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.

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