Why Won’t Catholics Divest?

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In his recently released environmental encyclical, “Praised Be: On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis urges us all — Catholic and non-Catholics — to take climate action by divesting.

“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,” Pope Francis wrote. He stressed 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.”

Many religious people and groups were so inspired by the Pope’s encyclical that they took immediate action. Rabbis came together to advocate for wind power and divesting. The Episcopal Church recently voted to divest from fossil fuels. But many Catholics, including the Vatican, aren’t putting their money where their mouths are by divesting themselves.

In a recent article on the Huffington Post, students at Catholic universities throughout the United States expressed their frustration over their schools’ continued investment in oil and coal.

“Climate Justice at [Boston College] is well known on campus, but I feel as though our group, and divestment itself, have been stigmatized as a ‘radical leftist’ cause,” said Erin Sutton, a member of Climate Justice at Boston College. “Divestment is radical — radical in the sense that it gets to the root of a large, systemic, cause of the climate crisis. But I’m hoping that with the pope’s help, divestment and other activism around climate change [can] be seen as the sensible and urgently needed things that they are.”

The endowment at Boston College grew from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion between 2010 and 2014. Since 2013, Climate Justice has put the pressure on the college to ensure they are not profiting at the expense of the planet, but the administration hasn’t been responsive. “We respectfully disagree with your perspective, and we do not intend to divest,” a university spokesman told the student publication several months after the divestment movement started.

With $9.8 billion in the bank as of 2014, the University of Notre Dame has the largest endowment of all American Catholic schools. But, like Boston College, they have no plans to divest from fossil fuels. Students there have campaigned for divestment since February 2014, and the group Fossil Free ND has urged the university’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, to take up the cause.

But there is no sign the school or the administration have heard the students’ prayers. When a student asked Jenkins whether the school would divest from fossil fuels at a town hall meeting on Feb. 17, Jenkins replied that it would be hypocritical to divest while fossil fuels were still used to produce energy on campus.

Gary Blatt, co-founder of Fossil Free ND, questions that reasoning. “We stressed the illogical nature of this qualm, but to no avail,” he told the Huffington Post.

Not all Catholic schools find divestment illogical. In June 2014, the University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist university, began divesting its $670 million investment pool from fossil fuel companies. And Georgetown University announced on June 4th of this year that its board had passed a resolution to divest its $1.4 billion endowment from “companies whose principal business is mining coal for use in energy production.” The school will continue to invest in other forms of fossil fuels.

“We believe that the energy and excitement that Pope Francis’ leadership is bringing to conversations around the environment and now to best care for it will benefit everyone,” said Rachel Pugh, Georgetown University’s senior director of communications. “And as a university we will continue to engage in this work.”

Student groups are pushing for this engagement to happen sooner rather than later. GU Fossil Free, which has advocated for full divestment since 2013, says that its hypocritical for the school to use its Catholic identify to justify not covering contraception under its student health plan, but continuing to invest in certain fossil fuels.

“This is not just an issue that might concern facts, studies, statistics or data, but this is also an issue that concerns all of us in a deeply moral level,” said Aaron Silberman, a member of GU Fossil Free.

According to Silberman, Pope Francis’ encyclical “could not be better positioned as a call to action” for Georgetown and other Catholic institutions “to sincerely engage with a systemic change and reformation of every aspect of the university, including its endowment, so that we might be able to live up fully to that call to action that was present in the pope’s encyclical.”

Perhaps it’s easier for Catholic universities to justify a status quo mentality because Pope Francis and the Vatican haven’t led by example and divested the Catholic church’s $9 billion in investments from fossil fuels. Similar to the Catholic universities ignoring the cries from their student bodies, the Vatican and Pope Francis have ignored numerous petitions, letters, and calls to action to divest.

Pope Francis should certainly be applauded for writing the environmental encyclical. But what will it take for him to put his words into action?

Image of Catholic School Nun by www.audio-luci-store.it available on Flickr.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .