Mgr Patrick O'Mahony asks if Barclays decision on South Africa shouldn't prompt some questions in church finance offices.
RECENT happenings regarding investment in South Africa raise the question once more as to whether "the children of this generation are wiser than the children of light". Many religious institutes, churches and dioceses in the United States, Europe and industrialised countries receive income from investments. Not all are concerned as to whether this income is received from conduct that is above moral reproach and, until recently, churches and other religious bodies have not given sufficient attention to this point, especially in regard to apartheid and other forms of exploitation.
Naturally, it is good stewardship to save and to obtain reasonable profits. Indeed it is difficult to see how the large infrastructure of schools, hospitals and social services could otherwise be maintained by churches and religious bodies. However, investments do carry corporate responsibilities. Shareholders are equivalent to employers and have corresponding moral obligations. This is particularly relevant to the churches and other religious institutes which are committed by vocation to justice and human rights and can be described as the "children of light." They should not place material gain before moral responsibility. Indeed it is becoming belatedly clear that profits from exploitation should have no place with people committed to the love of God and love of neighbour.
It is beyond dispute that multinationals have enormous influence in world affairs. There is grave concern in the international community about the conduct of some of these giants, whose tentacles spread like an octopus across the world, not only to places like South Africa, but also to other communities and countries where human rights are infringed, environment exploited, advertising abused and local cultures, like the Aborigines and the Indians, are threatened or destroyed. Consequently, when investments are held in these companies, one is faced with moral as well as economic questions. Frequently, dioceses and religious institutions proceed without any knowledge whatsoever as to whether these investments are infringing human rights and exploiting human beings. Often they neglect even where there is serious doubt, to take appropriate action.
It was this kind of reasoning that caused the National Commission for Justice and Peace to approach Barclays in 1972. At that time I was ViceChairman and a member of the delegation. Questions were raised with the Chairman, ViceChairman and two executives of the Bank regarding their conduct in South Africa — some of the areas covered were segregation, migrant labour, wage structure and black advancement, and industrial relations, to mention but a few.
In 1979, 1 had the responsibility of leading an exhaustive research into the performance of multinationals, not only in South Africa but also in South America, Australia and other countries. This resulted in the Archdiocese of Birmingham disinvesting from three companies connected with South Africa and later, in 1980, of disinvesting from ten companies which had failed to co-operate and disclose the requested information or had an unsatisfactory performance in the opinion of the Archdiocese.
It was encouraging also that some dioceses in the country and two religious orders did likewise. But much more vigilance is needed by all religious institutions and dioceses if they are not to be seriously involved through material co-operation in the infringement of human rights and exploitation.
The churches are in a strong position to influence the conduct of business. They are transnational in character and can provide a moral critique of the impact of business on a national and international basis. It is curious that so little attention has been paid to these serious responsibilities until quite recently. Indeed the present crisis in South Africa has sharpened awareness in this regard.
There is no doubt that there is a growing concern about business and its ethical dimension. People are beginning to insist that business must be accountable in regard to its employees, its products and the countries and environment affected by its operation. I have noticed this changing opinion in board rooms; many directors, chairmen and managers are much more willing to cooperate, especially when it is explained that investments are a form of stewardship and carry heavy responsibilities, particularly for churches and religious bodies.
The time is now appropriate for each investor, especially church investors, to rethink their position, particularly in regard to South Africa. It is not sufficient for a diocese to publish a list of its investment portfolio as if that justified its stance. Action is necessary, and ultimately disinvestment is required, unless it is beyond reasonable doubt that justice is being done. In the present situation it would be difficult to justify any diocese, church or religious body initiating new investments in South Africa because of its shocking record on human rights.
Moreover, there is a serious responsibility for all people, especially those committed officially to religion and the promotion of justice, to look more closely at their existing investment portfolio, not only in regard to South Africa, but in any place where justice is not practised and, consequently, people are threatened or exploited and dehumanised. This, of course, is even more necessary when we consider that western man possesses the bulk of the resources, business, trade and technical know-how in our global community. Perhaps the lesson of Dives is still very relevant!