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Self-sacrifice key to creation woes, theologian says

The world is abuzz over Pope Francis’ papal letter on ecology that drew strong reactions from theologians and politicians.

The pope’s second encyclical, titled Laudato Si (Praised be): On the Care of Our Common Home, urges the world to engage in a dialogue about humanity’s responsibility to protect God’s creation.

Scott Powell
Scott Powell

It’s a subject all too familiar for Scott Powell, director of scriptural theology at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder.

“I’m up here in Boulder and it’s a big topic of conversation,” Powell told the Denver Catholic. “Whenever I tell people the Church has something to say about these things, their minds are always blown.”

Pope Francis’ 184-page encyclical touches a range of topics including environmental degradation, integral ecology, the impact of consumerism and a call to take action to care for creation. It’s not the first time a pope has spoken strongly about global issues, including the environment.

“It’s something that’s on the heart and mind of the Church, and it has been for a long time,” Powell said.

Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth” in 1963 addressed nuclear arms and war, and Pope Paul VI’s “Of Human Life” discussed population growth and artificial birth control.

Powell said Francis and previous popes’ writings communicate a similar message: think outside oneself.

“What the pope wants is Christians who know how to sacrifice, is Christians who know how to think outside of themselves and think of something other than ourselves. That’s the heart of the encyclical,” he said.

And the way to start is to act virtuously.

“The whole moral imperative is just be holy,” Powell said after reading the encyclical. “We should be holy, our country should be holy, our corporations should be holy. … When we begin to again think about someone other than ourselves, then we begin to solve these problems.”

The problems the world faces are lack of clean drinking water, climate change and harmful greenhouse gases, according to the pope. He asks the world to reflect on the kind of earth they would want to leave future generations.

Colorado’s three bishops—Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo—responded to the encyclical saying all people need to work together to protect the created world and work on building a culture of stewardship and respect.

“The encyclical calls all people and communities of good will, not just the faith community, to action; everyday small actions from recycling to advocating for well-informed environmental policies matter,” the bishops stated on June 18. “Our communities, in partnership with business, can work together to find sustainable energy solutions. This partnership means that economic prosperity, protection of the created world, and inclusion of the poor and vulnerable should be pursued together.”

Protecting the environment falls in the laps of people worldwide, Powell said. And the pope writes that creation is part of a connected relationship between oneself, others and God.

“When one part of a four-part harmony is off, you actually lose the tune in it,” Powell said. “It changes something. That’s what Christ died for—is those relationships.”

How to care for that relationship with creation may be up for debate.

“He makes it clear in the encyclical there’s room for difference of opinion, there’s room for people of good will to differ on how to deal with certain things,” Powell said.

The encyclical includes specific points on being responsible with choices impacting the environment. But Powell said the pope isn’t asking people to simply recycle.

A youth prays atop a mountain during Camp Wojtyla, a Catholic summer camp. Pope Francis discusses humanity's relationship with creation in his encyclical Laudato Si.
A youth prays atop a mountain during Camp Wojtyla, a Catholic summer camp. Pope Francis discusses humanity’s relationship with creation in his encyclical Laudato Si. Photo provided

“The point is not let’s just recycle because there’s a lot of paper we need to not waste. That’s part of it—that’s true,” Powell commented. “But the more that I’m conscious about what I’m doing, the more I’m going to be able to be conscious of being self-sacrificial.”

The root of all sin, including a lack of care for the created world, is selfishness, he said.

“The heart of the matter is the same problem we had since day one of human life, which is self-centeredness, which is a lack of care for what’s around us be it other people, their own selves, or the created world that he’s given us,” Powell said. “In my opinion the problem of human selfishness is reaching climatic levels. I think that’s partially why the pope wants to speak out about this now.”

Also as co-founder of Camp Wojtyla, Powell and his wife, Annie, lead an outdoor camp for youth to teach them about the faith, especially through metaphors drawings on nature.

Creation is a great teacher of Christ’s ways and thinking about one’s relationship with him.

“We need to care for creation because if we don’t, it’s going to affect probably the most vulnerable among us,” Powell said. “It’s going to affect the poor, the elderly, and developing countries. Our not caring for creation will affect human beings.”

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