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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Dawn M. Nothwehr, OSF, PhD

Sister Dawn: Ethics  - comes from the Greek – ēthos = “moral character, and it refers to the philosophical or theological study of values, principles, and norms of morally human conduct. Thus today – Catholic scholars use the term “theological ethics” to distinguish the primary focus of their work is theological – the use of divine revelation as a governing norm.  

This study is of course intimately related to moral theology – which is more specific. It comes from the Latin – mores = “customs or morals,” and it refers to the rightness or wrongness of specific actions, attitudes, policies, structures, and relationships. In the case of Catholic Moral Theology – we would look to defining what that is using the four sources of scripture, (T)tradition, reason, and experience.

Gordon: You presented, recorded, and published a video course, God’s Creation: A Course on Theology and the Environment recently released in DVD, CD, and MP3 formats from NOW YOU KNOW MEDIA What initially interested you in the environment?

Sister Dawn: As I explain in my book Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living. I grew up in the “heartland” of southwestern Minnesota, one of the richest agricultural areas of the United States. Though my family did not live on a farm (all of my friends did), we lived in a storybook small town, in a comfortably large three-bedroom house, on a huge corner lot with all sorts of hedges, trees, and flowers strategically arranged around a vast grassy lawn. Each summer my parents planted a sprawling vege­table garden that my sister (five years my elder) and I were “forced” to help weed, tend, and ultimately harvest its produce. Though I would never admit it at that time, I actually loved working in the garden. I was quite awestruck by the fact that you could put this hard, flat, little yellow thing in the ground, and weeks later you could find a sweet corn plant in its place! Deep down I knew my mother was right when she pro­claimed, “Only God can make the garden grow!” (I didn’t admit that to her until years later either!)

Some thirty years later I had the privilege of going on a pilgrimage to Assisi and the “Franciscan Holy Land” of Umbria, the region of Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis and St. Clare lived. As we journeyed from place to place, no one could miss the striking lush verdancy of the fertile fields of sunflowers and the vineyards that covered the rolling hills. As one spirited friar remarked, “Francis sure knew how to find the best real estate!”

It was no wonder that St. Francis and St. Clare too saw—as I had seen—the vestiges of an incarnate God cradling them in love and mercy in that lush nest of creation. Today I live in a large midwestern city (Chicago). Though I must admit that there are many conveniences to city life, I have a real love-hate relationship with those environs.

Everything is huge, impersonal, paved over, fast paced, human built, constantly in motion, competitive—often violent. For me the “saving grace” is the clearly demarcated park system that abuts Lake Michigan. There, there is some semblance of intimacy with the web of life; people actually smile and greet one another, there are trees, grass, flowers, and open sky, the lake stretches out to the horizon, and the rhythm of the waves lapping against the sands of extensive

Gordon: When did you  make contact with Br. Guy Consolmagno and how did you plan to develop  God’s Creation: A Course in Theology and the Environment?

Sister Dawn: I have never met Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Ph. D. in person.  Because of his expertise as a planetary scientist and director of the Vatican Observatory, in my role as Editor of New Theology Review I invited him to write for the journal. Most recently he authored the column, “Theology at the Cutting Edge: God and Science in the 21st Century” Vol 29 No 1 (September2016).  He was always on time – meeting the deadline for the column, and his writing on the most complex topics is remarkably clear and accessible.

Gordon: In 2015, you began serving a consultant on the implementation of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical  LAUDATO SI’ for the Encyclical Working Group (EWG) – Archdiocese of Chicago – Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity.  Please provide our readers with an overview of LAUDATO SI  and our ethical responsibilities to protect  the environment.

Sister Dawn: The EWG is constituted by men and women with various expertise related to various dimensions of “care for our common home". It began as an initiative of a lay Catholic environmental lawyer, and several academics from the Catholic colleges and Universities in the Chicago area.  It has a membership of about 15 people and its work is coordinated and guided by Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity with the blessing of Cardinal Cupich.

Summary of the Encyclical Pope Francis’ encyclical is a religious and ethical teaching document.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, a papal encyclical letter – a circulating later[i] – originates with the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff, the Church’s universal teacher of faith and morals.   It thus, bears the highest authority and it obliges Catholic to follow its teaching – at the level of conscience. The content of Laudato Si’ is now a formal part of official Catholic social teaching.  As such, this document is a work in moral theology, social ethics and environmental ethics.

