The Pope’s Climate Change Encyclical Inspires Action Among Religious Communities

Posted July 1, 2015

MP3 Interview with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the social justice organizing program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The Vatican's encyclical, Praise Be, or "Laudato Si" in Latin, was released June 18 and focuses on the need for people across the world to take action to reverse global warming, caused by activity. In this long-awaited document, Pope Francis makes an impassioned plea for humans to understand the interconnectedness of all life on earth, to recognize that the poor of the earth are suffering the most from climate change, and that it is humanity's responsibility to address the crisis.

The scientific consensus is that the Pope Francis correctly relates the science research on climate change, but his encyclical has been criticized by some for its rejection of market-based solutions to reduce climate change through mechanisms such as carbon trading.

Pope Francis addresses his encyclical to all the people of the earth, not just Catholics, and members of many religions are heeding his call. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the social justice organizing program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where he trains rabbis in social justice organizing and related topics. He recently taught a course called rabbi as environmental activist. Here, he explains why he's inspired by the Pope’s encyclical, and how interfaith groups are responding to to Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. this September.

MORDECHAI LIEBLING: Knowing that the encyclical was going to be released, several of us initiated a rabbinic letter on the environment, bringing in Jewish values to address climate change. And we raised, in a much shorter form, many of the issues that the pope raised. Climate change is the predominant moral issue of our time. Every religious person, regardless of your faith tradition, needs to understand that climate change – or the desecration of the earth – is the moral issue of our lifetime, and as the moral issue, each of us has wisdom in our faith traditions to bring to bear on it. And a piece of the wisdom has to do with how we treat the earth. All of our religions honor creation and have many teachings about the importance of the sanctity and holiness of the earth and what we see now is the desecration of the earth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You know, like in the civil rights movement, there was a lot of interconnections among people of faith, and people risked their lives and some people lost their lives. Do you see this – and the letter you just mentioned – do you see this as sort of contributing to really stepping up the work of trying to make more people aware of the issue and maybe trying to get politicians to take action?

MORDECHAI LIEBLING: Yes. Right now in 30 or more states there is an organization called Interfaith Power and Light, which is obviously an interfaith group that's concerned about climate change, and I think the pope's encyclical is going to inspire many more people of faith to get involved in organizations like Interfaith Power and Light. There is another group called Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change that is mostly headquartered in Washington, D.C., and trying to pressure Congress to make change on these issues. It's interesting that a number of Catholic legislators have responded to the pope in some way, saying we have to take this seriously. So the pope's doing this is going to have a large impact on politicians as well as other folks. Remember, Catholicism still is the largest single religion in the U.S. and it is going to influence tens of thousands if not millions of Catholics in the U.S. to be involved in this issue, and that kind of mass movement will translate into pressure on politicians to begin to act more resolutely on this issue.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It's interesting, though, that some of the Catholic politicians and some of the presidential candidates. Basically, some of them are saying the pope should stick to religion and not meddle in politics. So it's going to be interesting when he speaks to Congress, since he's been invited by the Catholic speaker of the house to address the body. But, do you have any thoughts about these recalcitrant Catholics? This is probably the last thing they want to hear.

MORDECHAI LIEBLING: Well, I think it's very interesting; when the issue was abortion, they were very happy to be good Catholics and follow the teachings of the Church. It was convenient for them. But now when the church's teachings are challenging them, they are taking a giant step away from their church's teachings. It's indicative of how much we can trust those folks.

The pope will be addressing Congress, incidentally, the day after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and some of us are going to hold a Yom Kippur service in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial the day before Pope speaks to Congress, and the night that Yom Kippur ends, we're going to be joining in an interfaith service with some Franciscans to begin a vigil before the pope speaks to Congress. I think the pope doing this is a courageous act and hopefully will be a game changer. His rooting all of this teaching in the truth of the interconnectedness of all life is something that will be an inspiration for tens of millions of people.

For more information Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change, visit interfaithactiononclimatechange.org and interfaithpowerandlight.org.

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