The Vatican has made a number of declarations in support of the environment. Pope John Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic letter warned against the destruction of nature and connected protecting the environment to social justice. Pope Francis argued for the spiritual necessity of safeguarding creation in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, elaborating on this call in 2020’s Journeying towards Care for Our Common Home.
For some Catholics, backing policies that address the climate crisis and bringing environmental concerns into the public view are part of living their faith. As a result, many Catholic-values investors have embraced fossil fuel divestment as a way of motivating society to grapple with climate change.
Catholic Investors Join Forces to Grow Fossil Fuel Divestment
In 2014, the University of Dayton became the first major Catholic university to divest from fossil fuels. Since then, Catholic banks, foundations, charities, aid agencies, schools, and dioceses have similarly committed to divest. About one-fifth of Catholic organizations that have divested are religious orders.
In 2016 the Global Catholic Climate Movement initiated its Catholic Divest campaign, which encourages Catholic organizations to pledge full divestment from coal, oil, and natural gas companies. Participating institutions announce their divestment plans together on significant dates, such as the Feast of St. Francis, Earth Day, and the start of Laudato Si’ Week. This timing around meaningful occasions allows joint statements to garner greater attention and potentially have a larger impact on public discourse about climate action.
On November 16, 2020, just before the Economy of Francesco meeting and the G20 summit, the group announced several new members to its campaign, including Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, among others. “Faith leaders are publicly showing the path for the future,” noted one campaign coordinator.
Divestment is not the only approach Catholic impact investors choose to adopt. In fact, the Catholic Impact Investing Collaborative has asked its partners to “move beyond negative screens.” However, in the case of fossil fuels, the Global Catholic Climate Movement purposefully chooses to pursue divestment over other possible strategies, such as dialogue with fossil fuel companies or investments in climate change–mitigation projects.
For this movement, divestment does not simply keep funds out of an industry that conflicts with investors’ beliefs. Instead, the act of divesting can publicly highlight the dangers of the fossil fuel industry and challenge society’s perceived complacency about climate change. The Global Catholic Climate Movement believes that publicizing divestment commitments amounts to taking a “prophetic stand” against the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the economy.
“[D]ivestment isn’t just for religious institutions to maintain their own integrity or respond to intractable resistance,” the group writes in a statement. “To make the decisions public means 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 Global Catholic Climate Movement hopes drawing a clear public boundary against backing fossil fuels can trigger a shift in public opinion and put pressure on policy leaders to adhere to the aims of the Paris Agreement.