As I write these words on September 18, 2021, it is 60 years to the day that the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash en route to a peace conference intended to end what was then a bloody conflict in the Congo. Given what the United Nations have become since then, seeing the quasi-religious significance that such as Hammarskjöld gave it can be a bit unsettling. But on one level, it is no more that with which we Americans have been used to investing our own secular State, from the Ten Commandments in courthouses, prayers in public schools, and crosses to commemorate dead heroes on public property (now banned by the Supreme Court) to the phrases “In God We Trust” on our money and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the ceremonial invocations of the Deity in courtrooms (including their own), and the phrase “So help me God” in judicial oaths. (The latter rituals have been retained by the Supreme Court upon their finding that these are mere “civic deism” – emptied of religious content through endless repetition.)
What is perhaps more remarkable is the level of trust and praise successive Popes have heaped upon the organisation. Thus, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII opines:
It is therefore Our earnest wish that the United Nations Organization may be able progressively to adapt its structure and methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks. May the day be not long delayed when every human being can find in this organization an effective safeguard of his personal rights; those rights, that is, which derive directly from his dignity as a human person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable.