The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what two popes, Francis and Benedict, had to say to the United Nations

Word cloud from UN speeches by popes Benedict and Francis, graph by Mathison Clore and Erik Voeten.

Pope Francis addressed the United Nations (UN) General Assembly Friday morning, mentioning a litany of issues but emphasizing climate change and environmental degradation. While Francis was the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, there is a longer history of papal speeches to the UN. The Holy See (the Vatican) is one of two permanent observer states at the UN (the other is Palestine) and its flag flies outside the UN headquarters for the first time this year.

UN speeches are an opportunity for the pope to highlight issues of global concern. Pope Francis has departed sharply from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in both style and substance. The wordclouds above show both the similarities and the differences in the words used by Pope Francis this morning and Pope Benedict’s speech in 2008. There are some words with universal appeal that both popes used with high frequencies: “United,” “Nations,” “international,” and “justice.” These words will find their way in many of the speeches world leaders will give next week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

[Live coverage: Pope Francis in America]

More interesting are the differences. Pope Benedict focused much more on human rights, responsibilities, and dignity. His speech highlighted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By contrast, Pope Francis stressed social, environmental, and economic development issues.  He emphasized the economically marginalized and does not believe that human rights by themselves provide the answer:

“[..] today’s world presents us with many false rights and – at the same time – broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded.”

Shortly after, he argues for the existence of a “right to the environment” and that those who live in poverty are “deprived of all rights.”  I am not sure I would go as far as Samuel Moyn to say that “the pope has given up on human rights” but he clearly has much less faith in their ability to cure the world’s ills than his predecessor did.

Another way of viewing this is that the pope is staking out a position in an old debate at the United Nations over the primacy of social and economic rights versus civil and political rights. These sets of rights are not necessarily contradictory. Yet, in practice there are sharp divisions over emphasis and content. Some (mostly developed) states question whether the rights framework is the best way to deal with issues such as food, health, poverty, and the environment. Some also emphasize that recognizing civil and political rights are the gateway to economic development. Others view economic (and sometimes environmental) security as a prerequisite to civil and political rights. They also typically want the wealthy nations of the world to contribute much more to alleviate global poverty and clean up the environment.

These debates are sure to come to the forefront next week as leaders will discuss new sustainable development goals for the globe. It will be interesting to see if the leaders of developing countries will refer to the pope’s speech in an attempt to leverage the pope’s popularity in much of the developed world.

Mathison Clore is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University. Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Serviceand Government Department and an editor of the Monkey Cage.