This week's stories | Home Page
Posted April 14, 2006

Interview with Ambassador Francis Rooney, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican
April 14, 2006


I recently interviewed Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles of the immigration debate in the United States.
When I met him at the recent consistory, I encouraged him to continue to speak out about immigration, and also to say some nice things about the President. [President Bush] is right there with Senators McCain and Kennedy, the only people who are trying to do something productive and useful that respects human rights and the added value of the labor of these workers.

You've been in this job for six months now. What have you learned?
I've learned a lot. I've debunked the myths I came over here with about the Curia, about it being a very closed, secretive, sometimes anti-American group. I haven't felt that. I've felt that they're just a lot of good priests trying to work real hard to deal with some very complicated secular issues. I have a great amount of respect for the work they do. The people I deal with are principally in the Secretariat of State's office, and the heads of a few important global councils that deal with U.S. interests. I'm thankful for the opportunity to meet them all, to get to know them as people. I respect their work.

Has anything surprised you about this job, which maybe your briefings or your informal conversations didn't prepare you for?
Actually, I have to say that I think I was very well prepared. Fr. [Drew] Christiansen [editor of America magazine] and some of the other priests prepared me for some of the major issues, like the Orthodox Church and some of these complexities, about the church in China. Cardinal McCarrick gave me some good background before I came over. Of course, the State Department thoroughly prepared me about issues from their point of view. The depth of knowledge of the people in the Secretariat of State about these various global issues is incredible. They have people who are just as knowledgeable, who drill just as deeply on the issues that affect the countries they have charge over, as the desk officers in our own State Department. It's very impressive.

How many times have you met Benedict XVI?
I've had the opportunity to meet the Holy Father three times. Each one in its own way has been exceptional. The first time was the presentation of the credentials, when I had the chance to spend about a half-hour with the Holy Father. I'll admit, I was plenty nervous, as a Catholic. It was a pretty incredible thing for me and my family. My mother, aunts and kids, my wife, got to meet him. During the visit with the Holy Father, we talked about terrorism. We talked about the "melting pot" in the United States. He called it the "great tradition of assimilation." We talked about separation of Church and State, and the First Amendment. It was his feeling that this has been a great experiment in the United States, and that it's a new concept for Europe. I think he really appreciates the impact that's had in the United States, creating pluralism, religious freedom, and tolerance of other religions, and has allowed religion to flourish. He understands a great deal about the United States. Then we talked about terrorism, and his commitment to continue to speak out against terrorism as a crime against humanity. We spoke about Iraq a little bit, and his feeling that we're all engaged now in a great enterprise of trying to build a nation, a pluralistic, democratic, tolerant society in a difficult part of the world, with the Holy See supporting efforts at building civil society.

The second time I met him, quite briefly, was the 9th of January for the papal message [to the diplomatic corps.] It was just a short visit, but it was great he's very funny. He has a great sense of humor, which people don't always know about, particularly in the United States where the press is, I think, unduly harsh on him.

The third time was when Mrs. Bush came. It was really exceptional to see Mrs. Bush so thankful to be able to spend time with the Holy Father, to have her daughter Barbara spend time with the Holy Father. Evidently Barbara has worked in an AIDS hospital, which I believe is Catholic-run, in South Africa. Mrs. Bush brought that up, and she and the Holy Father got into a deep discussion about Africa and about the treatment of AIDS, about poverty, and some of the issues affecting Islam. He again spoke about the United States. I think he's very fond of the United States, and what we have to say for ourselves as a society.

How did the pope's sense of humor show itself on January 9?
Before, we had spoken with the Holy See about Mrs. Bush coming to visit. It was an important priority for the United States, though bearing in mind that the Holy Father only sees Heads of State. The Holy See decided to see the First Lady for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there was an established relationship between the President and Mrs. Bush and [the then] Cardinal Ratzinger, so it was more of a personal visit, which is how the visit was described to the press. So when I go up to see the Holy Father in the line, I kiss his ring and look up, and he says, "So, we're going to have Mrs. Bush." Then he smiled. That was the first I'd heard that they had agreed to do the audience. I said, 'If you say so, Your Holiness.'

