This is the first in a 2-part series.
|Carol Baass Sowa | Today's Catholic
SAN ANTONIO • The Socially Responsible Investment Coalition (SRIC) celebrated 30 years of impacting investments in a sustainable world on March 29 in the Whitley Theological Center at Oblate School of Theology. The evening offered a review of SRIC’s past, a salute to those who began and labored in it and observations on present endeavors, with a look to the future.
Bishop Michael Pfeiffer, OMI, of the Diocese of San Angelo, who was provincial for the Oblates at the time of SRIC’s founding in 1982, prefaced the blessing with a few thoughts. Recalling the days “when we initiated a lot of new things here,” he noted the quest for holiness is not merely spiritual improvement in the interior sense, but can be expressed as an engagement with the world in alleviating injustice and serving those in need. Quoting from an old Slovenian proverb, he exhorted, “Pray for a good harvest, but keep on hoeing.”
“As people striving for sanctity, we need to keep digging with the hoe of justice,” he said. “We need to practice compassion, not simply pray for those who are suffering.” He concluded with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which, he said, “gives us what I believe is the heart that we need to bring to this ministry and the ministry of justice.”
Following a slide show highlighting the history of SRIC’s involvement in numerous just causes over the years, Joseph Gonzalez, SRIC chairperson, introduced Sister Gabriella Lohan, SHSp, immediate past board chair, and Esther Ng, current treasurer, who acknowledged former SRIC directors, founders, board chairs and staff, as well as key figures in SRIC’s success, both living and deceased, along with sponsors. Gonzalez also recognized interns and students attending on scholarships
The evening’s speakers were: Donna Meyer, retired from CHRISTUS Health and now consulting for them; Father Seamus Finn, OMI, of the Oblates’ Justice, Peace and Charity of Creation Committee; Father Michael Crosby, OFM Cap, who works with coalitions in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa; and Sister Susan Mika, OSB, current and formerly first executive director of SRIC.
Donna Meyer spoke on lobbying and political expenditures with regards to health issues. Health is something broader than CAT scans, MRIs and designer drugs, she noted, proposing that “all the work we’ve done together over the last 30 and 40 years is in fact health work. We’ve all worked together to create a healthier society.”
The current health argument before the Supreme Court is only a small piece of the picture she said, with social justice and human rights constituting “the very bedrock of health.” Health care, as we commonly think of it, actually comprises only 10 percent of what causes us to be healthier, she pointed out. Seventy percent is composed of such factors as physical and social environments and individual response and the remaining 20 percent is genetics.
Looking at the work accomplished over the years to create a healthier society has involved the issue of smoking, and Meyer noted that saying smoking-related illnesses are one’s own fault because of choice is not valid. “Nearly all of our individual behaviors are in fact shaped by the social environment that we grow up in,” she observed. An example is the placement of cigarettes on end caps or lower shelves in stores and the proximity of these stores to schools.
“Studies show over and over again,” she related, that it is the environment that causes the smoking and encourages the smoking.” This lack of social justice or social inequalities includes children living in slums or areas without playgrounds, or who go to crowded schools with fewer teachers, and minorities who have difficulty getting a job or who have to work in hazardous conditions. Lack of access to education, jobs and health care are all “social detriments.”
Meyer noted that the United States spends more money on medical research, but instead of having the healthiest people on earth we rank behind Bosnia and Jordan and are not even in the top 25 nations health-wise. “The conditions in which people live and work have five times the effect on health than all the medical care combined have,” she said, so it is important to get out the message that health is about social justice, social detriments and the health factors that we all live in and with in our lifetimes.
In the last five years in the area of health care services, she said, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) has been trying to work as a team with major health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and health insurers, talking with them on the importance of health and health care.
To do this effectively, a set of ICCR principles was developed regarding what constitutes “health.” This includes: health security (affordable quality health care for all); access to health care regardless of race, health, immigration or socioeconomic status; accountability (all involved being accountable for the integrity, viability and cost containment of the health care system); and equitable financing.
