Leaders Respond to Pope’s Groundbreaking Speech to UN

September 30, 2015

Thank you to Tom Gallagher and Josh McElwee for their highlights from Pope Francis speech to the UN as well as highlights from leaders who responded!  For a longer overview, see this link.

In a speech without direct mention of climate change, Francis nonetheless pressed for “reclaiming the environment,” and expressed confidence negotiations in Paris would “secure fundamental and effective agreements.”  The pope also urged for an end to nuclear weapons, war and a culture of exclusion, and a recognition of the moral law.  “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.”  The best and simplest measures to implementing the goals, he said, will be “effective, practical and immediate access” for all to housing, dignified work, adequate food and drinking water, education, and religious and spiritual freedom.

“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,” the pope said.  Governments, then, must do everything possible to provide conditions that allow for people to create and support families, at minimum through access to lodging, labor, land and spiritual freedom. He also spoke against financial agencies that imposed “oppressive lending systems” on people that generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.

Political and economic activity, he added, is only effective when guided by the concept of justice and in “constant 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.  “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny,” Francis said.

“All these achievements are lights which help to dispel the darkness of the disorder caused by unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness,” Francis said.

“Certainly, many grave problems remain to be resolved, yet it is clear that, without all those interventions on the international level, mankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities,” he said.  In introducing the pope to the U.N. body, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed toward Francis’ request on the first page of his encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home”: “I wish to address every person living on this planet.”  “Your Holiness, welcome to the pulpit of the world. We are here to listen,” Ban said.

Francis spent much of his speech connecting environmental destruction with the cultural phenomenon of social and economic exclusion.  “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,” he said.

“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” he said.

A true right of the environment exists, Francis said, for two reasons, first because human beings are part of the environment, and second, every creature has intrinsic value in its existence, beauty and interdependence.

Immediate steps toward preserving and improving the natural environment would in turn lead to a possibly quick end “to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion,” he said, one that permits the trafficking of humans, organs, drugs and weapons. The world demands of its leaders a will “effective, practical and constant” in reaching that end, the pope said.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR and writer of the Mission Management column.]

He finally reminds all citizens of the world that the real danger comes from man and that we all have a common responsibility to act individually and collectively for the common good away from special interests to make this a more human and livable world.

My hat is off to this pope who is an inspiration not only to Catholics and Christians, but to every citizen around the world.

Sami El-Yousef, Regional Director for Palestine and Israel Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Pontifical Mission, Jerusalem

The pope ends his speech with a call for new processes, which call forth the best in people as individuals, as communities and as one human family. These processes recognize the sacredness of everyone and of God’s creation. They are processes of hope that cast a vote for the genius of people who care for each other, who overcome their fear with love, and journey forth in action with the courage that comes from a sense of the transcendent.

Carolyn Woo, President & CEO, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Maryland

This was an incredible talk that urged the world community in a compelling way to think about and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable. He was so clear that the challenges of climate change, war and violence impact them much more and we must act to help them now.

Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, President and Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Health Association, Washington, D.C.

Again and again, in Washington and now New York, Pope Francis has spoken so beautifully about the dignity and rights of every individual. That too many are excluded.

When he spoke about the culture of waste in which we live, and how we must fight this with selfless service to others, I thought of our kids at Covenant House. Beautiful, talented amazing kids who have been discarded by most of society. And yet children who are being saved every day by staff and volunteers who leave their own families to be family for homeless kids. It is beautiful and it is exactly what Pope Francis is calling us to do. I am inspired by this pope and I pray his message of mercy and action will save the lives of more homeless youth in desperate need.

Pope Francis’ address at the United Nations was not a mere state of the world address. This was a galvanizing call to action filled with urgency. A call to treat the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten not as numbers and statistics, but as dignified individuals, beautiful, real men, women and children. A call to fight the buying and selling of our children around the world. A call for every boy and girl to have access to the basic human rights of an education, a home, good food, clean drinking water.

Kevin Ryan, President and CEO, Covenant House International, New York, New York

ax Christi USA resonated with the eloquent, simple and direct words of Pope Francis when he spoke to the U.N. about peace through nonviolence, resistance to systems that exclude, innate human rights of all people, and restoring the global climate to a level where all people can thrive and not merely exist.

Of particular interest to us were the concrete suggestions he offered. It is not enough to have dreams for peace with justice, but we must match those dreams with specific actions for justice that will be effective and practical for the good of all people.