What was the conversation between Mrs. Bush and Benedict XVI concerning Islam?
The Holy Father said, and he's said this publicly, that he's concerned about the radicalization of Islam in countries in which it has not heretofore been a radical religion. That's a serious matter. Someone smarter than I will have to say how that weaves into some of the pronouncements he's been making about the relationship between Islamic doctrine and Islamic behavior.

On the whole, you find that Benedict XVI has a positive attitude towards the United States?
Very positive, and understanding. We talked about immigration during the first meeting, and I said it's very important for our country, the melting pot. He said that you have this wonderful tradition of assimilation. He also said it's very important for the church in the Western Hemisphere.

He was hoping the country will remain open to immigrants?
Exactly. He sees it as a complicated issue, important for the United States but also important for the church. All I can assume he means by that is the treatment of migrants.

Many of whom, especially Hispanics, are Catholic.

I'd like to take you around the horn on some issues of joint interest to the United States and the Holy See, and get your impressions of where things stand. I presume you've been cheered by Benedict's strong language on terrorism, calling on religious leaders to unambiguously denounce the use of God's name to justify violence?
He reiterated that on the 9th of January and in his homily at the Mass on January 1. The more he speaks out, the better off we all are, because he is one of the leading moral authorities in the world right now, if he isn't the leading moral authority.

In the struggle against terrorism, most people are on board in terms of ends. The debate is over means. Have there been exchanges between you and the Holy See on that question?
Obviously, everybody hopes there won't be any more wars. Like I said, the Holy See is supportive of our nation-building efforts in Iraq, and hopes that the seed of some kind of pluralistic, tolerant society, if possible, will be an example to other countries in that area.

Has there been any additional conversation between you and the Holy See about when the use of force is justified to try to curb terrorism?
No. The subject hasn't come up. I haven't seen any particular reason to raise that at this point. When we talk about Iran, the Holy See has been clearly supportive of all the nations working to avoid a nuclear armed Iran. There's really nothing to talk about at this point. I think we all agree that a war in Iran would be a horrible thing. The fortunate thing is, the Holy See is willing to speak up about the right of Israel to exist. The Holy Father opposed President Ahmadinejad's comments. We've encouraged them to be strong, to continue to speak up, because that shows Iran the whole world is united against them having nuclear weapons and threatening their neighbors.

You haven't heard anything from the Holy See to the effect of, 'Please don't use force in Iran?'

Is there anything more the Holy Father or the Holy See could say on the subject that would be helpful?
At this point, I don't think so. In fact, I think it's important that the Holy Father and the Holy See conserve their power. He speaks out clearly against terrorism, and everybody in the world knows where he stands. I assume he will continue to repeat that message. He is speaking out for religious freedom in countries like China, as is the President. We couldn't have a better job here, representing one person who respects the other, and vice-versa, on so many important things. When it comes to things like denouncing Iran, I thought it was great that the Holy Father did that in the context of reaffirming the right of Israel to exist. Some people said, 'Maybe he should have gone further.' I don't think he should have. I thought he went as far as he should go, as the Supreme Pontiff.

You mentioned religious liberty, another core theme of interest to the Holy See, especially these days in the context of the Islamic world. Benedict XVI seems a bit more outspoken on Islam than John Paul II. Some welcome that, others worry that it will heighten tensions. What's your reading?
I think the evolving consensus that the church needs to be clear and strong that religious freedom is a two-way street is unimpeachable. I haven't heard anything from my government to oppose that. We're for religious freedom of all stripes. When you apply that principle, you have to say that for Saudi Arabia to say, 'There can't be any churches,' is an issue. I believe even Secretary Rice is starting to address that, and I think the President's comments that pluralism in Iraq should germinate pluralism elsewhere, is all playing into that same thing. You can't have it two ways.

