WASHINGTON — Ohio's Marianist-run University of Dayton plans to divest from fossil fuel companies in an effort to more closely follow the order's charism and church teaching on the environment.
In a June 23 announcement, the university said the decision came in a unanimous board of trustees vote May 15. The university is believed to be the first Catholic institution of higher education to divest from coal, oil and natural gas industries.
Concern that the rising use of fossil fuels is pumping high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to a warming climate, rising oceans and extreme weather, prompted the change in policy, school officials said.
"We have been talking about this for quite some time," Marianist Father Martin Solma, provincial superior of the order's U.S. province and vice chairman of the university's board of trustees, told Catholic News Service. "There are a number of programs on campus that address issues of sustainability, care for the earth and human rights and it was a logical step."
Father Solma cited statements by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI about the importance of caring for the environment -- God's creation -- as a major reason for the divestment action.
"This really is a huge priority because of our religious convictions that this earth is a gift. We are meant to protect it and sustain it," Father Solma said.
In all, the school will divest about $35 million, said Daniel J. Curran, the university's president. The amount represents about 5 percent of the school's $670 million long-term investment pool.
The university will start divesting from domestic holdings followed by a move to divest from international holdings. Plans call for restricting future investments in private equity or hedge funds supporting the fossil fuel industry or significant carbon-producing holdings.
Curran admitted that the amount of money being divested is relatively small and the school's action is largely symbolic when the size of the fossil fuel industry is weighed, but he said he hoped carbon-based energy companies would recognize that it must consider how its business model adversely contributes to climate change.
Some of the divested funds will be reinvested in sustainable and renewable energy, he said.
University officials weighed the impact of divestment on their responsibility to provide an adequate return on investments and determined that a restructured portfolio would continue to meet the school's objectives for risk management and financial returns, Father Solma and Curran said.
"In May, we came to the point where we believed it would not, if done properly, have an impact on our endowment," Curran told CNS. "Our consultant felt we could put the screens in place and get closer to our mission. We took a year and really considered our fiduciary responsibility and got comfortable enough where we could move.
"When we look at the potential negative effect of climate change and the people it impacts, we thought it was the right way to go," he said.
Father Solma said the Marianist order's charism was a major consideration in discussions leading to the trustees' vote.
"Our Blessed Mother is at the center of our charism," he said. "She was a person who nurtured human life. She nurtured the life of justice and she nurtures our life in faith. This is about nurturing human life and the human future. Our charism is rooted in the incarnation. The divine made a home here among us.
"That means all of creation is hallowed, that there is nothing foreign to the divine. So the world God embraced in the carnation through Mary is what we have to take care of."
The fossil fuel divestment movement, while relatively young, has been gaining momentum during 2014 as larger entities have committed to pulling funds from oil, coal and natural gas companies and to partially reinvest in alternative and renewable energy firms.
Stanford University in California and Union Theological Seminary in New York are among the largest institutions to recently announce plans to divest from fossil fuel producers.
The campaign is largely coordinated through Go Fossil Free, a grass-roots campaign formed in November 2012 by 350.org, an international movement working to slow climate change. Go Fossil Free's website -- gofossilfree.org -- listed more than 100 government entities and organizations, including 12 colleges and universities, as having divested or are planning to divest as of June 23.
"We've seen that the fossil fuel industry is the largest barrier to stopping climate change," said Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org.
The campaign is using similar divestment efforts of the past -- such as those focused on apartheid in South Africa and tobacco in the United States -- as models, Henn explained.
"We see divestment as a clear way for a religious institution to stand on their moral values and to make a statement on the role the fossil fuel industry is playing in this crisis," he said.