Its chief concern is the common good of humanity in relation to all dimensions of social and planetary life. It asks and teaches about – how someone of conscience should behave – both, toward others – and, toward the environment.  Its point of departure is from, a historical-critical reading of the biblical texts concerning on God’s creation, and the best knowledge and wisdom from the world’s top scholars – particularly, those faculties of the Pontifical Academies of Science[ii] and Social Sciences. It then analyzes issues of human and planetary liberation from the vicissitudes of light of that understanding.

Pope Francis does – indeed – address climate change and ecological destruction – but only as secondary extrapolations.  They are likely the most extreme manifestations of the profound moral and spiritual malaise that the encyclical intends to address.

Pope Francis addresses “every person on the planet” as individuals - calling each to “ecological conversion” – i.e. to simpler and more sustainable lifestyle choices – or, what he terms – integral ecology.

Many have compared Laudato Si to the first Catholic Social Teaching Encyclical Rerum Novarum – “On New Things” – by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.[iii]   That document was a ground breaking set of teachings dealing with the moral issues brought about by the industrial revolution. We are in a similar set of circumstances - only now facing numerous ecological crises – and untold inhumane conditions of poverty amid opulence – as well as major technological changes toward a “green economy.”

In the post – World War era, the Church paid attention to the stark imbalances not only within individual nations, but - increasingly – between richer and poorer countries. It stressed that the counterpart to overconsumption, is seen in exclusion and underdevelopment. It called for greater global solidarity, and for citizens of richer countries to end lifestyles characterized by waste and surfeit.

Today a mere 1 percent of the world’s population, controls half of the world’s wealth. Over 2 billion people are mired in extreme poverty, and almost a billion people suffer from hunger. Elsewhere – and not always far away – we see astounding opulence and wastefulness. Catholic social teaching signals a clear moral imperative to correct these imbalances.

What makes Laudato Si’  the most significant addition to the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching is, its insistence that human responsibilities extend across time and  space, including the entirety of creationLaudato Si’ teaches that solidarity needs to exist between generations, and with the whole Earth and all its creatures.

Structure and Content

The document has 6 chapters.

1.  In Ch. 1 Pope Francis presents the current critical state of the Earth. He uses very accessible language, and facts from the world’s most renown scientists from major universities, scientific societies  –  both religious and  secular.

2.  Ch. 2 provides an inspirational review of the biblical evidence from both testaments, which grounds Christian doctrine – especially the understanding that our radically relational, loving God, created a world interrelated to its very core. 

3.  In Ch. 3, the Holy Father presents an analysis of the root, of the problems of technocracy, and of excessive human self-centeredness.

4.  In Ch. 4, the concept of “integral ecology” is introduced. This term names the clear interconnectedness of everything and everyone on the planet, especially the human and social dimensions” of planetary existence. (137). Pope Francis also shows how human behavior is inextricably linked to the environmental question.

5.  Then, in Ch. 5, from the perspective of integral ecology, Pope Francis calls for an honest dialogue at every level of social, economic and political life, in order to build transparent decision-making processes for new ways of caring for our common home and all creatures.

6.  Finally, in Ch. 6, recalling that no project can be effective if it is not animated by a well-formed and responsible conscience, ideas are put forth to aid growth in this direction at the educational, spiritual, ecclesial, political and theological areas.

The Encyclical ends with two prayers; one for believes in “God who is the all-powerful Creator” (246); the other for those who are Christians. .

Nine themes run through the text, and are addressed from a variety of different perspectives, thus traversing and unifying the text:

1. the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet,

2. the conviction that everything in the world is connected,

3. the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology,

4. the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress,

5. the value proper to each creature,

6. the human meaning of ecology,

7. the need for forthright and honest debate,

8. the serious responsibility of international and local policy,

9. the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle (16).

Gordon: In action to serving as a consultant to the EWC, how are you involved in Cardinal Cupich’s effort to implement Laudato Si’- On Care for Our Common Home in the Archdiocese of Chicago?

