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  • John Thavis

At the United Nations, the pope ‘makes it personal’ on war, economics and the environmen

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

In the middle of his address to the United Nations today, Pope Francis called international leaders to an “examination of conscience.” In every situation of conflict, he said, “real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be.”

“In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die. Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements,” he said.

These few lines encapsulate the pope’s entire outlook, whether in international affairs or in the way the church conducts its mission. It is a “make it personal” approach, and it is key to understanding this man and his papacy.

The speech was, as expected, largely an explanation of the church’s take on global problems including war, economics, ecology and the drug trade.

In a clear reference to violence by ISIS, the pope made a particular plea on behalf of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, who he said 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.”

Perhaps with the situation in the Middle East in mind, the pope gave the United Nations a mixed review on war and peace issues. In the course of its 70-year history, he said, the United Nations has proven capable of heading off conflicts through dialogue and negotiation.

But on some occasions, he added, the U.N. charter has been used as a pretext, releasing “uncontrollable forces which gravely harm defenseless populations, the cultural milieu and even the biological environment.”

He called for urgent efforts to work for a “complete prohibition” on nuclear weapons, drawing applause from the U.N. assembly. He offered strong support for the recent nuclear deal with Iran, saying the agreement was proof that political good will and patience can yield results.

One of the most powerful moments came when the pope spoke of environmental damage, citing his own “grave responsibility” to speak out about an issue that is crucial for humanity’s future.

The ecological crisis and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, he said, are the result of “irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy,” and can threaten the very existence of the human species.

He tied environmental devastation to a “relentless process of exclusion” that has its greatest impact on the poor:

In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste.”

Throughout the speech, the Latin American pope was a voice for the poor, especially when talking about economics. While praising the United Nations’ efforts in general, he was critical of the organization’s agencies and mechanisms that deal with economic crises.

He called for measures to make sure that developing countries are not subject to “oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.” Here, the pope appeared to be speaking from his own experience in Argentina, where economic collapse more than 15 years ago was followed by austerity measures demanded by international lenders.

Restoring hope for the world’s marginalized cannot be a matter of solutions dictated by the powerful, the pope said. “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

At the same time, he said, government leaders have a responsibility to protect basic rights needed for human development. The absolute minimum is lodging, labor and land, as well as spiritual freedom, which includes the right to education – including education for girls, which is denied in some places, he said.

Citing his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and his own recent encyclical on ecology, the pope said that defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize “a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman, and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions

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