Friday, September 25, 2015

The Pope at the UN

For the fifth time in 50 years, a Pope has addressed the United Nations General Assembly. The first was the spectacular - spectacular because of the novelty of such trips at that time - visit to the UN of Blessed Pope Paul VI almost exactly 50 years ago on October 4, 1965. That was followed by three more such speeches - by Saint John Paul II in 1979 and 1995 and Benedict XVI in 2008. Today, Pope Francis has continued that tradition - continuing too the long-standing tradition of exaggerated enthusiasm for the UN on the part of the Holy See - exaggerated because of the great gap between the Holy See's estimation of the UN's accomplishments and the actual reality of its 70 years. Thus it was to no one's surprise when the Pope praised the UN's achievements as "lights which help to dispel the darkness of the disorder caused by unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness." conceding that "many grave problems remain to be resolved," the Pope affirmed that, without the UN's "interventions on the international level, mankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities." It is easy to pass over that as ritual rhetoric adapted to the setting, but still it is a most astonishing claim!

Much more importantly, though, than such apparently obligatory rhetoric in praise of the UN, Pope Francis then went on to speak quite eloquently of the nature of law and its implicit limitation of unchecked power in the world, even invoking Ulpian's classic maxim, Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius sum cuique tribuendi. He challenged his audience to remember “that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we 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.”

Unlike some other traditions of political and social thought, Catholic social teaching has never been shy about the purpose and responsibilities of government in promoting the common good. Thus, "government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights.”

As expected, an overarching theme of the address was the environment - appropriately so not only in light of Laudato Si', but also in light  of the forthcoming Paris Conference on Climatic Change, in anticipation of which Pope francis endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Not surprisingly, the Pope spoke eloquently on what he called "a true 'right of the environment'," which exists, he said, for two reasons:

“First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. …. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.” In support, he quoted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI: "The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”
This lead him to highlight the natural-law foundation for both for the defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion: "a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman (cf. Laudato Si’, 155), and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions (cf. ibid., 123, 136)." This was undoubtedly a much-needed corrective to the direction UN elite ideology has taken in recent decades! And, lest the point be missed, he returned to this priority again later in his speech: “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.”
Moving on also to other issues, the Pope also praised the recent nuclear agreement with Iran As “proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience and constancy. I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious, and bring forth the desired fruits with the cooperation of all the parties involved.”
He also called attention to “the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.” And he challenged “those charged with the conduct of international affairs” to see in such situations “a grave summons to an examination of conscience.” 
All in all, another excellent presentation of key components of the Catholic outlook on world politics and international relations!

Later this afternoon, the Pope went up to Our Lady of Angels School in East Harlem to see Catholic education and Catholic Charities at work in the schools and social services of the archdiocese of New York. Surrounded there by immigrants and the children of immigrants, Pope Francis certainly seemed to enjoy himself, while providing the secular world with a more living window into Catholic social teaching!

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