REFLECTION | Pope Francis and the Sustainable Development Goals

July 1, 2017 - 5:49 PM

The Sustainable Development Goals provide us the framework to confront global issues – to name a few: poverty, hunger, education for all, environmental destruction and social injustice. Pope Francis calls us to read between the lines of sustainable targets and sustainable solutions; that in between we will not fail humanity.

Sustainable Development Goals
The UN officially adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN Sustainable Development Summit last September 25–27, 2015 in New York, USA. The SDGs, officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is a set of 17 “Global Goals” with 169 targets between them. These are a new universal set of goals, targets and indicators for development framework that will guide the UN member states in addressing global problems. These are an “improved” framework from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2001.

The MDG’s target platform focused on social development priorities to help poor countries; the SDGs want to create a sustainable development platform creating “achievable” targets for change in all countries – to end poverty, to protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.

The following are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG):
1. No Poverty
2. Zero Hunger
3. Good Health and Well-being
4. Quality Education
5. Gender Equality
6. Clean Water and Sanitation
7. Affordable and Clean Energy
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10. Reduced Inequalities
11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
12. Responsible Consumption and Production
13. Climate Action
14. Life Below Water
15. Life on Land
16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
17. Partnerships for the Goals

Pope Francis’ social spirit
Yes, the church opens her windows to global realities (signs of the times); prophetically releasing “social encyclicals” (teaching documents) that will guide best approaches to confront realities through the eyes of faith, action and conviction, but, for certain reasons of “dynamics,” has failed to confront head-on as an institution. There are church people, organizations and personalities who seriously consider the social “call of the spirit.”

With the election of Pope Francis, re-framing the “distant dynamics” of the Curia in particular, and the Catholic Church in general created ripples of “new reform” in spirit, attitude and action among believers. Pope Francis made it personal, from opening the gates of the Vatican for the homeless of Rome to the creation of Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development to effect an integral response from the Church on issues related to “justice and peace, the development of peoples, the promotion and defence of human dignity and human rights, such as rights pertaining to work, including that of minors; the phenomenon of migration and the exploitation of migrants; human trafficking and enslavement; imprisonment, torture and capital punishment; disarmament and arms control as well as armed conflicts and their effects on the civilian population and the natural environment…” (

Pope Francis speaks of ecological action, love for migrants, exclusivity of church people, the evils of economy, profit over people, hunger – all rooted in the greed of humanity and institutions. In an article in TIME magazine, Elizabeth Dias said “Francis’ vision for change is comprehensive. He addresses the challenges of food production due to uncontrolled fishing. He reminds readers that migrants are forced to flee poverty induced by environmental degradation but are not recognized internationally as refugees. He offers a corrective to past theological interpretations that say that God gave humanity dominion over the earth and challenges the idea that humanity should be the center of concern when it comes to the Earth’s future. He calls out the failures big business, politicians, and international summits.”

Pope Francis’ critical proposals
Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, is a “social encyclical” of Pope Francis that was officially released last June 18, 2015 and which provides not only the environmental direction of the Church but as a whole infused the conscious lines of action for “integral ecology” (ecology taken not only environmental but also political, social, cultural). From this encyclical, he links environmental destruction (cry of the earth) with the destruction of the lives of the poor (cry of the poor).

In a speech he made to the UN General Assembly in New York last September 25, 2015, he boldly said: “The need for greater equity is especially true in the case of those bodies with effective executive capability, such as the Security Council, the Financial Agencies and the groups or mechanisms specifically created to deal with economic crises. This will help limit every kind of abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned. The International Financial Agencies are should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.” (

From his end, Pope Francis was aware of the many loopholes in implementing the “development goals,” which is why he constantly and insistently speaks of authentic and integral response of the problems of humanity; encouraging institutions, countries and leaders to “render an effective service to mankind, a service respectful of diversity and capable of bringing out, for sake of the common good, the best in each people and in every individual.”

Proposal 1: Principle of Quality of Life
This social encyclical critically speaks of development. Pope Francis is proposing a ‘broader concept of quality of life’: “a path of productive development, which is more creative and better directed, could correct the present disparity between excessive technological investment in consumption and insufficient investment in resolving urgent problems facing the human family. It could generate intelligent and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, and it could also improve the energy efficiency of cities. Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment. Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life. On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ #192).

