Yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry met for an hour and 40 minutes with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin. According to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the meeting was “extremely important” and “intensive,” as well as “extremely fruitful and rich in content.”
Kerry, who is the first Catholic US secretary of state since the Carter administration, told the press that he and Parolin discussed the “common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama in addressing poverty and extreme poverty on a global basis,” and said that Obama expects to visit the Vatican and meet the Holy Father at some point in the future.
Catholic News Service’s Francis X. Rocca offers some analysis of the meeting between the two officials, particularly as it touched on religious freedom issues in the US:
Peace in the Middle East, and particularly Syria, had been expected to be Topic A. Kerry was stopping in Rome between meetings in Paris and Kuwait devoted to the crisis in Syria. And Pope Francis has made ending the civil war in Syria a major focus, among other ways by leading a prayer vigil last September that drew 100,000 people to St. Peter’s Square.
So it was no surprise when the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, reported that the two secretaries of state had discussed common concerns on Syria, as well as Israel and Palestine, and other questions of foreign policy. The attention-grabbing anomaly in his account of the diplomats’ talk was a U.S. domestic issue.
Father Lombardi said the two men “also discussed the United States, especially the themes that have been the object of concern and discussion by the U.S. bishops: the health care reform and its relationship to guarantees of religious freedom.”
That was evidently a reference to the contraceptive mandate: the Obama administration’s requirement that nearly all health insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic universities and agencies, cover sterilizations, contraceptives and some abortion-inducing drugs — all of which are forbidden by the church’s moral teaching.
While legal challenges to the mandate are making their way through the U.S. courts, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the bishops’ conference, asked President Barack Obama Dec. 31 to exempt from fines religious institutions who believe funding contraception and sterilization violate their religious principles.
If there were any doubts about the Vatican’s support for the bishops’ stand, they were dispelled by Cardinal-designate Parolin’s decision to include the contraception mandate in a discussion of geopolitical priorities with Obama’s top diplomat — and then have the Vatican spokesman tell the press about it.