Berlin. - The Pope is due to give an address on sustainable development ahead of the opening of the United Nations Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda (Sustainable Development Goals) in September. Pope Francis was mostly applauded for his stance on the environment and climate change in his encyclical "Laudato si" and he used his recent trip to South America to speak out against poverty and inequality. In order to assess if he is the ideal candidate to call upon the United Nations assembly to decide on a meaningful agenda on sustainable development, this is a review of the Pope´s views on the environment, climate change, inequality and reproductive health and rights.


The Pope's encyclical, which was released in June this year was celebrated by environmentalists worldwide for being a bold document with an activist tone, straightforward demands and concerns for the poor.

Pope Francis has called on the world’s rich nations to begin paying their "grave social debt" to the poor and take practical steps against climate change, saying failure to do so presents an undeniable risk to a "common home" that is beginning to resemble a "pile of filth".

The Pope further wrote: "Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms". The failure to respond, he says, proves the loss of a "sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded".

He blamed humanity for years of misuse of resources. "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods," is says in the encyclical. "It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."

According to the pope biographer Austen Ivereigh "Francis has made it not just safe to be Catholic and green; he’s made it obligatory."
As Ivereign told the Guardian, the encyclical can now be considered the church’s official position on the environment, including practical guidance. Pope Francis rejects "simple solutions" to climate change such as cap and trade systems, which he says give rise to harmful speculation.


During his recent tour in South America, the Argentinian Pope said, when he stayed in Bolivia that limitless capitalism is the "dung of the devil".

"Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change," the Pope said, denouncing a system that "has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature".

He has actually urged the repressed and marginalized to change the world economic order, denouncing a "new colonialism" by agencies that impose austerity programs and calling for the poor to have the "sacred rights" of labour, lodging and land. Poor countries should not be reduced to being providers of raw materials and cheap labour for the rich nations.

"The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned," Francis wrote in his encyclical. "In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future."

He further demands: "The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development." 

During his visit to Paraguay he told business leaders, politicians, labour union leaders and other civil society groups: "Putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and an education – these are essential for human dignity, and business men and women, politicians, economists, must feel challenged in this regard." He asked them not to yield to an economic model, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.


The anti-choice ideology is at the core of the Catholic Church´s doctrine. The Pope, while showing no signs of changing the Church's position against abortion, has not spoken out against it in the beginning of his term. After his election he gained attention for saying the Church must shake off the "obsession" with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

Some states in South America have the most restrictive laws against abortion worldwide. In e.g. El Salvador and Paraguay there is no access to safe abortion in any circumstances. In some cases, women having a miscarriage can face jail time.

In Paraguay, Equality Now and CLADEM, international human rights organizations working for the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls, called on the Pope to intervene and demand that the Paraguayan state fulfil its international and national obligations and protects girls at risk of sexual abuse. "In light of Pope Francis’ visit to Paraguay, we hope that the State of Paraguay will reaffirm its commitment to end child sexual abuse and forced pregnancy in the country", said Elba Núñez, Regional Coordinator of CLADEM. A hope that is very unlikely to be fulfilled any-time soon.

As after being criticised by conservatives for his silence on abortion, in 2014 the Pope said on several occasions, such as the "State of the World" address, that human life was inviolable and abortion was an "unspeakable crime." "It must be therefore reiterated the strongest opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenceless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence," he said at the time.

Furthermore he denounced the use of contraception to a crowd of 86.000 people in Manila in the beginning of 2015 saying saying: "Be sanctuaries of respect for life, proclaiming the sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death. What a gift this would be to society if every Christian family lived fully its noble vocation."


The pope has an enormous power to shape the doctrine followed by millions of Catholics around the world. The question is in how far the pope’s strong statements and demands in regard to the environment and climate change positively impact the sustainable development agenda and the Paris climate talks. One will see if Francis actually made being green obligatory, but "Laudato si" definitely provides a strong reference to be used, not only by Catholics.  

The Pope´s views on reproductive rights are rather problematic as access to reproductive health and family planing are matters of public health and human rights. In the face of illegal abortions, which cause unnecessary deaths, the strong anti-choice politics of the Church are unhelpful.

For most players in the women´s rights movement reproductive and sexual rights are strongly linked to women´s political and economic empowerment and therefore a development issue that needs to be addressed in the post-2015 Agenda. The Vatican and other conservative powers are know to undermine references to reproductive and sexual rights and health in other documents.

The Vatican (Holy See at the UN) is not a member of the United Nations, but a permanent observer state. But apart from observing, the Holy See is said to have had great influence on e.g the 1994 Cairo Population Conference, the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, and the 2001 General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS.

A strong influence of the Pope´s views on the above mentioned issues might be a boon for environmentalists and a bane for women´s rights advocates. But it still remains to be seen, which points will be pushed through.

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