Is the mining industry having a “coming to Jesus” moment? Possibly, if one can judge by a recent Vatican gathering of mining industry leaders and activists.
The “Day of Reflection” convened in September by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace (a sort of in-house Vatican think-tank on social justice issues), according to an official document, meant to provide “an opportunity for constructive review of key mining-related issues and to identify concrete actions that would make a positive difference in the future.” Among industry leaders participating were the CEOs of Newmont, AngloAmerican, Rio Tinto and Indian company, Zamin. Also participating were Oxfam America’s president Ray Offenheiser and representatives from Catholic NGOs and clergy from different parts of the world, including Rev. Seamus Finn of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a theologian who has been a leading shareholder activist on mining issues.
The timing of the Vatican meeting is notable given the continued—and in some cases growing—opposition to mining by some clergy in a number of predominantly Catholic countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines. In a Christian Science Monitor article recently, a prominent Church official in El Salvador put it in rather stark terms: “Catholicism promotes life. Mining threatens life.”
This opposition is combined with the seemingly more socially-progressive posture of Pope Francis, who has voiced greater sympathy of the plight of the poor, even appearing to reconcile with clergy members of the liberation theology school, who have long played a key role in social activism in the region. Coming from Latin America, site of some of the most intense mining-related conflicts (including in the Pope’s native Argentina), the Pope is surely aware of these issues. As well, Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council, who presided over the Day of Reflection, comes from Ghana, where debate over the value (or lack thereof) of mining to the country’s economy is a daily topic of discussion.
For the Vatican, mining conflicts are a social issue it can’t ignore, especially given the high-profile role played by some of its clergy in them. For the industry, the church is a potential obstacle to its continued efforts to expand ever further into developing countries. To be sure, opposition to mining is far from being formal Church doctrine and the Church itself is not monolithic in its views. Conservative elements of the Church in some countries have taken a strongly pro-mining stance. Archbishop of Lima, Juan Luis Cipriani, himself a former mining engineer, is one example.
It’s unclear what the Church – and the industry for that matter – intend to do specifically to address the problems discussed at the Vatican gathering. The Church and other faith institutions clearly have an important role to play in addressing the conflict and injustices to which mining can contribute. As holders of moral authority within communities, clergy can support efforts by communities to defend their rights and protect their livelihoods. They can help communities engage effectively in dialogue and negotiations with companies to ensure communities receive appropriate benefits. And they can use their influence to hold companies and governments accountable when things go wrong. Churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, should take up this responsibility in partnership with their communities.
It’s too early to know what will ultimately come of this high-level dalliance between the mining industry and the Vatican. The industry recognizes it has an image problem, not only with the Church but with other key social actors as well. It has invested millions in recent years to promote its contributions to society and development via the International Council on Mining and Metals and other venues. For its part, the seemingly more progressive direction of the Church under Pope Francis could potentially be a strong force for good for communities in mining impacted areas. The reconciliation of these two tendencies will be important for industry (and Church) watchers to keep an eye on in coming years.