On Friday, Sept. 1, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis issued a “Joint Message on the World Day of Prayer for Creation.” Just over one page long, the pithy document packs an ethical imperative into its message about prayer for creation. This isn’t the first time that a pope and Patriarch have opined together on the environment: in 2002, John Paul II and Bartholomew penned a “Common Declaration” that drew on Orthodox theologies of Creation and Catholic Social Teaching to critique the environmental outcomes of “an economic and technological progress which does not recognize and take into account its limits”. In that document, the leaders called for “a growth of an ecological awareness,” and pressed the importance of the notion of stewardship, humility, and alignment with the natural (moral) law. Such ideas can be found in many teachings from both ecclesial bodies, but it is unquestionable that this new, September 1, 2017, exhortation emphasizes solidarity, service, and collective responsibility and action in important new ways.
What does the document say? The first paragraph begins with Scripture; thereafter, climate change is the central concern, especially the negative impacts on “those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.” Like Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate (2009) and Francis in Laudato Si’ (2015), the implication is that super-developed nations and populations have a special form of responsibility in remediating and resolving problems that benefit the elite few at the expense of the many people suffering worldwide. The third paragraph is resonant with Catholic Social Teaching on the environment, in a nutshell: “Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work toward sustainable and integral development.”
Given that, it’s rather noteworthy that as the executive branch of the U.S. federal government withdraws from the Paris Accords and removes climate-change-related references and archival research documents from the Environmental Protection Agency’s web pages, these two European religious leaders are quoting Scripture and scientific-moral consensus in virtually the same breath. Of course, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been emphasizing the importance of Creation for nearly three decades, and it was his predecessor Demetrios I who designated September 1 as the World Day of Prayer for Creation (starting in 1989). Pope Francis brought the Catholic Church on board for this liturgical-calendrical signification in 2015, two months after Laudato Si’ was released and several weeks before he addressed the United Nations, where he implored world leaders to reach an international accord on pressing matters of social and environmental degradation.
The colossal flooding in Houston and devastating monsoons in Southeast Asia certainly draw out the practical relevance of global environmental degradation and the social (in)justice of collective apathy. In what has been a busy week for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press releases on ecology, on August 29, Bartholomew issued a statement on Hurricane Harvey. The statement identified structural aspects (urban planning), epistemological-ethical commitments (climate change), and individual actions (acts of charity): “We are all called to participate in the redemption and stewardship of our world whether it is through working to ameliorate the destructive force of such hurricanes by better environmental planning; or committing more seriously to the grave issue of climate change and how it is affecting our planet; or even becoming personally involved in the charities that provide comfort and support to those whose lives are so drastically changed in the blink of an eye.”
But what do the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch mean to elicit with this September 1 document, a “Joint Message on the World Day of Prayer for Creation”? Is it merely an exhortation to prayer, since after all in the fourth paragraph they invite “all people of goodwill” (a classic formulation in Catholic papal encyclicals) to “dedicate a time of prayer for the environment”? Indeed, given the severity of the climate-change-related “morally decaying scenario” they depict, one can reasonably wonder whether “prayer” is really a sufficient call to action.
Francis and Bartholomew do not think that isolated, spiritual prayer is enough. Prayer is at least in part about orientation towards right action, imply the ecclesial leaders: on the one hand because “we know that we labor in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127)”, and on the other hand because “an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world.”
Ethics, I tell my students, is about how we humans relate to the world. It requires both reflection and action. The theology of prayer in this document is not singularly about meditation or supplication. It is about spiritual orientation towards right forms of action. And the actions required are resolutely collective in this historical moment characterized by climate change and soaring inequalities. The Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch therefore conclude the address with a focused “appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized”—again, language that resonates strongly with Laudato Si’ and prior Catholic Social Teaching.
Then, intriguingly, they add an additional exhortation: “above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world,” with a “concerted and collective” response, with responsibility that is “shared and accountable,” oriented towards “solidarity and service.” While I will be the first to tell you that magisterial and Orthodox statements are surely not given to responding to particular government policies, in this case I would argue that a—if not the—critical target in the last paragraph of the Joint Message is the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords under President Trump.
In sum: this pithy, potent, and all-too-timely Joint Message from Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is both steeped in tradition and fiercely contemporary. It is up to communities of Christians and “people of goodwill” to decide whether and how such insights can catalyze the turn to a new chapter in humanity’s relationship with climate change—that is, to embrace to forms of efficacious, collective action on planetary degradation—or whether this will simply be a well-phrased bookmark in the narrative march of prayer and reflection, full of sound and worry, ushering in nothing.
Christiana Zenner Peppard is Associate Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University and author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics and the Global Water Crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @profpeppard.