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Former U.S. ambassador to Vatican talks diplomacy at Virginia book festival

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Ambassador Francis Rooney came to Charlottesville on March 19 to speak about his recent 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. The occasion was a panel on “The United States in the World” at the twentieth annual Virginia Festival of the Book.

Rooney, who was President George W. Bush's envoy to the Holy See, participated in the discussion along with University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser, University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth, and Stanford University historian Robert Rakove. The panel was moderated by Sorensen Institute executive director Bob Gibson.

After the panel ended, Ambassador Rooney spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about his book and about the Vatican's politics and diplomacy.

Pope and Congress

First, he commented on the invitation issued by Speaker of the House John Boehner, asking Pope Francis to address a joint meeting of Congress in 2015.

“Speaker Boehner,” he said, “is a devout Catholic and values the role the Holy See plays in the world.”

The idea of inviting the Pope to the U.S. Capitol “reflects the importance of Holy See diplomacy and the importance of the relationship with the United States,” Rooney noted. “It's never happened before” but it also “offers an interesting opportunity.”

Rooney said he would be surprised if Pope Francis accepts the invitation but the gesture itself demonstrates “the importance of Holy See diplomacy” to U.S. policymakers.

He added that there is a convergence of interests and values between Washington and the Vatican.

For instance, he said, the “principles of Holy See diplomacy apply to all persons.” These include “fundamental respect for human dignity, nurture of freedoms, especially religious freedom, and [seeking] to promote the natural rights of man.”

Human intelligence

Rooney also pointed out how the Vatican also is the locus of a worldwide human intelligence network, something that may be unparalleled elsewhere. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he recalled, said the Catholic Church has “one of the greatest information gathering networks in the world.”

“One of the unique aspects of the Holy See is their global network of priests, nuns, NGOs. We get so much information from them,” he said, adding that there are “millions of vignettes of Holy See information surprising the United States in its, in what they've been able to find out.”

He gave the example of when Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, then the Vatican Secretary of State, visited President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office.

When the meeting took place, Rooney said, Casaroli had just been told by some nuns “about a bridge being blown up in Lebanon.” This was pertinent because the United States and the Holy See had been working together to unify Lebanese Christians. Bush and Casaroli looked at a map together, with the cardinal pointing out where the missing bridge had been located.

The president was unaware of this information, so he called the CIA, which also had not learned about it. “How do they know that?,” the CIA asked.

'Holy See in action'

In writing his book, Rooney said, he “tried to minimize the memoir part. People's interests in ambassadorial memoirs are fairly circumscribed and, I think, justly so.”

Instead of focusing on himself, he “tried to put in the things that show the Holy See in action,” especially instances of “the Holy See and the United States working together.”

While doing research for his book, he learned “about the incredible ability of the Holy See to do good in the world diplomatically and how important this charge is,” as well as how much the United States and the Vatican have in common in terms of their foreign policy aims.

In addition, he said, prior to his experience as a diplomat and as a writer examining diplomacy, “I didn't fully appreciate the First Amendment, I didn't fully appreciate our unique concept of citizenship in the United States, until I saw how other countries work, especially European ones.”

Vatican II

Rooney also commented about how the articulation of ecumenism by the Second Vatican Council affected the Holy See's diplomacy, both positively and negatively.

Vatican II, he said, “brought it into the modern world. It would be pretty hard” for Vatican diplomats “to be taken seriously nowadays without Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate,” two key documents of the council.

“On the other hand,” he continued, there have been “three existential threats to Holy See diplomacy: one was Napoleon, one was the unification of Italy, and the third one was Vatican II – because a lot of priests wanted to turn inward and get out of the diplomatic business.”

They wanted to “have nuncios focus on recruiting bishops and appointing bishops” rather than on diplomacy, but Pope Paul VI, a graduate of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, (the Vatican's school for training diplomats) said that the Church has “an important role to play in the world.” Pope Paul, he asserted, “saved the diplomatic mission, if you will, of the Holy See.”

Ukraine and Russia

Finally, Rooney answered a question about the current dispute between largely-Catholic Ukraine and mostly-Orthodox Russia.

The situation there, he said, does not stem from religious differences but rather from geopolitics.

“It's Obama's weakness and the fact that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in some ways, even had President Bush's number – but he for sure has Obama's number.”

President Obama, he said, “has brought [Putin] to a point where he feels he can take actions which are against international law” without fear of serious reprisal.

The complete audio version of this interview will soon be available on Bearing Drift radio, "The Score."

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