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from issue no. 10 - 2006

UNITED STATES AND HOLY SEE. An interview with Francis Rooney

«Slowly, slowly, as you Italians say…»

Among certainties and prudence, the long road of diplomatic relations between Washington and the Vatican according to the American ambassador to the Holy See

Interview with Francis Rooney by Giovanni Cubeddu

«I am impressed by the breadth of knowledge of those who work in the Vatican and have not found anyone who is “anti-American” there. Maybe this is the expectation of an American, or perhaps I am only very happy to be here in Rome, close to the Church. In America it certainly happened less».
Francis Rooney was brought up in a Catholic family, and happened to go to school at the Augustinian Fathers – a period which he will certainly have thought about many times from when, on 13 October of 2005, he took the oath before the United States Senate as seventh American ambassador to the Holy See. His curriculum as a businessman is indeed too along to list here, but he presented himself to Pope Benedict in a very simple and auspicious manner as «the first ambassador of his pontificate». Different from his predecessor Jim Nicholson – who presented his credentials just two days after 11 September 2001 – Rooney has inherited a period oscillating between the desire to give space to politics and to reconstruction (that could heal the Iraqi tragedy for example) and fears that a solution will not be reached on the nuclear issue (Iran and North Korea).
If that’s how it is, then how are we to reinterpret today the three guideline notes on the relations between Washington and the Vatican that Rooney presented at his first meeting with the Pope, on 12 November 2005 (that is «to spread peace, encourage democracy and defeat terrorism»)?
The current American ambassador, however from the day he took up his post, has made it understood that he does not want to be imprudent, that he prefers small steps, wants to find the right course «slowly, slowly», as he said to us at the end. Certainly this cautious approach will be of help to him in planning the next years in his post, in the light of the democratic success in the American midterm elections, that he did not want to comment on.

Ambassador Francis Rooney presenting his credentials to Benedict XVI on 12  November  2005

Ambassador Francis Rooney presenting his credentials to Benedict XVI on 12 November 2005

