Keynote Speech by John Cardinal Onaiyekan

Moving Forward: The SDGs in Practice: The Religious Dimension

Keynote Address

By John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria
4th Annual International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD)
Delivered at The New School, September 22nd 2016
Video of the speech is available (begins at 27:50)

I understand that the aim of this conference is to “focus on scalable and innovative solutions for achieving the SDGs during 2016-2030.” I believe that the emphasis is on achieving these new goals, especially in the light of the fact that the UNO has laid out many goals in the past that have been rather poorly achieved. The hope is that these SDGs will be significantly better achieved. I know that many experts in different relevant fields have addressed this audience. My aim is to bring in the dimensions of faith and religion, an area that I dare to claim to be an expert. I shall try to make a case for the relevance of religion to our theme, to highlight the record of religion to the contents of the SDGs, and to point out a few areas where religion can make a valuable contribution to the achievement of the goals we have set ourselves.

  1. The relevance of the Religious Dimension

The most recent scientifically objective sociological research and surveys have confirmed that even in our highly modernised technological age, religion is still important for more than 80% of humanity. Those who think that religion has had its days may be loud and powerful in the media. But they are in the minority, and I daresay that they are dead wrong. It is clear therefore that if the SDGs are to make the human person the centre of their concerns, as they claim, they cannot but listen to the voice of the wisdom of religion and find ways to reach and involve the religious communities and institutions spread all over the world. Religion is a force to be reckoned with, either for good or for evil.

  1. Religions for Peace

I am just coming into New York from a meeting in Assisi, Italy, the home of the famous St. Francis, at which about 600 religious leaders of different faiths from all over the world gathered around Pope Francis to commit themselves to working for peace and to pray together for it. Held from September 18th to 20th, it was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the great gathering of major world religious leaders, which Pope John Paul II convoked in October 1986 to pray for peace. Every one of the 600 religious leaders signed a common declaration which among other things said:

“God’s name is peace. The one who calls upon God’s name to justify terrorism, violence and war does not follow God’s path. War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself. With firm resolve, therefore, let us reiterate that violence and terrorism are opposed to an authentic religious spirit.” (The Assisi Appeal for Peace, 20 September 2016, read on behalf of all by a young Japanese Buddhist woman).

Pope Francis at the same event, in his usual trenchant language said: “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!” We note that the Pope was speaking of war in general, not only about what we now call “terrorism.” This is a turnaround from many dark pages of our distant and not so distant human history.

  1. Religions for the SDGs

What has happened in Assisi about peace can and should happen also around the SGDs. It is commendable that religious institutions were to some extent consulted and involved in drafting the present SDGs. This is quite unlike the usual practice in the UN for composing such declarations. There is now need to create special channels for the effective involvement of the same religious institutions in their implementation.

We should not forget that religious institutions have a great wealth of wisdom, gathered over centuries and millennia on many of the issues raised in the SDGs. Humanity has lived and survived on such wisdom over the generations. We must also acknowledge that even today, many people are still guided to live a sensible life through their ancient religious injunctions. For example, the Church to which I belong, the Catholic Church, has a long and rich tradition of social teachings based on both divine revelation and common sense and human wisdom. These teachings are to be found in the many official documents of the Church down through the centuries. A modern summary is conveniently available in the recently published “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church,” brought out about the year 2000 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It was signed by the then incumbent president of the Council, Renato Cardinal Martino, for many years the Permanent Observer representing the Holy See at the United Nations. I can hardly imagine any matter in the SDGs that has not been covered in some way in these teachings, and especially in the most recent and current interventions of the two living popes, Benedict and Francis. I believe that other Christian Churches and other religious communities can dig into their respective reservoir of religious teachings for similar wealth of wisdom.

  1. From Experts to Grassroots

If the SDGs are to be significantly achieved, they must go beyond the study and commentaries of experts to the real people at the grass roots. Practically all the country members of the UNO have adopted the document as a national plan of action. But government alone cannot make sure that the project is owned by and reaches all the people for whom it has been designed. Here comes a great role for religious institutions and communities. They can bring the SDGs down to the grassroots in every village and urban centres in a way that government information agencies cannot do. They can reach their captive and receptive mass weekly and regular audience in the mosques, churches and temples in all rural villages and urban centres. They have the great comparative advantage that the people generally trust their religious leaders more than their government officers.

