Pope Stresses Human Rights, Ethical Science

Pope Benedict XVI told diplomats at the United Nations Friday that respect for human rights is the key to solving many of the world's problems. Video by AP
By Michelle Boorstein and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 19, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, April 18 -- Pope Benedict XVI, using the stage provided by the United Nations, gently but forcefully warned on Friday against the perils of the modern world -- technology and science that violate "the order of creation," environmental degradation, the abuse of human rights and the unwillingness of many nations to embrace multilateralism at a time when the world's problems "call for interventions in the form of collective action."

"What is needed is a deeper search for ways of preempting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation," the pope said in what could be interpreted as a subtle swipe at the Bush administration.

As is often the case with Benedict, a longtime theology professor, the speech was short on specifics and long on broad themes. The remarks were timed with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and viewed by Vatican experts as the pope's message to the world, not something specific to the United States.

Benedict's appearance at the United Nations came on the third day of his trip to the United States. Later Friday, he visited the Park East Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the first time he has toured a synagogue in the United States.

Addressing U.N. delegates who sat in respectful silence in the General Assembly, Benedict hammered away at the key theme he has been making since his ascendancy to the papacy: that human rights must be defined as God-given and thus unchanging -- not fuzzy, subjective products of politicians and laws that can shift in different circumstances.

Human rights, he said, "are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts," adding that "when presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal."

Wearing his traditional white cassock, Benedict received an unusually warm reception from the delegates, including Mary Ann Glendon, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The delegates began to applaud as the pope entered, and within seconds they rose to give him a standing ovation, with many snapping photos of him with regular and cellphone cameras. Benedict smiled and spread his arms wide in acknowledgment.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon introduced the pontiff, noting that many of those gathered to hear him do not share Benedict's Catholic faith.

"Whether we worship one god, many or not, we at the United Nations have to strengthen our faith every day," the secretary general said. "We need more and more of this precious commodity. I am profoundly grateful to his holiness Pope Benedict XVI for bestowing some of his faith upon us, and putting his trust in us. May we be strengthened by his visit."

Glendon said she did not presume the pope was referencing the United States when he urged diplomacy.

"I don't think he was referring to any specific countries. (The talk) was at a very high level, a very general level, and there are so many places in the world where dialogue is necessary. . . . I think he was saying to all 192 countries: 'Anytime there is a chance for dialogue, please take advantage of that opportunity.' "

In his remarks, Benedict endorsed the principle that U.N. member states have a duty to act to halt massive human rights abuses and humanitarian disasters in foreign countries. U.N. leaders agreed at a 2005 summit that states have "a responsibility to protect" their own citizens from such abuses and that foreign governments may step in if a government fails to meet its obligations.

"The international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the U.N. charter and other international instruments," Benedict said. Such action, if carried out lawfully, "should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage."

The delegates refrained from interrupting his speech with applause and showed little reaction until the end, when they showered him with another long round of applause.

Heraldo Muñoz, Chile's U.N. ambassador whose government resisted U.S. pressure to back the invasion of Iraq, said the pope "was reaffirming diplomacy. Perhaps it was an indirect message that one should use diplomacy before recourse to force. I don't want to say to whom it was aimed."

Alluding during his remarks to such breakthroughs as cloning and genetic engineering, Benedict raised questions about scientific and technological advances, noting their benefits but also what he sees as the perils of progress.

"Notwithstanding the enormous benefits humanity can gain, some instances of this represents a clear violation of the order of creation, to the point where not only is the sacred character of life contradicted, but the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity," he said.

Efforts to protect the environment should not only be carried out by limiting the use of science and technology to "rational" ways, but also for another reason, he said: "to rediscover the authentic image of creation. This never requires a choice to be made between science and ethics. Rather, it is a question of adapting a scientific method that is truly respectful of ethical imperatives."

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