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Lessons Learned Working with Cardinal McElroy on Fossil Fuel Divestment

By Dr. Christina Bagaglio Slentz, PhD

The Good News

Shortly after arriving at my position directing Creation Care for the Diocese of San Diego, in the fall of 2022, the diocese and all of its affiliates totally divested from all direct and indirect fossil fuel investments. The task team had worked for more than a year, securing a capable financial institution and establishing a screen to ensure no more than five percent of total revenues would come from the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels. Periodic reviews to evaluate the success of this endeavor were scheduled in the hope that the five percent standard could be met, and the success of our divestment confirmed.  

A few weeks later, Cardinal Robert McElroy informed me of this landmark action to align our investments with the Holy See’s social and environmental goals aimed at mitigating the risk of climate change. What a Christmas gift to celebrate this news! I was eager to join the ranks of dioceses around the world who had announced the same level of commitment. To my knowledge, San Diego would be the first U.S. diocese to divest. As one who has long followed the dynamics of international cooperation, I know global action has historically faltered when the U.S. is not wholly engaged and, by contrast, has succeeded when the U.S. is leading the charge. I was excited that we might draw American attention to the issue and inspire other U.S. dioceses to follow suit.

Prudence called for patience, however. We would not be announcing our actions quite yet. We were in unchartered territory, and several uncertainties swirled around our decision to publicize our divestment. How to maintain confidence in diocesan commitment to fiduciary responsibility against the backdrop of high potential for misperception? When would, and how might, the announcement most optimally bear fruit? What exactly was that fruit? Would our announcement matter or appear as hollow virtue signaling? When would we announce — Earth Day? Laudato Si’ Week? Season of Creation? 

Sister Mother Earth continued her 2023 journey around Brother Sun.  

Not in My Time; In God’s Time

Experts largely agree that the most successful divestment campaign was divestment in response to South African apartheid, in which the USCCB took part. The campaign’s achievement, however, was not born of economic impact but rather the international visibility and subsequent socio-political pressure brought to bear on the state of South Africa. With this in mind, I chomped at the bit to stir climate awareness, hoping to turn the tide on American momentum to care for our common home. I worried failure to go public impoverished the value of our action — if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Wasn’t the point to make (sound) waves? Alas, I was wrong!

As usual, the Holy Spirit had a better plan. 

On the 2023 Feast of Saint Francis, Pope Francis released his exhortation to climate action, Laudate Deum, followed in December by his much-anticipated attendance at the UN’s 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28). Though the pope was ultimately unable to travel to the COP, Catholic and other faith-based environmental organizations were abuzz with hope for progress. Amidst the hubbub, a pair of theologians authoring a piece on divestment reached out to ask about the possibility of our diocese having divested. It was time. 

Cardinal McElroy assembled our own “conference of parties.” With over a year of data available, an assessment of our holdings revealed we had met our established standard of divestment, receiving no more than five percent of total revenues from the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels. In fact, our screen had exceeded this goal, limiting total revenue to three percent. 

New questions arose. Did this constitute “divestment,” or was zero the necessary threshold for making such a claim? If so, should we advertise the amount of our divested holdings? Did we need to conduct analysis to determine whether our investments had maintained a similar growth trajectory as would have been observed without divestment?


A brief investigation and short discussion led our “mini COP” to conclude we had met the technical definition of divestment, though I, and I think the others, were given pause by the profound inescapability of algorithm-driven market imperfections — but structural sin posed by AI technology is a topic for another blog post. With a strong, shared desire for humility guiding our decision-making, the group quickly agreed that the total amount divested need not be advertised, and the release of the news need not make a splash. We would simply share the news with our “SD Catholic” faithful in our diocesan monthly newspaper, unceremoniously mentioned as one of our actions taken in response to the cry of the earth. Humility was of the utmost importance. 

Finally, Cardinal McElroy gently rejected notions of trying to compare the performance of divested holdings to “business as usual” trajectories. Here came my most important lesson. Our actions were not about the size of our economic impact or our financial savvy. Profitable or not, our divestment was the right thing to do because it aligned with our values. As the USCCB “Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines” states, “From a Catholic perspective, ethical and socially responsible investing… requires us to evaluate specific investments in terms of how those companies or entities protect life, promote human dignity, act justly, enhance the common good, and provide care for the environment.” 

I reflected, mentally walking through other investment sectors already defined as “no-go’s.” Weapons of mass destruction, pharmaceuticals, tobacco products and pornography offered plenty of profitability, but we would never abandon our Catholic values for the sake of those economic “opportunities.” Furthermore, with or without global campaigns to divest from these sectors, we opt out of them, regardless of global opinion.  

A warm, tingly confidence washed over me. More epiphany. Another arc traversed, turning me into continued conversion. I saw more clearly. No breaking news, no proving fiscal strategies. Our divestment simply puts us in the right relationship with Our Creator, living justly.

Do I pray others will follow? If turning down this road of conversion, you bet!

Dr. Christina Bagaglio Slentz, PhD, is the Director for Care for Creation for the Catholic Diocese of San Diego. She promotes the ecological conversion, eco-spirituality, eco-citizenship, and eco-advocacy efforts within the diocese.

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