The call to care for people on the margins of society is fundamental in living out our mission as followers of Christ. Over the last century, a body of teaching has also emerged which reminds us of our responsibility to care for the diversity of life on Earth, including the ecological systems that support life, as a fundamental concern for Catholics. These recent teachings inform considerations about how people ought to invest their money.
In his encyclical, Laudato Si’: on care for our common home, released in June 2015, Pope Francis explains in much more detail the bond between concern for nature and justice for the poor. In fact, Laudato Si’ positions care for creation as a central component of living out a Christian faith.
His Holiness is quite explicit in Laudato Si’ about the burning of fossil fuels being a major contributor to global warming, and that it is therefore our responsibility to transition to renewable sources of energy as quickly as possible. “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.” (165) Laudato Si’, Pope Francis
Many faithful Catholics are commendably responding by moderating their consumption and embracing sustainable lifestyles including renewable energy technology. However, without careful attention to the way money is being invested, there is a strong possibility of unwittingly supporting the very practices that are degrading our planet.
Understanding fossil fuel divestment
Divestment, and the process and public engagement it involves, is a way to redefine society’s moral code. From this perspective, divestment isn’t just for religious institutions to maintain their own integrity or respond to intractable resistance. It is to delegitimize and de-normalize the target industry, creating a moral turning point within society and emboldening or pressuring political leaders to address issues they had previously avoided.
The key to understanding divestment is a simple fact: the coal, oil and gas just from projects currently in production are so massive that the emissions they produce would massively overshoot the 2°C upper limit for global warming that was agreed to by just about every government in the climate negotiations, let alone the 1.5°C goal stated in the Paris Agreement.
Though they know full well the damage they are doing, the fossil fuel industry is still searching for more coal, more oil and more gas to burn. Every exploratory drilling operation, every new permit for a new gas field or mine are irresponsible acts which put all of us in danger.
What the numbers make clear is that the fossil fuel industry’s business model is in fundamental conflict with life on earth. The only moral response is to withdraw our consent by divesting from these companies which are risking the future of our planet.
Learnings from Laudato Si’
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’: on care for our common home” is clearly of landmark significance. Laudato Si’ explores the many dimensions of environmental destruction in our world but, as with all Catholic Social Teaching, the central concern is for justice.
Global warming is a theme to which the encyclical returns repeatedly. “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.” (26)
“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. …. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.” (165)
Not only has business been “slow to react”, but Pope Francis alludes to the intentional distortion of information by fossil fuel industries with a view to influencing climate negotiations. “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” (54)
Pope Francis praises citizens groups and non-government organisations who advocate for environmental care. He affirms consumer boycotts which “prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently,” and refers to the words of Pope Benedict XVI to emphasize that “purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act.” (206)
On the question of alternative and ethical investment, “Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term.” (Para. 191)
In his encyclical, Pope Francis does not explicitly address questions of ethical investment, but certain conclusions can reasonably be drawn from numerous teachings it includes. They form a solid basis for proposing that both fossil fuel divestment and low-carbon investment are the most ethical options for those with money to invest.
Catholic organisations which have already divested.
In June 2015 the Jesuit University, Georgetown, became the second Catholic University after Dayton to make the decision to divest, withdrawing their investments out of companies whose primary interest is mining coal.
There are divestment campaigns organised by students on several Catholic University campuses, including Boston College and Fordham University. Scholars at various Catholic institutions have shown an active interest.
Here are a few examples of Catholic organisations that have made the decision to divest from fossil fuels:
The Passionists, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam
The Marist Sisters, Australia
Presentation Congregation Queensland
Presentation Sisters, Wagga Wagga
Arabella Advisors have created a beautiful resource called Assets in Action with detailed case studies of Catholic organisations which have chosen the path of divesting from fossil fuels. They are the Franciscan Sisters of Mary and Dayton University.