ROME – From the beginning, Pope Francis has been a notoriously difficult figure to classify by the usual Western standards of left v. right — seemingly quite progressive on many matters, and yet stubbornly traditional on others.
Monday’s address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, generally considered the pope’s most important foreign policy speech of the year, brought a vintage example of Francis defying the conventional taxonomies.
He took up all the familiar social justice causes, where the world has become accustomed to seeing Francis as a voice for progressive positions:
- Environmental protection, with Francis reiterating his conviction that human causation is an important factor in climate change.
- Immigration, where the pontiff complained that too often today’s rhetoric serves only in “stirring up primal fears.”
- “Ready access to medical care and treatment on the part of all … at affordable costs” as a basic human right.
- Opposition to the proliferation of weapons, and strong support for efforts at nuclear disarmament.
- Clear, if indirect, disapproval of the recent transfer of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, reiterating the Vatican’s support for the status quo.
On the other hand, Francis framed his remarks on Monday in the context of the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the newly-formed United Nations in 1948.
While applauding the document’s impact, Francis also warned of what he described as “debatable notions of human rights” which gathered force in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s, which, he said, risk becoming a form of “ideological colonization.”
“Debatable notions of human rights have been advanced that are at odds with the culture of many countries,” the pope said. “The latter feel that they are not respected in their social and cultural traditions, and instead neglected with regard to the real needs they have to face.”
“Somewhat paradoxically, there is a risk that, in the very name of human rights, we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable,” Francis said.
Francis has invoked the phrase “ideological colonization” many times before, and in general it refers to affluent Western nations making the adoption of liberal sexual ethics a condition of overseas aid programs. For example, many African bishops have reported over the years that Western governments or NGOs may offer an African nation assistance to build roads or markets, but on the condition that it adopt a certain sexual education curriculum in its schools or make the distribution of condoms a greater part of its anti-HIV/AIDS efforts.
Francis also offered a ringing endorsement of the pro-life cause, lamenting that “innocent children are discarded before they are even born, unwanted at times simply because they are ill or mal-formed.” Later in the speech, Francis issued a strong defense of the traditional family, defining it as “that faithful and indissoluble communion of love that joins man and woman,” and linking declining respect for the family to a “demographic winter” in some parts of the world marked by historically low fertility rates.
The pontiff also spoke forcefully on the need to defend religious freedom, “including the freedom to change religion,” which was a direct challenge to anti-conversion laws in several nations around the world.
“Sad to say, it is well-known that the right to religious freedom is often disregarded, and not infrequently religion becomes either an occasion for the ideological justification of new forms of extremism or a pretext for the social marginalization of believers, if not their downright persecution,” he said.
All of which would be enough in most circles to make Francis sound every bit like a cultural conservative.
That intriguing blend of positions that cut both left and right ran through the 5,000-word address Francis delivered on Monday, before ambassadors representing the bulk of the 185 nations with which the Holy See has diplomatic relations – 89 of which maintain embassies in Rome, with the rest naming non-residential ambassadors.
Francis praised the growth of a global culture of human rights in the post-World War II period in strong terms, saying, “From a Christian perspective, there is a significant relationship between the Gospel message and the recognition of human rights in the spirit of those who drafted the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.”
At the same time, however, Francis said that looking around, there are whole categories of people whose rights are routinely denied, citing the unborn, the elderly, “women who repeatedly suffer from violence and oppression,” and victims of human trafficking as well-known examples.
A true defense of human rights, the pontiff argued, involves a broad social agenda, including ensuring access to health care and “actively striving for peace,” without which, he said, “integral human development” is impossible.
As he has in the past, Francis urged serious efforts at disarmament as an antidote to which he’s described as a “third world war being fought piecemeal,” meaning in a variety of chronic, unresolved and sometimes ignored conflicts around the globe.
In terms of specific hotspots that had the pope’s attention on Monday, he mentioned:
- The Korean peninsula, saying it’s “of paramount importance to support every effort at dialogue.”
