In common with Pope Francis’ addresses at the White House and to Congress, the Holy Father chose not to mention Jesus Christ in his speech this morning to the United Nations.

It’s understandably causing quite a bit of head-scratching among some Catholic commentators who are keen to point out that the Pope speaks in the name of Jesus, and should therefore explicitly invoke his name in order to direct national and world leaders to the light of Christ and His teaching.

But this approach is not new: Benedict XVI didn’t refer to Christ in his speech at Westminster Hall in London in 2010, and made only one explicit reference to Him when he addressed the UN in 2008. (Pope St. John Paul II made six references to Christ in his speech there in 1995). 

It’s also generally not common for Holy See officials at the UN, as well as those in the First Section of the Secretariat of State who drafted the Pope’s UN speech today, to invoke the Lord’s name in speeches.

They say this is primarily because they want their message to resonate with all people, and so at the UN prefer to choose the “language of human rights”, an approach which might make sense to their audience but can sound vague, relativist and lacking in supernatural character to the faithful. 

Last year, as the world marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, I put it to Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN in Geneva, whether the global community can really be any safer from the risk of war thanks only to the international arbitration that the UN offers, without explicitly involving the Prince of Peace Himself. 

Did he really think, I asked in an interview for Pax Press Agency in Geneva, that a secular-led approach to peace is ultimately possible, and if not, whether Our Lord and Savior could be better invoked as the only sure foundation of a lasting peace between peoples?

The archbishop answered by saying he saw the necessity of “using the language of human rights that’s common in the UN system” in order to “try to reach out to all people, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, people of all persuasions.” The language for this “common denominator” approach, he added, “is in a way the language of human rights, and respect of the nature of the human person.”

But he went on to say that the Church should insist, though perhaps not quite as forthrightly as evangelicals do, that the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus "ferments society" and “leads it to a better type of life and to the prevention of conflict.”

Religion, he said, “can be very effective to the extent that it convinces the hearts of people, changes the heart and the conscience of people, and forces them to confront themselves and the behavior that leads to violence.”

He added: “If we enlarge the number of people who are deeply convinced, because of personal and religious motivation, that violence is not the way to resolve problems but that we are one family of God and as a family of God, then we need to respect and love each other and therefore solve problems without killing each other.”

But he stressed that in urging this, “we shouldn’t knock down or put to one side our Catholic identity and our belief, because the substance of our belief is not a doctrine, it’s not a theory of human rights, but it is the person of Christ himself.”

The archbishop's answer was fairly clear, but didn't really address whether he and other Holy See officials saw a need to make more explicit references to Christ in future UN speeches.

At the UN at least, clear invocations of the Prince of Peace from the Holy See therefore seem unlikely to replace or complement the "language of human rights" anytime soon.