A distribution of seed in Central African Republic by Caritas member Catholic Relief Services.

Putting People First: A Catholic Agenda for Sustainable Development

Michel Roy, secretary-general for Caritas Internationalis, the church’s global confederation of relief and development agencies, got off a plane yesterday in New York and was already feeling a little under the weather. Seems chasing after Pope Francis can be an exhausting job.

Roy will have little time to recuperate unfortunately. He has a full schedule this week representing Caritas as discussions begin at the United Nations. High level talks this week are aimed at no less than establishing new sustainable development goals which promise to end extreme poverty, tackle inequality and take action on climate change by 2030.

The new goals could represent a historic shift, says Roy. SDGs would move the geo-political economic agenda away from a model based on economic growth at all costs—one that counted on the elusive trickle-down effect to diminish global poverty and inequities—toward a new paradigm that would rely on measured growth that puts people and the environment first.

The global poor have been struggling with an existing economic strategy that “pushed people out,” a strategy of exclusion, says Roy.

“We are witnesses to this” and the devastating real-world impact of that strategy. Helping people build or rebuild their lives has given Caritas staff some expertise on the matter that Roy believes should be of use to the policy-makers at the U.N.

“We hope that the [new] sustainable development goals will further the fight against poverty and the promotion of justice for all,” says Roy.

That fight, and reforming the global economic paradigm in this manner, will be a hard sell at the United Nations, but it will be especially difficult to pitch to U.S. political leaders and the heads of multinational corporations. They have had a free, and not so invisible hand, in setting the agenda in the near past.

It will merely require their conversion, Roy suggests. That’s a perfect challenge for the globally popular Pope Francis as he begins his U.S. tour. Pope Francis is acting this week as a sort of grand public relations representative for the church. He’ll have a chance to make the Catholic case for sustainable growth at the United Nations on Sept. 25.

Roy can’t think of a better man for the job.

“Francis is a real leader on this,” says Roy, since as far back as the positions he detailed in the “The Joy of the Gospel.” In that apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis first warned of an “economy of exclusion,” an “economy that kills” and a “globalization of indifference.”

“He is really ahead of us and pushing us,” says Roy. The secretary-general thinks that the pope will similarly push the global leaders meeting this week for the 70th U.N. general assembly in New York.

The pope, Roy acknowledges, is making it a little easier for fieldworkers like Caritas to gain access to power discussions in the United Nations, even the White House. Noting the broad appeal of the pope’s “green encyclical, “Laudato Si,’” which included a strong warning on the dangers of climate change and the importance of integral development, Roy says, “His message has been so widely welcomed, it makes our own messages so much easier to be heard.”

The papal U.N. push comes at a critical time, says Roy. “Are the governments and the multinational corporations ready to change their vision of what development is? I’m not sure of this,” says Roy. “How big the conversion these people will be called to make…I have a lot of doubt they can do it.”

And time is running short, he warns. Shifts in personal consumption habits and geopolitical mitigation commitments must be made soon before the effects of climate change lead to vast dislocations of people in some of the poorest parts of the world. The worlds’s vulnerable will suffer the most otherwise, says Roy. “We want to be hopeful” and the momentum generated by Pope Francis helps, he says, but “we need a real conversion.” And that conversion would best begin in North America.

Roy explains, “The United States is the most important state and government on earth, so the way it addresses this will be fundamental to how the rest of the world responds.”

Roy thinks that the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, one extended by the instruction of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical, could be a big help to economic policy makers in New York and Washington. “Now that we are at the edge of cliff, if we don’t put humanity back at the center, than we are going to fall,” he says.

Roy’s schedule this week is a busy one. In addition to managing the UN delegation and related discussions, he’ll also attend a high-level climate dialogue with CIDSE, an international alliance of 17 European Catholic development agencies, on Sept. 26 that will include a keynote address from Caritas Internationalis President Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila. A Caritas official said this event will likely prove an important moment for Catholic agencies globally, as they exchange views and consolidate Catholic action ahead of the U.N. climate meeting in Paris in December. Last but not least is another Caritas-related event, a discussion of the SDGs among Catholic relief agencies to be hosted by Manhattan College on Sept. 24, beginning at 10 a.m.