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What Does Ethically-Related Investment and Ethically-Oriented Management of Savings Look Like? Notes in the Light of Recent Theological and Ethical Debate

It is obvious that money enters our lives on a daily basis and sometimes has a very positive value for our lives and those of our loved ones. At the same time, however, it sometimes has a reputation as something that is not talked about much among Christians, something from which one must keep a certain distance. It is no coincidence that the thematic issue of a German Christian monthly magazine Herder Korrespondenz which was published in May 2023 and was devoted to the topic of money and Church financing was entitled “Money is not talked about”.[1] After all, if we look at the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from 2004 and start looking for the term “money” in its extensive index, we can come to a rather surprising discovery: The term “money” appears here, but the index refers to only two places in the compendium where money is mentioned, and only marginally. Although the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has its own section dealing with economic life, we do not find a more comprehensive passage on the topic of money in general.

We do not even find a more detailed discussion of the topic of ethically responsible investment and management of savings here. At the same time, it is clear that investment is an activity that has an impact not only on the economic level, but also on the social and ecological level. It cannot be overlooked that this is a topic of ethical importance and needs an ethical reflection. However, reflection on the ethical context of investment has deepened in recent years – both in theological ethics and in ecclesial documents. Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, 2009 (n. 45), mentions the positive meaning of ‘ethical’ accounts and funds. The document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on the ethical issues of some aspects of the present economic-financial system from 2018 talks about money as a “good instrument” and “means to order one’s freedom and to expand one’s possibilities”.[2] In the conclusion, the document mentions that savings should be managed “directing them towards those enterprises that operate with clear criteria inspired by an ethics respectful of the entire human person, and of every particular person, within the horizon of social responsibility.”[3] The first Vatican document that deals with the topic more comprehensively is the recently published text of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences Mensuram bonam, which was published in November 2022 and has the subtitle “Faith-Based Measures for Catholic Investors: A Starting Point and Call to Action”.[4]

However, at the time of the publication of the document by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, there were already several important texts of bishops’ conferences that deal with the given topic in more detail. Mensuram bonam refers to some of them. These are, for example, the document of the Conference of Bishops of the United States of America from 2021,[5] the document of the Italian Bishops’ Conference from 2020,[6] guidelines of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference on the ethical management of savings from 2018,[7] or the text of the Belgian bishops on the same topic from 2017.[8] In 2015, a document entitled “Ethical-Sustainable Investment. An Aid for Persons Responsible for Finances in Catholic Institutions in Germany”, was published by the German Bishops’ Conference together with the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken). The paper was published in 2021 in a second updated edition.[9] A similar document was published by the Protestant Church in Germany. This detailed, more than 90-page paper, entitled “A Guide to Ethical-Sustainable Savings in the Protestant Church”, was published in an updated and revised fifth edition in February 2023 (the first edition was published in September 2011).[10] These texts are currently reference manuals for actors from financial practice in both churches in Germany, but have also become the subject of analysis and studies. In addition, in 2010, the “Global Economy and Social Ethics” Experts Panel working at the German Bishops’ Conference Research Group on International Church Affairs prepared a paper entitled “Changing the World through Investment? An Aid to Orientation on Ethically-Related Investment.”[11] Focused on these three texts published in the past years in the German speaking area, I would like to select and present some impulses for ethical reflection on investment and management of savings.

In recent years, more attention has also been paid to this topic in theological ethics in the German speaking area.[12] Not only has interest in this topic increased in recent years in German speaking theological ethics, but there have also been shifts in the approach to it: If previously the topic of the ethics of investment and management of savings was reflected mainly in connection with the teaching of cooperatio ad malum (the focus was on the question of how to avoid involvement in ethically problematic business areas or business practices), the focus of current debate is much more the perspective of how to manage savings and investment in an ethically responsible way and how to ethically co-shape the business environment and economic processes.[13]

Both Catholic (2021) and Protestant (2023) papers dealing with ethical and sustainable investment are primarily aimed at those who are professionally engaged in investing money in a Church environment or who manage Church finances. However, the paper of the Protestant Church in Germany explicitly states that it can still be of some help to individuals to manage savings and investment in ethically responsible ways.[14] Both papers are structured in a similar way: First, the fundaments of ethically anchored investment are reflected; then the principles are presented and explained; these are followed by the criteria, including concrete examples of practical criteria and ‘building blocks’ of ethically-related investment; and finally, suggestions for action are given. Among the criteria, three ‘building blocks’ are listed – an approach based on exclusion criteria; an approach based on ethical rating; and engagement.

