There were echoes of this sharp critique in the pope’s UN speech on Friday. “Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical, and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment,” he said. “Such is the magnitude of these situations, and their toll in innocent lives, that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.”
In the encyclical, Francis listed a number of specific failures of global organizations including the UN: a misplaced belief that technocracy is the key to development; a deference to wealth and power; “bureaucratic inertia” and inefficiency. Although the pope is a pastor, a figure of the Church, he argued that more powerful international organizations are necessary for saving the environment. “It is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions,” he wrote.
On Friday, the pope was a little more hopeful. “I can only reiterate the appreciation expressed by my predecessors in reaffirming the importance which the Catholic Church attaches to this institution and the hope which she places in its activities,” he said.
But the challenge is a big one. “Any harm done to the environment ... is harm done to humanity,” he 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 disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled, or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.” This echoes a central theme of Francis’s: The world has the greatest obligation to those who live at the margins of society, who are “forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”
In addition to the environment, the pope discussed war, money laundering, child exploitation, prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and organized crime. He also raised two issues that are of particular concern on this trip to the U.S.: the nature of marriage and care for all humans, including the unborn. In Francis’s writing, he often draws an explicit connection between environmental destruction and the degradation of families. In Catholic social thought, the family is the core of all moral life, from the most micro decisions to the most macro. “The defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself,” the pope said on Friday, “one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.”