Forty Catholic institutions from across the world, including the first bishops’ conference, have pulled out of funding fossil fuels in what is being hailed as the largest faith-based environmental divestment move to date.
Although the total value of the divestment in coal, gas and oil by the institutions on five continents has not been revealed, the number of organizations behind the pledge is nearly four times that of the previous record of 9 who announced a similar divestment in May.
Among the 40 are the Belgian bishops’ conference, the Archdiocese of Cape Town, Newman University in the UK, and two major financial institutions: The German Bank für Kirche und Caritas, which has a balance of 4.5 billion Euro, and Oikocredit Belgium, an ecumenical financial institution which is one of the world’s largest sources of microfinance funding.
Their decision, announced by the Global Catholic Climate Movement, is timed to coincide with today’s anniversary of the death of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment who inspired Pope Francis’s landmark social encyclical in June 2015, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
In it Francis calls for investments in “production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency.”
Such attempts at promoting a sustainable use of natural resources “are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term,” he argued in the encyclical, adding that “more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.”
A number of institutions in St. Francis’s home town are among those inspired by Laudato Si’ to divest. The Sacro Convento, the holy site that houses the remains of St. Francis, along with the diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, the Seraphic Institute — the religious medical center that provides care for disabled children which Francis visited in October 2014 — as well as the mayor of the town of Assisi have all added their names to the divestment campaign.
“Following the example of St. Francis, we want to commit ourselves to moving beyond an economic and energy system that is so damaging to our common home,” the Diocese of Assisi said, adding that it was joining up to the Global Catholic Climate Movement’s divestment campaign because “caring for creation calls for unity, commitment, sharing and prayer.”
Although the Belgian is the first Catholic bishops’ conference in the world to announce it will divest from fossil fuels, they join one archdiocese, three Italian dioceses (Caserta and Gubbio as well as Assisi), and a vicariate, according to Global Catholic Climate Movement head Tomás Insua.
The Belgian bishops’ conference says it will henceforth ask the financial institutions that manage its investments to give priority to companies working for a sustainable energy future, that make greater use of renewable energy sources, and that promote efficiency in the use of energy.
“In the coming years, efforts must be made to fully replace investments in exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels with investments in sustainable development, renewable energy and the transition to a low-carbon economy,” the conference agreed in September.
Insua praised the “moral clarity” of the divesting institutions, saying the announcement sends a clear signal ahead of the meeting of the World Bank in Washington D.C. on October 13. “We hope its leaders notice that the movement for a fossil-free world has grown vastly stronger,” he said.
The Catholic institutions’ divestment decision is part of a worldwide movement of companies and institutions said to have withdrawn a total of around $5 trillion from fossil fuels.
Christiana Figueres, the United Nation’s former climate change chief, said she hopes “we’ll see more leaders like these 40 Catholic institutions commit, because while this decision makes smart financial sense, acting collectively to deliver a better future for everybody is also our moral imperative.”
Sister Sheila Kinsey, a leader in the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters, one of the nine organizations announcing their divestment in May, said it was “truly astounding” that their number had more than quadrupled in less than six months.
“The movement for divestment is growing every day, and people of faith are in the lead,” she said.