Papal Encyclical Heartens Proponents of Fossil-Fuel Divestment

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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,” Professor 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 from stocks linked to fossil fuels 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…

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