Pope Francis Schools UN General Assembly on ‘Human Ecology’

In today’s address to the international community of nations, the Holy Father persuasively linked environmental degradation to other issues of human life and dignity.

Pope Francis stands as delegates applaud at the conclusion of his Sept. 25 address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Pope Francis stands as delegates applaud at the conclusion of his Sept. 25 address to the U.N. General Assembly. (photo: usccb.org)

UNITED NATIONS — Pope Francis shared his vision of social justice this morning to the 193 member nations of the United Nations and 3,000 journalists.

And because of the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit — a massive meeting to be held Sept. 25-27, aimed at eradicating poverty over the next 15 years — this may be the most important speech for Pope Francis thus far, in terms of speaking to the largest gathering of world leaders yet in his pontificate.

In a 48-minute speech delivered in Spanish, he spoke about a wide-ranging set of issues: from human trafficking and slave labor, to the drug trade and nuclear proliferation. But his two main themes were on the environment and on the problem of social and political exclusion.

“First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist, for two reasons,” said the Pope. “First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures.”

“We should note how deeply he connects eco issues with all other issues of human life and dignity,” said Bill Patenaude, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement. “This is consistent with his predecessors, and this ‘integral ecology’ is indeed the Catholic view of ecology. In fact, he went out of his way to link environmental issues with the exclusion of people.”

Pope Francis was explicit in his criticism of environmental damage — not as something that only ruins the natural environment, but more importantly because it hurts human beings.

“He really wove together his enthusiasm for ecology and human dignity. He is deliberately trying to develop and explain this,” said Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president of the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam).


Unborn Rights, Sanctity of Life and Family References

While pro-lifers may have wanted him to speak explicitly about abortion, the Pope’s speech did contain six references to the sanctity of human life and one specific reference to the rights of the unborn.

“Pro-lifers are very happy with this. It was far more explicit and powerful than the speech he gave to Congress. He spoke about the unborn. He spoke about the difference between men and women. He spoke about the family as the foundation for social development,” said Yoshihara.

Pro-family advocates note that the U.S. and European Union have been trying to rid the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals of the word “family.” Rather, they are trying to insert the word “families” as a replacement, a change that would downplay the importance of the man-woman family.

“The Pope said the primary right of the family is to educate its children — which is huge,” said Yoshihara.


Including the Excluded

Another issue that the Holy Father honed in on was that of exclusion.

“His true formation is that of a Jesuit, as one who goes out to the marginalized,” said Yoshihara.

For anyone familiar with Pope Francis’ background with the Jesuits in Argentina and Chile, a great deal of energy went towards working with, catechizing and helping poor people. During multiple economic crises in Argentina, a younger Father Jorge Bergoglio organized his Jesuit community to grow vegetables and keep animals to help feed the local community. Helping out the excluded is deeply personal to him — because he did it.

“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” said Pope Francis in his speech. “The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing ‘culture of waste.’”

“Pope Francis’ hope is that the more wealthy and powerful nations will humble themselves to help the poorer ones. Think of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The master becomes the servant. That, I think, is the image in mind by the Holy Father and many in Rome regarding how the wealthy — specifically those in the Global North — will hear the cries of the poor, which is very loud in the Global South,” said Patenaude.

Pope Francis also spent a great deal of time speaking about “false rights” and the notion of competing rights.

“I liked that Pope Francis talked about this. No individual or group can claim rights at the expense of another. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI also spoke about competitive rights at the U.N. For example, the right to life and the right to abortion. If we allow competitive rights, then who decides? It’s incoherent,” said Yoshihara.


Integral Human Development

Andrew Abela, the provost and founding dean of the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, praised the manner in which the Holy Father integrated several key themes into his address.

“I found the Holy Father’s address to the United Nations to be a forceful statement of what is needed in the world right now,” Abela said. “Noteworthy for me was his statement that men and women must be ‘dignified agents of their own destiny,’ but ‘must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual, for every family, in communion with others,’ for ‘Integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity cannot be imposed.’ The Holy Father also made it clear that our ‘minimum spiritual and material’ needs include religious liberty.”

Not all in the Catholic world had exclusively positive reviews of Pope Francis’ U.N. speech, however.

“I think the speech tried to do too much and lacked focus,” said Samuel Gregg, research director for the Acton Institute.

“But I was heartened by the subtle appeal to natural law woven into the speech,” Gregg added. “The speech shows a certain continuity with the Holy See’s general approach to international institutions, which I personally think places too much faith in such organizations.”


Global Pastor

While Pope Francis’ message about linking environmentalism to human dignity may have gone over the heads of some at the U.N. this morning, the message may just attract a whole new group of people towards Catholicism.

“I think he has been very pastoral on this trip,” Yoshihara said. “When a pastor speaks from the pulpit, he doesn’t poke people between the eyes. First, he wants to get people back into the confessional. My Catholic liberal friends love him. It may take years for them to get in the door of a Catholic church. Will they come back? We don’t know.”

Sabrina Ferrisi filed this report from New York,

where she is covering the Pope’s visit for the Register.