Ambassador Rooney on his new book, The Global Vatican

Francis Rooney Headshot 08 01 13Francis Rooney III (Ambassador to the Holy See, 2005-2008) on his new book, The Global Vatican.

Why did you write THE GLOBAL VATICAN: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See?

I have had several opportunities to speak to groups regarding my service as the Ambassador to the Holy See, and have found a high level of interest in the global diplomatic engagement of the Holy See and its special relationship with the United States. I also discovered a deep lack of understanding about how Holy See diplomacy works, upon which principles it is based, and what it has accomplished over the years and seeks to accomplish now. If the book serves to advance understanding and interest in these areas it will be well worth it.

You served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church, under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.  What were the Bush Administration’s most important goals for the Vatican mission?

First, of course, were the symmetrical fundamental values and principles of the Bush Administration and the Holy See. The president never failed to raise issues of religious freedom and respect for life and human dignity as he travelled around the world.  An important objective of our mission was to promote the president’s positions in this regard and to align with similar Holy See policies and leverage our common views.

More tangibly, the PEPFAR program offered leverage with the work of Caritas in Africa and presented many opportunities for cooperation. 27% of all AIDS patients are cared for in Catholic health care institutions.  The Global Vatican Cover Art 07 31 13

The threat of radicalized Islam and the terrorism it has spawned, pre and post 9/11, was another important area for cooperation.  While the Holy See’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq is well documented, Pope Benedict was consistently forceful in speaking out and articulating the intellectual case against religion used as an instrument of violence in the 21st century.  Subsequent to  the initial disagreements, however, the Holy See carefully avoided actions or words which could imply divergence from the United States’ post invasion efforts to bring stability and peace to the country. While Pope Benedict’s controversial address at Regensberg, Germany in September 2006  garnered the most media attention, he had been consistent in his diplomatic expressions  long before then and well after.  Back in 2005 he warned of the potential for violence in heretofore secular Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa because of the radicalized teachings of madrassas there.

Lastly, both in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah and in several areas in Latin America which had seen the assumption of power by governments antithetical to the United States , we worked with the Holy See to leverage the influence the Catholic populations could exert in these areas.  Specifically, in Lebanon, the Holy See worked to keep the Christians united and maintain their position in the historical tripartite coalition government.

You argue that the Catholic Church is a powerful and unique source of noncoercive “soft power.”  What is soft power and how is the Church’s international influence so strong despite the fact that it cannot force its will with economic or military leverage?

As perhaps the only sovereign in the world lacking a territorial or  hegemonic agenda, the Holy See is uniquely positioned to argue on behalf of those core principles and moral values which are critical to human development, good and just government, and peace. It has been summed up  by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, a leading Vatican diplomat, that that Holy see diplomacy seeks to “contest systems or ideas that corrode the dignity of the person and thus threaten world peace.” This influence by force of right, moral suasion, rather than might,  is the “soft power” of the Holy See.   

In today’s world of asymmetrical conflicts, rooted in religious and cultural traditions and beliefs, this power of persuasion based on morality is a valuable tool, much like the evolving concept of “cultural diplomacy.”  Persuasion on the basis of values and behaviors  is more valuable now than ever.

What are the prospects for future relations between the United States and the Holy See?  How do you anticipate Pope Francis will impact world affairs and U.S.-Vatican relations?

The fundamental reasons for maintaining relations remain in place.  From its founding principles the United States is aligned with the Holy See in seeking to assure freedom and respect for the inalienable  rights of man in the world. The pope’s day of prayer and diplomatic note about the civil war in Syria is a recent example.

Pope Francis has shown that his attention to diplomatic engagement will be significant, as well as his expressed social one, in the appointment of Pietro Parolin as Secretary of State. Archbishop Parolin is one of the most careful and experienced diplomats the Holy See could deploy today.

Having confronted the Kirchner and Videla governments for years  in Argentina, Pope Francis is no stranger to authoritarianism and has a track record of speaking out against abridgement of freedom and abuses of human rights. These experiences should be valuable going forward.  The pope has recently called for a concept of citizenship in Syria in  which “everyone is a citizen with equal dignity”, and for Christians and other minorities to be included in all commission s and negotiations for post-war Syria.

What advice would you offer to the newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Ambassador Ken Hackett?  What challenges do you think he will face over the coming years?

I would never feel qualified to offer advice to Ambassador Hackett,  a tremendously qualified individual and an enlightened appointment.  As Pope Benedict expressed so often, the related threats of secularism in the west and radical religious fervor in the east will continue to create challenges to good government, respect for human dignity and the essential freedoms  in many areas of the world. Hopefully a strong bilateral relationship between  the United States and the Holy See will serve to reinforce our common values and offer opposition to these trends.


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