Preserving the Planet

Fossil Fuel Divestment Gains Momentum from Catholic Institutions

A growing number of Catholic institutions say they will no longer invest in oil, gas, and coal companies, in the hopes that fossil fuel divestment will help the environment and mitigate climate change.

Sparked by a call from Pope Francis, their pledge is part of a rapidly growing faith-based movement in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.

A Growing Movement

Recently, a coalition of 40 dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic organizations from 11 countries announced plans to end fossil fuel use.

“The movement for a fossil-free world has grown vastly stronger,” said Tomás Insua, executive director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), which coordinated the announcement on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis in October 2017.

“As a Catholic Church bank we feel strongly responsible to participate in tackling the issue of climate change,” said Tommy Piemonte of Bank für Kirche und Caritas eG, a participating German Catholic bank with holdings of 4.5 billion euros.

Other participating organizations include Saint Francis’s home archdiocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino along with the archdiocese of Cape Town, St. Patrick’s Missionary Society of Kenya, and School Sisters of Notre Dame, a worldwide institute of Roman Catholic sisters.

More Catholic groups will be joining the movement in 2018, with another announcement planned for April, according to GCCM. More broadly, institutions with over $6 trillion in assets have decided to end their stock, bond, and fund investments in fossil fuels, according to Fossil Free. Faith-based organizations represent the largest segment of divesters.

Catholic Action on Fossil Fuel Divestment

The Pope called Catholics to climate change action with his landmark 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’. Invoking St. Francis, he wrote that global warming from fossil fuel use is one of the principal challenges facing humanity.

Laudato Si’ triggered action across the global Catholic community, which counts 1.2 billion members. Thousands have joined him in campaigns to march and fast in support of the cause, and bishops have made numerous public appeals to public officials across the globe. More than 200 Catholic groups attended the Laudato Si investment conference in Rome in January 2017. And the Laudato Si Challenge, a startup hub backed by the Vatican, awarded nine companies $100,000 each from venture capitalists to create breakthrough clean energy technologies.

Some Catholic groups are finding common cause between their existing missions and climate change action. Take, for example, the Jesuits of English Canada, who pledged divestment in October 2016. Jesuits have long worked in poverty alleviation. “Climate change is already affecting poor and marginalized communities globally, through drought, rising sea levels, famine and extreme weather. We are called to take a stand,” said Father Peter Bisson, Provincial of the Jesuits in English Canada.

Gauging the Impact of Fossil Fuel Divestment

Supporters of divestment acknowledge that it is difficult to assess the financial impacts of their efforts—falling stock prices or earnings, for example—but argue that it is a key first step. Though, to be ultimately successful in promoting a healthy climate future, divestment may need to be paired with a commitment to new technologies and a focus on solutions for communities where commerce is heavily reliant on these industries.

Just as divestment in the 1970s and 1980s helped end apartheid in South Africa, fossil fuel divestment could play a critical role in triggering major change.