We commend his courage as well as the challenge and support he has given to our movement.

Sr. Patricia Chappell, Executive Director, Pax Christi USA, Washington, D.C.

We are a family. … Pope Francis spoke to all of us by reminding us [that] the home this family lives in is important [saying] “In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.” We are called to live in peace and be a family who strives to be careful stewards of God’s creation. Francis said, “Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. … The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

We too in religious life can hear Pope Francis call to be servants and leaders who “do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom.” This has long been the call of a vocation to service.

Very Reverend Brian A. Terry, S.A., Minister General, Franciscan Friars of AtonementPresident-Elect, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Garrison, New York

The Holy Father’s speech today at the U.N. urged world leaders — and all of us — to refuse to accept the injustices of poverty and inequality. Pope Francis’ request that we work together to ensure that men and women living in extreme poverty are “dignified agents of their own destiny” resonates powerfully with CMMB’s vision of a world in which every human life is valued and health and human dignity are shared by all.

Bruce Wilkinson, President & CEO, Catholic Medical Mission Board, New York, New York

Pope Francis has been a compassionate voice and advocate for the world’s most deprived and excluded.

At the United Nations General Assembly today, he called on global leaders to focus their attention and resources to ensure every family can live with freedom and dignity, and have the ability to meet their basic needs.

Save the Children shares his commitment to giving all girls and boys the opportunity to learn and protection from harm and exploitation. We’ve closely aligned our global strategy across 120 countries with the new sustainable development goals, working to end preventable child deaths, provide an education for all and to eradicate extreme poverty. Everywhere we work there are children left out of progress and that is wrong.

In the words of Pope Francis, no child is disposable or simply a statistic.

Carolyn Miles, President & CEO, Save the Children USA, Fairfield, Connecticut



Pope Francis continued to stress and reinterpret the pro-life theme with Congress, where the Pope called out war profiteers and demanded an end to the arms trade.  It came near the end of his speech — after his calls to protect the rights of immigrants and refugees, end the death penalty, preserve the planet from the ravages of climate change, and defend the poor and dispossessed.

“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world,” the pope said. Then he asked the critical question: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”

He answered it himself: “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

That means the ending things like the $60 billion arms deal the U.S. made a few years back with Saudi Arabia, where those weapons are, in the pope’s words, “inflicting untold suffering on individuals and society,” especially in Syria and Yemen. It means ending things like the $45 billion in new military aid — mostly in the form of advanced new weapons — the Israeli government has requested from Washington between now and 2028. It means ending the provision of new arms to scores of unaccountable militias in Syria, where even the White House admits a non-military solution is needed. And it means ending things like the $1.1 billion in arms sales the United States has made to Mexico this year alone.

And, of course, it means no longer diverting at least 54 cents of every discretionary taxpayer dollar in the federal budget to the U.S. military.

Actually, members of Congress — so many of whom rely on huge campaign donations from arms manufacturers, and so many of whom refuse to vote against military procurement because often just a few dozen jobs connected to it might be in their district — really should have expected the pope to say exactly what he did.

It was only last May, after all, that Pope Francis told a group of schoolchildren visiting the Vatican that the arms trade is the “industry of death.” When a kid asked why so many powerful people don’t want peace, the pope answered simply, “because they live off wars!” Francis explained how people become rich by producing and selling weapons. “And this is why so many people do not want peace. They make more money with the war!”

The pope’s speech to Congress was quite extraordinary on a number of fronts.

His clear call to end the death penalty was the only example he gave of protecting the sanctity of life.

He invoked the golden rule as the basis for responding to refugee crises, calling for leaders to respond “in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal” and reminding his audience that “so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” He added, “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

Francis also reasserted the need for “courageous actions and strategies” on reversing “environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” And crucially, he linked those strategies to include “combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

The pope did recognize that “tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” but hedged that while “those first contacts were often turbulent and violent,” it’s “difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” That was disappointing — especially for a pope who’s gone to great lengths to condemn the “new colonialism” of exploitative economic policies toward the Global South. Perhaps in response to the Native critics of the sainthood announcement, he added that “we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”

But on issues of war and peace, Francis was unambiguous. He didn’t speak about only ending the arms trade. He also referred, albeit obliquely, to Washington’s war on terror and why it’s failing. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” he observed. “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”