Uniformly, those with whom Meyer and her colleagues talk say they agree wholeheartedly with the ICCR principles and most of what is in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. However, when it comes to spending money on lobbying and political expenditures, these same companies give huge sums to groups who are opposing the needed health care changes.
She noted that groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other political campaign organizations spend about $204 million on television commercials that frame the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act negatively, while its supporters have only about $37 million to spend. Often companies do not realize they are giving donations to groups opposing the act. What we as individuals can do, Meyer said, is to spread the word one-on-one about the benefits of the act.
Father Seamus Finn, OMI, began by noting that this year marks the 40th anniversary of ICCR and of a pivotal document in Catholic social teaching — the Synod of Bishops’ “Justice in the World” document. “It is the document,” he said, “that kind of suggests clearly to us that action on behalf of justice is an integral part of the preaching of the Gospel.”
That document, he said, pushed the Oblates from 1970 to 1980 into looking clearly at its significance in relation to their charism and understanding of their mission. As a result, action on behalf of justice and, later, the integrity of creation being a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel, were translated into the life of the Oblates as a specific constitution and rule.
This proved to be an entry into the already 10-year-old apartheid work of the ICCR. The work continued another 20 years, he said, before that “system of government that was inherently disrespectful of human rights” came to its knees. Others became involved in this as well through Texas CRI, which became SRIC. The Oblates here were further connected to the issue, Father Finn observed, through their brother Oblates in South Africa, answering the call to be in solidarity with them.
This same time period, he noted, also saw “the original incubation period for debt crisis for sovereign countries around the world, particularly in South America.” Colleagues there began raising the question of what could be done to stem the terrible indebtedness to private banks that was occurring, with governments borrowing money to purchase sophisticated military equipment to control their own citizens, often through torture or imprisonment. “What are we going to do about it and what can you do about it?” they were asked.
This work continues today on a variety of fronts, but the financial system, he said, “continues, for me, to be the lifeblood system that makes whatever happens in the remote corners of the world possible in terms of any financial transaction or any kind of commercial transaction.” The questions raised regarding this include: Is this fair and just and is there access to it by those who need it?
Another pressing issue is foreclosures, Father Finn related, with many people still fighting to keep their homes. He noted he had spent most of the day signing proxies for persons wanting to attend “the General Electric meeting in Detroit on the 25th of April, who want to go to the Bank of America meeting in Charlotte, who want to go to the Wells Fargo meeting in San Francisco.” These people, he said, have lost their reputations and are in danger of losing their homes.
Lastly, he praised religious communities, “be they parishes, monasteries, synagogues or mosques,” for having been on the forefront of innovation in various areas in society. Some of these were very small communities, he noted, but they provided space and support for innovations in financial services through such means as credit unions, cooperatives, community banking, low-interest seed loans and the like. They provided a space to develop and road test productive ideas.
That is, he said, “a real gift that we have that we dare not lose, because it is a great service to society as a whole.” He added, “I think we are at our best and our most creative when we use our institutional presence and our persevering presence as incubators.”
In conclusion, he told of his recent attendance at the ongoing Islamic Finance Project at Harvard, where around 400 persons from 50 countries were trying to sort out Shariah-compliant financing and banking. Data suggests, he said, that they are projected to grow from one trillion to four trillion by 2015.
This movement is being propelled, participants stated, by “the demand from people at the grassroots who are feeling like they are connecting with their faith with the way they use money.” Their people are wanting to do business with an Islamic bank which complies with the teachings of the Quran.
This, said Father Finn, should be a great blessing for us. “If we can do that at an interfaith level,” he said, “then I think we have a real message in terms of religious faith, identity and our role in society.” It provides a unique opportunity, he added, for us to follow their example and “to connect with other faith traditions that do indeed share common ground with us.”