You would agree that there's a stronger line under Benedict XVI?
Absolutely. I think they've hardened up. I think they've gotten clearer. They're focusing on this reciprocity doctrine. They're also focusing on the possibilities of working together in non-doctrinal areas, which I think is smart. It's kind of hard for people to hate each other who have worked together building a Habitat for Humanity house, that kind of team-building concept, which can be applied in pastoral care, in AIDS relief. There are also the life issues, where the Catholic Church has been on the same side with Islam before the U.N. Maybe there are some things like that they can work on together. I think that's part of their thinking, and that's all great.

You're not concerned this harder line will play into a 'clash of civilizations'?
No one's referred to it as a 'clash of civilizations.' They've referred to it as a clarification of approach and of interest, in the hope that it can create a dialogue between these different religions. I think they also want to focus on dialogue among different religions, separate from different states.

Shifting to Israel, when Shimon Peres was here recently he extended an invitation to Benedict XVI to visit Israel. There's still the outstanding issue of negotiations to resolve the tax and juridical status of church-run institutions in Israel. In broad terms, I know the United States would like to see this resolved.
We would like to see it resolved, and we're hoping that both sides can continue to work constructively to get it resolved. I believe the Secretary has had some direct conversations in the past with the Government of Israel about that.

Do you have any indications that we are closer to resolution?
I'm optimistic, based on the fact that the Holy Father is willing to go to Israel. Even if this is not linked as a sort of quid-pro-quo, there obviously must be some headway being made. Fr. [David] Jaeger [a negotiator for the Holy See] is fairly optimistic. Of course, there's a leadership vacuum [in Israel] right now.

Where do things stand in terms of the possibility of improved relations between the Holy See and China?
My last understanding, which is pretty recent, is that everybody is feeling pretty good about the gradual progress. They're not expecting too much from China. They're thankful that the President continues to put the heat on them about religious freedom, and about the list of imprisoned people. They feel that's a good thing. China seems to be reacting to that, vis--vis both the United States and the Holy See. They're talking about some more unofficial visits, not official visits. The Holy See feels the new Hong Kong cardinal is a great guy for China, because of his background. There was some fear of backlash, but I haven't heard anything along those lines.

Critics would say that by allowing China to be part of the international economy despite human rights violations because, frankly, they're just too big a market to ignore, the world is sending them a signal that they don't have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
I don't know that I would agree. We're seeing very positive reactions to the President's trip over there. He's called for religious freedom, and some of the actions that they've been taken [are encouraging] But you're right, they do lean one way and then the other. There are a lot of people here in the Holy See that express increasing confidence, and they continue to look towards 'morphing' the patriotic church and the historic underground church into, ultimately, one entity. They're hopeful the government will allow them to expand the number of seminarians, as that's one way the government keeps control. I've heard a fair bit of optimism from several people there.

From the point of view of American interests, why would it be a good thing if the Holy See were to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing?
There are a lot of people in the United States who think it wouldn't be a good thing, including one of the Senators who asked me a question at my confirmation hearing! But at the end of the day, it's complicated. On the one hand, we have been there with Taiwan. Taiwan has kind of become a mini-United States from the point of view of democracy and capitalism. On the other hand, China is the original country for Taiwan, they're huge, and there are a lot of Catholics there. I guess you have to hope that at some point there will be enough of a middle class to develop in China, and that they will find common ground, and that the leaders will feel confident enough to continue to allow freedom, religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of the press, and so on, without the fear of a backlash. It's got to be built up in the economic development of rural China. It's very complicated.

But broadly speaking, China's capacity to recognize the Catholic Church would be a sign of progress?
Absolutely. I think it would be a sign of progress that they do it, and also as they progress in that development, it will help create the opportunity for them to do it. It's all a kind of go-slow affair. It's encouraging, because what we want to be able to do business-wise, so to speak, economically and socio-culturally, plays into the possibility of more religious freedom and respect for human rights.

Let's talk about the United Nations. Over the years, the Holy See has expressed more confidence than the United States about the capacity of the U.N. as an organ of international governance.
You don't have to have a lot of confidence to have more confidence than we do.

