Pope Francis, the Vatican leader, rules over an institution that represents 1.25 billion through a power structure, adorned with pomp and focused on a single authority, that recalls the great European monarchies of old.
But when he came to the United Nations Friday, he spoke instead of limiting the power of global elites, eroding divisions between nationalities and creeds, and building up basic rights of all people to create a “universal fraternity” of men and women around the world.
“It is helpful to recall that the limitation of power is an idea implicit in the concept of law itself,” he told the general assembly, in a speech the Argentine pastor delivered in his native Spanish. “To give to each his own, to cite the classic definition of justice, means that no human individual or group can consider itself absolute, permitted to bypass the dignity and the rights of other individuals or their social groupings.”
For Francis, the primary role of the powerful was to serve humanity, with the guidance of the divine. To this end, he repeated a long-held criticism of capitalism for encouraging selfish gain over collective prosperity, and praised the United Nations. “The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man,” he said, before quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. “‘Man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature.'”
In contrast to the sometimes inspirational rhetoric of his address to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, the Pope’s address to the United Nations was philosophical, if not academic, with repeated references to past Catholic teaching and the founding codes of international law. He repeated many of the issues that have long become his trademarks on the international stage: protection of the environment, an elimination of nuclear weapons, praise for the Iran nuclear deal, care for the most powerless and renewed focus on global human trafficking and the war on drugs.
He also declared “the right to education, also for girls,” prompting loud applause from the chamber, including those of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani human rights activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman three years ago.
“Our world demands of all government leaders,” the pope said, “a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”
Francis, a moral leader, warned the assembled world leaders and bureaucrats that all economic and political acts would fail without moral foundation. “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity,” he said, “guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programs, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”
His speech marked the first time a Pope had addressed the general assembly in Spanish.