Francis Rooney will celebrate an anniversary this week.

Before arriving in Rome as the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Oct. 23, 2005, Rooney, 53, was an Oklahoma businessman. He is a self-styled “conservative but pragmatic” Republican and a committed Catholic with ties to both Georgetown and Notre Dame. Fluent in Spanish, he and his wife Kathleen have three children.

Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke to him at his residence in Rome Oct. 6.

How has your first year gone as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See? What have been the highlights and surprises?

After a career in business for many years, it’s obviously a different line of work to serve as ambassador. It’s very stimulating to me to be able to represent our country and to represent a person who I have a great respect for, George W. Bush, and his administration — to have the chance to be on his team for a couple of years. The work has been very stimulating and exciting — the opportunity to meet so many leaders of our Church who I would never have had the opportunity to meet before and to interact with them in a positive way.

Just today, we had here Archbishop (Marcelo) Sánchez Sorondo (chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) for lunch with biotech speakers, and we’ve had many opportunities for interaction. So, it’s really going to be a treasure of our life — me and my wife’s life, and our family’s life — forever.

What was your reaction to, and analysis of, Pope Benedict XVI’s University of Regensburg speech on faith and reason, and its aftermath?

The obvious reaction is that the whole world, or certainly a large part of the world, is very attuned to what the Holy Father has to say. His words resonate in many areas whenever he speaks, and I think this recent comment and the reaction to it showed just why so many countries have relationships with the Holy See and why I think it’s important for America to have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The president has called for dialogue — open and frank interreligious dialogue. Hopefully, out of all of this flap will come increased opportunities for that, and it could result in a more sincere dialogue and a more robust discussion.

Did it come as a shock to you, the violent response of some Muslims?

Everybody was concerned about the reaction. The president said he felt the Pope was quite sincere in his apology. The secretary of state made a similar comment that some people will take things differently than you expect they’re going to. I think the Pope’s profound theological contribution in general may offer us some insights into taking forward dialogue — I hope so.

Was there, as some have speculated, a concerted effort on your part not to be seen publicly supporting the Pope in order to lessen tensions and the perception of some Muslims of a Western alliance against Islam?

There are so many agendas lurking in this thing that whatever you say or don’t say, someone’s going to say you meant it differently. It’s very complicated.

 

As you know, the Holy Father’s speech was about reason being the basis for dialogue between different cultures. How much is the Bush administration listening to his comments in this regard, particularly concerning those countries with whom it is difficult to dialogue?

Basically, the president is a very feedback-oriented person and his administration has, from the beginning, been very interested in dialogue with all parts of the world on all issues that he’s encountered. But, at the same time, he has said that for dialogue to be meaningful, it has to be based upon some basic principles of honesty, frankness, sincerity. Otherwise, it’s just talk.

There has been much criticism of the Bush Administration and its conduct of the “war on terror,” specifically on the issue of handling detainees and the practice of torture. What do you say in response to such criticisms, and are these concerns being taken up by the Holy See?

I have not spoken with the Holy See about those matters. There are a lot of people in the administration spending a lot of time and effort dealing with Guantanamo, Iraq and the other things you mentioned, and who are much more qualified than me to comment. It’s a very complicated situation.

But has the Holy See expressed concern about these issues to you, personally?

The Vatican hasn’t discussed this with me. Anytime someone’s being shot at, doesn’t have enough to eat or is run out of their home, the Holy See is concerned and the pastoral mission of the Church dictates that they should be concerned. And, of course, our country’s concerned, too. We didn’t ask for this thing. We’re in it for a variety of complicated reasons with some very important allies, so hopefully we’ll find the right solution. I’ve been told by several officials that they are very interested in the treatment of Christians in Iraq, that they’re very interested in the nation-building in Iraq, the provision of water, electricity, the quality of life and education to the people there, and to that end they’re supportive of those aspects of our mission — in Iraq.

How is the embassy working closely with the Holy See on issues such as religious freedom, particularly with China?

The president went to China in November ’05, and he spoke very clearly and said something that is important and which we’ve used a lot, both in print and when I’ve talked to the Holy See, too. He said: “A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths and gives people an opportunity to express themselves through worship with the Almighty.”

It’s instructive that the president said that when he went to China, and it shows that the United States’ commitment to religious freedom as one of the essential freedoms, one of the inalienable rights, of all mankind. Of course, the Holy See is at the vanguard of the issue of religious freedom, and I think we all know that the Holy See has a lot of interest in the future of the Catholic Church in China. So obviously we’re going down similar paths even though we might be on different roads.

How much does the U.S. government listen carefully to what the Holy See has to say?

That’s part of why we’re here — the government wouldn’t have a mission here if it wasn’t interested in what the Holy See says and the position that the Holy Father has in the world — he’s certainly one of the most important moral statesmen in the world.

 

What are your hopes and ambitions for the embassy?

Well, I’d sure like to leave the place better than I found it — everybody does. It’s been a steady building block since President Reagan upgraded our mission from a representative to an ambassador. Each person that has been here and each member of staff — we’re more of a team than just staff — have worked to fortify that relationship, make it deeper, make it wider, touch more members of the Holy See, have more members of the Church here become familiar with our American values, understand why we do what we do.

So, I would like to see that, by the end of our time here, we would have further enriched our relationship, that the Holy See would see that we all work very hard to explore the areas where we can work together, working under the penumbra of human dignity and the advancing of freedoms.

Also, that our country would feel the same way, that we had achieved some tangible results with the Holy See in terms of some of these programs I mentioned, and achieved some of the intangible results of fortifying our partnerships to pursue the big ideals. And in our country, we do believe we are the country of big ideals. We’re descended from the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.