Scholars explore Catholic path to fossil fuel divestment

Why should Catholic institutions consider divestment from fossil fuels?

That question stoked a 40-minute discussion Monday night among scholars during a webinar exploring Catholic perspectives on divestment and reinvestment.

Hosted by the interfaith group GreenFaith, the webinar was sponsored by six Catholic organizations. The speakers included two theologians -- Erin Lothes of the College of St. Elizabeth, in Morristown, N.J., and Richard Miller of Creighton University, in Omaha, Neb. -- and Doug Demeo, a GreenFaith fellow and adviser on socially responsible investments.

It was Demeo’s recent article in America magazine, titled “Getting Out of Oil”, that provided the backbone to much of the discussion. In it, he argued that Catholic colleges and universities should uphold their faith-based missions by pulling their investments in fossil fuels.

In the webinar, Demeo called divestment “a moral issue.”

“The Catholic faith community such as our colleges and universities have a profound moral responsibility to align their values and institutional commitments, which of course includes our investments,” he said.

Demeo cited Catholic social teaching on the common good and systemic justice, such as the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” for his claims. Miller, the Creighton theologian and editor of God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis, pointed out that the church has spoken prominently on issues of sustainability and environmentalism for 40-plus years, beginning with Pope Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens. In it, Paul stated:

“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace - pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity - but the human framework is no longer under man's control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family.”

The statement and others like it, from the World Synod of Bishops and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deal with care for God’s creation with a sense of the common good and particularly with an emphasis on how environmental degradation impacts the poor, Miller said.

“The goods of the earth are for everyone and are to be utilized in a respectful way of creation for the full development of the human person and human communities,” he said.

Viewing climate change through a lens of social justice is not exclusive to Catholicism, Lothes stated. She listed social justice along with scientific literacy as two common factors for faith communities that come together into what she terms “moral globalization.” Together, they can prove “powerfully motivating,” she said, as people gain clarity of the scientific findings as well as the impact of their own behavior, choices and lifestyle on their local and global neighbors.

Underscoring that point, the third U.S. National Climate Assessment published Tuesday and succinctly stated, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” The 1,100-page report confirmed much of what was stated in the draft released in January 2013 (NCR print edition, April 12-25, 2013), finding more frequent and intense droughts, floods and wildfires (all with rising health and economic costs), and that carbon dioxide -- primarily from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas -- accounts for 82 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

While climate skeptics may doubt such findings, Miller said the U.S. bishops in their 2001 document, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good” stated that “significant levels of scientific consensus … justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers.”

“It doesn’t have to be a 100 percent certitude,” Miller said. “It just has to have a likelihood and that requires responsibility and requires us to take action in very responsible effective way.”

To some, that action includes divestment. Responding to critics who have questioned whether divestment is the proper response, as opposed to seeking solutions through shareholder advocacy, Demeo said that even if Catholic colleges as a whole lack enough shares to affect stock prices, “the much larger impact is to leverage our moral and our social capital to cause a ripple effect” that echoes through alumni and peer institutions.

“And this goes hand in hand with the movement to continue to try to hold corporations accountable through shareholder advocacy,” he said.

“Our power and our influence and our persuasiveness as a faith community is in focusing on the moral dimensions of this issue," Lothes added. "It’s certainly not in the power of our pocketbooks, but it’s in the unbelievable power to redraw the moral boundaries."

Another impact of the divestment debate, she said, comes from raising questions of the morality of energy sources, and what a world beyond fossil fuels would look like.

Miller noted that people don’t have to look that far into the future to get a clear picture, as several studies, including a 2009 report out of Stanford University, have shown how the world can shift toward a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio as early as 2030, and at a cost nearly equivalent to those currently associated with fossil fuels when accounting for their health impacts. 

Students on several Catholic campuses, including Boston College, Fordham University and Georgetown University, have already pushed for divestment. GreenFaith executive director Fletcher Harper noted that the fossil fuel divestment movement has gained rapid traction in its 18 months, outpacing similar pushes such as the 1970s and '80s campaigns against apartheid in South Africa.

The latest campaigns raise difficult questions for boards of trustees and financial officers about fiduciary responsibility and obligations to the university community, Lothes said. “But in a sense that only sharpens the moral issue, doesn’t it,” she said, adding that it leads to questions of what principles are guiding Catholic institutions and what path are they charting to the future.

“Those are complicated questions, but they must be taken up, and they must be taken up faster rather than slower,” Lothes said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]