What Pope Francis Can Teach the Presidents of Catholic Colleges and Universities

Praxis has been paramount for Pope Francis from the first moments when he appeared on the balcony in St Peter's square a little more than two years ago. Before offering the traditional blessing by the newly elevated pontiff he bowed his head and asked the people in the square and those watching and listening through electronic media to pray for him. In numerous other situations and opportunities he has demonstrated a similar affinity for choosing personal and practical actions that bring the commandments and gospel teachings to life. The example of the Holy Father can offer guidance to many leaders in Catholic institutions and organizations as they wrestle with one very pressing question.

A very interesting intersection of two initiatives has put them in a bit of a bind about if and how they exercise their responsibility as owners of shares in publicly listed corporations. In the first place the decision by Pope Francis to include many references to the moral responsibility of corporations of all sizes in the recent encyclical, Laudato Si, begs the question about the re-sponsibility of those who own shares in some of these same companies in their endowments, portfolios and mission-related funds. The Holy Father particularly highlights the issues of climate change, water scarcity, destruction of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture practices and mean-ingful employment among the issues that need to be included in his moral responsibility checklist for corporations.

The second event that has doubled down on the challenge facing Catholic academic institutions is the "gofossilfree" campaign that has been brought to their offices by students and alumnae who are profoundly concerned about the multiple threats of climate change. Many of the leaders and their institutions have remained on the sidelines for decades as Catholic religious orders and a mere a handful of dioceses have developed investment principles and policies that are consistent with Catholic Social Teaching and the investment guidelines of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. Very few of them joined the faith-based investor-led movement against apartheid in South Africa 40 years ago or took leadership roles in the more recent campaigns for child and forced labor-free sports uniforms for their school teams.

The opportunity to embrace the call of Pope Francis to "care for our common home" by actively exercising ownership of their shares by pressing corporations to include social and ecological impacts and criteria in their business plans and growth models ought to be a no-brainier for Catholic institutions How better to demonstrate their Catholic identity and emulate the Pope's "Franciscan" values than to join other religious leaders in advocating for strong global climate change treaties, respect for Mother Earth and recognition and repayment of the "ecological debt" that has been inflicted on poor and marginalized communities.

This behavior change will not come easily or overnight. Too many investment committees and boards of trustees of Catholic academic institutions are still held captive by a dominant "free market" ideology that won't accept responsibility for the social or environmental externalities of their investment decisions or for the inclusion of any consideration of "collateral damage" on their balance sheets or in annual reports to shareholders. That the high priests of Wall Street, many of them deep-pocketed alumnae who have contributed generously to their endowments and building projects, have proven faithless as stewards of our nation's financial system only serves to underscore this willful compartmentalization.

This is not an either/or proposition according to the Holy Father; this is not a question of uprooting the system and starting over. It is about creativity and innovation and opportunity. It is about taking seriously the moral responsibility that each institution has to respond to the challenges that we face by bringing a "Mother Theresa like" simplicity and analysis into investment committee and board of trustees meetings and coming out with a "to do list" that would bring a smile to the "walk the talk," Pope Francis and add significantly to their Catholic identity.
Allow me to suggest a few:
1. Join the countless religious and socially responsible investors who have made a com-mitment to engage corporations, especially those in the energy sector, in addressing the impact that human activity has on climate change.
2. Integrate the teaching of the encyclical about the moral responsibility we share for "our common home" across the curriculum and especially in the business school.
3. Develop robust investment principles and policies that are consistent with CST and point to these actions as an integral part of the Catholic identity of your institution.
4. Be transparent about what is in the portfolio of your institution and invite students and alumnae to participate actively in monitoring performance and accountability.
5. Support companies and corporate leaders that are committed to long term sustainable growth and practices.
6. Support corporate leaders who are willing to share the fruits of their success with their employees and stakeholders.