Roman Catholic theological positions on climate change and social justice have motivated the Diocese of Monterey to campaign for a new government-controlled regional electricity utility for three Central California coastal counties. This public agency, called Monterey Bay Community Power, will soon provide electricity for customers in Santa Cruz County, San Benito County, and Monterey County. It will compete for customers against an existing investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).
The lobbying effort for this “community choice aggregation” regional agency begins at the top. The Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey has sent letters to elected officials to urge support for the agency. And the Deacon of Social Justice Ministries for the Diocese has spoken in favor of the agency during public comment at various local government meetings. But the activism is not limited to church leaders.
As part of the lobbying campaign to establish this proposed agency, the Diocese of Monterey has coordinated speakers to promote the agency at church services, collected signatures on petitions to support it, encouraged notices about supporting the agency in church bulletins, and organized people to attend local government meetings to speak in support of it.
The Diocese collaborates in this grassroots activism with the Romero Institute, a Santa Cruz-based Catholic social justice policy center, to lobby for Monterey Bay Community Power as a program to fight global climate change and regional poverty. The Romero Institute in turn has created another program called Greenpower to lobby for the agency.
Is it legal for a church to lobby so vigorously for a government program? Apparently it is. Among these three organizations, the Roman Catholic Church has attained full freedom of speech to argue for the establishment of this new government agency.
In contrast, the private corporation that will face new competition funded by ratepayers has its speech strictly limited, so much so that it cannot speak at all about the proposed agency in these three counties. A state law enacted in 2011 (Senate Bill 790) greatly restricts the ability of PG&E to market itself against community choice aggregation agencies such as Monterey Bay Community Power.
Because electric customers in these three counties will need to actively notify Monterey Bay Community Power if they want to “opt-out” and keep PG&E as their electricity supplier, supporters of the new agency anticipate that 85%-90% of PG&E customers will by default become customers of Monterey Bay Community Power.
From a certain perspective, breaking the monopoly of a public utility could benefit ratepayers by driving down prices for electricity and improving service. But dependable electricity at competitive prices is not a primary goal of the Diocese of Monterey.
Leaders of the regional church movement for government-controlled electricity generation are inspired by a authoritative call from Pope Francis – articulated in a 2015 Papal encyclical entitled Laudito Si – for governments to adopt policies that stop climate change while also helping the poor. Combined with other encyclicals, Laudito Si is moral authority for the Catholic Church to support state and local initiatives in California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reorganize economic and social institutions so that wealth and power are distributed more equally.
This religious call to save the earth and heal the poor is taken seriously by California government leaders. For example, Governor Jerry Brown and mayors of some of the state’s major cities attended a workshop and symposium at the Vatican in 2015 about global climate change. Governor Brown brought to this conference a resolution from the California State Legislature: Senate Resolution 37 called on President Obama, the U.S. Congress, and California’s executive and legislative branches to consider the policy implications of the June 18, 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis on climate change.
(See my Flash Report article “Hobnobbing with the Pope to Stop Climate Change: The Inside Scoop” for more details on how California elected officials participated in this conference.)
The Vatican obviously sees California as a place with potential to adopt public policies that advance its teachings on global climate change and social justice. Its Vatican-sponsored U.S. Regional “World Meeting of Popular Movements,” held in Modesto, California on February 16-19, was intended to “create an ‘encounter’ between Church leadership and grassroots organizations working to address the ‘economy of exclusion and inequality’ by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice.”
There appears to be no evidence of public criticism or objections to how the Catholic Church and allied Catholic policy organizations are influencing public policies at the state and local level in California related to climate change and social justice. Perhaps this an indication of strength, as shown in a 2015 article in the Sacramento Bee entitled “The Modern Rise of the Catholic Church in California (in Eight Charts).” It’s becoming politically hazardous in California to challenge the Roman Catholic Church on economic and social justice issues.
News Coverage of Vatican Influence on California Public Policy
Monterey Bay Community Power
For environmental activist, fighting for the planet and the poor are the same thing – Monterey Herald – March 7, 2017
Powered by faith: Catholics are fueling support for a regional independent power agency – Monterey Herald – March 4, 2017
Monterey bishop: Green power protects the environment and the poor – Monterey Herald – January 20, 2017
Diocese keen on alternative energy – Salinas Californian – January 20, 2017
Monterey, Calif., diocese enters ‘new era’ with sustainable energy program – National Catholic Reporter – October 3, 2016
Letter to Parishes Re: Green Teams – June 7, 2016
World Meeting of Popular Movements
‘Unbreakable’: World Meeting for justice opens in California – National Catholic Reporter – February 17, 2017
Vatican inequality talks start in California farm heartland – San Jose Mercury-News (via Associated Press) – February 16, 2017
Vatican-Led Meeting in Modesto Tackles Walls and Social Justice – Modesto Bee – February 16, 2017
Modesto’s Central Catholic Readies for Large Vatican-Led Meeting – Modesto Bee – February 11, 2017
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.