Pope Francis spoke before the United Nations General Assembly Friday morning, articulating an urgent — but intentionally nuanced — call to address the world’s many interconnected problems, especially economic inequality, climate change, and war.
Addressing more than 150 world leaders — as well as prominent figures such as Nobel Peace Prize winner and education advocate Malala Yousafzai — Francis offered a speech that appeared almost designed to frustrate America’s sound-byte-driven media, where political issues are often siloed into smaller categories. Although Francis, the fifth pope to visit the assembly, discussed many issues in specificity, his address repeatedly pointed to the intertwined nature of the world’s problems, implying they cannot be separated and must be approached collectively by the global community.
Francis’ speech seemed to be a fusion of his two major publications as pope — Evangelii Gaudium, a 2013 exhortation that focused largely on economics, and Laudato Si’, a 2015 papal encyclical that called for action on climate change. He quoted from both publications extensively throughout his speech, just as he did during his address to Congress on Thursday and his speech in front of the White House on Wednesday.
He maligned the “baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power,” and asked world leaders to steer their economies in positive directions.
“It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programs, 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,” he said.
While economics remained a common theme throughout the speech, the pontiff soon switched to an impassioned conversation about the need to address global climate change — an issue he said is created in part by economic power run amok.
“Today’s world presents us with many false rights and — at the same time — broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded,” he said. “These sectors are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships. That is why [human] rights must be forcefully affirmed, by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion.”
His comments on climate change were noticeably more specific and forceful than his address to Congress on Thursday. He spoke generally about the need to care for the planet when addressing lawmakers in Washington, but called for a “right of the environment” while at the U.N., and expressed optimism about the upcoming climate change talks in Paris, France.
But even as Francis drilled down on environmental issues, he refused to cleanly divorce our changing climate from economics. He made clear that the negative effects of climate change are more severely felt by the impoverished, and that “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.”
“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,” he said. “They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing ‘culture of waste.’”
He went on to detail how this tumultuous combination often has tragic, deadly consequences.
“Our world demands of all government leaders … [to develop] concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labour, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime,” he added.
Francis then transitioned into the third major category of concern — war. Once again, he outlined the many tragedies created by the issue, but maintained that global violence is often caused by the effects of climate change and economic instability, issues it also worsens.
“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” he said. “If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”
Francis explained that his a quest for power can hinder the ability to stop wars, as nations pursue narrow goals instead of the needs of people whose lives are destroyed by war. He also made mention of the dark economy created by war itself, which profits off of “the proliferation of arms, especially weapons of mass distraction, such as nuclear weapons.”
“In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die,” he said. “Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements.”
Having outlined the ways in which these different issues intermix, Francis then lifted up the United Nations as a powerful entity that could help solve them — as long as member nations enforce their mandates.
“When the Charter of the United Nations is respected and applied with transparency and sincerity, and without ulterior motives, as an obligatory reference point of justice and not as a means of masking spurious intentions, peaceful results will be obtained,” he said. “When, on the other hand, the norm is considered simply as an instrument to be used whenever it proves favorable, and to be avoided when it is not, a true Pandora’s box is opened, releasing uncontrollable forces which gravely harm defenseless populations, the cultural milieu and even the biological environment.”
In the end, Francis’ message to U.N. wasn’t one of gloom, but of hope. He expressed firm optimism that world leaders could, at their best, address the many interconnected problems of the world if they operate together.
“Among other things, human genius, well applied, will surely help to meet the grave challenges of ecological deterioration and of exclusion,” Francis said.