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June 8, 2018

What They’re Saying: Catholic Institutions Weigh in on Divestment

Today, Pope Francis’ will hold a meeting with investment and energy executives to discuss climate change and engagement opportunities.  While this meeting is largely focused on engagement, it is not surprising that some pro-divestment activists have used the meeting as an opportunity to tout their campaign and call for broader action.  Let’s take a look at what some of the country’s most prominent Catholic institutions have had to say on the issue in recent years.

President of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, has spoken out multiple times on the issue during his tenure. In 2016 he stated:

“Nearly all acknowledge that there is no practical plan by which we could cease using fossil fuels in the immediate future and continue the work of the University. It seems to me at least a practical inconsistency to attempt to stigmatize an industry, as proponents of divestment hope, from which, we admit, we must purchase.”

He further emphasized the University’s decision:

 “The plan recognizes economic constraints and our role as educators and researchers, and is grounded in the principles of Catholic teaching.”

Father Jenkins perhaps said it best in a 2015 address :

“We’re sitting in a room that’s heated and lighted, and when we drive to where we go, we use fossil fuels. It seems to me that it would seem to be hypocritical to say, ‘we’re going to divest from the companies we rely on for the energy, what we need to do business.’ So I think what we need is a gradual but more determined effort to make our use of energy sustainable.”

Georgetown University leaders have also discussed their decision to reject total divestment. Last year the board of directors explained that university’s endowment fund was not meant for political statements:

 “It formalizes and strengthens the university’s investment policies. Recognizing that the university’s endowment is not to be used for advocating political interests, we are committed to both meeting our fiduciary responsibilities and generating resources to advance the university’s academic mission in a manner consistent with our identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution.”

A spokesman from Boston College issued a similar statement when explaining the purpose of the university’s endowment fund:

“[The endowment] enables us to hire and retain the best faculty, it enables us to build state-of-the art environmentally sustainable buildings that we’re building around campus, from Stokes Hall to the new dormitory at 2150 Commonwealth Avenue. That is its purpose. It’s a resource to support these endeavors, and it’s not intended to be an instrument to induce political or societal change.”

Beyond universities, additional Catholic institutions have sent mixed messages about divestment. For example, back in fall 2017 40 Catholic institutions announced that they were divesting from oil and gas investments, yet it was later revealed that most of these establishments did not have any fossil fuel investments to divest.  Part of this conflict is that fossil fuels are critical to many of the tenants the Catholic faith holds close.

Bill Gates, for instance, has rejected divestment on the grounds it is ineffective and a “false solution” for huge parts of the world grappling with poverty and energy access. As he states:

“When you turn to India and say, ‘Please cut your carbon emissions, and do it with energy that’s really expensive, subsidized energy,’ that’s really putting them in a tough position, because energy for them means a kid can read at night, or having an air conditioner or a refrigerator, or being able to eat fresh foods, or get to your job, or buy fertilizer.”

A fellow OpEd in the Billings Gazette further notes how divestment distracts from many of the Church’s goals to eradicate poverty, noting:

“Montana – and our entire country – is blessed with abundant natural resources, and we have the advanced technology to develop these resources in clean and efficient ways that won’t hurt the environment. In fact, our increased use of these fuels has overwhelmingly improved our planet and lifted people out of poverty. When it comes to poverty, there’s still a lot of work to be done. We should do everything possible to ensure low income families have access to affordable energy, instead of trying to eradicate the very fuels that provide so many economic and environmental benefits.”

Today’s meeting with Pope Francis is a unique opportunity for leaders to gather to find real solutions and engagement opportunities. Let’s hope ineffective divestment stays out of the discussion.