THE BLOG

Climate Change and Religious Unity: Catholics and Jews, Together, Caring for Creation

06/18/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Blessed is the One who enables us, and our spiritual sisters and brothers, to dwell together in unity.

Unity, though often preached by most of the world's religions, has been unevenly practiced over the past two millennia. How true for Catholicism and Judaism, two venerable traditions with a challenging joint history. Who could have imagined this moment, when from the pews to the highest leadership levels, there's enthusiastic coordination and concerted action in so many arenas?

On a wide range of social teaching -- including social justice, racial equality, worker's rights, human dignity -- Jewish and Catholic social thought aligns closely, and our institutions work arm-in-arm to bring the fruits of that alignment to the wider world. Right now, our shared commitment to tackle the challenge of climate change is a shining example of this new unity.

Pope Francis, perhaps the most beloved spiritual and ethical leader in the world, has just written his first encyclical (authoritative teaching), Laudato Si', about climate change. The unity among adherents of so many of the religions of the world, as we eagerly this document and commit to joint efforts around it, is unprecedented.

Thanks to His Holiness, a conversation about religion and the environment is unfolding in the media and the public sphere like never before. Our Catholic friends have provided their interfaith partners a holy opportunity to be heard with this encyclical, released (on June 18th) in advance of the papal visit to the U.S. (September 22-27, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot), and before the critical "COP-21" climate negotiations in Paris (early December).

Here in the United States, that unity is exemplified by the work of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an organization that since 1992 brings together the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops' Environmental Justice Program; the National Association of Evangelicals through the Evangelical Environmental Network; the National Council of Churches via Creation Justice Ministries; and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (a project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose director, Rabbi Steve Gutow, chairs the NRPE, and helped with this article). These four groups, and numerous other partners such as Interfaith Power and Light, are ever working in concert.

In particular, the Jewish and Catholic communities are experiencing unparalleled unity in our joint efforts on climate mitigation and adaptation. Our clergy and members are standing together in congregations, at press conferences, and on Capitol Hill. We have learned much from one another, and will continue to do so.

The Pope's encyclical focuses not only on stemming the carbon emissions with which we are degrading our atmosphere, but on the utter devastation such climate change will bring to the poor of the world. This sad reality has begun occurring already, and will only worsen in the decades ahead. Both Jewish and Catholic traditions preach not only sustainable stewardship of Creation, but also our human duty to extend our empathy to the poor - and then to join together in solidarity, service and advocacy to alleviate their plight. We speak as one in defense of Creation, and of all God's children.

This fall marks the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the key Second Vatican document, Nostra Aetate, which introduced a seismic shift in history by opening Catholic doors to recognizing the wisdom inherent in many faiths, and affirming Judaism as a viable spiritual path. There, in 1965, the Catholic Church quashed old notions of collective guilt for supposedly scriptural sins, and did a genuine act of tikkun olam (repair of the world).

Fifty years later, here's another such seismic shift and act of tikkun, through this encyclical - which, beyond healing the fractures between the religions of the world, takes the next step of asking these religions to work together to help heal the Earth and its people, particularly its vulnerable and poor inhabitants.

Let us in the Jewish community accept this rare and necessary invitation with gusto. Let the wisdom in this document (and the urgency of the Paris climate negotiations) be a centerpiece of the coming High Holy Days (COEJL, the Shalom Center, and many others will soon feature resources to help us plan to do just that).

May all of us welcome the Pope and his message with open arms - and may his words, and the sacred attention they receive, help focus our collective energies going forward. Creation, the poor, and our own descendants deserve no less.