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Fossil fuel and moral obligation

| Tuesday, March 21, 2017

As a Catholic institution, Notre Dame prides itself as a moral leader. In order to operate in a socially responsible way, Notre Dame’s Investment Office follows investment guidelines from The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB is composed of bishops representing Catholics throughout the U.S. with a mission to promote social justice and foster community through collaboration with churches and other organizations at home and abroad.

The guidelines aim to protect human life and dignity by explicitly discouraging investment in industries such as abortion, contraceptives and weapons. They also list protection against human rights violations, racial discrimination and gender discrimination as essential to investing in a responsible way. The guidelines encourage institutions to keep their faith and the people they are called to protect in the forefront of their minds when investing.

These guidelines are a manual for organizations seeking to act in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching. They provide a vital foundation for making ethical investments. They are, however, just guidelines. While they explicitly forbid investment in a few industries that harm the vulnerable people of the world, they mostly provide general language open for interpretation.

Last updated in 2003, the guidelines do not yet reflect our contemporary understanding of care for our environment as described in Laudato Si’. Pope Francis’s encyclical calls for us to rise to the challenge posed by human-caused climate change.

The last two sections of the USCCB guidelines, titled “Encouraging Corporate Responsibility” and “Protecting the Environment,” state that care for the environment should be a “central concern” for both industry leaders and investors. They do not explicitly discourage investment in fossil fuels, an industry whose business plan prioritizes the comfort of the already privileged at the expense of the poor and marginalized. The broad, sweeping nature of the guidelines leaves plenty of room for institutions to express “concern” without implementing policies which, in practice, bring about solutions to address current environmental crises.

Since 2013, students in Fossil Free ND have led a campaign calling for the University to address this shortcoming. Last fall, Fossil Free ND circulated a petition calling for Notre Dame to divest from fossil fuels and pursue a stronger renewable energy commitment. The petition garnered nearly 1,200 signatures and was delivered to the administration on Dec. 1. Despite commending the University for its “ambitious” sustainability plan at the time of its release last fall, Fr. Jenkins responded to the Fossil Free ND petition by writing that he is “reluctant to make ambitious commitments when neither I nor my colleagues will be in our current positions and accountable for meeting them,” in a Feb. 6 letter to Fossil Free ND.

Catholic Social Teaching places emphasis on giving preferential options for the poor and vulnerable. The USCCB guidelines state, “The ecological problem is intimately connected to justice for the poor. … The poor suffer most directly from environmental decline.” The poor throughout the world tend to suffer the worst effects of fossil fuel extraction, and people living in developing nations lack the means to adapt or relocate their communities after they are devastated by environmental catastrophes.

Delaying action any longer is exacerbating an already-serious problem. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis explicitly states “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Notre Dame’s passivity is not only untimely but unethical. We have failed to do what we know to be just and that is no less of a sin than directly committing an injustice.

Fossil fuel divestment is not a political issue, but a moral one. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls us to “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.” Notre Dame does not invest in abortion or embryonic stem cell research for good reason, and investing in companies that destroy our common home is no different. Notre Dame’s inability to see and act on this displays a lack of foresight and courage, and we demand more from our university.

Brittany Benninger


Janaya Brown


Greg Campion


Emily Clements


Anna Scartz


Dillon Wintz


March 6


The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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