The wonderful impact of the leader of the Catholic Church speaking to the United Nations is only part of the testament to the farsighted policy thinking of the people, mostly Americans, who long ago realized the importance of establishing this global organization—even though it continues to have problems acting responsibly—and this excerpt from a First Things article validates that policy vision.

The Pope and the United Nations
By Douglas A. Sylva
Wednesday, February 27, 2008, 7:50 AM

The pope has John Allen worried. In a column published in the New York Times, Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, frets that Pope Benedict will offend during his upcoming address to the United Nations General Assembly. After all, “this cerebral pope has a track record of blurring . . . compelling arguments during his biggest turns on stage.” He makes “cosmetic missteps that distract attention from his message” and exhibits a “worrying insensitivity to how unfamiliar audiences are likely to hear what he says.”

But Allen should relax. As he is undoubtedly aware, this pope, like all the popes that have reigned during the age of the United Nations, has recognized great potential in the institution. If Benedict says anything that may prove difficult to hear on that April day, it will not be because he is insensitive to his listeners but because the Church knows and appreciates the founding values of the U.N. and seeks to hold the U.N. to those values. In this effort, Pope Benedict will show the way forward to a more vigorous organization, by calling for a restored commitment to the United Nations’ own avowed principles.

The Vatican’s long-standing hope in the institution is tied to its catholic perspective. A worldwide institution, properly constituted and properly administered, could propel the earth toward an ever closer approximation of the universal common good, the rewards of peace and justice that would emanate from worldwide respect for human rights as manifestations of natural law.

This view is not based on blindness to the multifarious corruptions and mal-administrations of the United Nations but on the painful lessons of twentieth-century European history, when ideologies in opposition to the universality of human dignity swept the continent, unconstrained by anything beyond the ambitions of individual nation-states. Looking about them at the rubble of European civilization after the world wars, and forward toward a divided continent under the shadow of nuclear war, the popes deemed it obvious that this combination of ideology and nationalism needed to be supplanted.

A transformation of relations between states would be necessary. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Blessed Pope John XXIII explored this transformation, a moral and philosophical conversion, of sorts, from a Hobbesian state of nature—of strong states dominating the weak—to relations based on mutual understanding, cooperation, and reconciliation.

A key point for John XXIII is that natural law regulates states, and interactions between states, as much as it regulates other spheres of human interaction: “The same law of nature that governs the life and conduct of individuals must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another.” This natural law, “inscribed” in “man’s nature,” teaches that there are objective human rights. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church expands on this point, describing the natural law as “the living expression of the shared conscience of humanity, a ‘grammar’ on which to build the future of the world.”

For this conversion of relations between states to occur, nations would need to accept two novel applications of natural law: States must treat other states as entities with standing according to the law, and states must recognize and promote the rights of extraterritorial humans, of noncitizens, since the natural law teaches that human rights are universal.

And, in this regard, the objective, universal nature of human rights would best be promoted by an institution with worldwide authority. As the Compendium summarizes: “Concern for an ordered and peaceful coexistence within the human family prompts the Magisterium to insist on the need to establish some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with effective power to safeguard, on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights.”

That “universal public authority” is the United Nations.