Pope Francis’ address at the United Nations marked a slight difference from the speeches that have characterized his pontificate’s diplomatic activity to date. Putting aside the traditional topics of the “duty to protect” and the thoughtless adoption of “sustainable development goals,” Pope Francis returned to the notion of “integral human development,” voiced out of his concern over ideological colonization, and he warned the United Nations that it becomes a dictatorship anytime it tries to impose new rights on nation-states. In this regard he cited the defense of the unborn and demanded freedom of education.
Pope Francis had treated all of these themes already during his pontificate. But they had been kept to one side, apart almost from the core of his message. Because he continuously advocated social justice, life issues were thought to be out of fashion. According to many commentators, the Church was advancing toward a new “glorious” future dedicated to the mere care of the poor and marginalized, far from any cultural battle and far from the cries of the “cultural warriors.”
This is the reason that Francis’ pontificate gained so much media consensus, and so much attention from the political world, especially those further from the Catholic Church. They thought they had finally found an ally in the Catholic Church.
At the United Nations, Pope Francis surprised everyone. His address was perhaps the most important of any Pope, as there had been never before been such a huge gathering of heads of states and prime ministers in front of a Pope – the speech coincided with the first day of the summit for the adoption of sustainable development goals.
In front of such an audience, Pope Francis returned to the notion of integral human development. In the end, sustainable development is concerned with data and indices, but not with the human being; whereas integral human development in Catholic thought is the source for real development. Integral human development leads to the common good, the center of focus of the Holy See’s diplomatic activity.
Granted, Pope Francis has not abandoned some of the “politically correct” language that the secular world loves, since he always tries to bridge differences, more than to reinforce them. This is the reason he concedes some ground when phrasing certain notions, in order to reach the largest possible audience.
That this was the tenor of the trip to the United States was proven by the way he dealt with the issue of religious freedom. In the United States, Catholic institutions are fighting in order to win their right to conscientious objection over “ObamaCare”, the health care insurance law enacted under the Obama administration. This health care law mandates the availability of contraceptives, so every institution must provide in their health insurance plans for every form of contraceptive permitted by law, including condoms and the “morning after pill”. ObamaCare permits a compromise: religious institution may refuse to pay out the expenses for birth control and the government will refund them. But this is a compromise, not true religious freedom.
Although the issue is hot in the United States, Pope Francis did not directly mention it in his speech during the welcoming ceremony at the White House on September 23. But that evening, after the Mass for the canonization of Junipero Serra, he made an unscheduled visit to the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group that had appealed against the obligatory contraception provisions of ObamaCare. The Pope’s was a symbolic gesture (there are at least five appeals against ObamaCare in the United States), aimed at showing on which side of the issue he stands.
Even the address to Congress on September 24, fashioned for a typical US audience, followed the same principle of not calling things by their names. Hence, the normalization of relations between Cuba and United States was described merely as “efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.”
When the Pope made the decision to canonize the Franciscan missionary, Fray Junipero Serra, opposition was raised because Serra was accused of having forcibly converted the Native Americans – an accusation that many other missionaries have faced. Pope Francis overcame the issue just by mentioning that “those first contacts were often turbulent and violent,” and then by concluding that “it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”
Civil rights were a constant concern for Pope Francis – perhaps the reasons behind it were the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray last April while in the custody of the police in Baltimore, and for this reason the Pope mentioned Martin Luther King on two occasions – at the White House and before Congress. The idea of a possible last-minute change in the papal schedule to allow an impromptu visit to the Martin Luther King Memorial was floated, and there was even an attempt to organize it, but the conditions to undertake it could not be met.
Beyond mention of Martin Luther King – and Thomas Merton and Abraham Lincoln – Pope Francis also praised the example of Dorothy Day. This woman was at first exclusively and deeply involved in social action, but then came to understand that it would all be in vain if her life were not centered on Christ. Is this the pathway that Pope Francis hopes for liberation theology?
The Pope’s address to Congress also contained an attack on financial power, which, he said, must never take precedence over political power. In this address he offered the long-awaited clarification of his policy on the free market, which has aroused so many critics, especially in the United States. Grounding his words on the Preamble of the American Constitution, the Pope noted that “if politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.” And he added: “Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”
In this way, Francis hoped to rebut the accusations of economic illiteracy, coming mostly from the States. Unfortunately, he did not actually pronounce either of these statements, though they were both contained in the official version of the speech. It was a matter of distraction, it seems – the Pope was reading in English, a language he does not know well. Speculations about how to interpret this lapsus immediately arose. Even in this case, it was an indirect way to tackle the issue at stake.
