Sisters of Loretto divest from fossil fuels

I have to admit: I was stunned.

I am a Sister of Loretto, and my Loretto community is very environmentally conscious. For years, we have passed strong resolutions on climate change and preserving creation, but this week our delegate assembly voted unanimously to divest the congregation from all stocks and bonds in fossil fuels.

I had been working on that resolution for months, so I did expect it to pass. But unanimously? I was stunned.

In addition, the Loretto community as a whole (both sisters and co-members) voted to recommend to all friends and co-members of Loretto that they likewise divest. Many co-members to whom I have spoken are moving to do exactly that. 

This resolution has been in process since late 2014, but the new encyclical by Pope Francis -- “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” -- gave us a boost. The encyclical does not mention divestment, but it is highly critical of fossil fuels and their devastating impact on climate change.

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“The problem [of global warming] is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system,” Francis wrote.

A few paragraphs later, he said, “There is an urgent need to de­velop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly pol­luting gases can be drastically reduced, for exam­ple, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

This Loretto resolution is in sync with a worldwide strategy urging groups and individuals of all kinds get rid of their investments in the fossil fuel industry (coal, oil, gas). The overall coordination of the movement has largely come through the grassroots climate group 350.org, and its Fossil Free campaign, spearheaded by its co-founder Bill McKibben.

But the religious effort has been led by GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group led by the Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest. GreenFaith lists on its website the religious groups that have so far decided to divest. That includes the Episcopal Church USA (earlier in July), the Anglican Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists.

What strikes one, though, is the fact that only two Catholic groups (until now) are listed: the Marianist-founded University of Dayton, in Ohio, which in June 2014 approved divestment from fossil fuels of its $670 million endowment; and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who also in June 2014 pledged to invest roughly $10 million in environmental benefitting companies. In June, the University of Georgetown, currently unlisted on the GreenFaith site, divested its $1.5 billion endowment from coal.

Yet, there are many Protestant and Jewish groups that have elected to divest, either partially or as the entire denomination. And this is an international effort, not just in the United States. Religious groups in other nations are listed there, as well.

Many people ask: Why divest? Won’t someone else just purchase the stock? Well, yes, of course they will. It is important to note, however, that even by the usual investment standards -- namely, will this make me a profit? -- there are questions whether fossil fuels are as good a prospect as they once were.

But the religious reasons for divesting are basically two-fold: 

  1. to no longer profit from pollution and climate destruction. Fossil fuel industries will, if unchecked, destroy our planet because of the greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels;    
  2. to make a public moral statement about the importance of addressing climate change and its relation to fossil fuels. 

In the Loretto community, we are proud to join the ranks of religious groups voting to divest.  With the world hovering on the brink of climate disaster, it is the least we can do.

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