The pope at the UN (second in a series of four)

Is the pope the greatest moral figure on the planet? Some say so. He and the Dalai Lama are often linked as the two most notable religious leaders on the planet. However, although the Dalai Lama is politically astute, and ready to comment on relations between Tibet and China, he usually addresses individuals in a personal way rather than speaking politically. Francis, by contrast, addresses individuals in their capacity as global citizens, sharers in what he calls “our common home.” His approach is communitarian: we are all in this together.

This approach was clear in his address to the General Assembly of the UN on Friday, September 25. In a representative sense, the whole world was watching. Through their ambassadors at the UN, he said, “I greet the citizens of all the nations represented in this hall.” His address was the fifth  by a pope, with all of his predecessors having expressed their esteem for the UN as an absolutely necessary institution. More than did his predecessors, however, he spoke as someone already enormously popular, well-known and appreciated within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church, something that could not be said of Paul VI or Benedict XVI, and only in part of John Paul II, whose easy way with crowds was contradicted by his heavy hand on reform movements within the church.

So what did he say? He paid homage to all those who work for the UN and thereby contribute to world peace, and especially to those who have died in the service of the UN, notably Dag Hammarskjöld. He affirmed the role of the UN in “granting all countries, without exception, a share in, and a genuine and equitable influence on, decision-making processes.” He added to this a sharp word on “International Financial Agencies,” asking them to ensure that they do not subject countries to “oppressive lending systems.”

He made a strong link between concern for the environment and what he called “the vast ranks of the excluded.” By exclusion, he meant the ways in which the poorest in society are forced from their homes and way of life (I think here of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, their lives assaulted by rapacious economic development), and who suffer when the environment suffers. Exclusion is also marked by the sexual exploitation of children, the marketing of human organs, and the drug and weapons trade, corrupt activities which take advantage of social dislocation, holding out the ideal of all human beings to be “dignified agents of their own destiny.” He expressed confidence that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change in December “will secure fundamental and effective agreements.” I hope he is right in this confidence; we will very soon see.

The importance of the family was another major theme; as I write, he is in Philadelphia attending a huge international gathering of Catholic families. This is an action on his part which will probably go some way to mollify those conservative Catholics who are disturbed by his lack of emphasis on what John Paul II and Benedict XVI regarded as markers of  “Catholic identity”–opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception and the ordination of women. In this connection, he said that the “fight against exclusion” demands the recognition of “a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman.” This statement can be read in two ways, either in opposition to homosexual relations or not. Doubtless it will be parsed both ways by many commentators.

As I expected, he condemned nuclear weapons, saying that it is urgent that we “work for a world free of nuclear weapons … with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons.” These words were welcome; at the same time I confess to disappointment that he did not go as far as some progressive Catholics hoped he would, by declaring the very possession of nuclear weapons immoral. The inference is a simple one. If you possess them, you are leaving open the possibility of using them, something which would be catastrophic and inhumane in the extreme. On the other hand, he registered his satisfaction that agreement on nuclear weapons had been reached between Iran and the G+1 (the members of the Security Council plus Germany)–without mentioning the name of Iran. Had he said this in his address to the US Congress, he would have offended the Republicans who detest this agreement, just as had he spoken of nuclear weapons in that speech he could have been faulted for “picking on” the US. The UN was exactly the right venue to say what he said in both regards, in that representatives of all the nations involved in the Iran agreement and all the nuclear-armed nations were there to hear him.

Watching him as he waited to speak at the UN, I noticed moments when he seemed lost in his own thoughts, and when his face seemed to indicate that he was feeling the burden of the occasion and of his office. Later I learned that his motto as pope is
“lowly, but chosen.” Even when making very strong statements, he generates a sense of humility and co-responsibility, rather than being someone who uses his position in an imperious way, as have some of his predecessors. He commands our attention by his emphasis on and practice of invitation and inclusiveness.


Recommended: my friend Michael Higgins, president of the International Thomas Merton Society, and vice-president of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT (and a Canadian in spite of it all!), is writing daily blogs on the papal visit. They may be read at


Coming up in this series:

(3) The pope and his Catholic critics

(4) The pope and the other Christian churches

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