The word “divestment” is nowhere to be found in the nearly 200 pages of the papal encyclical released Thursday, but by addressing the threat of climate change in such a forceful way, Pope Francis is likely to add momentum to the movement by big institutions to sell holdings tied to fossil-fuel stocks.
“For activists who have been laboring for decades to elicit a courageous response from the world’s governments and leading institutions, the pope’s statement is a godsend,” said Bob Massie, a longtime environmental activist and proponent of divestment who is also an Episcopal priest.
The divestment effort first emerged at universities in 2012. Many religious institutions, including the Church of England and the United Church of Christ, have announced divestment plans, as have a number of religious educational institutions, including Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Others are likely to follow, said Richard W. Miller, an associate professor of theology at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha. “Regardless of whether he says ‘divestment,’ I think it puts enormous pressure on Catholic universities,” Miller said. “I think it puts pressure on all universities.”
The United Church of Christ announced its resolution to begin divestment of church funds and pension money two years ago, becoming the first major religious body in the United States to vote for divestment. (“It’s not a competition,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, the conference minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ and an environmental leader in the denomination.)
The encyclical casts climate change as an issue that not only is scientifically important, but also has moral and spiritual implications. It also ties the issue to others, such as caring for the poor, who are expected to bear the brunt of more extreme weather and rising sea levels. Depicting climate change as a moral issue resonates deeply with many climate activists.
Union Theological Seminary officials see divestment of its $108 million endowment as a moral act more than a political or economic one, said the Rev. Serene Jones, the seminary’s president. “We don’t think that divesting our little endowment is going to change what the oil companies do,” she said. “We did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Karenna Gore, director of the seminary’s new Center for Earth Ethics, said the moral approach could help people understand that even if actions like divestment do not have a profound effect on the fortunes of fossil-fuel companies, “it makes it a matter of personal integrity and institutional integrity.”
“We don’t say, ‘Don’t recycle a can because it makes no difference,’” she said.
Antal, who said he was inspired by the work of the climate activist Bill McKibben and his group 350.org, said his early efforts had been arduous.
He said he had spent 200 hours negotiating with the director of United Church Funds and the church’s pension board, which initially opposed the resolution calling for divestment. And when it was done, he recalled, he came under attack from the columnist and Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter, who accused the church of hypocrisy, writing, “Once we get supply and demand straight, the coal miner is a lot less ‘responsible’ for greenhouse gases than the suburban family that crowds into the SUV to attend Sunday services.”
In an interview, Antal acknowledged that he and others advocating changes in energy production were still using fossil fuels. “Here I am sitting in an airport,” he noted.
But the goal, he said, is to work for the kinds of changes that will limit global warming and head off its worst effects.
In a written response to Carter, Antal wrote that the denomination’s churches did call for changing personal habits of consumption and had “long known that when engaging in social critique, the first place to look is at our own complicity.”
He and his colleagues, he said, “are doing everything we can to leverage the release of the encyclical.”
Tomás Insua, a graduate student at Harvard who is involved with the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a coalition of nearly 100 Catholic organizations, said he expected a wave of divestment demands. In the future, he said, “it will be very hard for Catholic universities to counter divestment asks quoting the encyclical.”
William Patenaude, who has written the blog Catholic Ecology since 2004, said that whether or not institutions changed their policies or divested, the encyclical would have an effect by “inspiring people to talk about issues that they may not have felt comfortable talking about.”
The discussion might get “a little hot,” Patenaude said, and no one knows where that may lead. But, he added, “I’m glad we’re having that conversation.”