Last week was the six-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia that killed twenty-nine coal miners. I will not soon forget that Saturday’s vigil Mass homily when the soft-spoken pastor declared those responsible for the explosion—executives of Massey Energy, including CEO Don Blankenship—should be charged with murder.
In that Wheeling, West Virginia parish, one of the wealthiest in the state, I believe I heard the prophetic gospel being proclaimed. Soon after, that priest was transferred to another parish. Why?
During Holy Week Christians recall the story of a disciple who betrayed Jesus and his message of justice by accepting dirty money. In our own day, and in our own church, we know how these stories play out. When the church accepts money that is the fruit of injustice, it can become an accomplice to crucifixion and can slip a noose around the neck of its own credibility. People of faith who seek justice in Appalachia, and who are conscious of the role that King Coal plays here, have been asking whether dirty money from the fossil fuel industries is compromising the church’s prophetic voice.
“Why does [the Diocese] not oppose the coal industry’s death-dealing safety violations, its repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages, and the ongoing scourge of mountaintop removal mining that devastates the land, terrorizes nearby communities, and contaminates the water of anyone downstream?”
Bishop Michael Bransfield and the Diocese Wheeling-Charleston have been reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the greatest causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry. The Bishop’s official statement on that historic mining disaster came in the form of a pastoral letter on mine safety: “On My Holy Mountain.”
The takeaway from Bransfield’s letter was that the incident “raises concerns.”
Really? The coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.” After so many decades of mining accidents in the Mountain State, many West Virginia Catholics asked: is this the best the Church can do?
We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics, but why should we not challenge the church in the same way? Pope Francis has been especially attuned to the question of how money can corrupt the integrity of the church, both in terms of individual church leaders, such as the famously ousted “Bishop of Bling,” and at an institutional level, as in his ongoing efforts to reform the Vatican Bank.
If it doesn’t accept dirty money from the fossil fuel industries, I don’t understand why the Diocese doesn’t promote its own teachings on social justice and the environment. And why does it not oppose the coal industry’s death-dealing safety violations, its repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages, and the ongoing scourge of mountaintop removal mining that devastates the land, terrorizes nearby communities, and contaminates the water of anyone downstream?
And why did Bishop Bransfield publicly downplay the relevance of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ for West Virginia, citing in his comments the importance of coal to the state’s economy? When asked these questions, diocesan officials such as Fr. Brian O’Donnell, the executive secretary of the West Virginia Catholic Conference (the public policy arm of the Diocese) reply that “it wouldn’t be prudent” to speak strongly about these things.
In a recent email and phone conversation, Fr. O’Donnell also dismissed any concerns about the influence of coal money on the public policy statements of the diocese. “It’s just a non-issue in such discussions,” he told me. “I’m flabbergasted the topic is even coming up.”
Certainly a deeper and more sustained conversation is necessary.
In order to yield fruit, such conversations require some degree of financial transparency on the part of the church. This is rarely an easy task, as dioceses are not subject to financial transparency by law and most financial information is kept private or offered in vague terms. As Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky explained to me, financial reports are sometimes presented in a simple way in order to be meaningful to the average parishioner—but that this should be done in the interest of transparency, not in an attempt to obscure information. “The diocese has a responsibility to be transparent in its finances,” he said.
Catholics in West Virginia have questioned both Bransfield’s personal and diocesan expenditures for years now, but only some information has been made public. Diocesan spokespeople and Catholic Charities officials have stated publicly that the church in West Virginia does draw money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments”—and it is surely significant that one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council has a background as a lobbyist for the National Coal Association.
Beyond this, the Diocese will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general. (Diocese spokesperson Bryan Minor declined an interview for this article and Catholic Charities of West Virginia Executive Director Mark Sliter did not respond to requests for one.)
“Residents of the coalfields know the powerful churches tend to stand with other powerful people, not with them. When Appalachian church hierarchy consistently accepts money from coal barons, the ‘prudent’ approach muzzles any social justice teaching.”
However, in 2013, when Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County, they had to mention publicly that the project was made possible by a large donation from coal baron Jim Justice. In addition to several coal mines, Justice is the owner of the famous Greenbrier Resort, is West Virginia’s sole billionaire, and is currently seeking the Democratic nomination in a bid for governor.
Justice’s mining companies have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety and environmental violations. He has been fined and found in contempt of court for failure to pay debts to contractors. Recently, equipment at one of his Virginia mines was seized after failure to pay property taxes.
In 2008, a less public transaction was made between the Diocese and King Coal. According to multiple sources, the Bishop gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, WV to accept a variety of charitable gifts from Massey’s infamous CEO, Don Blankenship.
Blankenship, whose mansion overlooks the small coal town, was convicted late last year for conspiring to violate mine safety and safety standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine in connection with the 2010 disaster and sentenced last week to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. Blankenship funded the construction, from the ground up, of a brand-new gymnasium for Sacred Heart school, complete with brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.
