Interview with Met. Kallistos of Diokleia, pt 1.


This interview took place between Metropolitan Kallistos and Presbytera Christina (Dr. Nellist) on the 24TH February 2014 in Oxford, England.

Presbytera Christina: Firstly Father, may I ask you to comment upon the research I left with you last year. This was the comments made by the Orthodox priest in response to the outcomes of my research in 2012 which examined the opinion of Cypriot animal protectionists on the Orthodox Church in relation to various aspects of the animal theme.

Metropolitan Kallistos: Yes, well though I might slightly re-phrase what the priest says in one or two areas, in general there is nothing that he says where I felt ‘no this is definitely wrong’. So I can say that he is correct in his statements.  I can comment on one or two of his answers but I think some of those points come up in the further questionnaire you sent to me, so rather than comment on his statements I would perhaps make my own statement in due course.  The points that we need to discuss, not that I disagree with him, are the questions of whether animals have souls and of course, why the orthodox clergy that were written to did not to reply. I think one of the reasons may be that they didn’t quite know what to reply.  When you get an enquiry and there isn’t a simple and obvious answer to it, you tend to put it aside and not do anything about it. I think that may well be what’s happened here.

Firstly a general comment – it seems to me that a concern for animal welfare is a fairly recent thing in a country like Britain. Of course, in the Tradition and in the Old Testament you have Saints who have shown real concern for animals but animal welfare organisations specifically are I think a fairly modern thing.(1) So to me, some of the problems you identify are not so much a theological question, as a cultural one.  This subject has been a concern that people have felt in countries like Britain and America for some considerable time but culturally the traditional orthodox countries haven’t really caught up with this.  It’s not that they are taking a different stance but they are more in the situation perhaps that we in the west were in fifty or one hundred years ago.  Probably in the beginning of the 20th century we would not have found much in the way of animal welfare organisations even in the west, I may be wrong there but I see it more as a cultural and sociological thing rather than theological but that’s a matter for discussion.

Presbytera Christina: It wasn’t my writing to the Church; this was the general theme that came out in the Cyprus research.  Many people had written to priests and bishops and had not received any response.

Met. Kallistos: I think we have to admit that this isn’t a priority in the minds of most bishops and priests and they might say we are concerned with humans and to that my answer is ‘it is not a matter of either /or, you should be concerned with humans and animals. The one doesn’t exclude the other. Now of course my experience is limited as I have always had an urban upbringing so I don’t know in too much detail what goes on in farming but I have seen some things which have left me very disturbed.

Presbytera Christina: Well I do not eat meat not because I do not like the taste of it but because I object to the system which is very cruel and the only thing I can do is choose not to be part of that cruelty and I just hope that over time, the organisations that do focus on farming methods like Compassion in World Farming (2) for example, can change it.  Again, methods such as factory farming are rather new and I feel that if more people knew what happened they may well give up eating meat. Of course, it is easy to find out what goes on, there is plenty of visual and written material on the web and in the form of reports and research. So perhaps it is more that people don’t want to know, rather than not being able to access the information.

Met. Kallistos: Well exactly. People who live in towns like me eat the products but don’t know too much about the background and I think if I knew more about the background I might feel I might have to become a vegetarian but I am willing to say a bit about that later.

Presbytera Christina: Do you believe animal suffering is relevant to God?

Met. Kallistos: Yes.

Presbytera Christina: In your opinion, is the suffering of animals, something the Orthodox Church should be concerned with? 

Met. Kallistos: Yes.

Presbytera Christina: There appears to be a need for clarification of the Orthodox Church’s position on cruelty to animals. Would you be able to give us a clear statement of the Church’s position?

Met. Kallistos: The Orthodox Church to the best of my knowledge has never attempted to make dogmatic statements about this – statements expressed in the form of formal and official church teaching. The question of animals for example was never a matter discussed at the seven Ecumenical Councils. Yet, a reverence for animals, sensitivity to their position, their suffering, this certainly is part of our Orthodox Church faith. We start from the principle laid down in the first chapter of Genesis – that the world is God’s creation, God saw everything that He had made and behold  it was very good – Genesis 1:31. The world is God’s creation and it is a good and beautiful world. So the question of animals and how we treat them, links up with our view that animals are part of God’s creation and just as we should treat the whole of creation with reverence and respect, so we should more particularly, treat the animals with reverence and respect. Now it is said in the first chapter of Genesis that humans have a unique position in God’s creation because we are created in the image and likeness of God and that is not said of animals, though I would like to pursue that later on in our discussion but being created in God’s image and likeness gives us a responsibility towards the Creation as a whole and towards animals in particular. It is said that we are to have dominion as humans over the created order but dominion does not mean domination or ruthless tyranny. This dominion that humans are given is part of being in God’s image, so what this means is that just as God cares for His Creation and loves it, so we, after the image of God, are to care and love the Creation.  This to me is the basic position of the Orthodox Church in regard to animals.

Presbytera Christina: The Ecumenical Patriarch’s proclamation at Patmos[3] defined the misuse of animals as a sin. In my research it appears that the Church in Cyprus is reluctant to speak on animal abuse of any kind but particularly in the form of poisoning. Would you give us your opinion on the poisoning of animals in general and in particular as a form of population control or for unwanted animals?

Met. Kallistos:  I was present on Patmos at the time the Ecumenical Patriarch made his proclamation and of course, I fully agree with the affirmation that animals have their own proper dignity, that this is to be respected and therefore the misuse of animals along with the misuse of any part of the creation is a sin.  William Blake, that great eighteenth century prophet said ‘Everything that lives is Holy’, so the animals are Holy and therefore, the way we treat animals is directly relevant to our living of the Christian life.

