Protestant and Roman Catholic church groups are now using part of their financial resources, invested in American corporations, as new weapons to battle for social changes around the world.
The groups, armed with their stock certificates, are planning to attend stockholders' meetings of at least 58 major corporations across the country this spring and argue in behalf of resolutions affecting a wide range of issues.
The issues include the promotion and sale of infant formula in underdeveloped nations, the image of women projected by television networks programming and the question of cooperation of American-owned corporations with racist practices in southern Africa.
The resolutions are sponsored by mission or pension boards of the more liberal Protestant churches and by orders of Catholic priests and nuns.
The challenge to various large companies is coordinated by a small New York organization, spun off from the National Council of Churches, called the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
Typical of the church-sponsored challenges to corporate practices were the resolutions filed last week against J.P. Stevens and Co. Stevens, the nation's second-largest textile manufacturer, has been battling since 1963 efforts to unionize its workers.
Five church bodies last week filed shareholder resolutions demanding disclosure of information about minority-hiring practices at Stevens and about labor policies and practices in general.
Filing the resolutions were the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, with 22,600 of the 11 million outstanding shares of Stevens stock; Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll Fathers), 20,000 shares; Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, 10 shares; the Institute of Christian Doctrine, 5 shares; and the Franciscan Justice and Peace Office here, three shares.
The long resistance of the Stevens Co. to unionization is beginning to take on the same urgency on the social agenda of liberal Catholics and Protestants that was once occupied by the battle between Cesar Chavez and his farmworkers and western farm owners.
The biggest corporate challenges by church groups this year are aimed at racism in southern Africa. According to Tim Smith, director of the Center for Corporate Research, 15 religious groups "with about $10 million worth of stock" have filed resolutions against five American banks, demanding that they stop lending money to South Africa.
The church groups maintain that the loans help perpetuate institutionalized racial discrimination in South Africa.
For decades, church finance officers have used investment portfolios to express their social views in a negative way. United Methodist agencies, for example, steered clear of investments involving alcohol or tobacco.
With the growing opposition in the last 1960s to the war in Vietnam, church groups reduced their holdings in companies that provide obvious materials of war.
In 1969, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Mission Board, embarrassed by a bequest it received which included several hundred shares in Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, sold the stock at once - at a tidy profit.
At the same time, the idea of using stock holdings to affect social problems was beginning to grow. A year later the same mission agency joined four other church groups in sending a team to Puerto Rico to investigate the environmental and economic impact of mining operations there of a company in which they all held stock.
"The wealth of church holdings adds up to billions and billions of dollars," Smith said. Church pension boards have the largest holdings, he said, estimating that pension agencies for the ministers of United Methodist and United Presbyterian churches alone control over "half a billion dollars each."
Mission boards of such churches as Episcopal, United Methodist, United Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and American Baptist have huge endownments, built up over more than a century by donations as well as bequests. The Interfaith Center in New York includes these boards among its 26 Protestant and Catholic members.
The resolutions of the churches are more often than not overwhelmingly defeated at the corporate stockholders' meetings.
But Smith said that, "In the case of about 25 per cent of the resolutions asking for disclosure of information, the church representatives and the company will come to an agreeable settlement and the resolution will be withdrawn."
Ruth Bushko, the center's director of publications, said the Episcopal Church won support of the majority of the stockholders of Phillips Petroleum last year with a resolution changing corporate bylaws to require "all employees to follow all state and federal laws" regarding political contributions.
Bushko also maintained that church stockholder pressure two years two years ago forced four American oil corporations - Texaco, Continental, Getty and Phillips - to cease operations in Namibia, which South Africa administers as the territory of Southwest Africa, despite United Nations calls for its independence.