On Francis of Assisi feast day, Catholic groups divest from fossil fuels

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Seven Catholic groups based in five continents announced Tuesday intentions to divest their financial interests from fossil fuels, the largest and broadest joint declaration to date within the church and the second such effort this year.

The decision to divest came on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which also marks the final day of the Christian celebration of the Season of Creation, and hours before the European Union voted to ratify the Paris Agreement, setting up the global accord to address climate change to enter into force.

In addition to divestment commitments made, student groups on five Jesuit college campuses in the U.S. planned actions Tuesday urging their respective schools to follow suit.

The divestment pledges included the first Catholic diocese to do so -- the Umuarama diocese in Brazil’s southern Paraná state -- as well as the Missionary Society of St. Columban, based in Hong Kong, and the Jesuits of the English Canada province.

“Climate change is already affecting poor and marginalized communities globally, through drought, rising sea levels, famine and extreme weather. We are called to take a stand,” said Jesuit Fr. Peter Bisson, provincial of the Jesuits in English Canada, which will halt future investments in fossil fuels and remove them from its current portfolio within five years.

Umuarama Bishop João Mamede called divestment “a practical way to achieve” what Pope Francis calls for in his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

“We can not accommodate and continue allowing economic interests that seek exorbitant profits before the well being of people, to destroy biodiversity and ecosystems, nor continue dictating our energy model based on fossil fuels,” the bishop said.

Joining in the divestment push was one U.S. institution: SSM Health Care, with 20 hospitals in four states, which said it will divest its funds from coal.

The St. Louis-based SSM Health, founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, is among the 10 largest Catholic hospital systems in the country. It first announced in April its intention to divest its financial holdings from coal production companies and to increase investments in others “that generate a measurable beneficial social or environmental impact.”  

Along with divesting, SSM Health joined the Healthier Hospitals Initiative and committed to increase recycling, reduce medical waste, and cut energy use by 3 percent.

The joint divestment announcement, coordinated by the Global Catholic Climate Movement, came on the feast of St. Francis, a day more traditionally associated with the blessing of animals. In recent years, Catholic groups concerned with climate change have taken steps to connect the day honoring the patron saint of ecology, along with animals, with building awareness of human-caused threats to the planet and along with it, the people inhabiting it.

Earlier this year, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a network of 300-plus organizations worldwide, formed a working group on divestment to help Catholic dioceses, congregations and organizations explore the feasibility of such a financial step.

The fossil fuel divestment movement, which traces back to 2012, seeks to move the globe away from carbon-emitting energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas and toward cleaner alternatives. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, accounting for more two-thirds of global emissions -- largely from the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes.

Last October, ahead of COP 21 that produced the Paris Agreement, the heads of six continental Catholic bishops’ conferences called for “an end to the fossil fuel era.”

More: “What’s happening after coal? Encyclical arrives amid tough times for industry” (Nov. 10, 2015)

According to 350.org’s Go Fossil Free project, nearly 600 institutions have divested $3.4 trillion from the fossil fuel industry, with faith-based groups accounting for the largest share (24 percent). Notables include the Church of England, the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation.

The fossil fuel divestment movement largely got its start on college campuses. Students at five Jesuit schools have organized events for Tuesday urging their schools and other Jesuit institutions to link values of the Society of Jesus with responses to climate change, including an examination of investments.

Student actions, organized through an umbrella group called the Jesuit Divestment Network, are set to occur at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., Loyola University New Orleans and the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. Students at Georgetown University, where previous actions led to the school divesting from coal, planned a solidarity event with their fellow Jesuit schools.

Other communities part of Tuesday’s divestment announcement included two from Italy -- the Federation of Christian Organizations for the International Voluntary Service, and the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco- Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in Milan and Naples -- and the Presentation Society of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Sr. Marlette Black, president of the Presentation Society, said that investments in fossil fuels come “at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety and local communities. … the healing of the planet will only come about with care for Earth and the whole community of life.”

The Presentation Society follows four fellow Pacific-area religious orders that made public divestment plans in June to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s release last year opened wider the idea of divestment for many Catholics, where before other faiths and secular institutions had largely taken the lead.

Before the encyclical published, the University of Dayton and Georgetown announced divestment plans. The Sisters of Loretto voted to divest a month after the encyclical.

At a press conference on the pope’s message for the Sept. 1 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Cardinal Peter Turkson said that to hold average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, “will require a complete shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables by about 2070.” A more ambitious timeline would be required to meet the 1.5 degrees C goal also included in the climate deal.

“This is a momentous undertaking. But have we as a society truly deliberated on what this means, and what it will take to get there?” he asked.

Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said it is up to citizens to demand that the goals of the Paris Agreement are upheld, pointing to a part of Laudato Si’ where Francis said that consumer movements, like boycotts, can “prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production.”

“The same logic animates the fossil fuel divestment movement,” Turkson said.

Another line from Laudato Si’, Paragraph 165, has become a rallying cry for much of the Catholic divestment movement: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels -- especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas -- needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

While environmental advocates stress the “without delay” aspect, those within the church leadership, including Turkson, have sought to soften the pope’s words, that Francis was sensitive to regions of the world economically reliant on fossil fuels and his intent was not to put masses of people out of work overnight.

So far, the Vatican has not discussed possible divestment, Turkson told NCR in June.

The global effort to address climate change gained a boost Tuesday when the European Union voted to approve ratification of the Paris Agreement -- the climate deal reached in December by 195 member-states to the United Nations. The vote allows individual EU member states to ratify the agreement, pushing it beyond the 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions threshold necessary for the agreement to enter into force.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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