Despite Rough Start, Uncertain Transition, U.S.-Vatican Relationship Personal, Principled
The United States has had a long-but-rocky relationship with the Vatican and didn’t formally establish diplomatic relations and appoint an ambassador until 1984. That 21-year stretch of U.S. representatives serving with a single pope ended when John Paul II died in 2005.
President George W. Bush nominated Francis Rooney to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in mid-2005, and he was sworn in that October. He described his tenure as the first opportunity to institutionalize the relationship between the United States and the Vatican.
“It was important to have a transition, and still have the continuity of the diplomatic relation survive and be nurtured under a new pope,” Rooney says. “The other thing, of course, is the Holy See had vigorously opposed the second Iraq invasion. The new pope, himself, refreshingly enough, was willing to put that behind him, and open with a new page. But there were still a lot of naysayers out there, and a big part of my initial efforts in 2005 were to put a softer voice and mute their criticism.”
Rooney explores the history of the Catholic Church’s diplomacy and its relationship with the United States in his book The Global Vatican: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See. Even though the two nations differ over their approach to the Middle East, as well as domestic social issues like the death penalty, abortion, and gay marriage, Rooney calls the United States and the Vatican “natural allies” with a common concern for human rights, human dignity, and the inalienable rights of man.
“Many times over the past, because of anti-Catholic prejudice or the monarchist governance of the Holy See, the two nations were kept apart,” Rooney says. “I think Pope Francis is bringing an interesting new voice to that by saying, ‘We may not change our philosophy or our theology, but we can be compassionate and we don’t have to be quite so strident in our denunciation of people that don’t always follow what we say,’.”
What stands out to Rooney about the recent history of the papacy is each pontiff’s particular individual strengths that made him well-suited to deal with the challenges of the era – from John XXIII’s pastoral calling of the Second Vatican Council, to John Paul II’s role in the decline of communism during the 1980s and 90s, and Benedict XVI’s denunciation of radical Islam and secularism.
“So now we have a new pope…not baggaged [sic] by the history of Europe and the Eurocentric view of life, that can look at things like the curia, the Vatican Bank, the lingering vestiges of monarchism that remain in the Holy See, and act to debunk those with a kind of New World candor and simplicity,” Rooney says. “He doesn’t have a lot of that pomp and circumstance that’s a throwback to an earlier era. As such, I think it’s made him to be an extremely effective communicator. At the end of the day, Holy See diplomacy – soft power – is about communicating.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ambassador Rooney, thank you for joining us on World Views. Welcome.
AMB. FRANCIS ROONEY: Well Suzette, thank you for having me on your show.
GRILLOT: So you served as ambassador to the Holy See, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 to 2008. You came to Rome and began your role as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See at a very interesting time. Shortly after Pope John Paul II passed away, and Benedict became pope. What was that like to come in at this very interesting transitional period when we just lost a very, very popular pope, and one was coming in that was going to be very, very different?
ROONEY: Well, it was a very interesting time to be the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See for that reason. It was the first opportunity to institutionalize the relationship between the United States and the Holy See at the ambassador level. There had never been a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See other than under John Paul. So it was important to have a transition, have a new person come in, and still have the continuity of the diplomatic relation survive and be nurtured under a new pope. The other thing, of course, is the Holy See had vigorously opposed the second Iraq invasion. So Job Number One was to deal with the lingering resistance in the Holy See to Iraq. The new pope himself, refreshingly enough, was willing to put that behind him, and open with a new page. As he said to me, to work with the United States "to bring peace and stability to the people of Iraq." But there were still a lot of naysayers out there, and a big part of my initial efforts in 2005 were to put a softer voice and mute their criticism.
GRILLOT: Well, one of the interesting personal experiences that you shared in your book was one of the ways in which you learned to work at the church was to take advantage of lunch hours, and the social scene in Italy, where people spend a lot of time just having coffee and enjoying one another's company, and that was really important because in no other place in the world, I think you put it, are connections as important as they are at the Vatican. Why is that? What did you mean by that?
ROONEY: I think by the nature of the Holy See being a diplomacy based on fundamental principles, and lacking all the secular kinds of trade activities, consular activities, things like that - the diplomatic corps and the relationship with the Secretary of State's office is very personal. Of course, lunch in Italy is a major league sport, so when you have a mission that's focused on personal relationships to discuss big ideas, and find ways for counties to implement those big ideas together, rather than trying to sell more tractors in Italy or whatever, and you combine that with the two-hour lunch in Italy, it's a fertile opportunity to build relationships and put some things in place to help mute criticism of Iraq, or help find someone to say something that the United States would like said.
