Panelists in Northampton say pope’s encyclical on climate change also speaks to human justice

Last modified: Tuesday, September 22, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Pope Francis’ much-talked-about encyclical is about more than climate change — it speaks of a unified theory of how people can live on Earth and with one another.

So said the three panelists at a moderated discussion of the document at First Churches Northampton on Monday.

The panel featured University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Craig Nicolson, a parishioner at the Newman Catholic Church, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, senior pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church and Rabbi David Seidenberg, creator and director of

The Rev. Todd Weir, who is senior minister at First Churches, introduced Monday’s event by telling the approximately 70 people in attendance that he believed he knew why they were there.

“It’s time to move forward on the environment and on other issues of justice,” he said. “We’re excited by the pope, and do you know how good that makes me feel to say that as a protestant?”

Discussion of different faiths and their view of the environment made up much of the discussion Monday, which was scheduled to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which begins Tuesday.

Nicolson, who teaches sustainability science at UMass, spoke about the universality of the Pope’s message.

“No matter who you are and where you come from, this is an encyclical that is for you,” he said. “Pope Francis says this clearly on the second page in my eduction, ‘I wish to address every person living on this planet.’ ”

He added that Francis said he wants to stimulate conversation on the topic of climate change and the environment.

“We’re doing exactly what the pope wants us to be doing, talking across different traditions and different lines that might demarcate separate groups of people,” he said.

One of the issues that has led to people treating the planet badly is the interpretation of Genesis that Adam is called upon to dominate over nature, whereas Francis interprets the book that humans must live with nature rather than dominate it.

Seidenberg began his remarks by asking the audience to step back and consider what the purpose of religion is. He said that Christian religions focus on individual salvation while Judaism looks at redemption of an entire people. Native American religions also focus on sustainability, which should be the focus of all religions, he said.

“All religions have to meet that goal or they will not continue to exist,” he said.

While some religions teach practitioners that their true home is not on Earth, but in an otherworldly place, the emphasis on saving the planet becomes sidelined, he said. Those of the Jewish faith have gone along with the commercialism and disregard for the environment that has gone along with this view, he said.

“Pope Francis has done a great service and great good and given us a great gift in shifting that direction and shifting that ideology to refocus what is important,” he said.

Fundamental to that document is the idea that justice for the Earth and justice for human beings is intertwined, he said.

Seidenberg said that in Chapter 26 of Leviticus, God tells people that they must not make him choose between humanity and the land itself, or He will choose the land at the expense of humanity.

Ayvazian said she read Pope Francis’ encyclical with a pen in hand and she underlined the passages she loved. There were underlined passages on every page, she said.

Most resonant with her were passages about how the excessive consumption of natural resources by wealthy nations and corporations caused suffering among the poor.

“Our world has a grave social debt to the poor,” she said.

The climate is a common resource belonging to all and meant for all, including creatures other than humans, Ayvazian said.

“He points out repeatedly that all creatures are connected and each must be respected with love,” she said.

Her one problem with the document is that it tells individual people to change their habits to better serve the planet, but it does not do anything to hold large corporations accountable. She said she believes the corporations are the true culprits for climate change.

In terms of where people must place their effort, she said it was in climate action activism — being active in campaigning and acting for the environment.

Mary Jo Maffei of Shutesbury said she came to Monday’s discussion because she read the pope’s encyclical and was validated in her own beliefs that environmental issues are moral issues.

She was impressed by what the panelists said, particularly Seidenberg’s discussion of bringing mysticism to the center of religious thought and practice.

“I hope it can be a galvanizing event so people get drawn together to fix our problems before it’s too late,” she said.

Yosh Schulman of Northampton said he was impressed by Nicolson’s statement that ecology is connected to every part of life, including culture and the economy.

He said he came to Monday’s event because he was interested to hear different faith leaders’ perspectives on the encyclical, of which he had read portions.

“It’s been exciting to see a figure such as the pope having views that I can align with both environmentally and socially,” he said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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