A Voice of Conscience

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations Dec. 10, 1948. For information on the Holy See Mission to the United Nations, visit www.holyseemission.org.

Pope Benedict XVI’s April 18 visit to the United Nations, the fourth such visit by a pope, came at a difficult time. Cultural fragmentation, unwillingness to seek mutual understanding, political drifts in every part of the world and challenges to human security all find a sounding board at the U.N.

Pope Benedict understands the weight of these challenges, yet shares a message of hope in his pontifical ministry. He has raised morale and given vigor to those who work in the halls of the United Nations to affirm justice, peace and freedom. He has done so with his presence, encounters, glances, handshakes, words and gestures, each marked with great serenity, gentleness and sincerity.


The Holy Father’s message last April was outstanding and well received: the issue of human rights; the responsibility to protect, as the necessary basis for every authority of every government and administration; and the dialogue among persons of diverse cultures and religions, rooted in a common recognition of the dignity of every person.

It was expected that Pope Benedict would not come to the United Nations simply to say politically correct words suited to the occasion. In the weeks preceding his visit, I was besieged with questions about what the pope would say. These questions were quite telling. Indeed, they were a sign that the words of the pope are appreciated today and that he would come to the U.N. not as any head of state but as a moral authority. He would represent authority that fosters a plan, preserves the founding principles of the U.N. and values the life of the individual and the community; authority that recognizes “natural law,” which precedes and cannot be contradicted by the laws of the state; and authority that uses means of persuasion and negotiation, shunning any use of force or imposition.

That is why Pope Benedict did not dwell at length on the various crises and challenges that concern the world today, but instead went to the root of every problem — namely, the need to recognize human dignity and human rights, which are based on natural law inscribed in the human heart and present in different cultures and civilizations.

The United Nations is the result of the political will of individual member states. For some time now, it is evident within the U.N. that the welcome and respect for non-negotiable principles are substituted through compromise and negotiation on any matter. Benedict XVI’s insistence that certain principles — like those pertaining to life, the responsibility to protect and dialogue — are not at the discretion of the majority or of governments, needs to guide debates and resolutions in light of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The pope also stated that the moral basis for a government’s claim to sovereignty is its responsibility for, its willingness to and effectiveness in protecting its population from any kind of violation of human rights. While borrowing this language from the World Summit Outcome Document adopted by heads of state and government in 2005, Pope Benedict outlined a broader concept: responsibility to protect covers not only the so-called humanitarian interventions, which at times also require the use of force. Rather, it can be used as a new name for sovereignty, which is not only a right, but above all a responsibility to protect.


In his visit to the United States, the Holy Father also spoke more than once about freedom of religion and interreligious dialogue. On this point, he entrusted a clear and profound message to the United Nations, currently in search of an efficacious strategy for dialogue and cooperation among persons of diverse cultures and religions. The pope connected his discourse on the secular state with transcendence, freedom and democracy. The state itself has to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely.

One finds here some indispensable elements that render the respect and promotion of religious liberty the keystone of a government and a society that respects all basic human rights. In this view, religion is not considered a problem but part of the solution. The early settlers to America fled religious persecution in Europe, but had a solid and precious consciousness of the relationship between God and society. Religion is “authentic” when it is not manipulated for ends other than its own — that is to give glory to God and to realize the happiness of man. It is “lived freely” when governments and civil society, including religions, are convinced that religious liberty is grafted upon the equal dignity of every human person.

The final ovation given to Pope Benedict by the assembly could not have arisen from anywhere but from the profound dwelling of each member’s conscience, far and beyond daily politics. The Holy Father has launched an ethical, moral message, confiding it to the U.N. to be translated into practice. In this sense one can understand the expression many use to rightly describe the pope: He is the conscience of humanity and speaks to the consciences of all.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, a native of Cuneo, Italy, has served as apostolic nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York since 2002, following his appointment by Pope John Paul II. He joined the Holy See’s diplomatic service in 1980 and held positions with various Vatican secretariats in Angola, Poland, the United States, Egypt and France. From 1995 to 2002 he served as undersecretary of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican.

CNS photos: Bob Roller; Dario Pignatelli, Reuters; Courtesy United Nations/DPI