GRILLOT: Well, speaking of those big ideas, the Vatican is a massive organization. It has global reach, and obviously your book, The Global Vatican, discusses how the Vatican has a global role to play as a global diplomat. As a global force, a forceful diplomat. So those big ideas - what are those big ideas that the Vatican has?
ROONEY: The Holy See's diplomacy is based pretty squarely on the defense of human dignity, the attempt to spread freedom, especially religious freedom. They make the argument that you can have no real freedom without religious freedom. And to nurture and respect the essential natural rights of man. I put in the book that at many times, especially in the early foundations of our country, it was argued that the church and the Enlightenment were opposites. But really if you read the different writings of both sides - the Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and people like that, and the church, they're very similar. They're based on these fundamental principles. So the diplomacy of the Holy See is set out to defend those principles and try to see them deployed successfully in the world. As such, they're dealing with issues all around the world where those types of principles are being compromised, or where there's an opportunity to speak out against bad government or oppressed citizens. For example, when President Bush was there, we talked about 15 different countries where there were issues in which the United States and the Holy See were having dialogue.
GRILLOT: So one of those areas where the Vatican seems to have a significant role to play, and you mention this in many places in your book, is that bridging of the dialogue between East and West. Particularly between Western Christianity and Eastern Islam. How is it, and why is it, that the Vatican has such an important role to play there?
ROONEY: Well, if you're talking inter-religious dialogue, and you overlay the concept of inter-religious dialogue with the Catholic Church being the only of the three monotheistic religions that has a hierarchy where you can bring some organization to convening people. You've got a pretty powerful force. There's really no entity like the Holy See that has a global network with a hierarchy. It can use that convening factor to bring together Muslims, Jews, people of other faith traditions to try to discuss areas of commonality and mute areas of dissonance.
GRILLOT: You also mentioned in your book the role of Christianity in the Middle East. Many of us who are at least casual observers of what's going on in the Middle East don't necessarily view the Middle East a Christian part of the world. We don't recognize it, and in some ways they aren't necessarily protective of it, so how does this work when the Vatican is trying to impose a certain type of view on the Middle East? Tell us more about that.
ROONEY: Well, in truth, and in fact, the Middle East, prior to the rise of radical Islam, was very pluralistic. If you look back to Iraq in the late 1800s after the British came, there were significant numbers of Jews and Christians. Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution had Jews and Catholics - or Assyrian Christians - in the Majles serving. You know about the historic role of Christians in Jordan, and the Coptic Christians in Egypt. So this is a relatively recent phenomenon of persecution that has taken place there. It's an area where I think the Holy See's diplomacy has a strong role to play to try to continue to speak up against persecution of any religious minority. Hopefully they'll be heard in the world for that.
GRILLOT: Well, speaking of speaking up and out about certain issues, let's talk for a minute about Pope Francis. You write a little bit about Pope Francis, ending your book at about the time Pope Francis was coming in. Here we have this incredibly celebrated pope that's coming in, who seems to have really taken a very different approach, a different tone. That's how it appears to many of us anyway. You write about him saying that he is somebody who exhibits firm leadership, but also is very thoughtfully compassionate, which I thought was a beautiful description of what we see of Pope Francis. But what is his role? He has a lot of domestic issues he has to deal with. Domestic meaning inside the Vatican. You write about, for example, the diversity within the Vatican. There are lots of different orders and different viewpoints within the Catholic faith, and within the Vatican. So he has that to deal with as well. As well as engaging and being in this unique position as pope to engage those around the world in this very diplomatic way. What do you think about Pope Francis, and how is he going to be able to do all of these really difficult things?
ROONEY: I think one of the interesting things about the history of the papacy, or at least the recent history, is that each one of these individuals has brought their particular strengths to the job. And has confronted certain problems that, you look back in hindsight; they were particularly suited to deal with. Whether it's John Paul and communism, John XXIII's pastoral calling of Vatican II, Benedict speaking up against radical Islam and secularism. So now we have a pope coming from the New World, not baggaged by the history of Europe and the Eurocentric view of life, that can look at things like the curia, look at things like the Vatican Bank, look at the lingering vestiges of monarchism that remain in the Holy See, and act to debunk those with a kind of New World candor and simplicity, which I think's really helpful. The other thing about him, of course, he communicates like a New World person. He doesn't have a lot of that pomp and circumstance that's a throwback to an earlier era as well. As such, I think it's made him to be an extremely effective communicator. At the end of the day, Holy See diplomacy - soft power - is about communicating.
