Comment Comment and Features

The improbable Secretary-General

Guterres has ‘a reputation for getting into the thick of it’ (AP)

In 2004, Catholics in Europe received an alarming wake-up call when the Italian Rocco Buttiglione was turned down for a European Commission post after having said that he would defend the rights of gays despite considering homosexual acts to be sinful. Could a Christian with traditional beliefs in this field, and others, take up a public role in international organisations?

It is therefore surprising that 12 years later António Guterres, a practising Catholic with a pro-life track record and no hint of pro-LGBT positions, could be acclaimed Secretary-General of the United Nations with hardly a complaint from the usual lobbies. Even among UN staff in New York, whom he impressed with his campaign, his religious beliefs were not an issue.

So how important is his faith, and to what extent could it shape his term as head of the UN? Fr Vítor Melícias, a Franciscan friar who is close to Guterres, has gone so far as to describe him as a “secular Pope Francis” and has no doubt that his religious convictions are an important part of everything he does.

“He is a deeply religious and spiritual man, but he was formed in a Vatican II-style Church – open, pluralistic and ecumenical, with respect for the separation between religion and politics,” Fr Melícias says. “No doubt his actions will be inspired by the values of the Church’s social doctrine, but above all by the notions of human rights, pluralism and dialogue.

“We must not expect him to engage in proselytism. In other words, his political actions will not be moulded by his Catholicism, although he will always act as a man whose formation and values are religious, and specifically Catholic.”

One thing Guterres had going for him during the campaign was his stellar reputation as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. After taking office he cut down on staff and on spending in administrative positions, investing more money and human resources in the field. But there was more to it than that. People knew that, unlike many UN bureaucrats, Guterres actually cared.

A few years ago a Portuguese aid worker with a Catholic NGO in Rwanda learned that the local UNHCR office was complicit in the government’s use of child soldiers. She wrote directly to Guterres and he replied immediately. Within a month he had ordered investigations and reports on the issue, which eventually led to the signing of protocols, with the Rwandan government pledging to end the practice.

“Other UN officials would occasionally visit missions, but they would rarely actually speak to the people these missions were trying to help,” she says. “But Guterres had a reputation for getting into the thick of it, getting his feet dirty, actually sitting with and talking to the refugees to know what their concerns, worries and complaints were.”

This sort of behaviour does remind one of Pope Francis, and expressions such as wanting a Church that doesn’t mind getting muddy, and having shepherds that smell of the sheep. But although this may be an effect of living one’s faith seriously and coherently, there is nothing explicitly Christian about it.

Where Guterres might have his faith tested is with the usual issues such as abortion, LGBT rights and gender theory. Pro-life lobbyists at the UN, such C-Fam’s Austin Ruse, welcome the arrival of a Catholic Secretary-General, but have their doubts about what he can actually accomplish in this field.

“We will have to wait and see,” Ruse says. “I am sceptical that he could be chosen for this position without reaching a kind of modus vivendi with the massively powerful abortion and pro-LGBT advocates who control this decision. Even if he tried to rein in the abortion/LGBT agenda, he would run into huge resistance from the bureaucracy and the states of the EU, and the donor nations of the Nordic region. Properly understood, the Secretary-General is not very powerful.”

On the other hand, he adds, there is hope that Guterres will at least not be as radical on these issues as Ban Ki-moon.

Fr Melícias, however, has little doubt that Guterres will put his convictions first, regardless of the price. After standing against their own party on the abortion issue in Portugal, for instance, Guterres and other pro-life socialists were quickly purged from any active role in the Socialist Party, which has since become more uniform.

“As far as difficult issues such as abortion and gay rights, he has always been a very consistent man, and this will not change,” says the Franciscan, “despite the many difficulties which might arise.”

This article first appeared in the January 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here