Last month, the United Nations General Assembly did something remarkable — and something all of us interested in international dialogue should celebrate. It gives another dimension to CNEWA’s work to advance unity in the world, and it has an explicit connection to Pope Francis. On 21 December the representative of the United Arab Emirates, acting on behalf of several other Member States of the U.N., introduced a resolution to proclaim 4 February of every year as the International Day of Human Fraternity. The resolution (A/75/L.52) passed without vote.
The institution of an International Day of Human Fraternity is an extraordinary act of support and recognition on the part of the international community of “Fratelli tutti,” the encyclical Pope Francis published on 4 October (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi). The U.N. designation of the day for “human fraternity” is extraordinary in itself. The U.N. is rightly and genuinely concerned to use inclusive language in all its communications. It is also aware that fratelli, “brothers,” in the title of the encyclical had generated some controversy and misunderstandings. Aware of this, the U.N. General Assembly nonetheless opted for the term “fraternal,” in order to make the connection with the encyclical clear.
The U.N. response to the encyclical occurred less than three months after its publication. Clearly the encyclical has had an impact on the international community. And perhaps that’s not surprising. Given the ongoing interest that the U.N. and the international community have given to “Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home’ ” (18 June 2015), it is not unreasonable to expect a similar response to “Fratelli tutti.”
Some background may help. The U.N. has Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which make up the basic agenda of the U.N. At the beginning of the millennium, the U.N. set up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015. As 2015 approached, it became clear that, while there had been considerable success, the goals had to be refined and extended. This resulted in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which consist of 17 goals to be achieved by the year 2030.
A great deal of study has been done showing how “Laudato si’” and the SDGs interact and influence each other. Gerald F. Cavanaugh notes that “it came as a surprise to many that Pope Francis’ ‘Care for our Common Home’ received more global attention than have the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals” (“Pope Francis and the United Nations: Planet Partners,” The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, Issue 64, December 2016, 47-61). Cavanaugh notes that “Francis’ contribution is that he approaches these global challenges as interrelated moral issues.” A.R. Taylor, an official of the World Bank, is cited as saying, “It is hard to imagine a more charismatic, disarming and inspirational champion for the very spirit of the sustainable development goals.”
If the U.N. response to “Laudato si’” is any indication — and there is no reason to think it is not — of future responses to “Fratelli tutti,” we may expect a fruitful interaction between the world body and the Holy See. This adds a moral note to the SDGs which may not be immediately obvious. Pope Francis writes as a Roman Catholic Christian and the bishop of Rome. However, he is careful in both encyclicals to address a more universal audience of people of good will and concern for the planet.
This interaction between the U.N. and the Holy See is also important on another level. It is often erroneously believed — and even promulgated by some — that the relationship between the Holy See and the United Nations is one of uninterrupted disagreement and opposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is no secret that the U.N. and the Holy See do disagree on issues, some of which are important to both entities. I think it would be fairly accurate to say that there is probably no U.N. Member State in the General Assembly that does not disagree with the U.N. on some issues. That is to be expected with such a diverse body.
However, it would be unfair and misleading to see the relationship between the Holy See and the U.N. as primarily confrontational. That is simply not the case — and this recent declaration offers a singular example of how the two can work together.
Both “Laudato si’” and, to all appearances, “Fratelli tutti” may well provide many important opportunities for the Holy See and the U.N. to cooperate for a more just, sustainable world.
Father Elias Mallon is CNEWA’s external affairs officer and represents CNEWA at the United Nations.