UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

When a pope addresses the United Nations, he knows he is speaking to the world. John Paul II said as much when he went before the UN General Assembly on October 5, 1995 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. “In coming before this distinguished Assembly, I am vividly aware that through you I am in some way addressing the whole family of peoples living on the face of the earth,” he said in opening remarks. “My words…echo the voices of all those who see in the United Nations the hope of a better future for human society.”

His language was of human dignity and a universal moral law that protects all persons equally, words that echoed again when Pope Benedict XVI took to the floor of the UN General Assembly last week and spoke of the need for a “new humanism” that respects religious freedom and morally informed voices.

“It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”

His address, marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was originally billed as the highlight of the US papal visit. It became one among many, but one featured prominently by all major media. The New York Times reported that the pope “presented the idea that there are universal values that transcend the diversity – cultural, ethnic or ideological – embodied in an institution like the United Nations…Those values are at the base of human rights, he said, as they are for religion.”

The Times and others also noted Benedict’s message that religion can’t be excluded from a body that exists for “a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person” and that a “vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help achieve this.” Furthermore: “Recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism, war, and to promote justice and peace.” This snip made it into most major media, many of which carried the Pope’s full transcript.

What most of them missed was the deeper message of the Pope’s elegant words. His opening remarks were in French, the language of the United Nations. By the second paragraph, he made an affirmation: “The United Nations embodies the aspiration for a ‘greater degree of international ordering’…inspired and governed by the principle of subsidiarity, and therefore capable of responding to the demands of the human family through binding international rules…” And then he made a challenge: “This is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.” The phrase “decisions of a few” is key to that thought, and he returns to it later.

Consensus versus truth

Consensus has replaced truth and right order, he goes on to say, in all kinds of areas, like “the way the results of scientific research and technological advances have sometimes been applied. Notwithstanding the enormous benefits that humanity can gain, some instances of this represent a clear violation of the order of creation, to the point where not only is the sacred character of life contradicted, but the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity. Likewise, international action to preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on earth must not only guarantee a rational use of technology and science, but must also rediscover the authentic image of creation. This never requires a choice to be made between science and ethics: rather it is a question of adopting a scientific method that is truly respectful of ethical imperatives.”

From that incisive statement, the media plucked the reference to the environment and made whole stories out of it. The larger message was missed. Benedict spoke firmly of the consistency of ethics, not their relative application. He continues: “Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.”

That phrase grabbed the media spotlight as well, because of the pope’s attention to violations of rights and humanitarian crises. What they missed was the wider application to all humans and the sanctity of life. About the UN’s “responsibility to protect”, Benedict said “this principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.”

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights “was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science.”

However: “Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations.” That key line was lost on the mainstream media, especially since this was still the opening remarks in French. It was followed by this: “It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”

Sanctity of life

Benedict would only then begin the remainder of his address, in English. And he was only warming up to his challenge to protect the human family by promoting the sanctity of all life and the rights of every person. He referred to “competing rights” and the need to redouble efforts today “in the face of pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the Declaration” that compromise its intent and move it “away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests.” The UN Declaration of Human Rights, said Benedict, cannot be applied piecemeal “according to trends or selective choices” that actually compromise universal human rights.

Examples readily spring to mind. Some non-governmental groups have tried to write into the UN’s documents the language of “reproductive rights” in order to export contraception and abortion globally and tie it to international aid. The language of the right to end one’s life is similarly spreading euthanasia disguised as compassion. But Pope Benedict addressed those trends in more nuanced, elegant terms. “When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal.” Rights, he said, are deprived of their true function “in the name of a narrowly utilitarian perspective.”

Quoting his favourite, Augustine of Hippo, he reminded everyone of the Golden Rule: “[Augustine] taught that the saying: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you ‘cannot in any way vary according to the different understanding that have arisen in the world.’ Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.” In other words, might does not make right.

Religious freedom

Addressing religious freedom, the fundamental base of all human rights, Benedict called on the UN to ensure that public debate “gives space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions…It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” The United Nations, he said, is “a privileged setting in which the Church is committed” to serving and protecting human rights “grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world.” Which is necessary, “to sustain humanity’s hope for a better world and if we are to create the conditions for peace, development, cooperation and guarantee of rights for future generations.”

In his 1995 address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II pointed out what the changes of the times meant “for the future of the whole human family.” Here’s one key remark:

“If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of “grammar” which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future.”

Last week, Pope Benedict continued that discussion by re-introducing moral grammar to the United Nations. Whether they understand the language will only become clearer in time, but they’re likely still trying to unpack the message. One week after his visit, however, the president and the press are still talking about the pope, and the impression he left of clarity with charity.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. Until recently, she hosted the popular national radio shows The Right Questions and Issues and Answers on Relevant Radio. She blogs at InforumBlog.com.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....