NEW YORK — Pope Francis tied concern for the environment with the dignity of every human person during his Sept. 25 address before the United Nations General Assembly.
He also made a clear case, as he did in his encyclical Laudato Si’, for the vital role religion plays in ecological discussions.
The environment has rights, the pope said, for two different reasons: humans are a part of the environment and the environment has a right in itself because it is God’s creation.
“Any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity,” he said, adding that “every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures.”
All religions have recognized the beauty of creation, the pope said, and while recognizing the unique place of human beings in creation, God has not authorized us to abuse or destroy it.
The day marked the first time the Vatican flag had been raised at the UN, but the pope repeatedly referred to his predecessors Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who also addressed and thanked delegates for their work.
The General Assembly of the UN is expected to accept the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as an agreement on climate change. Other speakers also addressed peace, security and migration challenges.
The pope encouraged delegates to keep several things in mind during their deliberations, including the responsible exercise of power and the responsibility of financial agencies to cooperate in creating sustainable development for countries.
Oppressive lending systems do not promote progress, but instead are a mechanism that generates greater poverty, exclusion and dependence, the pope said.
The UN recognizes that justice is necessary to achieve universal fraternity, but Francis underscored that the rule of law implies a limitation of power.
“To give to each his own, to cite the classic definition of justice, means that no human individual or group can consider itself absolute, permitted to bypass the dignity and the rights of other individuals or their social groupings,” the pope said.
“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 the disadvantaged,” he said.
Society has to move past political gestures and to-do lists that gunk up the process.
“There must be action behind the commitments to end human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drugs and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime,” the pope said.
Polices affect real lives, 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,” the pope said. “Integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity cannot be imposed. They must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual, for every family, in communion with others.”
The pope stressed the right for education, and drew applause when he said, “and that includes girls, which don’t have that right in many countries.”
Families have the first right to educate their children, the pope said, and churches and social groups have the right to support and assist families.
Education will be key to reclaiming the environment, he said, including families, “the primary cell of any social development.” Referencing Pope Benedict, he explained that creation is compromised when human beings see nothing higher than themselves, when they don’t acknowledge God.
Quoting his own encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis said defending the environment and the fight against exclusion require society to acknowledge a moral written into human nature, which includes a natural difference between man and woman and an “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.”
The United Nations will not attain its stated goals of promoting social progress and saving future generations from war without recognizing “certain incontestable natural ethical limits” and the pillars of integral human development, the pope said.
“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” he said, while expressing the need for the world to rid itself of nuclear weapons. “If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”
That includes ending Christian persecution in the world, the pope said, citing the dire situation of Christians and other cultural and ethnic groups whose way of life is under attack.
“Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict … real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be,” he said.
“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,” the pope said. “Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements.”
If the international community is to respect human dignity, it needs to “do all it can to stop and prevent further systemic violence against ethnic and religious minorities and to protect innocent people.”
Things can change, the pope said, if leaders can put aside “partisan and ideological interests” and serve the common good.