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B. Auza: Religion and the Sustainable Development Goals

Address to a forum on
"The Relevance of Interreligious and Inter-Civilizational Dialogue to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals"
United Nations, New York, USA, March 27, 2015

Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to join the organizers of this Consultation and our fellow co-sponsors in thanking you for your attendance today, as we consider the importance of interreligious, intercultural and inter-civilizational dialogue in fostering human and social development.

I would like to focus my remarks on the theme in connection with the first and the sixteenth sustainable development goals. Thus:

First, I would like to talk on the role of religions and faith-based organizations in the achievement of the first and overarching goal of the eradication of poverty; and, then, I will comment on the nexus between interreligious, intercultural and inter-civilizational dialogue and development in the promotion of just and peaceful societies, without which sustainable development will not be able to be achieved.

I was recently invited to speak at two events that had religion and sustainable developments goals in their titles. The first was the Special Event of the General Assembly entitled “World Interfaith Harmony: Multi-religious Partnership for Sustainable Development,” which was held on February 6 at the Economic and Social Council Chamber. The second was a roundtable on the role of religions and faith-based organizations in the eradication of extreme poverty, organized by the World Bank Group on February 18 at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

I was wondering why a huge financial institution like the World Bank, or a huge international organization like the United Nations, would turn to religions and their organizations to better assure the realization of sustainable development goals.

I would daringly suppose that these conferences were a recognition of the contributions of religions and their organizations to the life of individuals and of societies, in particular the help they provide those who are trying to emancipate themselves from various forms of extreme poverty.

In fact, according to World Bank President, Dr. Jim Kim, even with the rosy growth forecasts for the next 15 years, with growths like those between 2000 and pre-crisis 2008, still the world could not eradicate extreme poverty. From the present 14.5% of the world’s population being extremely poor, the number could only be reduced to 7% by 2030. However, with the collaboration of faith-based and other civic organizations, we can bring down that number to just 3% by 2030. In real numbers, that is a significant contribution, indeed.

In spite of their contributions, religions and faith-based organizations do not pretend to be what they are not. From the Catholic perspective, religions and faith-based organizations are not economic or political entities; they are neither a parallel World Bank nor a parallel United Nations, nor identical with non-faith-based NGOs. Their strength does not lie in material resources or scientific expertise –which are, indeed, very useful in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty –but in their being a spiritual force and a moral compass, in their being “enablers” of individuals and societies to recognize and respect the inherent dignity of each and every human person.

Though primarily inspired by a spiritual and moral mission, religions and faith-based organizations care for the flourishing of the entire human person. Because human progress is an integral part of their vision and mission, besides places of worship they also construct community-building centers, hospitals, schools and universities. Locally rooted, they have first-hand knowledge of the many forms of poverty and inequalities. They have grassroots-level credibility and evidence-based expertise. Their local presence favors dialogue among grassroots groups. Universally networked, they are effective advocates for causes like the eradication of extreme poverty and the promotion of just and peaceful societies.

In working to lift peoples out of poverty, religions and faith-based organizations fight to remedy the structural causes of poverty, injustice and exclusion. To cite just one example, Pope Francis exhorts us to say no to a financial system that rules rather than serves, a system that produces inequalities rather than shared prosperity.

Dear friends,

The nexus between interreligious dialogue and the fostering of peaceful and just institutions and societies reminds me of a book entitled Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. It attempts to restore religion to its rightful place in the conduct of international diplomacy, in particular in resolving conflicts. I won’t give you more details about the book lest you accuse me of marketeering… especially considering that I won’t get a percentage for advertising it! But I do urge you to read it. And, albeit taking the opposite side of the argument, who would not remember today Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order? We are here because we believe in “dialogue” and not in “clash.”

Indeed, religious leaders and believers play leading roles in the fight for peace and justice; in defending human rights; in welcoming the marginalized; in ending various forms of exploitation, trafficking and violence; in building ways to achieve stable situations crucial for long-term development.

Evidently, there are glaring exceptions. Sadly we continue to witness violent cases that demonstrate the dark side of religious passion divorced from reason, of zeal for one’s belief at the expense of fundamental human rights.

The thesis of my remarks is simple: namely, development can only thrive in the context of peaceful societies. The evaluations on the Millennium Development Goals clearly demonstrate the direct relation between peace and development: Countries in conflict have lagged far behind in the realization of the MDGs; indeed, many have suffered regressions.

I believe that fostering the action of religious bodies and fruitful cooperation among religions is essential to forming and consolidating peaceful, just, accountable and inclusive societies, without which the sustainable development goals cannot be achieved.

The strength of religions and their cooperation to foster peaceful and inclusive societies essential for development rests on their capacity to raise and nurture prophets and builders who are able to inspire concrete action, develop rapport of immediacy with individuals and communities, and rally people to work together for something greater than themselves.

The work of building the types of societies and institutions needed for sustainable development requires patience and perseverance. The construction takes place through thousands of daily actions that are building blocks of just and peaceful societies. It’s expedited when people are able to transcend selfishness, a spirit of vengeance, and the phobia that if others are helped to advance, you lose rather than win. In bringing about these factors key to genuine development, the contributions of religious believers working together cannot be overstated.

Pope Francis has emphasized that true interreligious dialogue is not so much a conversation but a mutual journey. It’s about building bridges rather than walls. It begins with a conviction that others have something good and valuable to say, with a focus on what one has in common rather than with differences, with embracing rather than excluding. It doesn’t ignore differences, because differences matter; but it seeks to understand those differences and treat the persons who hold them with respect.

Interreligious dialogue is a dialogue of life in which different parties have the courage to encounter others as they are, recognize the values they have in common and begin to work together to have those shared values reflected in society. Among those values are the conviction that religious faith is a good for society, that it should be part of the solution and not part of the problem, a deep respect for human dignity and religious freedom, a commitment to peaceful coexistence and, most of all, love for others based on love for God.

I would like to conclude my remarks by citing Pope Francis, who affirms that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world” and that such “a dialogue that seeks social peace and justice is in itself, beyond all merely practical considerations, an ethical commitment that brings about a new social situation.”[i]

Thank you for your kind attention.

H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza was appointed Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations on July 1, 2014 and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Organization of American States on July 16, 2014. H.E. Archbishop Auza earned a doctorate in Theology and entered the diplomatic service of the Holy See in 1990. His long experience in diplomatic service for the Holy See include assignments in Madagascar, the South Indian Ocean, Bulgaria, Albania, and subsequently in the Secretariat of State in the Vatican. At the United Nations, H.E. Auza has called for a broad definition of the “rule of law” that includes respect, dignity and justice. He has stated his concern about the “alarming, escalating phenomenon of international terrorism” and proposed an urgent study on how to re-enforce the international juridical framework to protect people from unjust aggression.


[i] Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” n. 250.