the feeling that, in a time when the community of faith is truly in dire need of spiritual leadership, Christian leaders of the highest order are two engrossed with personal denial and pet projects to respond to the needs of the people. Then again, if they could get their act together, would Christians even still listen?