NEW YORK — When António Guterres was selected as the new secretary general for the United Nations Oct. 13, onlookers from the Catholic world were delighted.
Guterres, 67, is a practicing Catholic who opposed the decriminalization of abortion in Portugal in 1998 during a referendum while he was prime minister of the country. He served as the prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.
Guterres was the secretary general of Portugal’s Socialist Party from 1992 to 2002 and president of the Socialist International Party from 1999 to 2005. His years of involvement with the Socialist Party represented a break from the party’s historical secularism because Guterres never shied away from his Catholic roots.
From 2005 to 2015, Guterres was the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Geneva, a position in which he was universally praised.
“I think he is off-the-charts better than anyone else who ran for the job of secretary general of the U.N. He is extremely competent. During his time as high commissioner for refugees, he really reformed the agency. He cut the staff and put people out into the field. He showed huge leadership,” said a Catholic specialist at the U.N. who preferred to remain anonymous.
The Selection Process
When outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s term was coming to an end, the consensus within the U.N. was that the new secretary general had to be a woman from Eastern or Central Europe. Thirteen candidates presented themselves to the U.N. General Assembly, seven of whom were women.
The selection process last July included for the first time a live television debate. All candidates were asked to participate and field questions from the General Assembly.
“When Guterres got his first question, he answered in six parts in English. His answer was so intelligent and so clearly communicated. His second question was asked in French, and he answered in French with a total command of the details and the language. He sees the problems and answers better than anyone else,” the anonymous source said.
Though Ban Ki-moon spoke Korean, English and French, his lack of fluency in English and French sometimes made it hard for people to understand him.
When Guterres was asked a third question in Spanish, he answered in perfect Spanish, giving a more comprehensive answer than anyone else. It became clear, early on, to all observers, that Guterres was superior to any other candidate. Russia had been lobbying for someone from Central and Eastern Europe, but soon indicated plans to not veto Guterres.
Against all odds, Guterres won Oct. 13, the anniversary of the final apparition of Our Lady in Fatima.
A Reputation for Reform
“He has a reputation for being a reformer,” said Franciscan Father Elias Mallon, the external affairs officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). “The U.N. bureaucracy at the High Commission for Refugees was bloated. He streamlined the staff during his time there.”
Guterres has also been praised for taking a worldwide view on the issues of refugees. He has stated publicly that the wealthy nations must respond to the refugee problem, even if they are not a target country for these refugees.
“He has a good balance,” said Father Mallon. “Often, we think that the problem of refugees is only in the Middle East, but Guterres has a more global view.”
Though the media tends to focus on the Syrian refugee crisis, there are large numbers of refugees in Africa and Asia, as well.
“I have always been so impressed with his passion for refugees and how he tries to find a solution,” said Msgr. Robert Vitillo, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission. “He would say that it is not enough to stop the refugee flows. We have to look at the causes. He really cared, and not just as a bureaucrat. His care for people really came through. I believe that his Catholic faith stirred his passion.”
Guterres is known to have traveled around the world to visit refugees, without the press.
“What I was impressed with is that Guterres would visit in a humble way. He would visit refugees in their tents. He would not wear a fancy suit. He wanted to be with them, to share in some way with their suffering,” said Msgr. Vitillo.
“We are hopeful. He seems traditional,” said Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research for C-Fam, the Center for Family and Human Rights.
C-Fam observers believe that the role of the secretary general must go back to what it was originally. Back in 1945, the U.N. Secretariat was set up to facilitate interaction among countries. But in the past two decades, that role went from being a facilitator to being an initiator of policies. Another worrying trend is that the U.N. has begun to develop international norms — taking over a role that sovereign nations have. Finally, there are many instances when the U.N. ties aid for nations to accepting policies that go against their cultural mores. This has been seen most clearly on social policy, including rights of homosexual persons and abortion.
“Ban Ki-moon overstepped his mandate on life and family issues,” said Yoshihara. “He told nations that abortion is a right of reparation under the laws of war, which is not only ludicrous — it is not in his purview to redefine law. This year the Human Rights Committee will issue a new interpretation of the ICCPR, the ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.’ It will try to express a right to abortion in this document, which would redefine that treaty. This is a travesty. The U.N. needs to get back to being respectful of the sovereignty of nations.”
An open question is whether or not Guterres will remain loyal to his Catholic faith as secretary general. What helps the situation is that Hillary Clinton did not win the presidency, thus removing the most aggressive pro-abortion and pro-gender-identity ideology efforts at the U.N. coming from the U.S. mission.
Guterres seems to be a man with a moral vision in harmony with the Church’s idea of human dignity. There are high hopes that he will not vigorously promote policies that would put the Catholic Church and the entire pro-life cause on the defensive.
“He takes his faith seriously,” said Father Mallon. “His innate value system will resonate with Catholic social justice.”
Franciscan Father Vítor Melícias told the Catholic Herald that Guterres “is a deeply religious and spiritual man, but he was formed in a Vatican II-style Church — open, pluralistic and ecumenical, with respect for the separation between religion and politics.”
Guterres is also on the record regarding life issues. According to the Catholic Herald, after defending the life of the unborn against his party, he and other pro-life socialists were removed from active roles in the Socialist Party.
As Father Melícias told the Herald, “As far as difficult issues such as abortion and gay rights, he has always been a very consistent man, and this will not change, despite the many difficulties which might arise.”
Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.