East meets West in “Laudato Si’”

Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for creation begins with Eastern Orthodox thought and in the concluding paragraphs returns to the Christian East again

The various and diverse documents that make up modern magisterial utterances by the popes of Rome since at least the time of Leo XIII do not tend, as a general rule, to quote directly, or even to reference indirectly via footnotes, non-Catholic sources. Papal encyclicals, apostolic letters and exhortations, and other official documents almost invariably quote only two things: other popes and the decrees of those councils which the Church in the West presumes to label “ecumenical.” All the references tend, in other words, to be safely Catholic and safely dead.

Not so with Laudato Si’—one of many differences in this pontificate. Immediately out of the gate, the encyclical opens by acknowledging ecological themes in the pontificates of Francis’ three papal predecessors before devoting three full paragraphs to the writings of the current Ecumenical Patriarch [EP] Bartholomew of Constantinople who is repeatedly cited by name and quoted in both text and footnotes. Indeed, he is called “the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion” (no.7), and the encyclical bears a handwritten epigraphic dedication to “fratello, Patriarca Bartolomeo, con gratitudine.” In both text and footnotes, the leadership of the EP on ecological issues, going back more than two decades, is not only acknowledged, but in fact drawn upon and cited approvingly. The encyclical is in fact “book-ended” if you will, beginning with Orthodox thought, and in the concluding paragraphs returning to the Christian East again.

That is not all. The second unusual event around this encyclical came at the official press conference in Rome when it was released. Again it is virtually without precedent that non-Catholics be involved in promulgating an encyclical, but once again this case was different. The EP had been invited to attend the press conference and give a talk about the encyclical, but declined for reasons of health. In his stead, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, widely regarded as the greatest Greek Orthodox theologian alive today and a close collaborator of the EP, was present and gave a speech in which, inter alia, he spoke of his “great joy,” “satisfaction,” and “deep gratitude” for the encyclical and for the cooperation between Orthodoxy and Catholicism on this issue.

Finally, after the encyclical was published Pope Francis adopted wholesale an initiative the Ecumenical Patriarchate established back in 1989: celebrating September 1st every year as a day of world prayer for the care of creation. This the pope has now done. One may be permitted to note the oddity that while for nearly 2000 years East and West have been unable to agree on a common date for the queen of festivals, Easter or Pascha, we have managed to agree on the importance of this rather minor feast if feast it is, if feasting is indeed permitted. Perhaps September 1st is to be a day of fasting instead? Pope Francis has not said so explicitly, but one should rule nothing out with the man, not least as he has said that one of the purposes for Sept. 1st is to beg the Lord’s “mercy for the sins committed against the world in which we live.”

So who is this man to whom this encyclical is dedicated, whose writings it cites at significant length, and whose practice of observing Sept. 1st as a day of prayer for creation the pope has borrowed wholesale? Who is this “beloved” Patriarch Bartholomew from whose own magisterial writings on ecology the pope has learned so much and now incorporated into an official and authoritative Catholic document?

Elected in 1991, the current Ecumenical Patriarch (EP) is no stranger to the popes of Rome. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both traveled to Constantinople to celebrate with the EP on various occasions. In 2005, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew attended John Paul’s funeral; in 2013, the patriarch again made history by attending the installation of Pope Francis in Rome. In the spring of 2014, the two of them met in Jerusalem on the 50th anniversary of the meeting between their predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras, in 1964. And then in Nov. 2014, Francis went to Constantinople for the latter’s patronal festival on St. Andrew’s Day.

Who, then, is this man and office which have established such regular and amicable contacts with all the recent popes of Rome over the last half-century? It is a commonplace among lazy journalists, whose numbers surely approach pestilential levels, to assert that the EP is the “Orthodox pope.” But this is false insofar as the EP does not have even one tenth of the determinative power the pope of Rome does. Moreover, the comparison is manifestly nonsensical if one spares even a fleeting glance at the massive coverage on the global stage that attends the pope’s move—as American Catholics saw only last month—compared to the obscurity in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate languishes. The pope commands attention by virtue of two key facts: he is head of the world’s largest and most highly organized religious body, claiming the allegiance of nearly 1.5 billion people as compared to the roughly 200 million Orthodox Christians. And the pope is also head of a state, entitling him to all sorts of prerogatives and prestige the EP cannot claim in the international arena.

Given these facts, it has been clear since his election in 1991 that the EP would need a unique strategy if he were able to claim any global attention at all. The EP has neither the numbers nor a sovereign territory as his base and so is safely ignorable as far as Western press attention is usually concerned. Moreover, his message, like that of Orthodoxy and Catholic Christianity as a whole, remains deeply unpopular with those elites who control modern Western media: the Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, will not countenance abortion or gay marriage, and will not ordain women to the priesthood. With all these strikes against him, how then was the EP to gain attention? It was, I think, a stroke of genius to hit on Christian ecology avant la lettre, that is before it became such a boutique issue in Western media, academia, governments—and now the papacy.

In his writings on this on this topic the EP has focused, as the pope does in Laudato Si, on three themes:

• Repentance for our sinful damage to God’s creation

• Conversion to new ways of living more fully human lives without relying on technology to solve the problems we have created

• Celebration of the world as both sacramental and theophanic: that is, the world as sacrament of communion not only between all creatures, but between them and their Creator whom the world reveals.

In many other things in LS, the pope clearly shares much in common with the EP’s writings on ecology, including:

• a suspicion of technocratic solutions to our problems,

• a skepticism about the corroding influence of money on politics, both of which are often obstacles to real solutions;

• a deep anxiety about the modern propensity for a fragmented vision of life.

Moreover, both EP and the pope stress the importance of a responsible simplicity of life and a grateful contemplation of the whole of life, including solicitude for the poor and for the earth. Such a rightly ordered and integrated life both arises from and issues in what JPII called a “good aesthetic education,” where that is understood not merely in an instrumentalist fashion but as an immersion in and restful, peaceful contemplation and enjoyment of the “infinite beauty of God” (LS 243). As Francis puts it at the end of his encyclical, returning once again to the East, “Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. This is especially clear in the spirituality of the Christian East. ‘Beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of a church, in the sounds, in the colours, in the lights, in the scents’” (LS, 235, with the internal reference to Orientale Lumen no. 11).

Thus we have an entire encyclical “bookended” by laudatory citations of the thought and practice of the Christian East. While Laudato Si is not without problems, its unique incorporation of insights from the Christian East in more than a perfunctory fashion is one more step down the road of the “dialogue of love” and the search for unity called for by every pope at least from John XXIII and every Ecumenical Patriarch since Athenagoras. For this rare, unique, and important drawing together of the successors of Peter and Andrew, Catholics and Orthodox have one more reason to be grateful.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 44 Articles

Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).