The text of an address given during the United Nations Day Ceremony held at Newcastle’s Civic Park on Monday 24th October 2016:
Addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations during his visit to New York in September 2015, Pope Francis proposed that
…a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. 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 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 authorised to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.
(Speech of the Holy Father to the UN General Assembly)
One shouldn’t be surprised at such remarks from Pope Francis, following on as they do from his Encyclical of May 2015, Laudato Si’, on ecology and climate. It was this document, above all else, that renewed the ‘care of our common home’ as something that all Christians – and all people of good will – should take seriously.
The reality, however, is that the Pope’s action in highlighting the significance of ecology and climate is not something new in Christian understanding. A recognition of the connectedness that exists between all of creation has been part of Christianity’s self-understanding – and its relationship with God – from the beginning…even if we may have forgotten about it in the quest to understand other things. The genius of Francis’ encyclical was to make something that clearly demands attention palatable for those who proclaim themselves to be true Christians.
From my perspective, however, the true genius of Laudato Si’ lies in the very clear articulation of the challenges and dangers that are facing humanity and the created order. There can be little doubt, in my estimation, of the significance of this very simple act on the part of Pope Francis, particularly when it is subsequently linked to an urgent appeal for
…a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organisations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.
(Laudato Si’, 14)
It should be of little surprise that Pope Francis, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, saw “the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit … [as] an important sign of hope” and express confidence that “the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements.”
The World Summit to which Pope Francis referred has, it should be acknowledged, lived up to the hope he expressed with the adoption of both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the related seventeen Sustainable Development Goals committing both the United Nations Organisation, and its member States,
to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its nature resources. …to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.
(Declaration of Agenda for Sustainable Development, 3)
There has been much in the way of self-congratulations arising from the adoption of the Agenda and Goals, and this is both right and proper. The task of reaching an agreement acceptable to so many varying scenarios was not an easy one, nor was it achieved without the compromise that should be expected. It should be remembered, however, that the formulation and adoption of the Agenda and Goals is not the end of the process but rather the beginning. The true hard work begins now as the task of implementing the Agenda in order to realise the Goals by 2030 is undertaken amidst the general vagaries of international events that are, at times, beyond the control of individuals or governments.
Pope Francis was quick to warn of the need to “avoid every temptation to fall into a “declarationist nominalism” which would assuage our consciences”, a warning recently repeated by the Holy See’s Observer to the United Nations on the first anniversary of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Simply arriving at declarations doesn’t solve the problems; broader and more ambitious indicators are required, requiring ongoing efforts to ensure that the Agenda is truly, fairly and effectively implemented and realising the hope that is inherent in such declarations.
Similar observations can be rightly made of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and the resulting Framework Convention on Climate Change (the “Paris Agreement”). At first glance the agreement is far reaching and ambitious – providing it is implemented in a way that respects what Laudato Si’ calls the Principle of the Common Good, “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment” (Laudato Si’, 156, quoting Gaudium et Spes, 26).
Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development. It has also to do with the overall welfare of society and the development of a variety of intermediate groups, applying the principle of subsidiarity. Outstanding among those groups is the family, as the basic cell of society. Finally, the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good.
(Laudato Si’, 157)
Again, the recent note of the Holy See’s Observer to the United Nations would make it clear that the implementation of the “Paris Agreement” must not be at the expense of this principle of the common good or the inherent dignity of the human person. Although referencing specifically the 2030 Agenda, the Observer’s Note makes it clear that the success of all such agreements “depends upon going beyond the language of economics and statistics precisely because the real emphasis is on the human person and his or her activities”. Sustainable development or climate change remediation that detracts from human dignity, or increases the poverty of the already impoverished, must surely be considered unethical: the price of ‘fixing’ the problems that were caused by the ‘developed world’ cannot, and must not, be paid by those who are unable to bear the cost of that price.
The United Nations Organisation is the privileged place where agreements such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Framework Convention on Climate Change can be negotiated within the context of the much larger aim of “promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (Preamble, Charter of the United Nations. It remains the task of the United Nations to be the privileged place where the values and principles enshrined in such agreements can be promoted, implemented, and encouraged. In addressing the General Assembly in 2015, Pope Francis warned that “without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of [the] pillars of integral human development”, the ideals of the United Nations and the Agenda and the “Paris Agreement” have the real risk of “becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption” (Speech of the Holy Father to the UN General Assembly).
The easiest and most productive way of achieving of the Agenda and other related agreements
will be the effective, practical and immediate access, on the part of all, to essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education. These pillars of integral human development have a common foundation, which is the right to life and, more generally, what we could call the right to existence of human nature itself.
(Speech of the Holy Father to the UN General Assembly)
The quest to promote prosperity while protecting the planet goes hand in hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job creation, all while tackling climate change and environmental protection. Through his words and writings, Pope Francis has sort to make an ongoing contribution to the task that is laid before all the people of the world. For Christians, he has rooted his call to action firmly in Christian principles and faith; for all people of good will, those principles are equally compelling. Above all, exhorts Francis, there is the need “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, 49).
The legacy of Pope Francis, at least around human flourishing and ecology, can perhaps be best encapsulated in remarks towards the end of his 2015 Address to the United Nations General Assembly:
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.
Such understanding and respect call for a higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, self-transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.
(Speech of the Holy Father to the UN General Assembly)
Fr Andrew Doohan MTh MA(Liturgy)
Civic Park, Newcastle
Monday 24th October 2016