Consistent “ethic-of-life” grounds his call for caring humanity and the planet, putting into place the continuing call of St. John Paul II the need to defend human dignity, protection of human life and caring creation.

With the SDGs, we are provided with enumerable targets to be able to achieve the goals; and yet we are still nailed on ‘economic development’ that seeks more in providing convenient avenues for development on the side of the rich countries, multinational companies, and business tycoons. The economic interests of these countries and companies thrive in many developing nations; and yet, the absence of the delivery of social services (like education and health) and protection of the environment are missing.

Proposal 2: Principle of Integral Ecology
Integral Ecology is an all-embracing concern for the whole of creation. Quality of life in all elements of ecology: environmental, economic, social, cultural, behavioral, and “structural.” In each, Pope Francis creatively examined areas of failure in our many development models (we often brand as sustainable) and proposed growth that will “seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 139)

Pope Francis highlights our ‘human ecology’ by emphasizing “the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 155)

Analysis of the destructive realities, still are existing anywhere in the world; many times are impacted because of “development.” Pope Francis demands reflection that will merit decisive action and accountability: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.” Before the official “adoption” of the UN on the 17 SDGs, Pope Francis on his own demanded on the need for a global “agreement”, “Such a consensus could lead, for example, to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.”(Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 164)

Proposal 3: Principle of Integral Human Development
For Pope Francis, to achieve the implementation of Agenda 2030, he is suggesting a deeper understanding of ‘integral human development’, closer to grassroots understanding of the reality on what is happening in the peripheries – to allow men and women to be dignified agents of their own destiny. In brief, integral human development for Pope Francis:

1. Integral human development must be allowed to unfold in the person, in the family, in communion with others, and among communities (friends, communities, towns and cities, schools, businesses and unions, provinces, nations, etc.)

2. Integral human development presupposes and requires the right to education – equally for boys and girls.

3. Integral human development should be ensured by government leaders; the family as the basic unit of social development, practical needs (housing, labor and land) and spiritual needs (spiritual freedom, the right to education and civil rights).

4. Integral human development simplest and best measure and indicator of the implementation of the new Agenda for development will be effective, practical and immediate access, on the part of all, to essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.

5. Integral human development is commonly anchored on: the right to life, or simply the right to existence of human nature.

Proposal 4: Principle of Solidarity
The core message of Pope Francis is always “going to the peripheries.” It may sound as a pastoral call for Catholic leaders to descend from its “institutional” distance, but it can be applied as well to government leaders, urging them to feel the suffering in the peripheries of society – where hunger, poverty and moral degradation contribute to the grim reality of the world. The reality of suffering in the world directed Pope Francis to put all his efforts in calling for “solidarity” in a tripartite direction: human, natural and socio-economic. He calls for a “new and universal solidarity,” where people, institutions, organizations and even countries must work together to stop the destruction of humanity and environment.

In the midst of hopelessness, Pope Francis offers a kind of alternative solution both rooted in authentic concern and action-driven, the principle of solidarity – “the principle of solidarity, a word that is sometimes forgotten and at other times misused in a sterile manner. We know that those who are most vulnerable to environmental degradation are the poor; they are the ones who suffer its most serious consequences. Thus, solidarity means the implementation of effective tools that are able to fight environmental degradation and poverty at the same time. There are many positive experiences in this regard. For example the development and transfer of appropriate technologies that are able to make the best possible use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are most readily available at the local level, in order to ensure their long-term sustainability.” (

Concluding Questions: Beyond SDGs
From goals to reality, are we achieving these SDGs within reach or much less? Are the processes made to achieve the goals sustainable enough to address the core issues and problems of poverty?

From the goals are we correcting the failed implementation standards, and move towards a pro-people driven development?

The MDGs still failed to capacitate the poor countries, due to funding-based implementation made by government mechanism, will the SDGs learn from the many failed approaches? And be able to transition to an all-inclusive implementation standards, involving POs, NGOs for a community-driven integral program of implementation (sectoral approach).

Billions of funds were lost for the MDGs, still we failed to connect the goals with economic disparity across cultures and boundaries – we still have wars, increasing poverty, despotic regimes, human-induced environmental changes, elitist markets. Can the SDGs connect the dots with social and economic injustice and environmental degradation?

Will the SDGs meant to be “effective solutions” in the peripheries or remain to be “sustainable” in the hands of rich countries and capitalist funders?