A Catholic university in the state of Washington recently announced its full divestment from holdings in fossil fuel concerns, a decision one of the school’s leaders says came about as part of a “moral imperative to action” stemming from Catholic teachings. 

Seattle University, a Jesuit-run school near the city’s downtown, said last month that it had fully “scrubbed its endowment portfolio of fossil fuel investments,” with the school touting itself as “the first university in Washington state and the first Jesuit Catholic university in the country” to do so.

The school’s board of trustees in 2018 “became the first Jesuit university in the country to pledge 100% withdrawal from publicly traded fossil fuel investments,” with the school claiming the divestment measure was part of a broader effort at “building a sustainable community that supports human and ecological health, social justice, and economic well-being.”

Father Bob Grimm, a counselor and professor in the university’s Albers School of Business and Economics as well as a member of the trustee board, told CNA that the process of disentangling fossil fuels from the school’s investment portfolio was “quite challenging” and ended up being a six-year process.

The drive to divest, Grimm said, “actually started from our students” in response to the school’s stated commitment to green and clean energy initiatives.

“They took our rhetoric seriously and challenged us on our practices,” Grimm said. “That led to our formation of various levels of committees on our campus to have a conversation about what our moral obligation demands from us in regards to investment.”

“That conversation went on for a couple of years and involved students, faculty, staff, administration, trustees,” Grimm said.

Challenged by Laudato Si’

The Catholic Church has over the centuries pronounced definitively on a wide variety of moral topics such as abortion, murder, sexual ethics, and charity. Its mandates on environmentalism in general — and divestment in particular — are comparatively sparser.

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Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ was seen as a landmark Catholic document for its strong pro-environmental stance and its unequivocal acceptance of the global warming hypothesis. Still, Francis in the encyclical stressed that the Church “does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” with the pope calling for “an honest and open debate” on such matters.

Five years later, in 2020, the document “Journeying Towards Care for Our Common Home,” published by the Interdicasterial Working Group of the Holy See on Integral Ecology, took a strong stance on fossil fuels, suggesting as a “line of action” that the Church’s financial leaders should “promote ethical, responsible, and integral criteria for investment decision making” in part by refusing to support “companies that harm human or social ecology … for example, through the use of fossil fuels.”

Laudato Si’ convinced the university that it had “an obligation, not only to our students and ourselves and to the people of our state, to act in a morally responsible way in regard to the environment,” Grimm said. A committee of students, faculty, trustees, and staff was formed to develop a divestment proposal.

“It was not an easy conversation,” Grimm said. “As with every institution, especially higher education, we’re struggling with finances. There were significant concerns, especially from trustees, about the financial impact of divesting from fossil fuels.”

“Again, ultimately, we came to the conclusion to do what we could do,” he said.

The risks of divestment

Critics, meanwhile, have countered that divesting from fossil fuels too quickly risks destabilizing an economy and a global order that has been built largely around nonrenewables over the last century. 

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Stephen Perkins, the vice president of grassroots strategy at the American Conservation Coalition, wrote earlier this year that fossil fuels make up 60% of the U.S. energy portfolio and support more than 10 million jobs in the U.S. economy.

“[W]e cannot afford to sacrifice energy security and economic prosperity for climate activism without a follow-through plan,” Perkins wrote, arguing that clean energy “should continue to be a priority in the coming years, but not at the expense of prosperity and American economic dominance.”

Data indicate that more than 80% of global energy consumption still comes from fossil fuels, with renewables forming just a small percentage of total energy consumed in 2022.

‘The needs of the most vulnerable’

The committee that recommended Seattle University’s divestment said in its policy document that as a Catholic institution, the school was required to “make decisions only after considering the needs of the most vulnerable.”

“Investing in industries that cause long-term harm to the planet and to future generations should be excluded,” the group said, “even if such investments could marginally improve the financial position of the university.”

Grimm admitted that the school’s decision is not without its material drawbacks. 

“Our action has some costs,” he said. “It’s not overwhelming, but it does diminish your return when you restrict your investment.” 

“We listen carefully,” he said. “We respond with what’s in our hearts.”

The school said that in 2018 about $13 million of its endowment consisted of investments in fossil fuel companies. 

At present, “zero percent of the marketable portion of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels,” the university said last month.