With Pope Francis and the Vatican very much in the news two recent books by former ambassadors to the Holy See contain some interesting insights into the Church.
Tim Fisher was Australia’s ambassador for three years starting in February 2009. He was the first Australian representative to be exclusively dedicated to the Vatican post.
In his book, “Holy See, Unholy Me,” (ABC Books), he starts by recalling briefly his history as a prominent politician and someone from a Catholic background.
A number of chapters detail his participation in various conferences and congresses in Rome. One issue he was particularly interested in was food security.
Fisher acknowledged the contribution of the Catholic Church on this subject and on related issues. “The Holy See will always go in to bat for the oppressed and those under-represented in the halls of power,” he commented.
On the subject of politics Fisher noted that the Catholic Church has been involved in politics for a very long time and that overall it has helped produce results that have been positive for the world.
The diplomatic initiatives of the Vatican, he observed, “matter more than is realized.”
Fisher described a number of situations where Vatican diplomacy made a vital contribution, including Northern Ireland. Regarding Ireland he questioned the decision by the government to cease having a permanent ambassador to the Holy See.
In a chapter on the internal workings of the Vatican, Fisher commented that there was often a lack of coordination between the different curial offices, resulting in disconnections and a lack of information sharing. The removal of personnel who under-perform was also a problem, he added. Not for nothing a reform of the Curia is one of the priorities of Pope Francis.
In a concluding chapter Fisher expressed some frustration with inefficiency of the Curia and repeated recommendations for a modernization of the processes, along with increasing the presence of women.
On the positive side he also acknowledged the contribution of the Vatican on a number of issues, along with its role of being a “bulwark against the worst excesses of modern secular society in the West.”
The second memoir is by Francis Rooney, the ambassador of the United States to the Holy See from 2005-2008, who, like Fisher, is from a Catholic background and educated by the Jesuits.
In his book, “The Global Vatican” (Roman and Littlefield), he affirmed that the relationship between his country and the Vatican “is of vital importance to both America and the world.”
Pope Benedict XVI, he noted, was just six months into his role when he took up the posting. It was a challenging time for the Church, particularly with the sex abuse scandals, and there had also been tensions regarding America’s role in the conflicts in Iraq.
In spite of the weakening of the Catholic Church in many countries Rooney underlined the important role the Vatican plays in diplomacy and in defending the poor around the world.
The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated, he explained, because of the complex nature of the Church, which is often not understood. Despite its limited resources he affirmed that the Holy See has a longer and deeper reach than the United Nations.
The “soft power” of an institution such as the Church can sometimes be dismissed by calculating realists, Rooney commented, but he argued that it is wrong to ignore the Catholic Church’s reach around the globe.
An example of this from one of the later chapters is Rooney’s account of the important role played by the Vatican in obtaining the release of 15 British navy personnel detained by Iran for allegedly trespassing.
One of the main themes of the book is to provide an alternative view of Pope Benedict XVI, who, he noted, was frequently dismissed as being out of place or ineffective.
In the book’s prologue he ventured the view that “history will ultimately judge Benedict XVI as strong-minded, farsighted, and committed to the best interest of the church and the world, even at the expense of his own short-term popularity.”
A large part of the book recounts episodes of Church history in the last couple of centuries, along with descriptions of the Church in the United States and the interaction between the U.S. government and the Vatican before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1984.
Following this background Rooney begins to describe his own time in Rome. He was fortunate, he said, to be representing a president, George W. Bush, whose values and principles were close to those of the Catholic Church. By contrast, he commented that the administration of President Barack Obama “appears to have little interest in the Holy See.”
Rooney didn’t go into much detail regarding his own activities in Rome, but did provide some interesting reflections, including a chapter on Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address. Both of the former ambassadors, while well aware of the multiple problems facing the Church, are clearly convinced that the Vatican has a vital role to play in the world.