An interview with Francis Rooney, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush
Ambassador Francis Rooney served at the Vatican from 2005 to 2008. He is the author of The Global Vatican, which weaves his personal experiences as ambassador into the historical and theoretical context of Vatican and US diplomacy in the 21st century.
Ambassador Rooney, could you describe what you believe is the importance of the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Vatican?
Ambassador Francis Rooney: The Holy See has a unique position in the world because it is perhaps the world’s only non-territorial sovereign. Some have put the Palestinian Authority in this camp as well, but increasingly, their claim to sovereignty revolves around the issue of a Palestinian State.
As such, the Holy See is the only sovereign capable of exerting influence diplomatically on the basis of its fundamental principles and core moral values, unfettered or shaded by temporal and hegemonic influences. This standing gives the Holy See a position of global respect and a “power of convening” which, as we have seen repeatedly, can be quite helpful in promoting diplomatic solutions and bringing opposing sovereigns and interests together where other secular powers have failed.
In my book I argue that this influence — this “soft power” — is as necessary and important in the world of diplomacy today as in the past.
What is the US’s relationship with the Holy See at this juncture?
Rooney: Judging from the recent successful diplomacy of Pope Francis with Cuba and elsewhere, I would argue that the diplomatic relationship is vibrant and highly valued on all sides, although for a period during the Obama administration it didn’t appear as robust as under previous US presidents.
In The Global Vatican, I highlighted the natural alignment of Church teaching and fundamental principles with the founding concepts of the United States, namely man’s natural rights which emanate from God as creator rather than the whims of the State — and that freedom, especially religious freedom, originates with these natural rights. Therefore, the United States and the Holy See are acting upon common, organic values and principles.
One expression of this natural alignment was Pope Benedict’s visit to the White House in 2008, where he and President Bush gave speeches, completely unchoreographed, that reflected this common foundation and mutual respect.
The United States and the Holy See have a common voice against oppressive regimes which circumscribe individual freedoms, and criminal and terrorist organizations which kill and abuse people in the name of religion.
When I was serving, the voice of Pope Benedict in response to Islamic-inspired terrorism aligned well with President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror. In 2007, for example, we worked to strengthen the Christian voice in Lebanon and keep the historic tripartite coalition government intact. The Holy See was an active participant in the Annapolis Peace Conference for Israeli-Palestinian relations in November 2007.
Was gender ideology an issue during your service at the Vatican?
Rooney: I don’t think gender per se was a diplomatic issue for us.
Genetically modified crops—was this on your agenda?
Rooney: From the beginning, in presenting my credentials to Pope Benedict, I raised the issue of the potential benefits of biotech crops to reduce hunger in the world. While the issue has generated some outspoken criticism in parts of Europe, the Holy See itself has not taken a specific position and in fact organized an international conference to discuss biotechnology and genetically modified seeds, under the leadership of Cardinal Renato Martino, previous to my arrival.
What was your experience of meeting Pope Benedict?
Rooney: I found Pope Benedict to be warm and gentle, and profoundly erudite and clear in expressing important thoughts and concepts. I also noted just how nervous I was to be sitting across a desk from the Pope in our private meeting following the presentation of credentials.
Considering ongoing violence and the radicalized elements within Islam, Pope Benedict’s view of the harsh language in the Koran continues to resonate — “it is a question of which Mohammed shows up,” he said, “the Mohammed of the early surahs, which are pastoral, or of the later ones, which are aggressive.” As in his seminal Regensburg talk in September of 2006, with just several words, Pope Benedict captured the essence of the current challenge we face — to have Islam find consonance with the modern world.
Who were some of the other officials you worked with at the Holy See?
Rooney: It was an exceptional element of serving as ambassador to the Holy See to have Msgr. Peter Wells, with his deep and helpful understanding of Vatican diplomacy, in important positions in Rome while we were there; he was, along with Msgr. Dan Mueggenborg, at the time vice-rector of the Pontifical North American College, and myself, one of three Oklahomans in positions of some authority in Rome from a state with a Catholic population of just 4.9%.
In the book, I described a humorous and interesting protocol incident the monsignor and I shared at Fiumicino Airport, just before the arrival of Air Force One to bring President Bush to meet Pope Benedict XVI in June 2006, which reflects the importance which the Bush White House placed on Holy See diplomacy in the world.
Cardinal James Harvey is another special person in the Rooney family. He always made us feel at ease and welcome in the important ceremonial events and was a friendly source of private advice as well.
A few other examples reflect the caliber of all of the Holy See leaders and diplomats my wife Kathleen and I met in Rome.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran taught me a graduate course in diplomacy and in what the Holy See stands for in the world of international relations: concisely, to “serve as moral authority to contest systems or ideas that corrode the dignity of the person and thus threaten world peace.”
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who was the Sostituto when I came to Rome, was always available to help us resolve difficult issues and give sound advice, as was Bishop Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Council for Social Sciences.
Cardinal Renato Martino, who had played such a prominent role in the Iraq controversies and had had a distinguished career at the UN, was another Holy See diplomat with whom I interacted regularly in his capacity as the leader of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Cladio Celli was our resource for China-Holy See issues. In The Global Vatican, I described his “birdcage” metaphor for the scope of religious freedom in China.
The most important influence and teacher we had, my family and me, was Cardinal McCarrick. He still is.
In fact, when I began the book project, he referred me to a compilation of Vatican II documents published by Fr. Austin Flannery, O.P. and said, “Start here.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan did the same after my interviewing him by going through his library and noting more than 30 essential books related to Holy See diplomacy.
How do you assess the diplomatic thrust of Pope Francis’ papacy so far, and its effectiveness?
Rooney: The Pope has brought “new world” thinking and candor to the Holy See, which to me, as an American, is refreshing and impactful.
He is using the principles of Holy See diplomacy in a way consistent with his predecessors, but in his own style of communicating. I earnestly hope that this style and the intense following he is attracting throughout the world will enable more people to hear and understand the diplomatic message of the Holy See.
The Holy See’s convening power can advance interreligious dialogue, as recent actions taken by Pope Francis underscore: one example is the convening in prayer of Israeli President Peres and Palestinian Authority President Abbas after the papal visit to Jordan and Israel; another is the trips to Turkey and Albania symbolizing interreligious dialogue and cooperation, while also highlighting the secular Muslim state originally established by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey.
And, as a religious institution as well as a sovereign, the Holy See has a unique standing to comment on religiously-inspired actions.
What was the Holy See’s role in U.S. relations with Cuba, and can that be duplicated elsewhere?
Rooney: While there is much to be done to assure the elimination of repression and the advent of individual rights and economic opportunity to the Cuban people, the success of United States-Cuba negotiations and the Holy See’s important convening role are powerful reflections of the importance of Holy See diplomacy.
There may be a role for the Holy See to play in Venezuela at some point as well.