Virtual Side Event entitled,
"A Faith-based Vision for the UN at 75 and Beyond"
New York, October 21, 2020
Dear Religious Leaders, Distinguished Panelists, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations on October 24, it is good to get together to examine the contributions of people of faith and faith-based organizations in the past, present and future of this institution.
I would like to thank all of the sponsors of this virtual event for their work in organizing it and for their kind invitation to participate.
Our world is profoundly religious. Eighty-five percent of people across the globe profess faith in God and are affiliated with a religion. Of all of the factors that can unite the nations of the world, faith is among the strongest, as it brings people into communion at the core of their being beyond distinctions of citizenship, language, race and sex.
It’s unsurprising that the United Nations campus here in New York gives an unmistakable testimony to the profoundly religious reality of the world.
- It is impossible to miss the enormous statue of Saint George slaying the dragon in the North Lawn, showing the triumph of faith over evil, and — insofar as it was made out of destroyed nuclear warheads from the United States and the former Soviet Union — of peace over war.
- In the garden along the East River, we have a beautiful statue depicting God’s summons through the prophet Isaiah to beat swords into plowshares, words indelibly inscribed as well across from the 42nd Street Delegates' entrance.
- Right off the UN General Assembly lobby, there is the Meditation Room, personally designed by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, inviting people to silence and prayer.
- Outside the Meditation Room, there is Chagall’s famous Peace Window, depicting on one side scenes of the goodness of the world, as in Eden, and images of peace, the Ten Commandments, and the family, but also showing the ancient serpent, scenes of evil and notably a crucifixion.
- There’s also the Japanese Peace Bell taken from a Shinto Shrine, a curtain of the Holy Kaaba of Mecca, a mosaic depicting the Dove of Peace after the Flood, a painting of Calvary right outside the Secretary-General’s office, and many other examples of religious art.
- Perhaps the most conspicuous reminder of the importance and influence of religion in the United Nations is found on the third floor of the Conference building, where one encounters the striking Golden Rule Mosaic based on Norman Rockwell’s famous sketch. In the early 1950s, Rockwell wanted to depict the United Nations as the world’s hope for the future, but eventually he decided to show a group of 65 people of different religions, races and ethnicities, young and old, behind the saying of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a testimony not only to the ethical inheritance of the religions of the world at their best but a witness to the deeply ingrained principles of conscience that are meant to animate the discussions of the United Nations. Rockwell found this common moral heritage to be the hope for the world’s future.
All of this religious art, gifts of the nations of the world, are important reminders to Ambassadors and Delegates, UN Staff, NGO representatives and visitors that to be truly representative of the peoples of the world, the UN must always remain inclusive and respectful of religion and of people and organizations of faith.
Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted when the UN was in its infancy, proclaims everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This universal human right brings with it a duty, not just on individuals and States but also the international community, to respect, value and protect this fundamental freedom. The more this respect is given, and the more people of faith and faith-based organizations are invited to contribute, the stronger the United Nations will be and the better off our world will be.
When we look at the four pillars of the UN, it is easy to see how central people of faith and faith-based organizations are to the implementation of each.
- Preventing the scourge of war and the arduous work of peacemaking and peacebuilding are not just accomplished by diplomats and blue helmets but so many religious actors on the ground, helping people to reconcile and building and staffing the institutions that make peace possible.
- People of faith are on the front lines, in schools, pulpits, hospitals, refugee camps and more, putting into practice faith in fundamental human rights and the equal rights of men and women, based on reverence for the dignity of every human person.
- Believers and faith-based organizations for centuries have been working to lift the poor out of poverty, to feed the hungry, to protect our planet, in short, to implement what would eventually become the Sustainable Development Agenda well before the SDGs had ever been formulated.
- Likewise religious men and women serve as a conscience for world leaders to establish conditions of justice and to honor the commitments arising from treaties and international law.
Much of the work of faith actors and organizations is appreciated and warmly embraced by the international community. The courageous and indefatigable efforts of so many believers working for peace, helping the poor, advancing the rights of women, educating children, tending the sick, rehabilitating and seeking justice for victims, promoting harmony, and caring for our common home are all rightfully praised. The implementation of so many of the priorities of the United Nations would simply never have a chance of being accomplished without the contributions of people on the ground motivated by love of God and of neighbor. These good works flowing from faith need to continue and grow.
But there are a few ways in which a faith-based vision is considered a threat by some people and it’s important for us to take note of these. If we fail to do this, it could lead to situations in which people of faith would not be able to continue to contribute as we have to the good of others and the world.
The first is with regard to religious freedom. There is the very troubling concern about attacks on religious believers across the globe, whether it is happening by those of other religions, by secularist or atheist governments, or by vigilante groups. People of faith need to work together with greater insistence to defend all those who are being harassed, discriminated against, imprisoned or killed solely because of their religious creed.
There’s also another less noted attack against religious freedom happening. Some are trying to reduce religious freedom to freedom of worship, intending to limit faith to what one does in private at home or in places of worship rather than letting faith overflow into daily life and into works. This is also happening within the UN System, as some are attempting to restrict religious freedom in order to promote other so-called “human rights” that are not in the Universal Declaration, do not enjoy consensus, and are clearly against the beliefs of most world religions. People of faith and faith-based organizations must be on guard.
The second way believers and faith-based organizations can open the eyes of the international community is with regard to a lack of consistency in implementing its most basic principles, such as respect for the dignity of every person, or its commitment to leave no one behind. It is good that everyone uses these phrases and conceptually values them, but people of faith must prophetically challenge everyone, beginning with ourselves, to live by them.
How we can proclaim the rights of people with disabilities while at the same time permit that children diagnosed with Down Syndrome in the womb are eliminated before they’re born? How can we have beautiful forums on a culture of peace and then permit various countries to construct foreign policy based on the threat of mutually-assured destruction? How can we say we’re fighting for sex-trafficking victims while at the same time allowing demand for the commodification of women to be driven up through prostitution or the promotion of pornography? Or how can we have open-ended working groups on ageing, focused on the dignity of seniors, while looking away when in various countries our elders are suffering involuntary euthanasia?
We can multiply the examples, but I hope the point is clear. People are faith are called both to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When various injustices are occurring, we are summoned in a particular way to help the international community to live up to its principles.
The last point I’d like to make is about one of the greatest services people of faith and faith-based organizations can make. It is to remind everyone of the transcendent dimension of the human person. In a technocratic age marked by various forms of materialism, this duty is even more urgent.
Believers give witness to the fact that God exists and calls us to relationship not just with him but with each other. When we see ourselves as God’s children, we cannot help but regard others as our brothers and sisters. In order to become a “family of nations” with genuine fraternity, the world needs believers living out these basic truths. This is the core message of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti.
One of the foremost expressions of human transcendence is prayer. Believers are called not just to work as hard as we do for peace, for human rights, for integral development, for justice. We are likewise called to turn to God and implore these blessings, as Pope Francis did yesterday in Rome together with Patriarch Bartholomew and leaders of other religious traditions. Notwithstanding all of the other good people of faith strive to do, prayer is perhaps our most important contribution.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.
To watch the event in its entirety, please click here. Archbishop Caccia's remarks begin at 13:35.