In his breathtaking and magisterial encyclical on poverty and climate change, Laudato Sí, Pope Francis leaves no doubt about his intended audience. “Faced as we are with global environmental deterioration,” he writes, “I wish to address every person living on this planet.”
In the United States, one group is paying particularly close attention to the pope’s call for structural change: the vast array of parishes, orders, dioceses, schools, universities, hospitals, and other institutions with which nearly 70 million Catholics—one in five Americans—are affiliated. All these institutions proclaim fidelity to the teachings of the pope and the Roman Catholic church, and together they control billions of dollars of investments. High on the list of challenges generated by Francis’ appeal stands the awkward question of what to do with all that money.
“I expect that every Catholic institution in the country will step back and review all their practices—their teaching and preaching, their operations and investments—to determine whether they are in line with Pope Francis’ powerful call to action,” says Father Michael Crosby, a leading climate activist and Capuchin Franciscan priest from Milwaukee. “The pope’s encyclical has now elevated the concern for climate justice to a central place in the life of the church.”
Allied with visionary leaders like Sister Pat Daly, who runs the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, and Sister Barbara Aires of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Crosby has been promoting socially responsible investment for more than four decades. Today he works closely with hundreds of religious investors through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a coalition with combined assets totaling more than $100 billion. For more than 40 years, ICCR members have been diligently filing shareholder resolutions, speaking out at corporate annual meetings, negotiating with executives, and issuing reports. The goal of this persistent engagement has been to improve corporate policies on hundreds of social and environmental issues.
Over the last 20 years, they have focused more intensely on climate change, and their efforts have met with incremental success. They have persuaded companies to reveal their financial exposure to climate risk, set greenhouse gas reduction goals, reduce methane leakage from gas drilling, and halt the exploitation of dangerous tar sands.
For most of the negotiations, the activists and pension-fund leaders have zeroed in on the financial folly of drilling for more carbon at a time when companies already have five times more in their reserves than the world can afford to burn. If those reserves cannot be used, they will become “stranded assets,” prompting the value of fossil-fuel stocks to collapse and taking the savings of tens of millions of individual investors with them. The pope’s encyclical adds a powerful moral argument to the mix: Business models that permit the destruction of the planet must be changed or phased out. “The pope’s powerful statement will certainly become an anchor to our climate engagement with companies to emphasize the moral imperative to action,” says Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer of the 158,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association, an ICCR member organization.