Mr. Ambassador, after a year’s mandate have you come to any conclusion about which issues it is easier to work along with the Holy See, and where instead there is greater distance in judgment between you? Do you consider you have achieved any of the priorities that were established beforehand?
FRANCIS ROONEY: There could have been disagreements, in the recent past, and certainly the war in Iraq has been a point of friction. It is widely known. But today, with all the pressures which the international agenda subjects us to, there is far more symmetry of objectives and aspirations between the United States and the Holy See. To eliminate poverty in Africa and eradicate AIDS are two important examples, just for a start. And then, if we speak about aid to the developing countries, allow me to say that the United States is in absolute terms the major contributor…
In defense of life and in the field of bioethics there are choices shared with the Holy See, a little less if certain instances of the social doctrine of the Church are looked at, with which Washington doesn’t seem so concerned. Such as the needs of the less developed countries, in the negotiations with the WTO, for example.
ROONEY: The Holy See has understood that globalization is by now a feature of our daily life, and has publicly stated on the matter that if it’s no longer possible to turn the clock back, the harsher aspects of globalization should be moderated and the danger removed that entire populations, whose only hope is illegal immigration, be marginalized. But on this point also we agree.
With regard to immigration, the debate continues in the United States for a bipartisan approach to a subject that for you is a burning issue
ROONEY: Immigration touches the whole country, there is discussion and consensus is developing. President Bush has been foremost in proposing a program for the guest workers in our country, in creating a new expert body on citizenship and the promotion of knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, in stimulating new approaches so that in America there is immigration that functions, is controlled and just. That helps, in short, people to be an integral part of our country…
ROONEY: The Unite States is a nation founded both on immigrants and on law. We must maintain both traditions. We must know who enters our country and why. President Bush understands that the United States has the responsibility for making its borders effective and at the same time for developing a system of immigration that reflects our values. Our country knows that real lives will be influenced by our discussions and by our decisions, and that each human being has dignity and value.
There are millions of immigrants in the States, and the American Catholic Church also has asked the government to be politically wise and understanding toward these poor people.
ROONEY: But it is also right that our government knows by name who has entered our country and guarantee safety for all citizens. In Los Angeles, for example, Cardinal Mahoney has not asked for security to be rescinded but rather to have, in the words of President Bush, a «secure, reasonable, legal process of immigration and of work in the United States for people who come to satisfy an economic need of our country».
During this first year in your post there have been some delicate moments in relations between the Holy See and Beijing. How have you experienced them?
ROONEY: It was as if there was a moment of suspension of judgment the day after the creation of Cardinal Zen, to see whether and how China reacted. There was preoccupation, all speculations were plausible. Recently I had news from China of a conference where the Catholic leaders met to discuss how to build a harmonious society. And I believe that the Catholic Church can contribute in a very positive and constructive way to the mosaic that is contemporary China. However, what the Holy See does with its cardinals and bishops is for us legitimate, because they are acts that come within its jurisdiction. As far as we’re concerned as a sovereign State, we’re in favor of the freedom of worship, and both the President and the Secretary of State have said so openly during their trips to China. About the dynamics of the two Chinese Churches, the national and the underground, it is not for me to comment.
Let’s switch focus to the Middle East. Saddam Hussein having been ousted, the religious minorities in Iraq today – Christians included – on the basis of the new Constitution, are subject to the sharia law. As ambassador of the United States to the Holy See, are you concerned with this problem? It is a somewhat paradoxical outcome of the export of democracy…
ROONEY: The context in Iraq is a complex one. In the Constitution there is mention both of the sharia as the source of law and of the UN Declaration on human rights. The United States and the Holy See share the objective of developing the Iranian civil institutions that guarantee democracy, liberty and tolerance more than happened under Saddam. But today there is a difficult situation, without doubt. I think it would be much better if all together, as an international community, work toward this goal, with all the factions represented in Baghdad, to develop institutions that respect the minorities.
You recently met the Jewish delegation of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, on a visit to Italy and the Vatican, for a meeting with the Pope. I suppose that with the ADL you touched on the subject of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See...
ROONEY: Yes, we spoke about it, and I believe also that the ADL agrees that the Fundamental Agreement [the treaty, signed in 1993, that lays the basis of the relations between Israel and the Holy See, not yet completely in force, in particular in its economic aspects, ed] is an important subject, and that both parties would derive benefit from the resolution of the pending problems.
«Reciprocity is a delicate subject, and it seems to me that everyone proceeds a little by feeling their way here. And we cannot manage it simply by saying: “A mosque here, a church there”… »
According to some of the press the United States has often taken an interest in the negotiations between the Holy See and Israel, even persuading the latter to restart the negotiations it had abandoned in 2003. What is the current situation? Is the US still interested in following the negotiating process? And above all, how could they be conducted better?
ROONEY: I repea o enforce the Fundamental Agreement, and we have advocated this cause strongly, at various levels. It’s something that I always speak about every time I am asked about Israeli-Vatican relations. With this Agreement made operational, relations between the two parties would continue to grow stronger, which is good for them as well as for the Middle East. The Christians are an important part of the heritage of the region, and they can often contribute a moderating influence in the midst of instability. To make progress on such a subject could play a decisive role in assuring a continuing presence of the Christian community in the entire region.
What do you think of the questions that arose after the “lectio” of the Pope in Regensburg?
ROONEY: The Pope has been and is indeed unambiguous in saying that violence in the name of God is not tolerable. As far as Regensburg is concerned, he did not say sorry for having used the quotation in question, albeit he expressed regret that those words were misunderstood. And he has clarified that the quotation doesn’t reflect his personal opinion. He repeated these two points at the meeting to which he called more than twenty Islamic ambassadors, in Castel Gandolfo on September 25. On that point, for both parties, Christianity and Islam, the need for a frank and sincere dialogue remains, and the Pope clarified that this dialogue requires that reason as well as the principle of reciprocity be resorted to. If anything patently clear came out of the Regensburg event it is that the world attributes importance to what the Pope says.
In asking for the recognition of the right of freedom of worship – in particular those of Christians in the Islamic world – the United States has always been very eloquent. Has this first year of work in Rome helped you to refine your point of view on this delicate and symbolic topic?
ROONEY: The Pope is trying to build bridges toward Islam, both on non-doctrinal questions, such as population control, as well as mutual understanding on the level of doctrine. Or taking up again the subject of violence in the name of God, which is unjustified and is an open debate also among the different currents in Islam, when they engage in the interpretation of the Koran. Reciprocity is a delicate subject, and it seems to me that everyone proceeds a little by feeling their way here. And we cannot manage it simply by saying: “A mosque here, a church there”… And then there is the whole lineup of the emerging democracies to consider. This is why the Iraqi experiment is so important.
In short, “slowly, slowly”, as you Italians say...

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