Interview With Edward Stourton of BBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 22, 2015

MR STOURTON: There’s been lots of comment here about the way he’s mixed meetings with the poor and meetings with the powerful, and on Thursday, Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He rammed home his message that the environment and social justice are linked because climate change hits the poor first and worst.

In that and many other areas, the Obama Administration, which has had a sometimes difficult relationship with the Catholic Church here, likes what he’s saying, and perhaps because of that, President Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry gave this program a rare interview. Mr. Kerry is a Catholic himself, but ran into trouble with the church during his own presidential bid because of his stand on abortion.

I talked to him at the beginning of the week when Pope Francis was in Cuba and I asked him whether the Vatican’s role in negotiations between Havana and Washington was a sign of a new diplomatic activism from the Holy See.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s very constructive when the Vatican does. It certainly made a difference with respect to Cuba and we welcomed that engagement, obviously. The Holy Father has enormous ability to be able to get people to focus on moral choices and on some of the realities that we face in the modern world, and I think that his engagement had a profound impact in helping to move things forward and unstuck a few sticky points here and there.

QUESTION: Well, you said earlier this year, I think, that you looked forward to the United States being a partner with the Holy See to help meet some of our greatest global challenges, I think, was the phrase you used. What other areas can you see that partnership working in?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, peace in many places where there is conflict today on Syria, Yemen, the Middle East peace, the Pope has already issued a clarion call to the parties to engage, and I think because of the meaning of Jerusalem to many faiths and history, there is an ability of the Holy Father to bridge divides and I think that’s very important.

In addition, for instance, on the Iran agreement that we negotiated, the Holy Father did not hesitate to weigh in on its importance. He realizes, as we all do, the criticality of finding a world without nuclear weapons and without the potential of these weapons falling into the wrong hands. So I think on these issues of huge moral choice – climate change another example – the Holy Father weighing in is capable of making a difference, and I personally welcome it.

QUESTION: You mentioned climate change. His encyclical on the subject was extremely controversial in the United States. How has the impact fed through into views on climate change?

SECRETARY KERRY: First of all, there has been a barrage of disinformation and misinformation about climate change in the United States. And I think the Holy Father understood that he needed to weigh in on a global basis because this challenges life itself on the planet. And I have often cited the scriptures myself in talking with people in various places in our country about our creation care responsibility. It is set out in Genesis, it’s set out in other places. And those of us in positions of responsibility who profess to care about and adhere to the scriptures and to be people of faith have a responsibility, I think, to live up to those standards.

It seems to me that where church and faith come together in underscoring the importance of science, you have a combination that has often been a cauldron within religious history. So I think it’s quite unique and extremely important and dramatic that the Holy Father did what he did.

QUESTION: What about relations between the Administration and the Catholic Church in the United States, which has been difficult over the health care bill particularly? I just wonder if that’s become easier since Francis became Pope.

SECRETARY KERRY: The issue remains the same. The doctrine of the church protects life from the moment of conception, and that is an article of faith, and always has been and remains that. But there are people within the government who obviously don’t accept that as an article of faith who have different positions, and we allow in the United States – obviously, within our governing process – for the ability of people to have those separate opinions.

And what makes it so fundamentally obviously volatile as an issue – and I understand it as a Catholic completely – is the issue of how you separate your moral responsibility to take a position from a public position in a vote with a constitution that separates church and state and says there is no religious test for the holding of public office in the United States. So it’s very complicated.

I think what the Holy Father has been doing is suggesting to people that isn’t the only issue. You can’t care about life before birth more than you care about, also, all of the other aspects of life after birth. And so how people are treated in the context of poverty, how people are treated in torture and war, how they’re treated in terms of opportunity and fairness, of ability to earn money and live a life – all of these things deserve equal consideration. I mean, if you read Matthew 25, you are reminded immediately about a kind of social responsibility and human responsibility that people have to other people to clothe them, to feed them, to visit them in prison, to minister, and so forth. And I think the Holy Father speaks to that.

QUESTION: Would you say that the sort of Catholicism and values that Pope Francis personifies reflect the kind of values that you try and bring more generally to your role?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I appreciate him particularly because I think he has brought to the table this broader concern for all of the issues that we face without changing, as I say, fundamental doctrine. And I think his willingness to embrace forgiveness and to welcome people back, I mean, these are the things I learned about when I attended catechism school and took my first communion and was confirmed in the church.

Those were all the things we learned and it has always surprised me that there was for a period of time a narrowing of that focus, where you were told more of what you can’t do and what you shouldn’t do than you were encouraged to go out and do the things that make you a good Christian.

QUESTION: Final question, if I may: During your presidential run, you got into trouble with an archbishop who said that because of your stand on abortion you shouldn’t go to communion. And that same archbishop was fired by Pope Francis. Did that bring a smile to your lips?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, on the contrary, and that would be distinctly not following the teachings of the church either. So the answer is no.

MR STOURTON: The American Secretary of State, John Kerry.