Pope Francis’ speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday may have addressed similar themes as his address to Congress on Thursday, but the tone could not have been more different, with the pontiff issuing a scathing indictment of the U.N.’s failure to fulfill its mission. The speech was also notable for the pope’s curious omission of the global refugee crisis.
The pope took the U.N. to task for failing to prevent the wars raging across the world and protect minority groups from persecution. He singled out the persecution of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East and Africa as a source of shame for the global body.
“These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs,” Francis said. “Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict -- as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region -- real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be.”
The pope implied that the U.N. and its member nations, including the U.S., had lost sight of the common humanity they are obligated to serve.
“It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programs, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights,” the pope said.
The most pressing threat to this focus on justice and humanity, Francis continued, is “the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals,” rather than internalizing the urgency of their common goal.
While speaking to Congress, the pope’s exhortations to put human dignity at the center of their efforts were subtler and less trenchant. “All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity,” the pope said. He invoked the Declaration of Independence and figures from American history -- Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton -- as sources of inspiration for noble leadership.
In fact, the pope downright flattered the U.S. when discussing the need for action on climate change. He expressed confidence that “America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution” to addressing the issue.
In light of the pontiff’s unrelenting condemnation of world leaders for enabling armed conflict, it was especially surprising that, in his U.N. address, he did not speak about the refugee crisis that those conflicts have produced. The world is experiencing its largest refugee crisis since World War II, and he did not so much as say the word “refugee” in the speech.
By contrast, in his speech to Congress, the pope devoted an entire section to the refugee and migration crisis, arguing that Americans needed to be more welcoming to immigrants. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” he said.
Other differences between the two speeches were more understandable. Francis spoke in detail in his U.N. speech about addressing the problems of international crime and terrorism, including the trafficking of humans, weapons and drugs. The pope barely mentioned these issues in his address to Congress because they are, arguably, matters that require global cooperation.
The core themes of the two speeches, however, were ultimately similar. Francis explained in both speeches that efforts to fight climate change, stop war or alleviate poverty all come from the same fundamental belief in the sacredness and dignity of all human life.
The pope explained in his U.N. speech that he views environmental stewardship not as preserving inanimate surroundings, but as sustaining a “common home” in which human beings and other creatures coexist. Humans have a “body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable,” the pope said. Thus, a failure to protect the environment ultimately hurts human beings.
Francis characterized structural poverty as an extension of a lack of respect for the natural environment. The same greed and callousness that leads us to treat our natural resources as disposable is also at the root of “economic and social exclusion,” he said.
The pope made a similar comparison when speaking to Congress, while addressing more particular American ideological concerns about interfering with capitalism. Business is a “noble vocation,” the pope noted, but it must serve a “common good” that includes both shared prosperity and respect for the environment.
The greatest destruction of human life and dignity is war, making its aversion the highest priority, the pope said. “War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” he told the U.N. In a parallel portion in his speech to Congress, he called on U.S. leaders to work “to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.”