Future depends on 'getting religion' with money

by Doug DeMeo

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Our societal focus on making money ahead of serving God's people has unloaded a wrecking ball to the state of our planet and global economy, in which ecosystems degrade and myriads of sentient beings needlessly suffer. Maybe this is why the U.S. bishops and recent popes have been clear that when it comes to our spiritual journeys and faith lives, money counts. In these extraordinary days of planetary sickness, human existence actually depends on "getting religion" with money.

In the Gospel, Jesus says, "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [read, blessings] will be given to you." This teaching demands attention in the fiduciary duties of Catholic trustees -- and as members of the body of Christ we are all trustees. All of us stand to more effectively serve our beneficiaries -- our families, communities and fellow global citizens -- via a deeper understanding of God as the source of wealth and financial truth.

Without this grounding, our financial choices remain too easily swayed by conventional thinking, expressed in institutions and structures that prioritize the short term over the long term, the wants of the rich over the needs of the poor, and the expedience of environmental plunder over the patience of ecological design.

The Franciscan Action Network -- a coalition of lay and religious organizations following the inspiration and simplicity of St. Francis of Assisi -- is demonstrating crucial leadership in its commitment to financial stewardship. The network has resolved to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in a sustainable future. Unfortunately, the network is likely an exception in the American Catholic church.

It should be otherwise. After all, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops updated its "Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines" in 2003, providing tremendous clarity to the focus of our faith and finances. How do we affirm fidelity to Christ's kingdom-first teaching, applied through the bishops' guidelines? As church, we discern prayerfully, and look for clues that confirm, or undermine, the church's commitment to the weak and vulnerable, as well as the integrity of creation and community -- core principles of Catholic social teaching.

Regarding the bulk of the church's institutional assets in corporate stocks, most companies are a mix of good and bad behavior, and shareholder advocacy serves to encourage the good and change the bad. Shareholder advocacy, motivated by faith and ethics, is one of the main features in the bishops' investment guidelines. Another key principle in the guidelines is the use of moral avoidance screens. Some companies are too compromised by their very business model for shareholder action to play much of a transformative role in corporate boardrooms. For several decades, this has been the case for tobacco companies.

Today, mission-based institutional investors, including religious ones, are scrutinizing fossil fuel companies, the primary purveyors of some 90 million tons of global warming pollution dumped daily into our atmosphere. These and their nonprofit proxies have been peddling public misinformation about climate change and maintaining their stranglehold on a do-nothing Congress. They have refused to transform their business model from fossil fuels to energy -- much like the railroad companies of yesteryear had forgotten that their primary business was transportation, not rails production.

In addition to the moral issues, there is a growing fear of a looming precipice in the financial value of "carbon-bubble" companies, much like toxic mortgages led to the housing bubble near the end of the last decade. This is the result of overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is leading humanity down a catastrophic path, in terms of increasingly destructive weather patterns and violent tensions over food and water.

Irrespective of bubbles or "stranded assets," our main focus should be the kingdom companies we want to invest in. In 1998, I wrote in NCR about a private for-profit company that was as divinely inspired as could be found in respecting humanity, empowering poor communities, and attuning to the environment. Thanks to the transformative power of that American pioneer, Equal Exchange, several hundred start-ups and established corporations have made room in their business plans for fair trade product lines, in everything from coffee and bananas to textiles and crafts. In fuels and energy systems, what are the most God-fearing corporate citizens today?

Environmental pillaging and social unraveling have been caused, in no small measure, by shortsighted allocation of financial resources. In an intensely carbon-constrained world, some good news is that Europe and Asia have been accelerating investments in renewable sources of energy. In order for the Catholic church to capitalize wisely on the massive changes emerging in financial markets, however, we need to ensure that our financial compass is the right one.

There is no time to waste. As stewards of critical financial resources, we must turn to God, reexamine our investment portfolios in the light of Christ, and learn to invest anew for all generations and life on Earth.

[Doug Demeo is a GreenFaith Fellow and former socially responsible investment adviser.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: Future depends on 'getting religion' with money.

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