The visit of Pope Francis to the United Nations today comes at a critical moment in the life of the institution and the human family as a whole. As the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary, this intergovernmental body is under enormous pressure to respond effectively to the complex cross border challenges that threaten the common good. In his address, the pope touched upon several of these increasingly complex issues, including drug trafficking, the threat of nuclear weapons, the arms trade, and economic inequality. Following the general themes highlighted by Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si’ (2015), the pope focused on two interrelated issues that stand behind many of the cross-border challenges facing people and planet today.
First, grounding himself in the Christian faith, he speaks of the “right to the environment” and the threats posed by its “misuse and destruction.” The pope stressed our deep connection and dependence on God’s creation and our sacred obligation to engage it for the good of others and “the glory of the Creator.” Second, he speaks to a reality where many are excluded and marginalized. Affirming a rights-based approach to development, the pope does not mince words: “Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and grave offense against human rights.”
This dual concern for both people and planet is what Francis means when he calls for an “integral ecology.” In the language of the United Nations, the intersection of the efforts to eliminate poverty and protect the environment is captured by the phrase sustainable development, which is the theme of the U.N. Summit that officially began after the address of the Holy Father.
Already, as the pope mentioned in his address, the United Nations is doing a tremendous amount of good work, but it is a success rate that is rarely celebrated. “It is clear,” he said, that without the work of the United Nations, humanity “would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities.”
However, like his predecessors, he called for “reform and adaptation” of the current institutions of global governance in order to pursue “the ultimate goal of granting all countries without exception, a share in, and a genuine and equitable influence on, decision-making processes.”
While it may surprise some who are ideologically opposed to the United Nations, the Catholic Church has been a leading voice of support for the structures of global governance. Catholic thinkers, in fact, were the first to propose the creation of an international authority. Starting with Pope Benedict XV in 1919, modern Catholic social teaching has supported, and called for reforms of the League of Nations and the United Nations. With Pacem in Terris (1963), Saint John XXIII endorsed the idea of a universal “public authority with power, organization and means” to manage the global common good (#137). Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI followed suit and called for strengthening the UN in their social teachings and addresses to the UN General Assembly.
Building on this tradition, Pope Francis makes three important proposals for the reform and renewal of the UN system. These proposals are at the heart of his address and speak directly to present deliberations on the future of the UN. First, Francis echoes a controversial 2011 “Note on Financial Reform” from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to call for “greater equity” and power distribution in intergovernmental bodies, some of which reflect more the world of 1945 than 2015. With this call, the pope lends his support to the hotly debated proposals to reform the UN Security Council and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
Second, Francis insists that the intergovernmental system must develop effective juridical frameworks that can hold governments to account for their “solemn commitments.” This is precisely the debate at the United Nations now on how to follow-up on the promises that will be made with the new set of Sustainable Development Goals. Justice, as he insists, demands that leaders adopt “a constant and perpetual will.” Developing more structures of compliance and accountability will mean that notions of state sovereignty need to change so that the U.N. system can have more power over governments, including through the creation of “instruments of verification” to measure, evaluate and regulate commitments. This point was made by Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate who called for the development of an international system “with real teeth” (#67) and later in 2011 by a controversial “Note on Financial Reform” from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Finally, the pope calls for a more participatory form of governance which would not subordinate the human beings of this planet to the ideas and ideologies of governments and even the U.N. System. While he does not mention it directly, the theme of subsidiarity is present here. We must not forget that the U.N. structures and norms exist to serve people. The women and men who are victims of exclusion, poverty, war and forced displacement must be allowed “to be dignified agents of their own destiny.” In practical terms this means empowering people, and the pope points to the important role of educating girls in this regard. But it also means involving members of civil society in the work of the United Nations system. As he stressed in his address to popular movements in Bolivia in July, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.” As such, the future of the United Nations must also include more representative voices of NGOs, religious groups and civil society.
2015 is a critical year for the United Nations. The U.N. Summit and 70th Session of the General Assembly are taking up an important set of “Sustainable Development Goals” or the new “Global Goals” to guide the international community for the next 15 years with the chief and ambitious goal of, “eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030. These goals also include targets that address hunger, climate change and war. From 30 November to 11 December, the international community will also meet for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It is here where the leaders of our governments will decide on how to respond to the Climate Change Crisis. As Francis reminds us, Christians have a “grave responsibility” to “speak out” and take action. A more robust and effective system of global governance must be part of the solution if we hope to bring about the changes envisioned by Pope Francis.