It was a very good speech, much more forceful and substantive than his address to Congress yesterday. He spoke in Spanish and to a global audience rather than to an American one in English. The speech to Congress was in all likelihood ghostwritten by someone in Cardinal Wuerl or Cardinal McCarrick's stable. That would explain its cautious, small feel. They represent a wing of American Catholicism that wants to get along with the dominant liberal establishment, which requires downplaying “divisive” issues. It was telling that in that speech “a man and a woman” or “a mother and a father” made no appearance in the material on the importance of the family.
Not so the United Nations speech. It had vim and vigor. He emphasized the leitmotif of his papacy: criticism of our global system and its “social and economic exclusion.” He warned his audience not to be satisfied with “declarational nominalism,” a wonderful turn of phrase that both draws on specialized Catholic insider terminology (nominalism) and chastises the United Nations (and other international organizations) for issuing empty declarations.
The media will fix on his calls for action on global warming, but we already know that's a priority for Francis. In this speech Francis also called for nuclear disarmament. He sees a similarity between the two that become explicit at the end of the speech when Francis quotes Paul VI's exhortations that world leaders join together to forestall nuclear destruction, a parallel, thinks Francis, to environmental destruction.
It's useful to meditate on this parallel. Concerns about nuclear disaster were fitting during the Cold War, though as it turned out deterrence rather than disarmament (the Vatican's approach) worked.
By my reckoning, the same will be true of Pope Francis' anti-global warming exhortations and alliance with secular activist who call for dramatic economic and social changes. It may turn out that a combination of technological solutions and doable accommodations to climate changes will sideline this issue over the next generation or two. We'll look back and judge this papacy's exhortations as noble, but not all that relevant.
More important in this speech were the challenges to the culture of “exclusion.” Francis identifies social and economic exclusion as the cause of injustice: human trafficking, selling organs, drug and weapons trade, prostitution, terrorism and organized crime. I don't find this convincing. Terrorism is caused by exclusion? But one can see what he wants to say. Many around the globe lack pathways to a fuller life. At issue here is more than material wealth. People want to be agents of their own lives. They want a say in the kind of society they live in. They want to be subjects, not objects. The “throwaway” culture is one that treats human beings as objects, raw material for economic exploitation, or as masses to market to and manipulate. A pattern of exclusion keeps the powerful in power.
The strongest section comes when Francis specifies the parameters of integral development that overcomes exclusion. Yes, material things such as a living wage, decent housing, food, and clean water are necessary, but more important still is “spiritual freedom.” Parents' must have a right to educate their children. Religious freedom needs to be protected.
In this section Francis draws attention to a classic Catholic assertion about social life, one that is in the background of Laudato Si. (I wish it were more in the foreground!) In order to restrain our lust for power and domination, we must “recognize a moral law written into human nature itself.” We are not master of all things, but instead must serve a deep moral truth.
This moral truth includes “the natural difference between men and women, and absolute respect for life in all its states and dimensions.” Francis has offered a sharp rebuke to the Obama administration's attempts to use the United Nations as a vehicle for promoting abortion and gay marriage.
The appeal to natural law was made in passing. This papacy is more comfortable with the social justice language of exclusion. Francis ends with a rejection of “the creation of an all-powerful elite” and exhorts us to give of ourselves in “selfless service of others.”
There were a number of specific issues addressed in the speech. Francis made a thinly veiled plea for expanded membership in the elite membership of the United Nations Security Council. He gave implicit support to the interventionist logic of Responsibility to Protect doctrine. He also gave implicit support to the Obama administration's treaty with Iran.
But the main thrust was classic Francis. The global system is set up to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. It needs to be changed.
As I said, a good speech. I'm not unsympathetic to the main thrust. Given our fallen condition, it would be very difficult to believe that the global system is not set up in many unjust ways. Of course it needs to be changed. But in accord with what moral principles? Here I think Francis isn't altogether clear.
The dialectics of exclusion and inclusion are easily hijacked by progressives who are themselves often quite powerful. By my reckoning the “moral law written into human nature itself” is a more reliable basis for thinking our way toward a more just global system.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.