Back to the speech in the United Nations, in the days before the speech, a source familiar with the Vatican diplomatic world explained that “in diplomacy, one must be content to get as close to the maximum achievement as is possible, the goal is not the maximum.” And he let it be understood that no specific mention of abortion would be contained in the speech, but instead the fact that “no one must be left behind.”
After this conversation, something certainly happened. Pope Francis’ address to United Nations was further refined, parts of the speech were smoothed out and rewritten. In the end the speech was first of all grounded on the principle of transcendence, combined with the need for a diplomatic approach to thorny issues. His approach might seem “New Age”, as he never mentioned God, nor any Gospel passage. But this is how Pope Francis wants it, since in trying to speak to everyone, he does not want to offend non-believers. He is certain instead that faith can be spread indirectly, through attraction to it.
This approach is not new for Pope Francis: he did not even mentioned God in the addresses to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe, while he referred to transcendence.
It is noteworthy that the Pope spoke instead of integral human development, thus departing from the rhetoric of sustainable development goals, behind which there is also the attempt to introduce the right to abortion into the legislation of the UN member nation-states. Pope Francis did not support this cause. He stressed instead that “the common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.”
The reference to the “unborn” is also important. Pope Francis is often said to back social issues more than life issues, and on the basis of this alleged imbalance the “adapters” of the doctrine of the Church are carrying forward the ongoing discussion which will flow into the upcoming Synod of Bishops. But on life issues there is no way to manipulate Pope Francis. Even in front of the US Congress, he spoke of the defense of human life at every stage of its development – meaning from conception to natural death.
These specific passages of the Pope Francis’ address to the United Nations may begin a new phase in his diplomatic addresses. The style will always be Francis’ own, meaning that he will pay close attention to the possible feedback and rebounds of any declaration – note that the Pope praised the US-Iran nuclear deal any direct reference to it. Beyond this approach, he may also be wishing to turn again toward a “diplomacy of truth”, that is a diplomacy that witnesses about what is true in the eyes of the Church, specifically its comprehensive social teaching from abortion to integral disarmament. It means that the Church will not remain silent, as long as there could be a diplomatic advantage in speaking out.
The Holy See has also undertaken this approach of a diplomacy of truth in order to defend persecuted Christians. In an unprecedented move, Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Holy See Permanent Observer at the United Nations’ office in Geneva, promoted and finalized in March the publication of a joint statement that explicitly mentioned the persecution of Christians. And the United Nations undertook a commitment to put into action concrete initiatives to defend persecuted Christians in so forceful a manner that there was a hope the Pope would go even further in tackling the issue and remind the United Nations about the commitment it undertook. The Pope did something like this, and dedicated one of the most precise passages of his speech to persecutions, with specific references to the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, the Middle East, Syria and Ukraine. It was one of the few passages in his speech without indirect references.
The Pope also called for respect for the Charter of the United Nations. This passage, too, indirectly referred to a hot issue, that of the so-called “new rights.” But it also asked for a needed freedom of education.
In Pope Francis’ words, “when the Charter of the United Nations is respected and applied with transparency and sincerity, and without ulterior motives, as an obligatory reference point of justice and not as a means of masking spurious intentions, peaceful results will be obtained. When, on the other hand, the norm is considered simply as an instrument to be used whenever it proves favourable, and to be avoided when it is not, a true Pandora’s box is opened, releasing uncontrollable forces which gravely harm defenseless populations, the cultural milieu and even the biological environment.”
Many points of view can be glimpsed in this latter passage. It includes Bl. Paul VI’s tireless call for peace, Benedict XVI’s concern for the disregard of natural law, St. John Paul II’s push for the application of human rights, the general preoccupation of the Church as “values” are constantly being imposed upon nations, and a general concern that the world lacks spirituality which might in turn lead to a loss of reason (Benedict XVI had widely spoken about that).
The Pope has treated all of these topics from the perspective of development – and this also explains his concern over the environmental issue. He articulates his reasoning as based in concrete sociological data. However, the address at the United Nations has something more. This something makes one think that even Pope Francis may now be convinced that he has to go beyond the mere snapshot of today’s generations. Now, he seems to be moving on to consider principles. Is this his real direction? And, if so, how will the secular world react?