Green Patriarch’s ‘Web of Life’ Has a Gaping Hole in It

In [Monday’s] Wall Street Journal, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I offered a commentary related to his recently closed environmental symposium in New Orleans. He said this:

For if all life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it … no one doubts that there is a connection and balance among all things animate and inanimate on this third planet from the Sun, and that there is a cost or benefit whenever we tamper with that balance.

Words pleasing to the ear, perhaps. But the Patriarch’s environmental ethic has a hollow core. Writing on the blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I have shown how for nearly 20 years Bartholomew has issued equivocations and evasions on the Orthodox Church’s clear teaching on the sanctity of life. And it goes on. This is from his 2008 book, “Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today” (p. 150):

I also encounter many and diverse issues related to the sanctity of life from birth through death. Those issues range from sensitive matters of sexuality to highly controversial questions like the death penalty. In all such social and moral issues, it is not one or another position that the Orthodox Church seeks to promote in a defensive spirit. Indeed, we would normally refrain from expounding a single rigidly defined dogma on social and moral challenges. Rather, it is the sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, that the Church at all times seeks to underline.

In stark contrast to this statement, see the Russian Orthodox Church’s clear and unambiguous position in its statement on the Orthodox Church and Society:

The Church has always considered it her duty to protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, namely, unborn children. Under no circumstances the Orthodox Church can bless abortion.

Of course, the hollow core of Bartholomew’s environmental ethic leaves the Green Patriarch’s ministry open to all sorts of anti-human vulnerabilities. As Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse, president of AOI, has written in response:

Perhaps the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarch's] equivocations on abortion explains the affinity with the alarmism of progressive environmentalism. The alarmism is essentially misanthropic (mis-anthropos — hate man); it views the human person as spoiler, rather than part, of the environment. (The language of stewardship is used in progressive apologetics, but the definition of the term is reserved for those who hold to progressive cultural prescriptions.) Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the misanthropic theme in broader philosophical terms back in 1979: The Great Liberal Death Wish.

Reducing the value of a person to private opinion means that man has no more value than an animal, and viewing man as mere animal is a descent into madness. Human rights activist Wesley J. Smith rightly discerns the barbarous end of this thinking and calls for a new ethic of “human exceptionalism” in Orthodox Advocate For “Human Exceptionalism”. Hopefully other human rights activists will take heed.

Having wrapped up his environmental program, Bartholomew is now preparing for a round of briefings in Washington with Democratic Party leaders and a meeting with President Obama that is being arranged by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. CAP is also co-sponsoring a speech by Bartholomew with Georgetown University on Nov. 3.

Read A patriarch who, ‘generally speaking, respects human life’ on the Observer blog at AOI.

A bit of background.

Although media reports describe Bartholomew as “the spriritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians,” it is important to understand that in an Orthodox context the leadership, while global, implies only a primacy of honor, not jurisdiction. In Orthodoxy, the chief authority lies with a synod of Bishops. The Patriarch, because he has the primacy of honor, calls the synod into session. Binding decisions on the Church, however, are always synodical and never at the sole discretion of the Patriarch. This differs from Roman Catholicism in that in the Orthodox Church there is much less authority in the person of the Patriarch than Catholics place in the person of the Pontiff.

Orthodox ecclesiology is conciliar, not monarchical (although certainly some hierarchs behave as if they possess the divine right of kings). For this reason, the Orthodox Church is called the Church of the Ecumenical Councils.

Bartholomew’s own flock in Istanbul consists of about 3,000 ethnic Greeks. He also has jurisdiction over a number of overseas churches, the most significant being the New York-based Greek Archdiocese of America. Americans of Greek descent are his most important financial lifeline.

The principle of primacy of honor has concrete ramifications especially today. For example, the Patriarch, who is a Turkish citizen, does not speak for or exercise control over the Russian Orthodox Church, which arguably is the most important of the 15 or so autocephalous or self-headed churches, with more than 100 million members. The Russian Church’s miraculous revival after decades of martyrdom and persecution under atheistic communism is really the big story in global Orthodoxy today. In truth, the Russian Church is the center of gravity for the entire Orthodox Church.

Nor does Bartholomew speak for the Church of Greece, the largest Grecophone church in Orthodoxy. In fact, in recent years, Bartholomew has been involved in turf battles — in Estonia, Ukraine and the northern provinces of Greece — with both Moscow and Athens. The recently closed Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue on Cyprus, which examined the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, finished its business without even getting through the entire agenda. The meeting excited protests from Greek monks and a caution from the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. The synod demanded that Bartholomew keep Greek prelates fully apprised of any talks with Rome.

The reason for this is that there are factions in Greece and in Russia convinced that Bartholomew is seeking protectors for his beleaguered patriarchate, a long suffering ancient see where landed properties have been expropriated progressively by Turkish authorities. The suspicion is that he may see the Vatican as one of those protectors. But any unilateral movement by Bartholomew toward a formal alignment, let alone union, with Rome would be fiercely resisted by other autocephalous churches. Nor would such a move be supported by the Orthodox laity, which holds a powerful place in the life of the Church. Throughout the 2,000 year history of the Orthodox Church, emperors and patriarchs and bishops who moved rashly or tyrannically to impose unpopular or un-Orthodox measures were repudiated over time by the whole Church.

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