WASHINGTON–“Keeping the Church in its place” has long been the objective of businessmen who control the investment committees of religious institutions. Since the late Sixties, a growing number of clergy has been challenging the position that the Church’s ethical and moral posture should have no relevance in determining the criteria for investment and shareholder action in the country’s large corporations.
Documenting the need for using the Church’s investment power, along with its other ample wealth, to advance the cause of corporate responsibility is the four-year old Corporate Information Center of the National Council of Churches. With an annual budget of little more than $100,000, the dedicated CIC staff has been issuing reports on specific corporate behavior in such areas as minority employment policies, armaments, environmental pollution and impact on people in underdeveloped countries.
Every month, CIC details in its newsletter, The Corporate Examiner, information about corporate responsibility proxy fights, reports, commentary and other corporate-related action which it believes religious institutions should know about.
In asking the question: “What is the Church getting for its money?”, Neal F. Fisher writes in one CIC report:
“We cannot simply distinguish a program planned to help people and the supposedly neutral investment program earning maximum yield to support these programs. What the Church does with its money is a part of its program. The human help or hurt accomplished through investment is a part of what the Church gets for its money.”
With CIC reports such as “General Motors-Apartheid and Business in South Africa,” or “Church Investments, Technological Warfare and the Military-Industrial Complex,” itdid not take long for the reaction to set upon the National Council of Churches (NCC). Industrialists, bankers and corporate lawyers active in church affairs frowned on such Church involvement. They counseled that the income on stock investments might be jeopardized and that further backlashes against the tax-exempt status of Church wealth might occur from continued controversy.
Such caveats were taken seriously by some clergy associated with the NCC. During the last year, there was pressure within the NCC to close down or cut back the work of the CIC. This crisis is now over and the CIC seems assured of continued support as an NCC affiliate. But its funds must increasingly come from foundation and other outside sources.
Frank P. White, Director of CIC, wants to bring the issues of the Church’s wealth out into the open so that the questions of the accountability and use of that wealth can be determined in the light of religion’s ethical teachings. Protestant churches alone, he says, hold over $20 billion in corporate stocks and bonds. For such investments, he believes, each church investment committee should adopt social criteria for investment choices based on consumer, minority, environmental, armaments and other practices of various companies. Following this, he urges the use of the Church’s symbolic power to humanize corporations by such strategies as (1) Church officials petitioning company management; (2) refusing to buy stock in particular companies; (3) rewarding a “better” company by investing in it; (4)using shareholder proxy rights to challenge management; and (5) initiating shareholder class action suits.
White is also planning, with the Interfaith Committee on Social Responsibility in Investments, to hold public hearings on strip-mining in Appalachia and Montana this Spring. Father Joseph O’Rourke is working at CIC to stimulate similar action among Catholic clergy. Several sisters organizations are considering joining the Interfaith Committee and the Bishops’ Advisory Council has urged two national Catholic organizations to establish social criteria for their investments.Undoubtly, this growing ferment will focus more attention on other controversial questions. Why have the Church investment committees, run by businessmen, produced such a relatively low average return (under 4 percent) from dividends, interest and capital gains over the years? What about the extent of tax-exemption for Church properties that range quite far from Church related activities?
Anyone interested in the role of the Church in furthering Church and corporate responsibility can write to the Corporate Information Center, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10027 for additional material.