‘Like having coffee with the pope’


Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has been embraced by activists of many religions since it was published in June. Last week, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim environmentalists discussed how the pope’s call to “care for our common home” is reflected in their traditions.

Cantor Rachel Rhodes of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, which hosted the gathering of 30 people, said the traditional Jewish response to drought was to call a fast for repentance.

“The moral is not that God punishes us with weather, but that we have a connection to the world around us,” she said. Similarly, “the pope isn’t speaking about climate change per se, but about community.”

The 192-page encyclical “is intended to be a dialogue of all faiths and no faith,” said Sarah Spengeman, policy education manager for the national Catholic social justice lobby, Network.


What is an encyclical? “It is a letter written by the pope, from a pastor to the faithful,” Spengeman said. It is “highly authoritative,” but it is the bishops who will pass the teaching down to the priests in the pulpits, she said.

“On Care for our Common Home” departs from a traditional papal letter in three ways, Spengeman said. It is the first encyclical addressed to non-Catholics as well as members of the church. It is written in a vernacular language, in this case Italian, rather than Latin. And it’s the first to rely on non-Catholic sources.

It addresses an “ecological crisis” rooted in the “interconnectedness between humans and the earth,” Spengeman said. The cause of the crisis is the “throwaway culture” that harms the poor and the global south in particular.

Solving the crisis will require a profound change — “an ecological conversion,” in the pope’s words.

Reading the encyclical is “like having coffee with the pope,” said Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, the program’s moderator. “I was drawn in personally. It just grabbed your heart.”

“It’s just poetry,” said Liya Rechtman, manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and a policy associate of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who considered the encyclical in light of the Torah’s commandment, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

“Why does the Torah stutter” on the word justice, she asked.

Rechtman suggested that “justice” means treating a problem narrowly, while “’justice, justice’ is looking at the issues more broadly.”

Justice for the poor and needy means feeding the hungry. “Justice, justice is looking at crop scarcity and rising sea levels,” she said. “The encyclical is a ‘justice, justice’ document.”

Because the Jewish community is relatively small, it requires interfaith partners to make a green movement, she said.

Muslims will be among those hardest hit by climate change, said Asma Mahdi, director of communications for Green Muslims. “The 1.6 billion Muslims who live along the belt of the planet will be victims of climate change.” The Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, “is sinking by the minute,” she said.

While “green is technically the color of Islam,” the Muslim world has never taken a stand on climate change, she said.

But in August, in response to the encyclical, a gathering in Istanbul issued an “Islamic declaration of global climate change.” It stated, “We have no right to oppress the rest of creation or cause it harm.”

And it quoted verses from the Koran, including, “The creation of heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of mankind, but most of mankind do not know it.”

Asked how environmental activists keep their work from being criticized as a partisan issue, Rechtman said “that’s the job of the faith community in D.C.”

“What we hope to do is speak to the fact that this is not another thing on the lefty slate — it’s a moral issue,” she said.

While secular environmentalists lobby the Democrats, “the interfaith will go talk to Republicans. They won’t listen to the Sierra Club, but they will talk to the Jewish leader, the Catholic leader and the evangelical leader when we walk into their office.”

Meanwhile, on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama announced his decision to reject plans to build the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the process that led to Obama’s decision “politically fraught. On both sides, Keystone had become more a symbol than an energy policy,” he said in a statement.

“Now, with the president’s determination we focus on the real issue,” he continued. “How do we transition to clean energy sources that both protect our planet and promote prosperity?”

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