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Religion and Society

Encouraging the United Nations to rediscover its lost role

The fourth visit of a Pope to the UN, that made by Benedict XVI on 18 April 2008, took place at a historic moment that was not easy for this institution. Cultural fragmentation, difficulties and at times a lack of readiness to understand each other, negative tendencies in politics in every part of the world and challenges to human security, find in the Glass Palace their sounding box.

 

 

Pope Benedict XVI, who knows all of this and shares its burdens and its hopes in his ministry as the Supreme Pontiff, the ‘builder of bridges’, raised the morale of, and gave back vigour to, those who, within the framework of the United Nations, work to uphold justice, peace and freedom. He did this through his presence, through meetings, looks, handshakes, words and gestures that were marked by great serenity, meekness and sincerity. The quality of his message was high and well received: the meaning of human rights; the ‘responsibility to protect’ as an inescapable basis for the authority of every government and administration; and dialogue between individuals who belong to different cultures and religions, grafted onto a common recognition of the dignity of every person and every human group.

 

 

That Pope Benedict was not coming to speak politically correct words that were convenient for the occasion was something expected by everyone. For weeks I was besieged by questions about what the Pope was going to say. I would like to observe that the words of the Pope still matter today and that he was awaited at the UN not as a head of state but as a moral authority. An authority that stewards a design, that conserves the principles and values that underlie the lives of individuals and communities. Moral authority that is recognised as ‘natural law’, which precedes it, and which cannot be contradicted by the laws of a State. This is why the Pope did not dwell – for that matter he did not have the time to do so – on the various crises and challenges that concern the world today. He went, instead, to the root of every problem, namely human rights, which are based upon the natural law inscribed in the heart of man and present in different cultures and civilisations.

 

 

The United Nations is the result of the political will of its individual member States and for some time it has been evident that within the UN the acceptance of, and respect for, principles that are not negotiable has been replaced by compromise and negotiation in relation to everything. The stress that Benedict XVI placed upon the belief that certain principles, such as the principle of life, the responsibility to protect and dialogue, are not a matter for the wills of majorities or governments, should guide us in the debates and resolutions as we look forward to the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

Benedict XVI, in fact, stated that the moral basis for the right of a government to exercise its authority and sovereignty is its readiness, will and efficacy in protecting populations from every kind of violation of human rights. Pope Benedict took the phrase ‘responsibility to protect’ from the document produced by the summit of heads of state and government of the year 2005. However, he located it in a much broader context: the responsibility to protect is not limited, in fact, to humanitarian interventions, which are often armed, but is increasingly raised in a new way in relation to sovereignty which is not only the right but also, and principally, the responsibility to engage in the protection and promotion of civil populations.

 

 

On a number of occasions during his visit to the USA he spoke about freedom of religion and inter-religious dialogue. On this point he also entrusted a clear and fecund message to the United Nations, which at the present time is searching for an effective strategy for dialogue and cooperation between people of different cultures and religions. The Pope linked the analysis of secularity with those on transcendence, freedom and democracy. The State is secular specifically out of love for religion in its authenticity, practised freely. Here there are some indispensable elements which make respect for, and the promotion of, religious freedom the axiomatic key for governments and societies that respect all basic human rights. First of all, ‘out of love for religion’, when, that is to say, religion is not seen as a problem but as a part of the solution. The American pioneers fled from situations of religious oppression in Europe but they kept solid, and considered as valuable, awareness of the relationship between God and society. Religion is ‘authentic’ when it is not manipulated for ends that are different from those that are proper to it, which are, that is to say, to render glory to God and to make man happy and fulfilled. ‘Freely practised’: when governments, civil societies, including religions, are all convinced that religious freedom is grafted onto the equal dignity of every person and give a corpus to this premise. The long and warm final applause given by the assembly could only have come from that drive to what must be that resides in every heart, beyond daily policies.

 

 

Pope Benedict launched an ethical and moral message that went to the experts in the field so that it could be translated into operative guidelines. In this sense one may understand in the right way the phrase that many people use, namely that the Pope is the conscience of humanity and speaks to the consciences of men.

 

 

 

* H.E. Msgr. Celestino Migliore is the Permanent Observer to the United Nations, New York.

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