NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Pope Francis declared Friday that there is a “right of the environment” and that mankind has no authority to abuse it, telling more than 100 world leaders and diplomats at the United Nations that urgent action is needed to halt the destruction of God’s creation.
Hoping to spur concrete commitments at upcoming climate change negotiations in Paris, Francis accused the world’s powerful countries of indulging a “selfish and boundless thirst” for money by ravaging the planet’s natural resources and impoverishing the weak and disadvantaged in the process.
“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion,” he said.
He asserted that the poor have inherent rights to education, religious freedom and other civil rights as well as lodging, labor and land.
“Government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development,” he said.
Francis’ speech, the fifth by a pope to the U.N., was a distillation of his recent teaching document on the environment, “Praise Be,” which has delighted liberals and environmentalists and drawn scorn from big business interests.
By bringing the document to life before the U.N., Francis made clear his priorities.
“Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” he said.
He said the universe is the result of a “loving decision by the creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the creator: He is not authorized to abuse it, much less destroy it.”
Echoing his encyclical’s key message, he said a “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.”
He drew applause when he called for a reform of the U.N. system and international financial agencies to give poor countries a greater say.
That, he said, would ensure that they aren’t subjected to “oppressive lending systems, which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.”
Francis was greeted on his arrival at the U.N. by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a key supporter of his eco-friendly agenda. In his opening remarks, Ban praised Francis for his moral leadership.
“You are at home not in palaces, but among the poor; not with the famous, but with the forgotten; not in official portraits, but in ‘selfies’ with young people,” he said.
Among those in the audience for Francis’ speech was Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani education campaigner who was shot and gravely wounded by the Taliban. She will be addressing the U.N. summit later. Also on hand were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Early Friday, the Vatican flag was raised for the first time at the United Nations. U.N. security officers raised the Holy See flag with its yellow and white bands and a triple crown topped by a cross on a new flagpole set slightly apart from those of the 193 U.N. member states.
The General Assembly recently agreed to allow the U.N.’s two observer states, the Holy See and Palestine, to fly their flags alongside those of the 193 member states.
While his speech carried a progressive social message, Francis also made clear that he firmly upholds the church’s unchanging doctrine on life issues: He called for the “absolute respect for life in all its stages” — including the unborn. He cited “moral law written in nature itself” in insisting there is a natural difference between men and women. The Catholic Church has been on a campaign to denounce “gender theory” and the idea that people can choose their sex.
And he repeated his denunciation of the “ideological colonization” of the developing world — a reference to how Western, progressive ideas about contraception and gay rights are often imposed on poor nations as a condition for development aid.
Following his speech, the pope visited the 9/11 memorial where he’s meeting relatives of some of the nearly 3,000 victims before heading below ground to the National Sept. 11 Museum for an interfaith service.
Francis wraps up his U.S. visit this weekend in Philadelphia, where he speaks in front of Independence Hall and celebrates Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to close out a big Catholic families rally.
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