Due to limited space, I would like to pay more detailed attention only to the proposals for action: The paper of the “Global Economy and Social Ethics” Experts Panel (2010) divides the proposals into four groups: considerations for asset investments of Churches’ institutional actors; considerations on asset investments of individuals; demands on the financial institutions with ethically-related investment products (here the themes are, for example, a consistent catalogue of standards, transparency or reviewability of set goals); and political consequences (here are four examples of economic arrangements that would contribute to the development of ethically-related investments).[15] This paper pays the most attention to the actions of individual persons in the given area out of the aforementioned documents published in German speaking areas. It highlights that households and private actors are dependent in their efforts to manage their savings ethically and sustainably on professional financial institutions. Due to the fact that individuals do not have enough information or the possibilities of appropriate communication channels, for them “the most important decision lies in the selection of the financial institution whose ethically-related investment products and fundamental orientation correspond most closely to their own values and whom they may expect to exert a relevant influence.”[16]

In this regard, financial institutions are a key actor for private individuals, as they are able, through their own specialized staff or by using the expertise of external service providers, to dispose of information that is essential for the ethically-related investment. The ethically targeted selection of a financial institution is therefore a crucial point. Buying into “funds which are exclusively focused on ethically-related portfolio investment”[17] is also a meaningful option. The authors of the paper further emphasize: “As asset ownership increases, the possibilities open to the asset owners grow, and hence also the degree of their obligation to contribute to the social and ecological orientation of the corporations sector.”[18] In addition, individuals can get involved in other ways, such as supporting institutions and activities with financial donations, the aim of which is to contribute to the ethical anchoring of the business and financial sectors.[19] Informing about the ethical implications of investment and management of savings can also be an important activity.

It is obvious that the ethically responsible handling of money also applies to management of savings and ethically-related investment, because with their decisions in this area, those who save and invest money do not only decide on the amount of returns, but their decision also has consequences on the ecological and social level. Saving money and investment cannot therefore be oriented “exclusively to financial-economic criteria but must also take ethical criteria into account.”[20] One of the challenges of theological ethics is to contribute to ethical sensitization in this area and to bring the ethical reflection of investment into the public space.

[1] Cf. Herder Korrespondenz Spezial 1/2023: Über Geld spricht man nicht: die Kirche und ihre Finanzen. See: https://www.herder.de/hk/hefte/spezial/ueber-geld-spricht-man-nicht-die-kirche-und-ihre-finanzen/.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (2018): Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones. Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System, 15 See: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20180106_oeconomicae-et-pecuniariae_en.html..

[3] Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones, 33.

[4] Cf. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (2022): Mensuram Bonam. Faith-Based Measures for Catholic Investors: A Starting Point and Call for Action. See: https://www.pass.va/en/publications/other-publications/mensuram_bonam_eng.html.

[5] Cf. Committee on Budget and Finance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2021): Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. See: https://www.usccb.org/resources/socially-responsible-investment-guidelines-2021-united-states-conference-catholic-bishops.

[6] Cf. Conferenza Episcopale Italiana (2020): La Chiesa Cattolica e la gestione delle risorse finanziarie con criteri etici di responsabilità sociale, ambientale e di governance (Documentazione CEI, 9 Marzo 2020).  See: https://www.chiesacattolica.it/notiziario_cei/anno-2020/notiziario-2020-numero-3/documento-la-chiesa-cattolica-e-la-gestione-delle-risorse-finanziarie-con-criteri-etici-di-responsabilita-sociale-ambientale-e-di-governance-3713/.