- Syria, praying that “the lengthy conflict that has caused such immense suffering can finally come to an end.” As part of that picture, Francis insisted, Syria’s Christians must be ensured a future: “It is vital that religious minorities be protected, including Christians, who for centuries have made an active contribution to Syria’s history.”
- Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, countries straining under the burden of caring for refugees from both Syria and Iraq. Francis said a special effort must be made for Lebanon, where as much as sixty percent of the country’s present population is thought to be made up of refugees, so “that beloved country can continue to be a ‘message’ of respect and coexistence, and a model to imitate.”
- The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with Francis advising that “every initiative be carefully weighed so as to avoid exacerbating hostilities,” and saying, “Seventy years of confrontation make more urgent than ever the need for a political solution that allows the presence in the region of two independent states within internationally recognized borders.”
- Venezuela, gripped by what the pope called “an increasingly dramatic and unprecedented political and humanitarian crisis,” where Francis expressed hope that “elections scheduled for this year can resolve the existing conflicts.”
- South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, where Francis said “the right to life is threated by the indiscriminate exploitation of resources, terrorism, the proliferation of armed groups and prolonged conflicts.” The pontiff said it’s not enough to be “appalled” by the carnage, but everyone is called to work to “eliminate the causes of misery.”
- Ukraine, where, he said, “a shared commitment to rebuilding bridges” is essential after a renewed cycle of conflict, which pits pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine, backed by the Russian military, against the Ukrainian military and security services.
In terms of broad themes, Francis focused on the family and immigration.
“I consider it urgent that genuine policies be adopted to support the family, on which the future and the development of states depend. Without this, it is not possible to create societies capable of meeting the challenges of the future,” the pope said.
“Disregard for families has another dramatic effect – particularly present in some parts of the world – namely, a decline in the birth rate,” he added. “We are experiencing a true demographic winter! This is a sign of societies that struggle to face the challenges of the present, and thus become ever more fearful of the future, with the result that they close in on themselves.”
Francis also lamented the situation of families “torn apart by poverty, war and migration.”
On immigration, Francis said, that “today there is much talk about migrants and migration, at times only for the sake of stirring up primal fears.”
“It must not be forgotten that migration has always existed,” he said. “Nor should we forget that freedom of movement, for example, the ability to leave one’s own country and to return there, is a fundamental human right.”
“There is a need to abandon the familiar rhetoric and start from the essential consideration that we are dealing, above all, with persons,” the pope said.
In the context of discussing migration, it’s noteworthy that Francis mentioned the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar by name.
“I cherish vivid memories of my meeting in Dhaka with some members of the Rohingya people, and I renew my sentiments of gratitude to the Bangladeshi authorities for the assistance provided to them on their own territory,” he said, referring to his trip to Myanmar in late November.
While in the country itself, Francis had carefully avoided using the word “Rohingya,” acting on a warning from Cardinal Charles Bo that doing so might inflame hardline Buddhist nationalist sentiment and make things worse.
Francis expressed support for two Global Compacts set to be adopted by the United Nations in 2018, one on refugees and one on migration, saying he hopes they will “lead to efforts worthy of a world community growing ever more inter-dependent and grounded in the principles of solidarity and mutual assistance.”
Francis also defended what he called a right to employment, including protections for workers from excessive demands of employment.
“Demands of profit, dictated by globalization, have led to a progressive reduction of times and days of rest, with the result that a fundamental dimension of life has been lost – that of rest – which serves to regenerate persons not only physically but also spiritually,” he said.
On the environment, Francis repeated his well-known support for the Paris accords and for more aggressive efforts to limit climate change.
“One must not downplay the importance of our own responsibility in the interaction with nature. Climate changes, with the global rise in temperatures and their devastating effects, are also a consequence of human activity,” he said.
“Hence there is a need to take up, in a united effort, the responsibility of leaving to coming generations a more beautiful and livable world, and to work, in the light of the commitments agreed upon in Paris in 2015, for the reduction of gas emissions that harm the atmosphere and human health,” the pope said.