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Posted: January 13, 2005

Interview with Ambassador James Nicholson
January 11, 2005

By John L. Allen, Jr.

NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. sat down Jan. 11 with James Nicholson, whose term as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See draws to a close this month. President George Bush has nominated Nicholson to run the Veterans' Administration, and assuming he's confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he could be in the job as early as February.

NCR: You have been here during an exceptional period of time. You arrived shortly after 9/11, and you've been here for both the war on terrorism and the American sex abuse crisis. What are the one or two most important things you've discovered about the relationship between the United States and the Holy See?
I think there is an underlying reliance on the United States, on the part of the Holy See. Overall, they believe we will be there when we're needed. We're a very generous people. They haven't been disappointed by that. It's an assumption, and I think in some cases they sort of take it for granted that the United States, both in the sense of the government and also the people of the American church, will be there when needed to help other people in the world. My hope, and one of my goals with the Holy See, has been to try to develop more appreciation for this enormous generosity of the American people, again as taxpayers and the Catholic part of it. It is just that, enormous.

Do you feel you've made headway in making that case?
I'd like to think so, yes. I think that's been buttressed by some of the specific things that we have taken on here in this panoply of ways that America drives these issues, which I've described as constituent parts of a life of human dignity. Some of these are just fundamental. One is the right of a person to profess and practice their faith. Another is to have enough to eat. Another is to be able to live free as a person, and a society of persons, without the fear that someone is going to be taken away from you through the lure of slavery, which is going on. AIDS and its pandemic proportions is another. These are areas I think that we have expanded their awareness and in some cases their participation. Let's zero in on food for a moment. I mean, food dwarfs AIDS … the pope chose yesterday to address food (see more). Somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 people a day die for the lack of food, which is four or five times as many as AIDS, which is an accepted pandemic. There are antidotes for the food issue. We've come up with one of them. It's not the answer, but it's part of it, which are the miracles of this new food technology. It's extraordinary. We're trying to get that accepted into Africa, both to feed them right away, and then to give them the ability to be self-sustaining in the strategic long-term case. I think we have gotten their attention and moved them on that at the Holy See.

What's the evidence of that?
I would say the fact that Cardinal Renato Martino flew from Rome to Sacramento, California, at our request to attend a conference that was hosted by the Secretary of Agriculture on the subject, flew immediately all the way back to Rome, and then convened a conference himself on the subject. It's under advisement. They're not where I wish they were, from my point of view, but I think there's been movement. The Academy of Sciences identified nothing wrong with it. This is a huge issue. AIDS is another, and there were a few senior members of the Roman Curia who were misinformed about what American pharmaceutical companies were doing.

You brought some executives here to meet with them.
We brought them over, yeah. They have a better understanding for that now. It's also led to collaboration, and in some cases outright contributions from some of the drug companies to their endeavors. Now Cardinal Javier Barragan [president of the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral] is underway in forming that foundation [the Good Samaritan Foundation]. He's dead serious and dead on with that, and it can become a great resource for all the arms of the church who want to do something about AIDS and don't know how to access that giant vagary of the global AIDS fund and all of that, to get a piece of it in the form of a grant.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about the Holy See, seeing it up-close-and-personal?
It's that the Holy See is a place of many voices. I'm not plagiarizing your book, this is an independent conclusion … many and disparate voices. That goes on, and it makes it difficult for a diplomat representing a country to them. You want to know, and you're entitled to know, if this person, because they are part of the government, if they speak for the government. Your government is very curious about that, as are the people who read the press reports. Today, 'a senior Vatican official said,' and tomorrow on the second-day cycle, it's 'the Vatican says.' That surprised me. I thought it was far more hierarchical.

Do you see that as a liability or a strength?
From my parochical point of view as a diplomat, from a country that is very interested in close collaboration with the Vatican because of our commonality of values, I find that to be a detriment. You're asking the American people to cough up $15 billion for global AIDS, or 60 percent of the World Food Program, or collections for Catholic Relief Services, and they do that because they're generous and humanitarian, and then those same people hear these curious remarks from that 'senior Vatican official,' or from 'the Vatican'… it sends a confusing message, and it can be discouraging to the people when they don't know that if you want to know the position of the Holy See, keep your ear on what the pope says or those authorized to speak for the pope.

You're worked within or alongside two great hierarchical systems, the Roman Catholic Church and the United States Army. Does it surprise you how relatively decentralized the church can be at times?
Absolutely, that's been the big surprise to me. I thought they were quite similar. They are only on a narrow matter of faith and doctrine. Other than that, on the everyday, workaday, operational basis, they're lateral. The church is lateral.

