Opinions, Op-Ed

BC’s Divestment Scandal: A Rejection of the Catholic Faith

Boston College is a place of immense conflict for me. On one hand, I love BC. My parents met here, so BC always held a special place in my heart growing up. When I began my time here, it didn’t disappoint either—I’ve made lifelong friends, been challenged academically, and found a real purpose in life. 

And as a Catholic, I love that there are so many opportunities for me to grow in my faith here, whether that’s through campus organizations like the Sons of St. Patrick, guided trips to walk the Camino de Santiago, or the brilliant theology and philosophy departments.

Yet, while BC seems so publicly driven by the Catholic faith, it is clear that the University’s administration does not place the faith first when it comes to fossil fuel divestment.

There are only a handful of readily available, official statements from BC spokespeople regarding their fossil fuel investments, including:

  1. “The endowment exists to provide a permanent source of funding for financial aid, faculty chairs, and student programs, as well as the University’s academic and research initiatives, and is not a tool to promote social or political change, however desirable that change might be,” the University wrote in a statement to The Heights in 2020.
  2. “As with most colleges and universities, Boston College is opposed to divestment from fossil fuel companies on the grounds that it is not an effective means of addressing climate change,” the University wrote in the same statement.
  3. “Environmental, social, and governance considerations remain an important component of the University’s investment manager selection and review process,” University Spokesman Jack Dunn wrote in a statement to the National Catholic Reporter last spring.
  4. In the same statement, Dunn said Boston College has become a leader in sustainability by using 100% renewable electricity on campus and educating students to be leaders in sustainability.

This is the justification BC gives for its fossil fuel investments: a few cryptic sentences through a spokesperson. Aside from their discipline of pro-divestment clubs and censorship of talk about divestment, the University has remained almost entirely silent on the issue. 

From this information, we can deduce two reasons why BC’s leaders choose to maintain fossil fuel investments: they believe the endowment should not be used as an instrument for social change and they believe divestment would be ineffective.

As for the first point, it is downright absurd to suggest that the University does not somehow consider social or political aims when they are making their investments. Dunn wouldn’t mention the importance of ESG considerations in investment management if they didn’t. But let’s go further.

If they didn’t make such ethical considerations, would the University invest in the pornography business, a massively profitable industry to which the Catholic faith is opposed? How about companies using child labor or forced labor, which Pope Francis has specifically opposed? Would they invest in companies providing abortions? 

If the endowment is merely a “permanent source of funding,” and “not a tool to promote social or political change,” it seems extremely odd that BC would not jump at the opportunity to profit off of these things.

Obviously, BC is not truly apolitical. Its true message is that divestment is merely a symbolic act—a political statement—and that the endowment is not intended for acts of advocacy. With this kind of mindset, BC can get away with merely “educating their students to be leaders.” They don’t need to entangle their billions of dollars with anything that can be labeled as activism. 

While this stance might benefit the University’s financial interests, it’s not consistent with the Catholic faith. Here’s why.

According to Dunn, the consequences of divestment would not be positive, and therefore it would not be good to divest. This is a theory philosophers call consequentialism.

But Christian ethics, as recent popes have made clear, are not consequentialist. We don’t know the consequences of our actions, only God does. Basing morality on consequences tries to put us in the position of God—a big no-no. This notion violates the first commandment: that God is God and nobody and nothing else is God.

Instead, the morality of actions in Christian ethics is mostly based on a mixture of natural law theory, divine revelation, Scripture, tradition, and reason. So, when it comes to the subject of divestment, we must base our examination on these factors as well.

The point of Francis’ famous encyclical Laudato Si’ is to apply these factors to the question of environmental responsibility. Again and again, Francis makes it absolutely clear that Catholic wallets are just as important as anything else when it comes to promoting environmental sustainability. He stresses that it is extremely immoral to profit from the destruction of our environment.

A 2020 Vatican document (which BC explicitly rejected) addresses this more directly.

“Those who wish to make ethical investments consonant with their religious beliefs can have recourse to filters and consulting, even though they may at times have to accept a lower profit,” the document reads.

The call to invest morally is central to Catholic theology. In Luke 18, a rich man refuses to sell all his possessions at Jesus’ command, which leads Jesus to comment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Even with a generous interpretation, Jesus’ message here is that rich people prioritize their wealth over the faith. Seems familiar, right?

BC’s opposition to the Vatican is a fundamental defect in the way it views its investments. It reveals a consequentialist ethical framework, one specifically created—it seems—to cope with the unavoidable truth that Catholics should not invest in the fossil fuel industry.

For the sake of being charitable and defending the school I genuinely love, I am obliged to give a few generous accounts of why BC may maintain such investments. One theory I have personally heard from professors is that divestment would risk upsetting wealthy, conservative donors. My response to this is a resounding “I don’t care.” Those donors can deal with it. We have enough money. If they don’t like our university abiding by the call of our faith, that’s ok.

Further, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not mandated divestment for American dioceses (although some have divested). However, the endowments of American dioceses are significantly smaller than BC’s endowment, and many dioceses are facing serious financial difficulties. BC, on the other hand, harbors a $3.7B endowment, which has grown tremendously in recent years and ranks among the largest in the nation.

The third reason for their continual investment may be that, as some anti-divestment advocates write, investments in fossil fuels allows BC to advocate for sustainability within by using their shareholder influence.

The problem with this theory is that BC rejects any calls for transparency when it comes to their portfolio. Both the companies being invested in and the amount of money being invested are tightly guarded secrets. If BC’s plan were to change these companies through shareholder influence, it would be obligated to provide evidence of doing so.

But BC’s leaders don’t care whatsoever about these companies being sustainable—they made this abundantly clear last December.

If they cared, they would not have invited ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods to their exclusive “CEO Club” for a talk in which he downplayed the power of renewable energy.

BC, even with the aim of “fulfilling its Jesuit, Catholic mission of faith and service,” somehow invited one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet—whose fortune came from the destruction of the planet, which the Vatican has expressly condemned—to come speak about his future plans for continued destruction.

Ultimately, I am not surprised by BC’s stance regarding divestment—not one bit. The University has shown time and time again that it will choose, at best, the appeasement of those seeking profit over environmental responsibility. It cares far more about its finances than living out the faith.

Yet I am nonetheless hopeful, not because of any concrete progress I expect BC to make, but because of the Gospel. As Jesus says in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

February 12, 2024

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