Pope Francis touched on a litany of international issues including war, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, education and slave labour when he addressed the United Nations (UN) in New York on Friday. Unsurprisingly, he spoke of the need to preserve the world’s ecological system and warned that further damage perpetuates “today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.” He gave the thumbs up to the recent nuclear deal in Iran. He urged world leaders to examine their consciences, stop drawing up proposals and act on urgent global issues that need attention. He also appealed to them to set aside partisan and ideological interests to serve humanity. BY RUSSELL POLLITT.
This is the first time that a Pope has addressed such a large gathering of world leaders according to Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, who invited Francis to the UN General Assembly.
Pope Francis called world leaders, as did his predecessor Paul VI almost fifty years ago, to pause for a moment of “recollection, reflection and even of prayer” so that we can “think back over our common origin, our history, our common destiny.” He said that the danger comes neither from progress or science but, rather, from our inability to use them well. “Human genius, well applied, will surely help us to meet the grave challenges of ecological deterioration and of exclusion,” he said.
The day before he took the podium in New York City at the UN headquarters, he addressed a joint sitting of Congress in Washington DC. He touched on some sensitive political issues at the Capitol (some he mentioned again at the UN) including climate change, migration, and the abolition of the death penalty. Many of them have also been key themes in his papacy.
Francis called for action on global poverty and condemned the weapons industry. He also highlighted the lack of opportunities for young people. In his speech to the UN he told politicians never to forget that they are dealing with the lives of real people, not ideals or ideologies, but people. “If the representatives of the States can set aside partisan and ideological interests, and sincerely strive to serve the common good,” Francis said, then the UN can be a place that pledges a “secure and happy future for all generations.”
Ban Ki-moon looked towards Francis for support. Before the Pontiff’s address he said that he was hoping that Francis will “send his spiritual guidance to all the member states of the United Nations… I really count on his leadership.”
This is the fifth time a pontiff has been invited to address the UN. Paul VI was the first pope to go to New York in 1965. John Paul II addressed the UN twice (in 1979 and 1995) and Benedict XVI visited in 2008. Francis reaffirmed “the importance which the Catholic Church attaches to this Institution and the hope which she places in its activities.”
The Pope begun by praising the UN for “the codification and development of international law, the establishment of international norms regarding human rights, advances in humanitarian law, the resolution of numerous conflicts, operations of peace-keeping and reconciliation, and any number of other accomplishments in every area of international activity and endeavour.” He went on to say that all these achievements were “lights which help to dispel the darkness of the disorder caused by unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness.”
Francis acknowledged the work that lies ahead. “Many grave problems remain to be resolved, yet it is clear that, without all those interventions on the international level, mankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities. Every one of these political, juridical and technical advances is a path towards attaining the ideal of human fraternity and a means for its greater realisation,” he said. Francis said that justice is an essential condition for achieving universal fraternity. He also said that the “limitation of power is an ideal implicit in the concept of law itself.”
The Pope told the General Assembly, in his forty-five minute speech, that the misuse and destruction of the environment is “accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.” In forthright language Francis said, “In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.”
The Pope said that poor suffer the most for three reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded, and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. To loud applause Francis said, “They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.”
Pope Francis said that the reality of dramatic exclusion and inequality has led him, with all Christians, “and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions.” The Pope then spoke of the Paris Conference on Climate Change (COP21). In many ways this is unusual. Popes do not normally try to stack the deck like politicians do. Francis, however, clearly feels so strongly about the environment degradation that he has decided to put all on the line. He wants the Paris Conference to “secure fundamental and effective agreements.” Vatican analyst, John Allen Jnr, says that Francis sees Paris as a critical turning point and opportunity when it comes to dealing with climate change.
Francis told the world’s leaders that “solemn commitments” are not enough even though they are a necessary step forward. He said that world demands of its leaders “effective, practical and constant steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment.” By doing this, he said, will put an end “as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion.”
He then went on to name the “baneful consequences” of social and economic exclusion. Francis listed human trafficking, the marketing of organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labour – including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime. He said that facing the seriousness of these crimes we must “avoid the temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.”
He went on to remind the political elites in the UN chamber that they must remember they are dealing with “real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”
Throughout his address, delivered in Spanish, Francis sought to put a human face on the many challenges facing world leaders. He championed integral development saying that this cannot be imposed but needs to be developed in communion with others. The pontiff said this presupposes and requires the right to education and he said, specifically (to enthusiastic applause), that this includes the education of girls who are excluded in some places. In championing basic human rights, like education, lodging, labour and land, Francis also reminded leaders that religious freedom is a fundamental right. He reaffirmed the right to life and, he said, “… more generally, what we could call the right to existence of human nature itself.”
Symbolically, in New York City, the centre of the global economy and bastion of the capitalist system, the Pontiff bemoaned the consequences of the “irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power.”
Many of the Pope’s critics think that he has socialist leanings and is against capitalism. This is to misread him. He made himself clear again at the UN: he is concerned about the abuse of the system that enriches the powerful – often through corrupt means – and forces millions around the world to live in squalor. “International Financial Agencies should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence,” Francis said.
Speaking about war, Francis said nations become preoccupied with strategy and disagreements while it is “our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer, and die.” Francis said that war was a negation of all rights and an assault on the environment. He urged the UN to work “tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”
The Pope spoke about the need to have a world free of nuclear weapons. He praised the recent nuclear agreement in Iran and said that this is “proof of the potential of political good will and law.” He said that an ethics and law based on the threat of mutual destruction is contradictory as this “would end up as nations united by fear and distrust.” Sincerity, patience, and constancy are needed to bring about a world free of these types of weapons, he said.
Francis made a renewed call for peace in the Middle East, North Africa, and other African countries. He highlighted the plight of persecuted Christians in these areas. But he also recognized that many Muslims suffer too because of the conflict, “even members of the majority religion have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly.” He went on to say that they too have been “forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses, property.”
Towards the end of his address the Pope appealed for a concerted effort to fight “A war which is taken for granted and poorly fought.” The Pope said that the narcotics trade is “silently killing millions of people.” Francis asserted that the drug trade is often “accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and others forms of corruption.”
Francis also pressed world leaders not to postpone certain agendas to the future: “The future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of world-wide conflicts which increase the number of the excluded and those in need.”
At the end of his address Francis assured the UN of the support and prayers of all the faithful of the Catholic Church. He said that it was his prayer and that of the Church that the UN “will always render an effective service to mankind, a service respectful of diversity and capable of bringing out, for the sake of the common good, the best in each people and in every individual.”
After a standing ovation at the UN Francis headed for the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Centre. He lamented “a mind-set which knows only violence, hatred and revenge” and warned against the kind of “rigid uniformity” of belief that leads to fanaticism.
At the site Francis met with the families of victims, touching photos of loved ones lost, offering physical embraces and words of empathy. He said he was torn with emotion standing at the site of such tragedy. “Here grief is palpable. We weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue. Here we mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good,” the Pope remarked.
On Saturday Pope Francis travels to Philadelphia, the last leg of his visit to the US, to attend the World Meeting of Families. After working his way through the conflicted and divided politics of the US and appealing to world leaders to take action, he now has to negotiate his way through a conflicted and divided church on family matters. DM
Photo: Pope Francis delivers his speach to the United Nations on the eve of the General Debate of the UN General Assembly in New York, New York, USA, 25 September 2015. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT
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