NEW YORK — Pope Francis brought his campaign for action on climate change to the United Nations Friday, proclaiming the existence of a “right of the environment” and pleading with countries to stop abusing it.
In remarks to the largest gathering of world leaders in UN history — close to 200 prime ministers, presidents, and potentates — the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics blamed environmental degradation on “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” that causes untold suffering for the poor who “are cast off by society.”
But the environment was hardly Francis’ only focus: In a wide-ranging speech, he urged action on drug trafficking, armed conflict, terrorism, education, inequality, and corruption — reminding the UN General Assembly that “solemn commitments” without follow-through could ultimately do more harm than good.
Francis is the fourth pope to address the UN (John Paul II visited twice), and he used the opportunity to push his pro-environment message, framing the issue in moral terms and citing his climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’.
He was clear that in his mind, environmental protections include an “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.”
“First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist,” the pope said.
“Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” he continued. Human beings, he said, are “not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”
He blamed “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” for environmental degradation, leading to increased suffering for the poor who “are cast off by society.”
He mentioned the international climate summit scheduled for December in Paris, saying he’s confident it will result in an effective plan for combatting climate change.
But he urged leaders not to wait to take steps to end human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor, prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and international organized crime.
“We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges,” the pope said.
Francis called on world leaders to guarantee all people access to basic materials and spiritual rights, including access to “lodging, labor, and land,” as he put it, as well as housing, a living wage, adequate food and water, religious 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,” he said.
At the beginning of his remarks, the pope cited the UN, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, for establishing a set of international laws, enforcing human rights, helping to resolve conflicts, and conducting peacekeeping operations.
Despite his praise for accomplishments he called “lights which help to dispel the darkness of the disorder,” the Vatican nonetheless has a complicated relationship with the organization.
The Holy See takes issue with the UN’s insistence that abortion rights and population control measures be adopted in member states — a stance that Francis has repeatedly called “ideological colonization.”
On Friday, Francis again expressed his opposition to such “false rights,” speaking out against the imposition of what he called “anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible,” referring to his opposition to same-sex marriage and “gender theory” — the idea that gender is flexible.
He also reiterated his belief in the complementary roles of men and women — “the natural difference between man and woman” — as well as a respect for life from birth to death, embodied in his opposition to abortion and the death penalty. He referred to both concepts as “moral law written into human nature itself.”
Francis called for greater roles for less powerful nations on the UN Security Council and said international financial agencies should adopt measures that limit “abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned.”
He urged the UN to monitor the financial health of developing nations to shield them from predatory lending practices that “generate greater poverty, exclusion, and dependence.”
The pope devoted much of his speech to issues of war and peace, at one point denouncing the self-described Islamic State, though not mentioning the group by name.
He lamented that Christians and other religious groups, including Muslims, in the Middle East and in Africa have been “forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.”
He called on leaders “to work for a world free of nuclear weapons” and condemned the global drug trade.
“Drug trafficking,” he said, “is by its very nature accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation, and other forms of corruption.”
In some nations, he said, corruption has become so widespread and engrained that it’s practically a government in and of itself, threatening legitimate ruling entities.
Throughout his address, delivered in Spanish, Francis sought to put a human face on the many challenges facing world leaders.
He called on them to recognize the sacredness of every human life, including “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.”
When it comes to war, the pope said, nations become preoccupied with strategy and disagreements while it is “our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer, and die.”
During the pope’s speech, there was a surprise announcement on Capitol Hill: House Speaker John Boehner, who hosted the pope during his address to Congress yesterday, is resigning. Boehner, a Catholic Republican, was clearly moved by the presence of the pope; he wiped away tears during the pope’s speech in the House chamber, and again on the West Front balcony when the pope greeted the crowds gathered outside.
Before his address to the General Assembly, Francis addressed a small group of UN staff who had received tickets to the intimate meeting through a lottery. “Send my greetings to those who couldn’t come, because of the lottery,” Francis said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
He thanked the workers for their efforts and urged them to “be close to one another, respect one another, and so embody among yourselves this organization’s ideal of a united human family, living in harmony.”
This is the fifth time a pope has spoken at the UN: Paul VI was the first, in 1965, followed by John Paul II in 1979 and 1995, and Benedict XVI in 2008. But Francis is the first pope to address the annual opening session of the body.
The Vatican flag was raised for the first time outside the UN headquarters in honor of Francis’ visit. (The Vatican City-State is an observer nation, not a full member, so its flag does not usually fly outside the building with those of other nations.)
Francis arrived in New York Thursday under intense security, and spoke to priests and members of religious communities at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
After his speech at the UN, the pope is scheduled to take part in an interfaith prayer service at the World Trade Center memorial. Later, he will visit a Catholic school in Harlem, motorcade through Central Park, then celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden Friday evening.
He departs for Philadelphia Saturday morning for the final leg of his US journey.