At the An Tairseach Organic Farm and Ecology Center in Wicklow, Ireland, a remarkable gathering of Catholic religious brothers and sisters, Priests, and lay people met recently to engage in meaningful, action-oriented dialogue about faith-based investing and transitioning assets in line with Laudato Si’, the landmark 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis.
The event, entitled Faith-consistent Investing – Living Laudato Si’, was co-hosted by FaithInvest in collaboration with AMRI, An Tairseach, the Laudato Si’ Movement, Laudato Si’ Action Platform and the USIG JPIC Commission. Its purpose was to advance the efforts of Catholic organisations and others wishing to put Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ into action. One of the seven key Laudato Si’ goals is ‘ecological economics’, which calls on Catholic institutions to divest assets from ecological injustice while making positive impact investments, and shifting towards sustainable banking, among other financial practices that will contribute to a sustainable future.
Laudato Si’ – The Lodestar
Panelist Fr. Martin Kelly expressed the idea that Laudato Si’ is ‘one of the most influential documents to come out of Rome’, as the idea of a Common Home ‘is not simply a nice tag line, but a part of our being.’
Throughout the day, a sense of urgency and enthusiasm for Laudato Si’ prevailed, with many panelists and speakers referring to the sea change in both thinking and action that has occurred in recent years, and which continues to accelerate.
FaithInvest CEO Martin Palmer said that ‘faiths have begun to realise that for the past 30 or 40 years, they’ve invested passively, and now are finally becoming active, with divestment as just the starting point, and impactful, mission-driven investment the way forward. Only in this way can we be successful in living faithfully, being faith-consistent in our use of our assets in order to be part of the challenge of saving the planet.’’
Dr. Lorna Gold’s keynote address elaborated on the transition from divestment to impact, describing the imperative to move ‘from a culture of unlimited growth, self-interest and indifference to one of care and mutual interdependence,’ and the need to recognise the ‘interconnectedness’ of all life on the planet. ‘The ecological conversion to bring about change is also a community conversion, with participation at its heart.’
"So here we are - a faith-consistent investing community, looking at how we can make Laudato Si' a vibrant undertaking to make the world a better place" - Sr. Sheila Kinsey, JPIC-UISG
Dr. Gold, FaithInvest’s Director of Movement Building and Acting Chair of the Board of Directors of the Laudato Si' Movement, described several areas for catalytic investment, where faith-based investors can contribute to significant progress toward a more ecological economy. For example, energy transition, where investments have been made in production and transportation technologies that consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. ‘But these good practices are still far from widespread,’ noted Dr. Gold.
Other areas for catalytic investment that were cited included research aimed at a better understanding of the functioning of ecosystems, and adequately analysing the different variables associated with modification of the environment as described in Laudato Si’.
Dr. Gold highlighted some of the many resources available to faith-based investors, including those produced by FaithInvest and partner organisations such as the Catholic Impact Investing Collaborative (CIIC).
A special focus of the day was a preview of a new online resource – Faith-consistent Investing, Living Laudato Si’ – which can be accessed via the FaithInvest website. This ‘Investor Hub’ is a curated resource which provides compelling stories and practical guidance on approaches to financial stewardship in alignment with ecological economics.
Elizabeth Garlow of the Francesco Collaborative and FaithInvest, described the new resource as ‘a space for insights and inspiration for organisations seeking to deliver on their ecological economic goals.’
As the agenda moved into some of the challenges faced by investors seeking to advance the principles of Laudato Si’, some compelling practical examples of impact investing were shared by a panel of noted eco-theologians and proponents of faith-consistent investing.
Fr. Seamus O’Neill, Bursar General, St. Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, described his organisation’s investments in sub-Saharan Africa, where traditional fund managers have typically not provided investment opportunities, but where, through the One Acre Fund, the Society have been able to support loans to small scale farmers - repaid after harvest – that can earn a concessionary return, but that provide a guaranteed social return.
Indeed, the concept of a ‘triple bottom line’ that combines social, environmental, and financial returns was cited as an important lens for considering required rates of return on projects. Director of Investment Solutions at FaithInvest, Nana Francois, elaborated on this by pointing out that certain investment structures are now available that can potentially provide both ‘a return and social impact,’ bringing an added degree of sustainability to faith-based impact investing.
Using the Land
The use of land was discussed as an important tool for advancing Laudato Si’ investing principles, with Sister Nellie McLaughlin, RSM, describing intentional ‘re-wilding’ programs, such as those promoted by the Rewilding Network, as restorative efforts that are showing encouraging results.
Fr. Seamus described the transition of a portion of the Society’s farmland to growing willow, which produces carbon-neutral biomass - woodchips that can be used for heating in place of fossil fuel.
An attendee exhorted the group to use land ‘for the good of the planet,’ rather than sell it for development, which she described as ‘tragically wrong and short-sighted.’
Other Challenges, Courageous Solutions
Some of the challenges described by attendees were related to seemingly counterproductive government regulation, for example: in the UK, excess wind turbine-generated electricity can be fed back into the grid via an interconnector, encouraging greater adoption and usage, but solar-generated-power is barred from this practice, a disparity which drew a gasp of disbelief among the audience. Nonetheless, the overarching theme of the day was positive, with many practical suggestions shared with an emphasis on the urgent need to act, even with smaller scale projects and initiatives.
Fr. Seamus concluded, ‘we have to have the courage to start with the small steps and build on them.’