Pope Benedict took to the world’s stage in New York City this morning, the third Pope to address the United Nations and, by extension, the world.
I will confess that upon hearing his speech, I had a twinge of disappointment at first. To a certain extent, I was comparing it to the speech by Pope John Paul II to the same body in 1995. It was admittedly a different time – following the revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – but the earlier speech had an emotional energy, an optimistic vision and even a specificity that seemed somewhat lacking from Pope Benedict’s speech today.
Pope Benedict addressed the United Nations at a far darker juncture in world history, however. The world seems hungry for a vision that can lead us out of the ideological nihilism, short-sighted nationalism and economic disparity that has paralyzed us.
As in John Paul’s speech, Pope Benedict stressed the importance of the rights and duties that come with freedom. He recalled the optimistic roots from which the United Nations sprang, and noted the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
He did address some of the critical issues before us, including the environment, the importance of human rights, and the need for collective action when rights are being abused.
Perhaps one of his most important statements concerned those times when a sovereign state violates or ignores the rights of its own people:
“Every state has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments,” the Pope said.
“The action of the international community and its institutions, provided that it respects the principles undergirding the international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty.”
The Pope added that “it is indifference or failure to intervene that [does] the real damage.” Once can think of several hotspots in the world today, most particularly Darfur, where these words would apply.
He also alluded to “new situations” – gay marriage, abortion, embryonic stem cell research all come to mind – “and the attempt … made to link them to new rights. Discernment, that is, the capacity to distinguish good from evil, becomes even more essential in the context of demands that concern the very lives and conduct of persons, communities and peoples.”
He called for a “vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension,” adding that “recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace.”
In lines that should be applied to areas of religious persecution such as Christians suffer in the Middle East or religious minorities experience in China, the pope reminded the body that human rights “must include the right to religious freedom.”
But in a comment consistent with other speeches made during this trip, he reminded the world’s nations that religious liberty is about more than the “free exercise of worship,” but must also allow believers to play their proper and necessary role in “building the social order.”
I look forward to reaction to his speech from those more expert in diplomatic language than I am. In one paragraph early on that I expect will engender some further discussion, he referred to the contemporary “paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.”
Analysts read into this their own biases, suggesting it referred to the U.N. Security Council and the most powerful member states, and that it was inspired by concern for the the lack of movement on global warming, or humanitarian or political crises now boiling over in the Third World.
What remains abundantly clear is that the Vatican is no friend of isolationism, and that it supports the United Nations because, as Fox Correspondent Greg Burke put it, “it’s the only game in town.”
-- Greg Erlandson