It's been just two days, but Pope Francis has already set some "firsts" during his papal visit to the United States. He's the first pope to address Congress; the first pope to canonize a saint on U.S. soil; and the first pope to drive around in a trendy little Fiat. On Friday, the popular pontiff set yet another precedent: Francis addressed the United Nations and flew the Vatican flag at the New York City headquarters for the first time. Like Thursday's speech before Congress, Francis' U.N. address was both compassionate and political, sending out a powerful call to action while also condemning our growing "culture of waste" and what he considers "abuses" of the Earth and its people.
Francis is not the first pope to deliver a speech before the U.N. general assembly — that would be Pope Paul VI, who visited the organization in 1965. But Francis may be the most controversial pope to call on the United Nations. Building upon his climate-change encyclical released last June, the pontiff wasted no time in criticizing the lack of attention given to the environment.
"We human beings are part of the environment," Francis said. "We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect."
The content and focus of Francis' U.N. speech was kept under wraps by the Vatican prior to the pontiff's arrival, but it was expected that the science-minded pontiff would address climate change alongside poverty, hunger, and immigration reform. In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised Francis for his dedication to "social justice, climate change, and ensuring a life of dignity for all," setting the stage for the pontiff's unprecedented address.
In his opening remarks to U.N. staff, Francis emphasized the "united human family," a common theme for the pontiff. "You worry about the future of the planet, and what kind of a world we will leave for future generations," Francis told U.N. staffers, speaking in slow English. "But today...I will ask what is your capacity to care for one another. Respect one another. Work not only for peace, but in peace."
These sentiments carried over into his speech before the general assembly, but with a harsher tone. Francis often ties climate change and the environment to global economics, creating a world of great wealth and devastating poverty through what he calls "exclusion."
"The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion," Francis said. He criticized selfish societies, claiming materialism leads to "the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action."
"Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment," the pontiff added. He then called for an end to all social exclusion, including human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, and international organized crime.
In a boldly feminist move, Francis also called for universal education for girls, noting that girls were still denied the right to an education in many areas of the world. The pontiff emphasized agency, saying, "To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny."
Keeping in line with his social justice spirit, Francis urged government leaders worldwide to ensure their citizens have these three rights: lodging, labor, and land. The pontiff also emphasized "spiritual freedom," which includes religious freedom, the right to education, and civil rights.
While Francis sees the destruction of the environment as the biggest threat to human life, including its immediate impact on the poor, the pontiff talked at length about war — another form of destruction that is currently causing millions from North Africa and the Middle East to flee their native lands. Here, Francis criticized governments for prioritizing "problems, strategies and disagreements" over the quality of life for their people.
"Real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be," Francis said. "In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die."