Pope Francis’ appeal to the United Nations General Assembly to care for both the environment and the human person was actually a deft move to introduce more Church teaching to the body, a U.N. expert explained.
“In an interesting fashion throughout this whole visit, so far [Pope Francis] hasn’t taken that tone of correcting people or criticizing people. His tone has been using what they already find familiar and agreeable, and trying to take them a few steps closer to the Christian faith,” said Fr. Chris Pollard, an attaché at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations from 2009 until 2012, in an interview with CNA.
In talking about care for the environment, Pope Francis “knows that the U.N. is very concerned about the environment. That’s why he’s using this theme, to get in the points,” he said.
Some of these other “points” include care for the unborn and respect for the cultures of developing countries.
The Pope’s address to the United Nations General Assembly came at the beginning of their 70th anniversary term, just before the assembly’s special summit this weekend to adopt the finalized draft of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The goals set in place a massive development agenda for the next 15 years.
Since he is the first Roman Pontiff to address the body at the beginning of its term, when all the heads of state were present, it was possibly “the largest gathering of heads of state to hear a Pope ever in human history,” Fr. Pollard noted.
Previous Popes have addressed the general assembly: Blessed Paul VI did so in 1965, St. John Paul II in 1979 and 1995, and Benedict XVI in 2008.
In his lengthy address, Pope Francis urged the assembly to adopt concrete solutions to address the problems of the day with climate change and pollution as well as human problems like poverty, religious persecution, and “economic and social exclusion.”
He warned them to avoid an “ideological colonization” of the third world that seeks development solutions which are really an unjust imposition of an “alien” culture on others.
“That is a reference to Christians and other religious minorities suffering not just violent persecution but suffering at the hands of aid organizations that want to impose same-sex marriage or contraception or abortion,” Fr. Pollard explained.
In a phrase sure to turn heads, Pope Francis recognized the “right of the environment” – which sounds like he’s attributing a sort of “disembodied right” to the natural world as its own “entity,” Fr. Pollard noted.
In reality, however, Francis is rooting environmental stewardship in human dignity and orienting it toward God, the Creator, as he did in his ecology encyclical Laudato Si’.
“He makes very clear he’s using that phrase to ground the environment in, principally, the rights of human beings. The dignity of human beings,” Fr. Pollard said. “And the fact that creation was created by a Creator.”
The Pope emphasized this by using a capital “C” to refer to God as Creator in the draft of his address, he noted.
While caring for the environment, Francis ultimately cares about human action and what humans do to be stewards of God’s creation, Fr. Pollard explained..
“Obviously he does care about the environment and he cares about the world, but what he cares about primarily is human beings and how they live, and how they treat each other,” Fr. Pollard said.
“Do they live responsibly? Do they live with charity? Do they live with temperance? Do they live with justice? Do they live with virtue?”
“That’s really what it’s about, but he’s using the environment as a vehicle to get the attention of people who already care about it. And then he’s leading them closer.”
And naturally, other matters like care for the unborn and the poor flow from this care for the environment, and Pope Francis has already made this connection on his U.S. trip.
“To the joint session of Congress, [Pope Francis] made a reference to life needing to be protected at all stages, and at the end of that speech he talked about a culture where we discouraged people from having children – so he’s getting at contraception, and a false preoccupation with population,” Fr. Pollard pointed out.
The Holy Father also emphasized the importance of religious liberty as a necessary foundation for human flourishing, and appealed for the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa:
“I must renew my repeated appeals regarding 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,” he said.
“That is the legal definition of genocide,” Professor Robert Destro of the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law told CNA. Pope Francis did not use the term “genocide,” but his words made it crystal clear that is what is taking place, he explained.
The Pope’s appeal to the U.N. is so important, Destro explained, because Christians and others who are persecuted are the “canaries in the world coal mine,” and Pope Francis is warning the West that religious freedom could deteriorate there if those persecuted in Asia and Africa are not protected.
“If they’re suffering, then we’re in a really deep problem. The worse their suffering, the worse the trouble we’re in,” Destro said.
The Pope’s overall point here was that “anything that will advance the welfare of minority religious communities will by definition create more peace,” he added.
He also noted the Pope’s use of the phrase “effective distribution of power” in describing a way to “limit power” through law so that no person or group can be “absolute” and “bypass the dignity and the rights of other individuals.”
This is critical for maintaining religious liberty abroad, Destro explained.
Without “effective distribution of power,” there is no due process, Destro noted, and persecution that is now taking place around the globe is allowed to fester.
In his address, Pope Francis also emphasized the role of the U.N. in fighting poverty and promoting education. “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny,” he said.
One key aspect here is promoting education for all, Fr. Pollard explained, but with the primacy of the family in mind.
Many “poor people, and especially girls” are “deprived of education,” he explained, “sometimes as a matter of limited resources because of extreme poverty, sometimes because of, ironically, religious pressure or religious prejudice against educating women and educating girls.”
“So when we hear the Holy Father talk about this, or even when we see the phrase ‘gender equality,’ there actually is a robust Catholic way that we can understand this: that girls deserve a basic education even as much as boys,” he added.
Yet the Pope made clear that the family is still the primary educator. “The right to education,” he said, is secured “foremost by respecting and reinforcing the primary right of the family to educate its children, as well as the right of churches and social groups to support and assist families in the education of their children.”
“The family is the basic unit of society, he’s very clear,” Fr. Pollard maintained.
The Pope also implored the U.N. to fight poverty. Yet development must be understood in the Catholic sense of “integral human development,” Fr. Pollard explained.
This development is “not just giving money to people but actually improving their condition,” he said, and “has to have as its focus that human being who needs assistance.” He added that “their entire well-being has to be our concern, not just some material things.”
The best way to do this is “by improving the economy,” he added.
Pope Francis had quoted paragraph 129 of Laudato Si’ in his address to Congress, “which makes reference to the nobility of business to create wealth, to create jobs, to improve peoples’ situation,” Fr. Pollard explained. Thus development isn’t just about giving money to the poor, but about creating for them a means to make a living.
Adelaide Mena contributed to this report.
By Matt Hadro