I would condemn the poisoning of animals.  There will be situations where domestic animals do need to be put down because they are diseased or because they are breeding too many and there is not enough land to support them but poisoning would seem to me a cruel way of dealing with this problem; There are ways in which animals can be put to sleep that do not involve a long and painful death.

I think that we do have a responsibility some times to limit the numbers of domestic animals but not by poisoning.  Equally, I suppose we do need to keep down wild animals which may be praying on our flocks or herds – the wolves on Mount Athos for example were quite a nuisance; Unfortunately there are now no more wolves there, they have all been disposed of and I regret that but again, poisoning seems to me, an evil way to dispose of animals because it will usually involve a lingering and painful death. There are more humane ways of dealing with the problems.

Presbytera Christina: The neutering of animals is the practice of Animal Welfare Organisations throughout the world.  It is used to reduce the number of unwanted animals and also for health reasons in later life.  It has been suggested that the Orthodox Church forbids this procedure. Do you believe this reflects the Church’s position and if not, could you clarify its position?

Met. Kallistos: To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church, has never forbidden the neutering of animals and I consider that used in a responsible way, this is a good method of preventing unwanted animals and that there can be health reasons as well to advocate this practice, so I am not against the neutering of animals. Of course we do not approve of the neutering of human beings but for animals I do not think the Orthodox Church has ever been forbidden this practice.

Presbytera Christina: How is it that the Orthodox Church which has a wealth of texts relating to respect for God’s Creation, finds itself in 2011 and 2012 research, as being perceived of being indifferent to the suffering of a major part of God’s Creation? Is it ignorance in the clergy of Patristic teachings on the subject or is it more likely to be a lack of transference or application of their knowledge, to a priest’s or parishioner’s behaviour?  How are these problems to be addressed?

Met. Kallistos: Now that is very true, first of all, the Old Testament is full of regulations that were imposed and adopted by the Jewish people relating to the humane treatment of animals. I call to mind a very good book on this subject not by an Orthodox but by a Roman Catholic, Fr. Robert Murray and his book the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ where he shows that particularly in the covenant of Noah, the covenant made between God and humans, also involves the animal world. That I believe is the true Christian teaching and I accept that as an Orthodox.

Again if we look at the lives of the Saints, there are numerous examples of close friendships between Saints and particular animals.  I think of the collection of texts well known many years ago, made by Helen Waddell, called ‘Beasts and Saints’ and the examples she gives are both Eastern and Western, this is not only Orthodox but part of our common heritage. So from the tradition of the Orthodox Church, we have plenty of examples of close mutual understanding between humans and animals.  The trouble is whilst we have all this in theory we do not sufficiently apply it in practice.

Presbytera Christina: How is this to be addressed?

Met. Kallistos: There is a need for more education and we are up against the basic problem that all too many people, clergy and laity, think as Christians that this doesn’t matter – that the treatment of animals is not a moral issue. But as soon as you say that animals are part of God’s Creation and we humans have a God given responsibility towards the Creation, then at once, one sees that it is both a moral and spiritual question. That is why the Ecumenical Patriarch was so right to insist that the misuse of the Creation is a sin- but all too many people don’t see it that way.

There is a further problem in that people involved in agriculture might feel that the intervention by Christian clergy and others, suggesting humane ways of treating animals would diminish their profits- it would mean that they could not make as much money and that is an argument against organic farming in general.  This argument I don’t accept.  First of all, even if it did diminish your profits, perhaps you should not make evil profit from the Creation and I think also, that it is possible to practice organic farming and humane treatment of animals, in a manner that is perfectly viable economically; but I do see there could be objections here.

By way of illustrating this point, I remember visiting many years ago, a Roman Catholic monastery, though I will not say where, except that it was in the United States and they took me with great pride, to see a new appliance that they had installed for battery hens.  There were thousands of hens in this vast shed, all in tiny cages and subjected to electric light all through the night so that they would lay a larger amount of eggs.  Now there it seemed to me, that the desire of a larger profit was leading to an immoral use of living creatures.  Animals have their dignity their natural ways of behaving – hens wonder about picking up the food they find, picking it up in different places and they should be allowed to do this.  I was deeply shocked that a monastery, which should be sensitive to the dignity of Creation, should be showing such pleasure in this new installation. Well, their motive was to make profit; however, even if you can’t make quite such big profits, surely humane farming could be economically viable.

Presbytera Christina: Can you remember how many birds were in each cage?  Normally in factory farming there would be several hens in one tiny cage.

Met. Kallistos: That I don’t remember clearly but I noticed how in many cases, the birds had virtually no feathers.  I was appalled to see the naked skin of these poor birds and I was deeply shocked that the monks did not seem to see that there was something un-Christian, contrary to our faith in the beauty of God’s world, to do such a thing as that. So to summarise, I think it is a lack of teaching and a lack of spiritual imagination.

Presbytera Christina: On that point I can comment that I have very poor eye-sight and yet I am able to see the suffering of other creatures and what I do not understand is that others do not see it, even when it is pointed out to them.  This is why I was so upset at the suggestion that some priests were involved in poisoning animals – as Christians how could they do that?

Met. Kallistos:  Well, quite so.


  1. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals was established in 1824 by a few individuals including Arthur Broome, an Anglican priest; Richard Martin, a member of parliament, who in 1822 piloted the first anti-cruelty bill and William Wilberforce, a member of the aristocracy & M.P, who spent over 50 years trying to abolish slavery.

Editor’s note.

Part two of this interview will be posted in the near future.