On Friday, September 25th, 2015 at 8:30 a.m, Pope Francis will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Here’s five points to keep in mind as Francis becomes the fourth pope to address this international forum:
1.) Building on “Laudato Si’” Momentum: The pope’s “green” encyclical has created a sensation around the world and has energized Catholic—even secular voices—who have been calling for more urgent action on climate change. “Laudato Si’” has major fans at the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Christiana Figueres Olsen, the Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who has expressed her personal gratitude for the “magnificent encyclical that His Holiness Pope Francis has blessed us with.” Pope Francis hopes to contribute to the agenda at the framework’s December meeting in Paris and may use this address to extend on the themes of “Laudato Si’” regarding the need to respond to the crisis of global warming and the moral obligation of the care of creation.
The pope will remind delegates of the need for a conversion in the developed world, rethinking consumption patterns that generate global inequities and immiserate the world’s most vulnerable. As global delegates meet to reset the global economic agenda toward sustainable development goals, look for the pope to promote a Catholic understanding of “integral development” that promotes human dignity and protects the gifts of creation, that does not give profit primacy over people. He may touch on economic critiques that date back to his “Joy of the Gospel,” an apostolic exhortation which deplored an “economy of exclusion,” an “economy that kills” and what the pope memorably termed the “globalization of indifference.
2.) “No more war!” A Call to Nuclear Weapons Abolition. Pope Francis joins a select club. Pope Benedict addressed the United Nations in 2008, articulating a “duty to protect” victims of oppression even within their own national borders; and St. John Paul II urged rich countries to help poor nations in 1995; but Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff at the U.N. podium.
In October 1965, during a 14-hour whirlwind visit to New York, after meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf-Astoria (the Holy See and the United States did not have diplomatic relations at the time), Pope Paul VI addressed the general assembly, pleading for peace in a nuclear-armed world. “No more war! Never again war! Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind, ” he said.
Pope Paul quoted the only Catholic president of the United States before an American public still traumatized by his assassination just a few years before his visit: “Listen to the words of the great departed John Kennedy: ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.’”
It is likely that Pope Francis will recall and repeat that plea.
In recent months the Holy See has joined its voice to a growing international civil society movement seeking the abolition of nuclear weapons. This has been the church’s firm position since 1963’s “Peace on Earth,” but the Holy See’s tweaked its strategy toward a nuclear bomb ban in the 1980s with a modified acceptance of deterrence as a peace-keeping method as long as it remained a step on the path to complete abolition. Now the Vatican, apparently frustrated with the pace of disarmament and concerned that a nuclear accident of “limited” nuclear exchange remains an existential threat, has reasserted a demand for abolition and questioned the moral foundation of deterrence.
3.) Protecting Religious Freedom and Combating the Modern Persecution of Christians. In the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, grave persecution, unlike anything seen in centuries perhaps, has alarmed the Holy See. The end of the Christian witness throughout the Middle East and the Holy Land has moved, some fear, from the unthinkable to the inevitable. The Vatican has long sought “reciprocity,” that just as a diversity of religious expression is accepted in the West so should it be acceptable in parts of the world where Christians represent a vulnerable minority. Pope Francis may reiterate the demand for reciprocity while he seeks stronger commitments from the United Nations to protect religious minorities and the the freedom of religious expression which is enshrined article 18 of 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
4.) Ending a “Piecemeal” World War III. Surveying a landscape of conflict in 2014 across Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and throughout Africa, Pope Francis memorably suggested that the world was already experiencing a World War III, this time a piecemeal war, a cobbling-together of suffering and misery in conflicts all over the world. The primary mission of the United Nations is the promotion of peace and the end of war-making. Pope Francis may insist that the United Nations do more to enforce its primary responsibility of interrupting or preventing conflict, at a minimum to accept what has come to be known as the “responsibility to protect” noncombatants, promulgated by Benedict in 2008, even from the persecution of their own governments. Dysfunction within the Security Council where a single veto has often frustrated multilateral defense of peace, has long been criticized as the source of U.N. impotence. Pope Francis may join others in demanding a structural reform of the United Nations that will allow the international institution to better police global peace when member stats defy the institutional commitment to dialogue and the negotiated resolution of conflict.
5.) Protecting Global People on the Move: The plight of the world’s migrants has been a primary concern since the inauguration of this papacy. A visit to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa was the first trip Pope Francis made out of Rome. After a series of tragic migrant losses at sea, Francis pointedly went to Lampedusa to celebrate Mass with the survivors of perilous Mediterranean crossings from North Africa. Since that time the flight of the world’s refugees from zones of conflict or abject poverty has only accelerated and produced a host of new tragedies. Pope Francis has insisted of the right of the world’s migrants to seek safety and hope across borders, whether they are the desperate fleeing a relentless conflict and ISIS terror in Syria or Iraq or women and children escaping from economic hopelessness and the drug wars of Central America for the borders of the United States. The pope may insist that the United Nations use its faculties to address this global crisis and establish minimum standards for the protection, assistance and ultimately the welcoming of the world’s migrating people.