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The pope has John Allen worried. In a column published in the New York Times , Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter , frets that Pope Benedict will offend during his upcoming address to the United Nations General Assembly. After all, “this cerebral pope has a track record of blurring . . . compelling arguments during his biggest turns on stage.” He makes “cosmetic missteps that distract attention from his message” and exhibits a “worrying insensitivity to how unfamiliar audiences are likely to hear what he says.”

But Allen should relax. As he is undoubtedly aware, this pope, like all the popes that have reigned during the age of the United Nations, has recognized great potential in the institution. If Benedict says anything that may prove difficult to hear on that April day, it will not be because he is insensitive to his listeners but because the Church knows and appreciates the founding values of the U.N. and seeks to hold the U.N. to those values. In this effort, Pope Benedict will show the way forward to a more vigorous organization, by calling for a restored commitment to the United Nations’ own avowed principles.

The Vatican’s long-standing hope in the institution is tied to its catholic perspective. A worldwide institution, properly constituted and properly administered, could propel the earth toward an ever closer approximation of the universal common good, the rewards of peace and justice that would emanate from worldwide respect for human rights as manifestations of natural law.

This view is not based on blindness to the multifarious corruptions and mal-administrations of the United Nations but on the painful lessons of twentieth-century European history, when ideologies in opposition to the universality of human dignity swept the continent, unconstrained by anything beyond the ambitions of individual nation-states. Looking about them at the rubble of European civilization after the world wars, and forward toward a divided continent under the shadow of nuclear war, the popes deemed it obvious that this combination of ideology and nationalism needed to be supplanted.

A transformation of relations between states would be necessary. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris , Blessed Pope John XXIII explored this transformation, a moral and philosophical conversion, of sorts, from a Hobbesian state of nature¯of strong states dominating the weak¯to relations based on mutual understanding, cooperation, and reconciliation.

A key point for John XXIII is that natural law regulates states, and interactions between states, as much as it regulates other spheres of human interaction: “The same law of nature that governs the life and conduct of individuals must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another.” This natural law, “inscribed” in “man’s nature,” teaches that there are objective human rights. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church expands on this point, describing the natural law as “the living expression of the shared conscience of humanity, a ‘grammar’ on which to build the future of the world.”

For this conversion of relations between states to occur, nations would need to accept two novel applications of natural law: States must treat other states as entities with standing according to the law, and states must recognize and promote the rights of extraterritorial humans, of noncitizens, since the natural law teaches that human rights are universal.

And, in this regard, the objective, universal nature of human rights would best be promoted by an institution with worldwide authority. As the Compendium summarizes: “Concern for an ordered and peaceful coexistence within the human family prompts the Magisterium to insist on the need to establish some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with effective power to safeguard, on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights.” That “universal public authority” is the United Nations.

The greatest practical outcome of this new institution, charged with regulating a new order of natural law, would be peace, variously described by the popes as the victory of love over a politics of fear, or persuasion over force. The Church also looks to the U.N. to foster international solidarity through development programs and humanitarian interventions.

For these many reasons, the Church sees the United Nations, or at least the potential of the United Nations, as a secular complement to the Church’s universal spiritual mission, with overlapping vocations grounded in the pursuit of a shared view of the human person. As Pope John Paul II stated in his 2004 World Day of Peace Address: “The Church is a companion on the journey towards an authentic international ‘community,’ which has taken a specific direction with the founding of the United Nations Organization in 1945. The United Nations ‘has made a notable contribution to the promotion of respect for human dignity, the freedom of peoples and the requirements of development, thus preparing the cultural and institutional soil for the building of peace.’”

But everything depends on this universal institution remaining anchored to universal human rights emanating from natural law. And so the Vatican has become one of the world’s great champions of the U.N.’s founding document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is praised by Pope John Paul II in his 1979 address to the United Nations General Assembly as “a milestone on the long and difficult path of the human race.” Pope Benedict himself has recently stated that “our society has rightly enshrined the greatness and dignity of the human person in various declarations of rights, formulated in the wake of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted exactly sixty years ago. That solemn act, in the words of Pope Paul VI, was one of the greatest achievements of the United Nations.”

How can the Church assist in the success of its “companion”? The Church promotes the link between natural law and de jure international law. In Benedict’s own words, “The multilateral diplomacy of the Holy See, for the most part, strives to reaffirm the great fundamental principles of international life, since the Church’s specific contribution consists in helping ‘to form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly.’”

In this regard, the Church’s worst fear for the United Nations is the potential for this international organization to become the vehicle for promoting another incomplete ideology, another diminished view of the human person as if it represented the full truth of human nature. And that is why the “life issues” matter so much¯not just because they are about “differences over sex,” as Allen somewhat dismissively describes them, but because they pull the United Nations so far away from the natural laws that constitute the foundation of the universal common good.

And in this concern, Benedict is again following his predecessors. Paul VI first raised the alarm in his 1965 address to the United Nations General Assembly: “For you deal here above all with human life, and human life is sacred; no one may dare make an attempt upon it. Respect for life, even with regard to the great problem of the birth rate, must find here in your Assembly its highest affirmation and its most rational defence. Your task is to ensure that there is enough bread on the tables of mankind, and not to encourage an artificial control of births, which would be irrational, in order to diminish the number of guests at the banquet of life.”

Since then, things have only gotten worse. To name a few instances: The United Nations Population Fund, which did not even exist in 1965, has spent decades (and billions of dollars) creating worldwide demand for contraceptives and abortifacients, and then supplying that demand. UNFPA measures its success by contraceptive prevalence rates and specifically targets Catholic countries such as the Philippines and the Latin American countries for low-fertility cultural revolutions. UNFPA has also been complicit in China’s barbaric forced abortion campaign, called the One Child Policy. The World Health Organization will build obstetric hospitals in developing countries, as long as those countries allow the WHO to practice new abortion techniques in them. Even UNICEF, the most respected of all U.N. agencies, has promoted abortion, causing the Church to severe ties with UNICEF in 1996.

Benedict has named three political principles that the Catholic Church considers to be nonnegotiable: “protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family . . . the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.”

And yet these nonnegotiable principles are in fact negotiated (and often defeated) at every major U.N. meeting. As Pope John Paul II discovered during the two seminal U.N. conferences of the 1990s, Cairo and Beijing, the central role of the Holy See at the United Nations has become defensive in nature, a sustained attempt to stop the U.N. from destroying the link between international law and natural law by establishing abortion on demand as an internationally recognized human right.

Benedict has praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for recognizing that the “family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” But 1948 was a long time ago; such language could not pass today.

So if during his address to the General Assembly, Pope Benedict mentions ideology or the dictatorship of relativism, if he discusses feminism or fertility rates, he has good reason. The United Nations has become so unmoored from its foundations that the high purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been replaced by the low farce of seeking an international right to take innocent life. If some of the assembled heads of state, ambassadors, diplomats, and U.N. officials grow discomposed in the face of such a contrast, then Benedict’s speech will be an outstanding success.

Douglas A. Sylva is a senior fellow at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.


John Allen in the New York Times

Pacem in Terris

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

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