by Matthew Charlesworth SJ

This week we witnessed two opposing visions at the United Nations (UN). The first was President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech to the UN’s General Assembly. The speech was given in the context of the unveiling of a statue and the announcement of the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace. Ramaphosa said: “To the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, the UN today is a beacon of promise in a landscape of doubt.” He challenged the UN “to forge a more representative, equal and fair United Nations that is empowered and equipped to lead the struggle to end poverty, unemployment and inequality in the world.”

This was in stark contrast to the second vision offered by US President, Donald Trump. After being laughed at, he said, “We reject globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Time Magazine declared that “Trump’s ‘America First’ speech was an attack on the very values of the UN.”

Underlying this sentiment was fear. Trump articulated this when he said that “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.” The fear is that international co-operation and multilateralism is a form of ‘control’ or ‘domination’. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, the UN is a way of helping us facilitate and forge an awareness that we are global neighbours.

In a world where we need to rely on each other, and where powerful elites and corporations are able to evade their responsibilities to the common good, the Catholic Church has long supported the idea of an international authority. The Church encouraged reforms so that structures which existed, move towards greater service of the people of the world.

Since Pope Benedict XV in 1919, modern Catholic social teaching has supported and called for reforms to the League of Nations and the UN. With Pacem in Terris (1963), Pope John XXIII endorsed the idea of a universal “public authority with power, organization and means” to manage the global common good (#137). Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued this by calling for a strengthening of the UN in their social teachings and speeches to the UN General Assembly.

Recently, Pope Francis called for greater equity and power distribution which is reflective of the world as it is today, and not as it was in 1945, in institutions such as the Security Council and the International Monetary Fund. He called for effective juridical frameworks that can hold governments to account for their ‘solemn commitments’ – for example the Sustainable Development Goals. This will hold governments accountable, and their progress towards these commitments measured and evaluated.

And finally, Pope Francis has called for a more participatory form of governance which would not subordinate the people of this planet to the ideas and ideologies of governments or even the UN system. He urged that they would, through increasing subsidiarity, listen to and serve people, especially those from minority groups.

We must resist the impulse to retreat into our own problems. We must be better neighbours, keeping ourselves alert not only to local needs but also to the needs of our global community. Our Christian response is clear: we should build bridges, rather than erect walls; we are called to encounter the other rather than to retreat into our laagers.