Former US Ambassador to Holy See Francis Rooney Speaks on His 'The Global Vatican'

Gives ZENIT Inside Look Following Book's Presentation at Rome's Sant'Egidio Conference

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ZENIT was present for Ambassador Francis Rooney's presentation of his book, 'The Global Vatican,' at Rome's Sant'Egidio Community this month, Dec. 10. After speaking with us, the Former US Ambassador to the Holy See has written the following article for our readers:


“We almost did nothing” was how Pope Francis described the Holy See’s role in convening the United States and Cuba in a series of intense diplomatic exchanges held both in Canada and the Apostolic palace in the Vatican and kept secret for more than one and one-half years.  These negotiations resulted in a historic breakthrough which has led to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and reflect positively on the Holy See’s unique position in the world of international affairs.

The Holy See has been actively engaged in international affairs since the early years of the Church, sending emissaries to Constantinople from 453 A.D. and receiving and accrediting the first foreign envoys in the Fifteenth century.  The Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the first institution in the world specifically designed to train diplomats, was founded in 1701 and the Holy See has been involved in numerous border disputes from the time of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 to the recent mediation between Chile and Argentina over the boundaries of the Beagle Channel. 

As the world’s only sovereign which lacks both territorial interests and hegemonic ambitions, the Holy See can exercise a diplomacy based not on force, but on its sense of purpose grounded in the quest to protect human rights and nurture human dignity.  As Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran once said, Holy See diplomacy seeks to “contest systems or ideas that corrode the dignity of the person and thus threaten world peace.”   It is a universal and enduring platform from which to seek to influence world events.

Being apolitical and seeking good in the world for its own sake, the Holy See doesn’t seek credit for its accomplishments.  This willingness to forego the spotlight serves to increase its influence and effectiveness.  Pope Francis’ humble, self-deprecating comment about the Holy See’s role in the Cuba mediation reminds me of Pope Benedict’s similar work in obtaining the release of a group of sailors from the United Kingdom by the government of Iran in the spring of 2007.  There were no press releases or attribution, just results.  

I wrote The Global Vatican to broaden popular understanding of the Holy See’s valuable role in today’s global diplomacy and to provide a historical context for its work based on many important accomplishments it has had throughout history.  These past actions have contributed cumulatively to the role which the Holy See can play today and give us an insight into areas where the Holy See can be a valuable diplomatic participant.

The book also makes the argument that the United States and the Holy See are uniquely aligned in their global engagements due to their orientation towards protecting the natural rights of man and individual freedom, especially religious freedom.  The Holy See has nurtured these values since its beginnings and the United States is the nation which was built upon ideas of the enlightenment philosophers.   John Locke’s writings in 1689 about man’s inalienable rights and of government deriving its “just powers form the consent of the governed”, rather than the divine rights of monarchs, resonate in our Declaration of Independence and the preamble to our Constitution.

The paths of these two sovereigns have crossed throughout the years, as in the similarity between Pope Benedict XV’s Peace Note and the Fourteen Points which President Wilson published eight months later, and the work of Myron Taylor at the Vatican on behalf of President Roosevelt during World War II.  The parallel actions and interests of the Holy See and the United States assured victory of the Christian Democrat party in Italy in 1948 and inspired the liberation of Poland, and ultimately the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, beginning with Pope John Paul II in 1979.

On 16 April 2008 a defining moment in the relationship between the United states and the Holy See took place on the White House lawn when Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the “‘self evident truth’ that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” upon which the United states was founded and President George W. Bush responded by quoting the Holy Father and assuring him that America is a place “that welcomes the role of faith in the public square.”

Since Pope Benedict’s 2006 address at Regensburg, which George Weigel has called the most important papal pronouncement since Pope John Paul II’s 1994 human rights speech to the United Nations, the Holy See has continued to use its “soft power” voice to weigh in against terrorism which continues unabated in many places around the world.  The Holy See continues to forcefully critique violence in the name of religion while working to establish conditions for constructive dialogue among differing faiths.  Pope Francis has used diplomatic symbolism effectively in his travels to highlight instances of inter-religious cooperation and to call for peace.  In Albania he noted the success of a coalition government of Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, convened the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to come pray with him in the Vatican Gardens.  He has not been timid in criticizing ISIS and al-Qaeda, recently calling the conflicts they have wrought as a “third world war”.

In summary, perhaps more than ever, the modern world requires the Holy See’s “soft power” of persuasion rather than coercion, to drive a diplomacy based on ideas and fundamental human rights—and needs to provide a possibility of conflict resolution without military intervention.

—Francis Rooney served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008, and is author of the book, The Global Vatican.

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