Commentary on the Pope at the U.N.

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By George Weigel

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Pope John Paul II did more than offer a striking tour d’horizon of international life on the threshold of the third millennium when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly. He also challenged the widespread notion that international affairs is a realm of amorality in which interests alone are in play.

As he accelerates the pace of his activity at age 75, John Paul is emerging as the world’s premier defender of the idea that there is a nobility to the human person and prospect. It is not an easy case to make at the end of a century of slaughter, tyranny, and unfathomable human suffering. And the Pope, who in the first thirty-eight years of his adult life fought the Nazi and Communist occupations of his homeland, is no naive optimist.

But he is, as he told the U.N., a “witness to hope.” And hope is a sturdier virtue than optimism, because hope is rooted in faith. In this instance, that faith is centered on God. But in an age pockmarked by cynicism, John Paul II’s faith in God has given birth to a remarkable faith in the human person and the human prospect.

The Pope sees his faith in the possibility of a nobler human future vindicated by the dramatic globalization of the quest for freedom. Against the claims of gerontocratic Chinese Communists, Singaporean autocrats, radical Islamicists, and the deconstructionists at the Duke University English department, John Paul argues that the thirst for freedom is hard-wired into the deep structures of the human spirit. Human beings are not culturally conditioned “all the way down,” as the deconstructionists would have it. There is a moral core to the human person that transcends the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, race, and religion.

So basic human rights are truly universal in character. They are not cultural quirks, of interest only to the West. Nor are basic human rights a benefice granted by the state. The reality of the matter works precisely the other way: any just state must recognize that inside every human being there is a sanctuary of conscience—a sanctuary of personhood, if you will—where state power may not tread. Thus religious freedom and freedom of conscience are not only the first of human rights in personal terms: they also help make pluralism and democracy possible by establishing that the state is not omnicompetent, and therefore ought not to be omnipresent.

This unshakable commitment to the dignity of the human person is the prism that focuses John Paul’s approach to world politics and economics. Viewed through that humanistic lens, politics should never be reduced to the mere quest for power, understood as my ability to force my will on you. Rather, a politics commensurate with human dignity is built around Aristotle’s classic question: How ought we to live together? It is a question that Americans, concerned about our country’s character deficit, have been asking with increasing urgency in recent years. And it is a question that begs for serious discussion in reference to situations like Bosnia, Rwanda, and the south Sudan.

A similar humanism shapes the Pope’s economics. John Paul has decisively broken with the curious materialism that once characterized Catholic social doctrine by arguing that human creativity, not stuff in the ground, is the real source of the wealth of nations today. Thus the Pope asks the world to think about international economics as something other than a zero-sum game in which one nation’s gain is another’s loss.

At the U.N., the Pope urged the rich to show solidarity with the poor. Compassion is a classic Christian virtue, and John Paul fully understands that it was not invented by liberals, who ought not to claim a monopoly on it. Indeed, what is singular about the social teaching of this pope is his emphasis on empowerment of, and participation by, the poor: we best give effect to our compassion, the Pope suggests, not by passing out doles that create welfare dependency, but by empowering the poor to become full participants in economic life. The U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, might well lend an ear.

Even those inclined to share the Pope’s morally driven view of world affairs might ask what all this has to do with a United Nations beset by corruption and incompetence. The Pope, whose efforts at peacemaking in the Balkans have sometimes been frustrated by U.N. ineptitude (or worse), knows full well that the organization is in crisis on its fiftieth anniversary. But unlike Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who seems to think that the Balkan crisis and others can be resolved by the United Nations’ becoming a de facto world government, John Paul II, the humanist who believes in dialogue about differences, sees the United Nations as an indispensable forum for conversation about the world’s future, a place where the nations can begin to talk through the peaceful management of pluralism in a shrinking and volatile world.

It is, admittedly, a less grandiose vision of the United Nation’s future than Boutros-Ghali’s. It also has the advantage of being achievable.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.