Pope Francis at the UN

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Pope Francis, after he finished the encomiums to the UN, jumped right into one of the international system’s most egregious injustices, the role that international financial organizations, such as the IMF, play in facilitating a rigged financial system that exploits the poor:

The need for greater equity is especially true in the case of those bodies with effective executive capability, such as the Security Council, the Financial Agencies and the groups or mechanisms specifically created to deal with economic crises.  This will help limit every kind of abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned.  The International Financial Agencies are should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence. 

He knows from where he speaks, having served as both the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and the President of the Argentine Episcopal conference when that country suffered its sovereign debt crisis and was forced to adopt austerity measures from which it has never recovered. Indeed, the pope’s contrast of law and power is yet more evidence that the Catholic worldview could not be more different from the libertarian worldview, which has overtaken so much of economic thinking.

He also cited the imbalance of power in the political, social and economic spheres as one of the obstacles to creating a sustainable environment. He articulated a “right of the environment,” noting that we humans are already, and always, a part of the natural environment and are called to respect it. “We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.  In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good,” the pope told the delegates.

In one of the most powerful sections of the text, the pope linked environmental degradation to the exclusion of the poor and the forgotten from participation in society. The Holy Father said, “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.  In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.  Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.  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’.” It is funny when you hear some free market enthusiasts articulate the need for rule of law in regulating commerce, by which they usually mean a judicial system that upholds contracts, but the pope means something far deeper by law, exclusion is a “grave offense against human rights and the environment.” This linkage is at the very center of pope’s critique of modern socio-economic life.

Mindful of the UN’s penchant to pass sometimes grandiose statements but with no follow-up, the pope warned against what he termed “declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.” The cries of the poor and the threats to nature demand action as well as international protocols. Again, as in the halls of Congress yesterday, the pope shows he is far from allergic to pragmatism, indeed he insists that pragmatic solutions, real solutions, be pursued and enacted, warning against becoming “content with the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals,” and instead, remembering that “above and beyond our plans and programmes, 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.” This is a man who knows the slums better than the fancy homes on the embassy rows of the world’s capitals. As he has often said, “reality is more important than ideas.” The pope gave a ringing defense of the rights of the excluded to be agents in their own lives and societies, saying, “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.  Integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity cannot be imposed.” He included an endorsement of the right to education, including the education of girls, and in an exercise in subsidiarity, located that right first in the family, then in the churches and communities, and lastly in the state.

The section of the speech devoted to the need for peace seemed a little lifeless to me. It lacked the punch of Paul VI’s famous, “Jamais plus la guerre. La guerre, ne jamais plus!” Again, however, the pope brought home the real lives of real people who are broken in war, and called attention to a different kind of war, the war of drug trafficking and all the evils it perpetrates.

The Holy Father again articulated a consistent ethic of solidarity, as he did when speaking to the U.S. bishops, saying, “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.  This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.” Here is the Charter of Catholic political action in the world and the response to those who wish to highlight one set of issues at the expense of another.   



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