GRILLOT: So let's talk about that soft power there for a minute. You have been suggesting that the Vatican has this global role to play. That it's uniquely positioned to engage in a lot of these conversations, particularly when it comes to freedom and respect of human life, human dignity. So how do they go about doing that? Soft power, you just mentioned, is something that they use, but they already have, perhaps, a lot of challenges to overcome just in recognizing the validity of the church today. You referred to the pope being the last remaining absolute leader in Europe. And that his power is hardly without limits. How does this uniquely position him, the pope, and the Vatican, to really have much legitimacy when it comes to soft power around the world?
ROONEY: The Holy See is a unique sovereign. It's treated as a sovereign nation like any of the secular countries. But it has no territory to speak of. No hegemonic agenda and very little politics other than some internal politics. As such, they're uniquely positioned to deploy this soft power - the power of influence and persuasion instead of coercion. They can do it in a way, without an agenda, and without having to take credit for what they do. One of the things I put in the book is the release of those British sailors. They didn't have to take credit for that, and it makes them very effective. There were many times where our most effective diplomacy is to get the Holy See to say something, which sounds a lot better for the Holy See to say it than for the United States to say it.
GRILLOT: Well, speaking of the United States then, the United States and the relationship with the Vatican goes way back, as you were mentioning. President Obama, not too long ago, even visited the Vatican, visited Pope Francis. So what is this relationship like today? You mentioned at the very end of your book, you talk about how the two should work together as a team. More or less suggesting that the soft power of the church, of the Vatican, and the more coercive power of the United States can work together for good, to promote common values. You talk about the common values between these two. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?
ROONEY: Well, interestingly enough, both the Holy See and the United States are founded on the same fundamental principles of the natural rights of man, defending human dignity, and of course our First Amendment, which Pope Benedict commented on as a "unique experiment" that he wished Europe had had. Which is interesting. So as such, we have a natural affinity toward each other to deploy these principles. Although as I try to write in the book, many times over the past, because of anti-Catholic prejudice or the monarchist governance of the Holy See, the two nations were kept apart.
GRILLOT: So this natural affinity exists, the common values are clearly there. I hear exactly what you're saying, but there are some things that perhaps divide us too, right? Not all of our ideas and social policies might line up, right?
ROONEY: That's right.
GRILLOT: How do we reconcile that?
ROONEY: Well, I think first of all, you have to look at the Holy See's ability to project diplomacy. To project power and influence in the affairs of states in resolving international conflicts, which is a little different than their position on gay marriage or something like that. That's one part. But the other part is, I think Pope Francis is bringing an interesting new voice to that by saying, "We may not change our philosophy, or our theology, but we can be compassionate and we don't have to be quite so strident in our denunciation of people that don't always follow what we say."
GRILLOT: So just one last thing, Ambassador Rooney, you say really the future of international relations in general, not just the relationship between the Vatican and the United States, but the future of international relations and the global community is really determined in large part by the values that drive us. I think this is what you mean when you say the United States and the Vatican have this natural affinity for one another. But can we really suggest that we're all driven by common values? Is it the church's role perhaps to help us elucidate what those common values might be? How can we get down the road toward having common values?
ROONEY: Well, I think we do share the commitment to religious freedom. There are some in this country that feel that it's under attack right now, but regardless, we're still the only country that has enshrined religious freedom in our constitution, and it's much better here than most anywhere else in the world. So we have a common objective there to promote that in the world. We do have differing views, perhaps, on some social policies which were brought to the fore here in the recent visit of President Obama and Pope Francis. But we both share a concern for human rights, a concern for human dignity, and the inalienable rights of man, which many countries in the world do not respect. As such, we're natural allies to be dealing with what's going on in the Central African Republic, or the Lord's [Resistance] Army in Uganda, or the horrible plight of refugees and persecutions in the Middle East right now. There's no other voice but the strongest secular power and the strongest religious power.
GRILLOT: Well, I like how you put that. We're natural allies. Ambassador Rooney, thank you so much for being with us on World Views. Your time and experience at the Vatican and elsewhere is really enlightening to us, and thank you for sharing it with us.
ROONEY: Thank you very much, Suzette.
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