In a pronouncement that political and church leaders called an unprecedented religious defense of the environment, His All Holiness Bartholomew I has declared that the degradation of the natural world is “sin.”
The remarks of the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians are believed to be the first time that a major international religious leader explicitly has linked environmental problems with sinful behavior.
“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin,” His All Holiness Bartholomew told a symposium on religion, science and the environment that drew an estimated 800 participants at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church here Saturday.
“For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, … for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life with poisonous substances - these are sins.”
His All Holiness Bartholomew heads the mother church of Orthodox Christianity, the see of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, Turkey. His jurisdiction includes the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada, the United States and South America as well as in Turkey, Australia and Asia. He also is considered to be the “first among equals” of the nine Orthodox patriarchs, each with his own self-governing church, because his church was founded in A.D. 36 by St. Andrew the Apostle.
His All Holiness Bartholomew’s declaration, made during a month-long visit to the United States, is viewed as a significant development in the awakening of organized religion to the despoilment of the natural order.
Until relatively recently, organized religion has left environmental protection to environmental activists, concerned scientists and political figures. Likewise, environmentalists either have ignored religion or complained that churches and synagogues have been merely lukewarm on environmental causes while concentrating most of their energies on hot-button issues involving abortion rights, religious discrimination, racism, economic justice and human sexuality.
His All Holiness Bartholomew’s statement was viewed as a watershed event by several symposium participants who are not Orthodox Christians, including Paul Gorman, who has closely watched developments involving religion and the environment.
“That litany of environmental degradation under the rubric of sin was the first time a significant religious leader has so explicitly designated crimes against creation as sin,” said Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. The partnership, based in New York, includes all major old-line and evangelical Protestant churches, Jewish denominations and Roman Catholics.
Gorman said the declaration points to “a whole new level of theological inquiry into the cause and depth and dimension of human responsibility by lifting up that word - ‘sin.”’
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who also spoke at the symposium, told the audience that His All Holiness Bartholomew’s pronouncement will be seen as “one of the great, seminal, important religious statements of our time.”
His All Holiness Bartholomew, who has come to be known as the “green patriarch,” has been especially outspoken on the environmental issue. He has sponsored symposiums on pollution in the Black Sea, which borders a half-dozen countries in which Orthodox churches are active, and has designated the first day of September each year for an annual message on protecting creation.
But while the theological basis for the declaration consistently has been voiced by His All Holiness Bartholomew, until now he has hesitated to go so far as to call environmental destruction a sin. As recently as his Black Sea symposium two months ago, he stopped short by calling it a “spiritual and moral issue,” even though other Orthodox clerics did name it as sinful.
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