Sister Dawn: I’ve also given over 40 presentations to various parishes, school groups, teachers, parish missions, meetings of women and men religious, etc on various aspects of the encyclical. I’ve written articles, book chapters and blogs for the website of the Office of Justice & Peace.  In the Fall I’ll be working with the Office of Catholic Schools to provide training for Catholic School teachers of the Archdiocese on the encyclical and the associated issues.

Gordon: Please provide our readers with some insights into the Franciscans influence on the content of the encyclical and the mandate to care for and advocate for the care for all of God’s creation.

Sister Dawn: The Encyclical  and the Franciscan Tradition

As you no doubt know – the encyclical is suffused with the theology, spirituality, and moral vision of St. Francis of Assisi. There are at least 35 explicit citations of Franciscan sources that frame the central theses of the encyclical: seventeen of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226); four of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1217-1274); eight of Romano Guardini,(1885-1968) and six allusions to Brazilian Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff(1938-).

At the root of Pope Francis’ revolutionary vision for a transformed social, political, economic life, lies the notion of integral ecology (LS, Ch.4).  An intriguing confluence of Franciscan theology and cultural analysis shapes and clarifies that teaching. St. Bonaventure was St. Francis’ disciple; St. Bonaventure was the subject of Romano Guardini’s doctoral dissertation in Theology under Engelbert Krebs (1915 Freiburg) and also of his Habilitationschrift (Bonn in 1922). As a student in the1980s, in Munich, Jorge Mario Bergoglio considered writing his dissertation on Romano Guardini; and prior to LS, Pope Francis, invoked the legacy of Guardini in public addresses.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the Patron of Ecologists. This was – not because his statue looks nice in flower gardens or birdbaths!  But rather – it was because his fully integrated theology, spirituality, and moral vision affirms and frames a close kinship between humanity and the natural world. Because all things have their common origin in God, they each hold intrinsic value, and each has its own purpose - apart from their usefulness to us.  St. Francis came to this understanding over a lifetime of prayer and moments of conversion.

For me – as a Christian and a Franciscan Sister – the image of St. Francis of Assisi speaks volumes about the purpose of the encyclical.  This statue of St. Francis surrounded by the symbols of the world’s major religions, stands at the entrance of the 12th Century Carceri Retreat Center, near Assisi, in the province of Umbria in central Italy.  It was to this place that St. Francis most frequently retired for solitude and intense prayer.  This is where he learned the link between Lepers and land, The Word Made Flesh and Women bearing the burdens of poverty; and bees with the Beatitudes.  Grounded in an intimate relationship with God, St. Francis learned to practice the virtues of humility, poverty, obedience, and love. 


Humility is the virtue most central to the God-human relationship.  The Latin word for “humility” is derived from the Latin word for “earth” = humus.  As beloved earth creatures, we are not to grovel before God, but rather, to revel in God’s love. Christians believe that such love inspired God, in the Incarnation, to humbly join in our concrete, embodied, material reality.[iv]  Imitating Christ’s humility today, calls us to claim our identity as creatures of the earth, with distinct capabilities.  We must use our scientific and technological prowess to care for one another and the planet.[v]


Jesus was born in a manger, and thrived in relationships with the marginalized.  By contrast, many of us, are comparatively wealthy.  Yet, we have known the profound emptiness of never having enough “stuff,” and always ultimately craving something more (spiritual poverty).   Today, we must choose to live with what is sufficient for a life of dignity, not opulence!  When we live with gratitude for God’s gifts, with open hands and heart, we also experience greater freedom to spend time outdoors in God’s creation, or to enjoy quality time with family and friends (Matt 10:8).


“Obedience” comes from the Latin – oboedire = “to pay attention” or “to hear.”   Jesus Christ modeled this virtue by attending to his Father’s will,[vi] and to the needs of others – whether human or otherkind.[vii]  Today, we must become ecologically literate, heed groaning of the suffering Earth, engage in prayerful discernment, and follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings, to care for our Earth-home.