[7] Cf. Österreichische Bischofskonferenz (2018): Finanzanlagen als Kooperation. Richtlinie Ethische Geldanlagen der Österreichischen Bischofskonferenz und der Ordensgemeinschaften Österreichs). See: https://www.bischofskonferenz.at/dl/muoMJmoJKMoJqx4KJKJKJKkolml/Richtlinie_Ethische_Geldanlagenfinal.pdf.

[8] Cf. La Conférence des évêques de Belgique (2017): Charte de bonne gestion des biens d’Église en Belgique. See: http://www.cathobel.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/17-05-11-Charte-de-bonne-gestion-Contenu.pdf.

[9] Cf. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz – Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (Hg.): Ethisch-nachhaltig investieren. Eine Orientierungshilfe für Finanzverantwortliche katholischer Einrichtungen in Deutschland. 2., aktualisierte Auflage. Bonn, DBK 2021. See: https://www.dbk-shop.de/de/publikationen/sonstige-publikationen/verschiedenes/orientierungshilfe-ethisch-nachhaltig-investieren-2-aktualisierte-auflage.html.

[10] Cf. Kirchenamt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (Hg.): Leitfaden für ethisch-nachhaltige Geldanlage in der evangelischen Kirche(EKD-Text 113). 5., aktualisierte Auflage. Hannover, EKD 2023. See: https://www.ekd.de/leitfaden-ethisch-nachhaltige-geldanlage-67972.htm.

[11] Cf. Wissenschaftliche Arbeitsgruppe für weltkirchliche Aufgaben der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Hg.): Mit Geldanlagen die Welt verändern? Eine Orientierungshilfe zum ethikbezogenen Investment. Eine Studie der Sachverständnisgruppe „Weltwirtschaft und Sozialethik“. Bonn, DBK 2010. See English edition of the document Changing the world through investment? An aid to orientation on ethically-related investment: https://www.dbk-shop.de/de/publikationen/publikationen-wissenschaftlichen-arbeitsgruppe-weltkirchliche-aufgaben/studien-sachverstaendigengruppe-weltwirtschaft-sozialethik/changing-the-world-through-investment.html.

[12] This development is summarized, for example, by Klaus Gabriel. –

Cf. Klaus Gabriel: „Das Richtige vor dem Rentablen. Zur Entwicklung und zu den aktuellen wirtschaftsethischen Herausforderungen der ethisch-nachhaltigen Geldanlage“. In: Irene Klissenbauer – Franz Gassner – Petra Steinmair-Pösel – Peter G. Kirchschläger (Hg.): Menschenrechte und Gerechtigkeit als bleibende Aufgaben. Beiträge aus Religion, Theologie, Ethik, Recht und Wirtschaft (FS Ingeborg Gabriel). Wien, V&R Unipress 2020, 637–650, 637.

[13] Cf. Klaus Gabriel: „Primat der Ethik. Die kirchliche Geldanlage vor dem Hintergrund der Cooperatio ad malum-Debatte“. In: Michael Rosenberger – Walter Schaupp (Hg.): Ein Pakt mit dem Bösen? Die moraltheologische Lehre der “Cooperatio ad malum” und ihre Bedeutung heute (= Studien der Moraltheologie: Neue Folge 5). Münster, Aschendorff 2015, 201–210, 209; Bernhard Emunds – Stephan Goertz: Kirchliches Vermögen unter christlichem Anspruch (= Katholizismus im Umbruch 11). Freiburg i. Br., Herder 2020, 195–197, 202.

[14] Cf. Leitfaden für ethisch-nachhaltige Geldanlage, 6.

[15] Cf. Changing the world through investment?, 54–56.

[16] Changing the world through investment?, 13.

[17] Changing the world through investment?, 50.

[18] Changing the world through investment?, 50–51.

[19] Cf. Changing the world through investment?, 51.

[20] Martin M. Lintner: „Ethische Kriterien für sozial und ökologisch nachhaltige Geldveranlagung“. In: Jörg Ernesti – Martin M. Lintner – Markus Moling (Hg.): Liebes Geld – schnöder Mammon. Kirche und Finanzen (= Brixner Theologisches Jahrbuch 10). Brixen-Innsbruck, Tyrolia 2020, 99–116, 113.