NEW YORK — When Pope Benedict XVI addresses the United Nations this week, observers of the international body expect that the Pope might have much to say on issues ranging from poverty to terrorism to abortion.
“I think both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have said that if there weren’t a United Nations, we would have to invent one,” said Joe Donnelly, permanent delegate to the United Nations for Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of more than 200 Catholic emergency relief and development aid agencies.
“There are 21 major conflicts going on in the world today,” he pointed out.
At the same time, he said the Vatican must constantly be vigilant against U.N. agencies’ attempts to advance anti-family policies, said Austin Ruse, president of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam).
“The Holy See sees great value in the United Nations,” said Ruse. “Popes also see it as a place where nations can debate important issues.” But in many ways, the U.N. to various degrees promoted “the idea of a right to abortion,” and initiatives to redefine marriage.
Oscar de Rojas, director of financing for the development office of the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, argued that “99%” of what the United Nations does is positive.
“The U.N. is not trying to promote abortion or homosexuality or anything like that,” de Rojas said. “Some of its member states — including, at certain times, the United States — have tried to promote it.”
Ruse agreed — to a point.
“The United Nations is a vast body with different agencies and components,” Ruse noted. For instance, “the U.N. Security Council deals with most of the issues relating to war and peace.”
But some U.N. entities have been able to promote an agenda not authorized by the U.N. treaties or by votes of the General Assembly, he said.
In particular, he cites such agencies as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Population Fund, as well as member states of the European Union, as working closely with the International Planned Parenthood Federation and other nongovernmental organizations (known as NGOs) that have status with the United Nations.
“There is not one U.N. document that established the idea of ‘a right to abortion,’ for example,” said Jeanne Head, vice president for international affairs and U.N. representative for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund, which has status as an NGO at the United Nations. The Vatican, the United States under President Bush and some other countries have opposed such a right.
Still, some of the U.N. agencies, NGOs and the representatives of the European Union have been able to influence monitoring committees that assess how member nations are complying with U.N. treaties, Ruse said. “They are able to promote the idea that such a right already exists.”
For example, the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) contains no language on abortion, Ruse said. Yet the monitoring committee, which consists of members appointed by different countries’ governments, “has directed almost 100 countries to change their laws to allow abortion.” Often the committee members are affiliated with NGOs that support abortion.
“It is a real problem for some of the smaller and poorer nations,” Head continued. Often they don’t have the resources to keep abreast of the actual treaties and are vulnerable to believing the interpretations given by monitoring committees and by some of the NGOs.
“The Pope has already addressed these issues,” said Ruse, referring to a November 2007 address to a gathering of Catholic NGOs in Rome. “Pope Benedict warned that U.N. debates sometimes result in relativism.”
Ruse hopes that when Pope Benedict speaks at U.N. headquarters he can bring “an emphasis on the dignity of the human person” and an emphasis on true human rights based on traditional truths.”
Gerry Powers is director of policy studies for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.
He expects the Pope to address terrorism — both the seriousness of the threat and the need to find solutions other than military solutions.
Many observers also expect him to address the issues of poverty and development. “There is research that indicates that 1 billion people live in extreme poverty, on less than one dollar a day,” Donnelly said. “The Pope, who has already issued an encyclical, Deus Caritas Est [God Is Love], may have a lot to say on this.”
Some are skeptical of how receptive the United Nations might be to Pope Benedict’s message. Rabbi Gerald Meister, an adviser in Israeli-Christian affairs for the Israeli foreign ministry, said that he fears that some of the countries represented at the United Nations “are becoming extremely anti-Western.”
Though they will honor him while present, Rabbi Meister said, the hostility may prevent their giving Pope Benedict a fair hearing.
U.N. insiders say that the Pope will be welcomed.
“I’ve talked to many people, some of whom are indifferent to or even hostile toward religions, who are still looking forward to hearing the Pope,” de Rojas said. “The Pope has the status as a great moral leader, and people are going to be listening to what he has to say.”
Pete Sheehan is based on
Long Island, New York.