For this to happen successfully however, I wish to point out three conditions, among others:

  1. There is need for good collaboration and cooperation between religious institutions and government, in areas like sharing information, funding of programs and agreeing on priorities of actions to be taken. This is true also of the many NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) that we now see all over the place in our countries, peddling one program or the other, mainly with foreign funding, and foreign ideologies.
  2. The religious communities should take the trouble to highlight the message of the SDGs and integrate them into the sermons and homilies of the religious preachers. This costs effort and cannot be taken for granted. It might require putting together a group of experts in religious pedagogy to produce sample sermon notes to guide and encourage the local pastors and imams. I saw a very good example of this in a new publication by a Nigerian Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey, the Executive Director of Caritas Nigeria, the social welfare and development outfit of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria. The title of the book speaks for itself: Localising a Global Agenda: How Priests, Pastors, Imams and Ordinary People Can Mobilise to Enhance the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in Africa. (It is published in 2016 by the Caritas Nigeria Press, Abuja.) We can also mention another example, at a much higher level, that of Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si on the environment. Apart from matters of climate change, the encyclical also integrates SDG related issues like poverty, a just world economic order, health care, human trafficking and modern slavery.
  3. The third condition is that the religious communities should find a way of linking hands in joint action to promote the SDGs. In matters of social welfare, we have tended to work in isolation, often in competition and rivalry. We have discovered that we are more effective when we work together in cooperation. Furthermore, we find that it is easier for government to join hands with us if we present ourselves to them in a united group. This requires a considerable change of heart among the different faiths and even within the same faiths.
  1. Some Special Areas of Valuable and Competent Contribution

I hereby wish to highlight a few areas where religious communities can claim to have “scalable and innovative solutions for achieving the SDGs during 2016-2030.”

The first and perhaps the most important is that they will bring to the table the necessary spiritual dimension of our project. They will point out the fact that human life is more than mere physical wellbeing, though this too is very important. We stress the concept of “holistic development,” in the sense that Pope Paul VI more than fifty years in his Encyclical Populorum Progressio advocated for the development of “the whole man and all men.” Merely taking care of material needs does not satisfy the whole person. There are spiritual needs that must not be neglected. This is very important if cooperation between secular institutions and religious communities is to be successful. We need to agree, or at least agree to differ that spiritual needs have priority over material needs if we are to avoid working at cross currents.

Closely linked with this is the importance of moral and ethical imperatives, without which development often fails to achieve sustainability. Equally important is the recognition of the fact that for most people, the reality of a life after this life is taken very seriously, a world to come in which there will be full account and sanction for how this world is spent. Here, the words of the famous song come to mind:

“This world is not my home, I’am only passing through.”

In the same vein, my Yoruba people have a traditional saying, “Aiye l’oja. Orun n’ile,” which translates roughly as “This world is a market. The home is in the world beyond.”

Without moral and ethical parameters, many of the SDGs will not be achievable. How can anyone who does not think of the world beyond take seriously the future fate of this present world? This is a major issue in much of our discussion on climate change.

Religious communities take seriously the faith in a creation that is from the hand of God, who alone is the owner and absolute controller of the work of his hands. From this widely shared faith derives many conclusions that are important for a correct attitude to how we treat creation. God has created the universe and has specially designed our planet earth to be our “common home,” as Pope Francis says, a home to be maintained and developed, not soiled and destroyed. Since we are not the masters of this earth but rather its stewards, we must abandon the myth of limitless economic growth and unbridled consumption that leaves my neighbour hungry and destitute. It was the great Mahatma Gandhi who reminded us that God has provided enough for the needs of every one, but not for the greed of the selfish.

Many religions agree with Christianity and Judaism that God created man in his own image and likeness, thus making him the apex of his creation. For this reason all human beings enjoy inalienable rights. This includes the right to a place in our “common home” and not to be rendered homeless by the selfish and reckless action of other persons far away. True development must therefore include every human being, and leave no one behind. The same creation story teaches that all human beings derive from one pair of parents and that we are therefore brothers and sisters of the same parents, distant though it may be. This is a firm basis for the solidarity of our shared humanity, such that we become truly one human family. The SDGs are pointing in this direction, perhaps only as a beautiful impossible dream, but which the believer can sincerely pursue as achievable.