President Barack Obama is seeking to build ties with Pope Francis, the new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, for help on issues such as Mideast turmoil, climate change, and global poverty.
Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday met with his Vatican counterpart, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, to discuss a range of issues in preparation for a visit by Obama. The last U.S. secretary of state’s visit was by Condoleezza Rice in April 2005, when she accompanied President George W. Bush to the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
Miguel Diaz, who was Obama’s ambassador to the Holy See during the tenure of Pope Benedict XVI, said he sees an opportunity for the U.S. to work cooperatively with a new pope who’s re-energizing Vatican diplomacy.
“The new papacy brings about new possibilities and opportunities that have been recognized by the president” and Kerry, said Diaz, now professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Diaz also praised the contacts between Kerry, who is Roman Catholic, and Archbishop Parolin, who was elevated in August after being papal nuncio in Venezuela and previously held a Vatican post equivalent to deputy foreign affairs minister. Pope Francis’s choice of Parolin, who was highly regarded in the Holy See’s diplomatic community, signals a strong vision for papal diplomacy, Diaz said in a telephone interview.
Their talks covered issues from global poverty to this month’s Syria peace conference to the fighting in South Sudan, where there is a large Catholic population, Kerry told reporters afterward. They discussed Israel-Palestinian peace talks in preparation for the pope’s announced visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories in May, Kerry said.
“This was as comprehensive a conversation as I’ve had with any secretary of state or foreign minister in the course of my tenure, and I think, happily, we agreed on an enormous amount of things that we can cooperate on,” Kerry said.
“I know that the Holy Father is anticipating the visit of President Obama here, and the president is looking forward to coming here to meet with him,” Kerry said.
No date was announced for Obama to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday offered no details beyond saying the meeting will happen “in the near future.”
Kerry said yesterday that his discussions with Parolin covered the “common interest” in addressing poverty worldwide. Obama last month cited a need to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, invoking Pope Francis’s warning that unfettered markets are increasing income disparities, and that risks fomenting social unrest.
“We have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet,” Kerry said.
In a statement, the Vatican said Kerry met with Archbishop Parolin for an hour and 40 minutes, discussing “the peace process in the Middle East, especially the situation in Syria and the preparations for the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference, and negotiations between Israel and Palestine.”
Speaking to reporters, Kerry expressed appreciation for the pope’s comments yesterday supporting the Syrian peace conference, which is scheduled to begin next week, and said he will keep the Vatican apprised of developments as he seeks to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Kerry hasn’t made public the substance of those negotiations, which include the treatment of Jerusalem, including the eastern part of the holy city where Palestinians seek to establish the capital of an independent state.
“Obviously, there are issues of enormous concern to the Holy See, not just about peace, but also about the freedom of access for religious worship in Jerusalem for all religions,” Kerry said.
In a sign of stepped-up Vatican diplomacy, Pope Francis has called repeatedly for ending the warfare in Syria, which has claimed more than 125,000 lives.
The Christian community in Syria, among the oldest in the world, makes up about 10 percent of the population of 22.5 million. Many Christians live near Damascus and in Aleppo, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the civil war, and Christians have held positions in Assad’s government.
Both sides have targeted Orthodox and Catholic Christians in a conflict that pits largely Sunni rebels against a regime led by President Bashar al-Assad and fellow Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In his “State of the World” address to diplomats from 180 countries on Dec. 13, the pope said that “renewed political will” is needed to end the Syrian civil war. The Geneva II conference “will make the beginning of the desired peace process,” he said.
Francis plans to tour the Holy Land May 24-26, stopping in Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in a trip the pontiff said was conceived to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of a visit by Pope Paul VI to meet the head of the Orthodox Church.
The trip may stray from the historical to the current, if a visit to the Holy Land this month by a delegation of Catholic bishops is an indication. A report yesterday on Vatican Radio described the poverty the delegation encountered in Gaza and speculated that the lives of illegal migrants would become more uncertain as Israel tightens its restrictions.
On South Sudan, Parolin was “very interested in what he and they could do in order to try to assist” in ending the violence, Kerry said.
Also, Parolin raised issues involving U.S. health care policy that are of “special interest” to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to the Vatican statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case filed by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order of Catholic nuns, who care for elderly people, argue that they shouldn’t be required to facilitate coverage of contraception under Obama’s health-care law by signing a certification shifting that responsibility to the group’s insurer.