And while Fr. Harry Dunn, former pastor of Sacred Heart, told me that the gifts were made with no strings attached—and that he had personally told Blankenship neither he nor Massey Energy should expect the church’s endorsement or blessing—the coal baron did, on at least one occasion, speak to students at the school about the coal industry and the controversial practice of mountaintop removal.
Clearly the charitable giving of people like Justice and Blankenship is good for their community standing. Indeed, Justice Irene Berger received over 100 letters citing Blankenship’s charitable activity in the lead-up to his sentencing.
I asked Fr. O’Donnell whether gifts from coal executives might influence statements or policy suggestions of the Bishop. He reminded me of Bransfield’s (rather weak) pastoral letter on mine safety, as well as a somewhat obscure statement from the West Virginia Council of Churches opposing mountaintop removal mining. “We mention it in conversations,” he said. But “banging a drum about it publicly would only be perceived by folks in the coalfields as yet another attack. And we really want coalfields people to be in a calm mood to participate in conversations about the region’s future.”
But what is the value of an official statement if it is not made public? It is curious, too, which “folks in the coalfields” the Diocese chooses to stand with in this case. What of those coalfield residents who have to deal with the effects of mountaintop removal day after day, knowing all too well the systemic causes of poverty, joblessness and ecological devastation?
“Back here in West Virginia, many people are still utterly paralyzed by the question ‘What will we do without coal?’ If we are not careful, this fear can lead us into hypocrisy, preaching about justice and the care of creation but living in another reality entirely.”
If the Diocese has released a statement on the issue of fracking, which is also affecting an increasing number of communities in the state, it has not publicized it widely either. The same reluctance to speak loudly and clearly can be seen in the Diocese’s response to worker justice issues. In 2013, during the Fairness at Patriot campaign, when church officials were asked why the bishop was not saying anything publicly in defense of the miners whose pensions and insurance were being threatened, they said the bishop was working “behind the scenes.” Similarly, the brief diocesan statement issued on this year’s Right to Work legislation was so vague it could have been interpreted in just about any way whatsoever.
Unfortunately, we know which way many of the Catholic West Virginia’s legislators voted.
Covert communication and dealings with the coal industry do not protect residents in the coalfields from feeling attacked. Residents of the coalfields know the powerful churches tend to stand with other powerful people, not with them. When Appalachian church hierarchy consistently accepts money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching. (Despite his mine safety pastoral, Bransfield has yet to join Catholic groups and others specifically calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mine safety regulations.) Truly, all of this suggests that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received, not by coalfield residents, but by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them in strongly and in public.
The mere association of the church with industries like coal does not follow the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own socially responsible investment guidelines. Those guidelines recommend “divest[ment], or to refuse to invest… based on the principle of cooperation [with evil] and the avoidance of scandal” in extreme cases where “companies whose products and/or policies are counter to the values of Catholic moral teaching or statements adopted by the Conference of bishops,” such as those who regularly violate labor and environmental standards.
An increasing number of Catholic universities and religious orders believe that industries with a pernicious refusal to adhere to such standards would qualify for divestment. Why are Catholic dioceses not leading by example, especially given these recent comments from Pope Francis?
[W]e often choose to tread the wrong paths in search of a justification, justice, and peace…. I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.
Acceptance of “dirty money” in our Appalachian churches points to the same cozy relationship between capitalism and religion that liberation theologians have rightly denounced in many other contexts. Powerful corporations and their representatives give portions of the profits of their injustice as a “gift” to the church. The church then uses this dirty money to fulfill acts of charity while rarely addressing the causes of injustice in the first place.
In such contexts, the church has become part of the unjust system itself, playing chaplain to an unjust and destructive economy, offering prayers and charity to that economy’s victims while staying on the payroll of deadly industries.
Bishop Stowe of Lexington spoke to me about the money the fossil fuel industries pour into public relations. This use of the industry’s money, he says, might be even more dangerous than any gifts the church would receive, but “it would not be healthy for an industry to provide diocesan funding for structures and other projects or for the church to become dependent on them, especially industries with a record of wrongdoing.”
Stowe, appointed less than a year ago, says that his diocese is reviewing their investments in light of Laudato si’ and that the strategy of divestment would be called for if anything concerning were found in the process.
Back here in West Virginia, many people are still utterly paralyzed by the question “What will we do without coal?” If we are not careful, this fear can lead us into hypocrisy, preaching about justice and the care of creation but living in another reality entirely.
As Chris Hedges recently wrote, “Fear has driven church and seminary leaders into the hands of those the Gospel condemns as exploiters of the poor and the oppressed…. The institutions believe alliances with the powerful and the wealthy will save them. They are wrong. Once they stand for nothing they become nothing.”
In this six-year anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the church in Appalachia has begun to speak out against injustice with the same penetrating truth as the independent panel that investigated the event and the priest who named this tragedy a murder. We are challenging our church leaders and administrators when they forge relationships with the likes of Don Blankenship, Jim Justice, and Newt Gingrich and, through them, with the economic and ecological injustice that they represent.
It’s time for all of us, at all levels of the church, to cut ties with the fossil fuel industries in all its forms. We don’t need their dirty money.