Where do you see that conversation standing?
I think they're probably still not as enthusiastic about taking on the well-documented defects of the United Nations that Ambassador Bolton and the President are willing to confront, and we'd like to see them be a little more supportive of that. It would be good.

You have in mind things like reforms of the Security Council?
Yes, changing the historical rotation on the Security Council and going for the best people. I think they're okay with that, I haven't heard that they're not. There's also the Human Rights Commission. I think that the Holy See supported changing the commission. We'd probably like to go further than they would if we could get away with it, but I haven't heard anything from the Holy See other than being supportive of overhauling the process of electing people, and getting a better group. There's only so many corrupt dictators we can have on one Human Rights Commission. John Bolton said it all.

American administrations, Republican and Democratic, have seen the United Nations as a forum for international cooperation rather than the nucleus of a sovereign global system of governance.
The Holy See can have the liberty of seeking attributes of sovereignty for an organization that no country can.

The United Nations, by definition, is only a reflection of its constituent members. [Sovereignty] would mean overturning the whole philosophy. I don't think the United States could ever go for that. What we need to go for is an effective, clean, honest U.N. that can function to bring all nations together, as a source of multi-national action.

Historically, the Holy See has been more critical of the "downside" of globalization and of the spread of free-market capitalism than American administrations. Have you detected any evolution in that?
I haven't been here long enough to really comment on movement or evolution. But I can say that I have been surprised, nicely surprised, by the understanding of the economic issues I've found. I haven't heard as much of that shopkeeper liberation, that 'protection of the oppressed worker' stuff, that I thought I would hear more of here. Meeting with these guys, they understand that globalization is a fact of life, that more people on the move is a fact of life the report of [Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples] has all the statistics you need to know. The goal there is to protect people who are vulnerable in the process, to give them a chance to rise up the economic scale, whether it's micro-lending, protection of some cottage industries while people get skill, understanding that economic wealth has to be distributed in a rational manner. We feel capitalism does that the best, but it's still got to be done. There's only so much wealth the people at the top can have in any given country for that country to be sustainable. On those sorts of issues, they seem to have a full grasp, and it's kind of gratifying to see. [Italian Minister Rocco] Buttiglione said, 'Look at Africa we're either going to get their people or their products, and it's better to get their products.' Smart.

Yet there are still differences. For example, the Holy See is routinely critical of developed nations, including the United States, who fail to honor the U.N.-established level of 0.7 percent of GNP for poverty alleviation.
I'd like to see the Holy See, rather than focus on that particular statistic, take a look at who really does give the bulk of both public and private charity in the world today, because it's the United States. It would be nice to see other countries of the world have a spotlight put on their public and private charity contributions. It would show the world just how generous the United States is, when you put it into context. I don't think the U.N. or anyone gives the United States credit for what we do.

Finally, I'd like to give you my reading on something and ask your reaction. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed for a period that the Holy See wanted to promote the emergence of a strong Europe as a counter-weight to the predominance of America in global affairs. It seems some of that enthusiasm has cooled, as the Holy See has watched the runaway secularism of Europe gather steam. Now they're more likely to see the United States, for all its defects, as the best ally of institutional Christianity on the world stage. Does that seem right to you?
That's exactly what I meant when I said a couple of things earlier. First of all, [it's reflected in] the Holy Father's keen understanding of and appreciation for the United States - our faith, our church attendance, our tradition of religious freedom, and so on. That's mirrored by the fact that I haven't seen any specific or general instances of anti-Americanism here. I've found a lot of appreciation for what we do. Sure, they may have a little different opinion of the U.N., or the Cuban embargo, but on the important questions on the direction of the world, on the life issues, on the role of religion in the world, on how people should raise their families, how they procreate, and what kind of world we're going to leave to our kids, we couldn't ask for a better partner than the Holy See, and they couldn't ask for a better partner than us. People talk about 'anti-Americanism' here, but these guys really are thankful for what we're doing.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted April 14, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: