LTE: Divestment At A Catholic University

A word of praise for the students who make up the Boston College Fossil Free organization. These students have taken up the one issue that will be the main concern of all your lives, the progressive contamination of the very planet we live on by chemical elements that will radically change the climate of the entire earth, critically limiting the earth’s resources of food, arable land and living space for your generation and, much more, for your own children. Sixteen members of BCFF devoted their Spring Break to lobbying in Washington for a more serious approach to this fundamental threat, six of them strenuously enough to get arrested for upsetting politicians. Some 1,200 students have signed their petition, and at least 40 are constantly engaged in innovatory programs and outreach, which must make this one of the strongest student activities on campus. Students at 328 U.S. universities are organizing for this purpose and the movement has gone global.

We are a Catholic and Jesuit university. I understand very well that people of your generation have less respect for institutions than has been customary in the past, for the good reason that the institutions so often fail to live up to their own principles. You expect more of those institutions. They should at least know and recognize the principles to which they are committed.

Catholic teaching on this subject has been increasingly strong for many years now. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in its 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (ch. 10, Safeguarding the Environment, Part IV, A Common Responsibility, pp. 235-8) quotes extensively the teachings of Pope John Paul II dating back to 1987. The Pope described, to a study group of the Pontifical Academy of Science, climate as a good that must be protected, and called on both consumers and industrialists to recognize their responsibility for it. He incorporated these ideas into his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1988 and his address to the 25th General Conference of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization in 1989. That it could not be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces is asserted in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus (No. 40).

We can buttress these statements by Benedict XVI’s address for the World Day of Peace in 2010 when he spoke of a “duty to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction.” Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium this year wrote that “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued its Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines, much as have the Catholic bishops of Germany, of Australia, and other countries. We can add to that strong statements from the General of the Jesuit order.

Our BCFF students are interested in divestment from companies involved in the fossil fuel business that is pouring more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our planet’s inhabitants can afford, and may already have done irreparable damage to your lives and, even much more so, those of your children. Nothing, of course, terrifies university administrations more than the prospect of upsetting the donors who keep our heating systems working and pay our salaries and student aid. Only 10 colleges/universities have agreed to divest so far, those small and none Catholic. None of the big-league institutions has broken ranks, although it should be evident that the one which does will have enormous influence, even in guiding investors who are our friends and donors to safer and more moral investments.

We are indeed a Catholic and Jesuit university. We have our share of scientists, some of great distinction. But scientists are, culturally, reluctant to become activists. We have the resources of our Catholic Department of Theology and the School of Theology and Ministry, with all their ranking ethicists, and our School of Law, with its strong Catholic leadership, which could lead the charge on our legal system, national and international, to recognize the demands of intergenerational justice to protect the lives and welfare of the generations-yours first-which will be devastatingly harmed by what our fossil fuel industry is doing now. We can be proud of our BCFF students who are actively making their fellow students aware of the greatest threat they will face in their lives. They’re worth joining!

Rev. Raymond G. Helmick, S.J.
Instructor, Department of Theology

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The Heights is the independent student newspaper of Boston College.