God’s love overflows to humankind, and all creation. [viii]   Having first received God’s love, humans then share it among themselves, and with all of creation (Jn 13:34-35).  For Christians, this is most perfectly demonstrated in the Incarnation. However, humans love imperfectly; so justice and the discipline of law are necessary.  Justice is able to restore what was deformed by sin.  For Christians, Christ is the ultimate norm and arbiter of justice (love).[ix]  Today we must create and enforce policies and laws that keep air, water, and soils pure, that sharply restrict the plundering of the planet, and support the restoration of environmental damage. [x]

Indeed – St. Francis exemplifies a positive and radically relational view of God, creation, redemption, and ethical praxis.[xi]  Each creature responds to God’s love in its unique way.  Humans, can read the signs of the divine in creation, and then act morally.[xii]  People can become co-creators and co-redeemers of the cosmos.  This relationship requires humility, poverty of spirit, austerity of life, and genuine charity (Jn 13:34-35).[xiii]

Clearly – it was only after his conversion that St. Francis was able to know truly the ultimate relatedness of everything and everyone – in God, and in the many ways the Divine is known throughout the world. It was at the end of his earthly journey that St. Francis composed his “Canticle of the Creatures” (1225), which is punctuated by the Umbrian Italian phrase: “Laudato Si”.

Gordon: Please provide our readers with an overview of the Catholic Climate Movement and its activities.

Sister Dawn: Catholic Climate Covenant  is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC that inspires and equips people and institutions to care for creation and care for the poor. It functions in the US as a semi-official arm of the major agencies of the Catholic Church.  It is linked into the global Catholic Climate Movement – a coalition of various similar groups from across the globe.

Through 16 national partners, it guides the U.S. Church's response to climate change by educating, giving public witness, and offering resources. Catholic Climate Covenant inspires and equips people and institutions to care for creation and care for the poor.

In 2006, to address growing ecological awareness and the need to implement Catholic social teaching on ecology within the US Church, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) helped form Catholic Climate Covenant. Inspired by the USCCB's 2001 statement on climate change, and supported by 16 national partners (which include the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, congregations of religious men and women, and other national organizations), Catholic Climate Covenant helps US Catholics respond to the Church's call to care for creation and care for the poor.

Catholic Climate Covenant is grounded in the Church's deep history of teaching on creation, ecology, and the poor. Caring for creation and caring for the poor have been a part of the Catholic story since the beginning, but in recent years St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and especially Pope Francis have added a sense of urgency to their call for Catholics to act on climate change. The US Bishops themselves having been calling for action since 1981.

Catholics do care about climate change and they're working hard to create solutions. Catholic Climate Covenant is at the center of these efforts. With the approval and support of the United States bishops, we help guide the US Church's response to the moral call for action on climate change by sharing authentic Catholic teaching on creation and the poor and by informing and inspiring community leaders to take action (education); by sharing stories of those most affected by climate impacts in the public square (public witness); and by providing concrete tools, techniques, and technical assistance to help Catholic peoples and institutions reduce their carbon footprint and to work for justice (resources).

Catholic Climate Covenant can help Catholics answer the call to care for creation and the poor through the sharing of Church teaching, our resources, and our programs. Loving God's creation and God's most vulnerable is at the heart of who we are as Catholics.

Gordon: Some CTU faculty signed a Statement of Catholic Theologians on Racial Justice in December 2014.   What are our ethical obligations as Catholics to advocate for Racial Justice? 

Sister Dawn: Seventeen members of the CTU faculty – myself included – joined over 500 Catholic theologians from across the USA in signing a Statement of Catholic Theologians on Racial Justice that was Posted by Dr. David Cloutier, Dec 8, 2014 on the website of the journal, Catholic Moral Theology.  Their signatures do not represent the formal position of CTU as an institution – since there is no formal process to provide for such action.

As has been stated repeatedly “racism is a sin.” At any sign of it a Christian is morally obligated to intervene to stop it in whatever way possible, and to work with every means possible for reparation and healing of the offense to take place.  We have done shamefully little to make this obligation a reality in the USA and across the globe.

Gordon: Who is your favorite theologian and why?

Sister Dawn: Elizabeth A. Johnson, SSJ, Ph.D.  of Fordham University.  She is the most faithful, thoughtful, challenging, prophetically inspired theologian of our day. Reading her work is like reading the Word from God’s mouth to her ear, through her computer, to the page, to my eyes and heart\.

In closing, I invite your readers to watch this video

White supremacy is the opposite of Jesus' message

Gordon: Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule for this interview which will serve as a valuable resource for many of our readers.


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