It's a challenge for journalists too.
Journalists might have some fun with it, but not diplomats.

As a diplomat, how do you evaluate the Holy See's diplomatic corps?
I think it's very strong, I'm very impressed with them … their education, their sophistication, the depth of their knowledge of countries, the history of those countries, their language. They're just first-rate people.

It's obviously a unique diplomatic mission, with no trade or strategic interests to defend. Does that give them an advantage? At the same time, does it handicap them in some ways - are there dimensions of issues that don't occur naturally to them that have to be unpacked?
I find them also very honest and forthcoming. They're trained, and they have a mission, of dealing on moral diplomacy. I have the luxury of doing that here too, because I don't have to deal with military basing issues or current account deficits. With that, I suppose, comes a certain naiveté, because they just don't deal with those issues, and then lo and behold they'll crop up in a country like Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the Middle East, or elsewhere. There are a lot of things in that matrix that are economic, commercial, or military that just aren't in their portfolio. It's natural. Sometimes I think that's a handicap for them, to understand the full picture.

Some say that they're under-resourced for the work they're trying to do, with something like 40 officials in the Second Section attempting to run what is in effect a foreign ministry.
I don't think it's for me to judge that. I would just say that I have never found them wanting when we've gone over there. I don't know how they do it. We usually give them a lead, what it is we're coming for, or when I take somebody over, but they seem to be extraordinarily well-informed and up to speed. They have nuncios, and bishops' conferences, and my impression is that they're generally in touch with that's going on in the various parts of the world we want to talk about.

Is there something the Vatican still struggles to understand about the United States?
We could do better in trying to foster more understanding and more appreciation for our system of business, our free market, highly competitive, highly capitalistic society. There are still too many really wonderful people who are totally faithful to the magisterium of the church and all that means, love of humanity and a desire to help, who have a jaundiced view about American capitalism. They see it as being exploitive, especially of people in the Third World. That's one of our challenges.

How do you get at that?
It's an educative endeavor that has to go on. With that are these stereotypes that some of them possess, and you just have to disabuse them of these notions, that all we're about is creating markets for these new products and intellectual creations that we have. If you break it down, it just isn't that way. Take AIDS, and the billions of dollars that shareholders spent to develop these anti-retroviral regimes, and are now forsaking any profit interest because of the severity of the problem in Africa. They're not only making the pharmaceuticals available at cost, and in some cases free, but making their patents available to whoever can ensure a minimum of quality. That's really extraordinary. I think they should be thanked and given a great deal of credit and acclamation for that, and not be looked on as somebody who wants to exploit these poor suffering people. Food is the same way. There are many who feel that the makers of these genetically modified seeds just want to create dependencies and markets. It's not a quick fix, but education, continuing to do the right thing, and show that our policy is humanitarian-driven. It is. We know that food is one of the basics for a life of any kind of hope, a vision for the future, and self-value, which are prerequisites for a life of freedom. We know that the more people taste freedom, the more they want it. When they become free and democratic, they're not so interested in attacking other people.

As an American Catholic, have you gained a new appreciation for the role of the Holy See in the universal church?
I have. When I first said to friends that we want to go [to Rome] as opposed to other places we were given the opportunity to go, because I want to experience my own church, my lifetime church, up close and personal, they said, 'You don't want to do that.' But that has not been my experience. We've been reinforced, reaffirmed in our faith as Catholics because of being able to witness the leadership of the church up close - their faithfulness, their dedication, and their excellence, their competence. It's been a time of growth for us in our own faith, spiritually and sacramentally, as well as in our knowledge, learning about the faith and its history, especially the importance of the pope. We have a very extraordinary pope we've been here under, but we can see the megaphone he has earned, using the new ways of communicating - jet travel, the electronic media, the Internet. He has embraced and redefined the papacy. The people around him I find also to have generally a very honest agenda of seeking to be the depository of the faith, and to be here for people from all over the world, maintaining that core of what this church is and why it is … the successor of Peter, embracing Christ. You can just see the importance of that to my local church in my local town of 99 people, and the big basilicas, everywhere. Here there exists the depository of the truth, the maintenance of the truth, with all these temporal diversions or attacks or temptations to pull it or distend it, here they really are trying to maintain it, define it, and promulgate it. I knew as an abstraction that was going on, but it's been special to watch it happen.

What will you miss most about Rome?
From the job, I'll miss working with this terrific group of people at this embassy, and those people over at the Holy See with whom we collaborate. I enjoy them very much, because of their faithfulness and their competence. As far as Rome writ large, we'll miss the people, the friends that we've made here. I'll also miss that wonderful house we live in on the hill, with its peaceful gardens. But mostly the people.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2005

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