Pope John Paul II did more than offer a striking tour d'horizon of international life on the threshold of the third millennium when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly Thursday. He also challenged the widespread notion that international affairs is a realm of amorality in which interests alone are in play.
As he accelerates the pace of his activity at age 75, John Paul is emerging as the world's premier defender of the idea that there is a nobility to the human person and prospect. It is not an easy case to make at the end of a century of slaughter, tyranny and unfathomable human suffering. And the Pope, who in the first 39 years of his life fought the Nazi and communist occupations of his homeland, is no naive optimist.
But he is, as he said at the United Nations, a "witness to hope." And hope is a sturdier virtue than optimism, because hope is rooted in faith. In this instance, that faith is centered on God. But in an age pockmarked by cynicism, John Paul's faith in God has given birth to a remarkable faith in man.
The Pope sees his faith in the possibility of a nobler human future vindicated by the dramatic globalization of the quest for freedom. Against the claims of Chinese communists, Singaporean autocrats, Islamic reactionaries and Western deconstructionists, John Paul argues that the thirst for freedom is hard-wired into the deep structures of the human spirit. Human beings are not culturally conditioned "all the way down," as the deconstructionists say. There is a moral core to the human person that transcends the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, race and religion.
So, basic human rights are truly universal in character. They are not cultural quirks, nor are they boons granted by a state. Rather, any just state must recognize that there is a sanctuary of conscience inside every human being where state power is forbidden entry. On this view, religious freedom and freedom of conscience are not only the first of human rights in personal terms; they also help make pluralism--and thus democracy--possible.
This unshakable commitment to the dignity of the person is the prism that focuses John Paul's approach to world politics and economics. Viewed through that humanistic lens, politics should never be reduced to the mere quest for power (my ability to force my will on you). Rather, a politics commensurate with human dignity is built around the question: How ought we to live together? It is a question that Americans, concerned about our country's character-deficit, have been asking with increased urgency in recent years, not to mention the past week.
A similar humanism shapes the Pope's economics. John Paul has decisively broken with the curious materialism that once characterized Catholic social doctrine, by arguing that human creativity, not stuff in the ground, is the real source of the wealth of nations. Thus the Pope asks the world to think about international economics as something other than a zero-sum game in which one nation's gain is another's loss.
At the United Nations, the Pope urged the rich to show solidarity with the poor. But his social teaching has emphasized that this moral commitment should not be done by doles that create dependency, but by empowering the poor to become full participants in economic life.
Even those inclined to share the Pope's morally driven view of world affairs might ask what all this has to do with a United Nations beset by corruption and incompetence. The Pope, whose efforts at peacemaking in the Balkans have sometimes been frustrated by United Nations ineptitude (or worse), knows full well that the organization is in crisis on its 50th anniversary. But unlike Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary general who seems to think that the Bakans crisis can be resolved by the United Nations becoming a de facto world government, John Paul II, the humanist who believes in dialogue about differences, sees the United Nations as an indispensable forum for conversation about the world's future, a place where nations can begin to talk through the peaceful management of pluralism in a shrinking and volatile world.
It is, admittedly, a less grandiose vision of the United Nations than Boutros-Ghali's. It also has the advantage of being achievable.