Holy See

  • Reflecting on Pope Benedict's Papacy (By Francis Rooney)

The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to re- tire February 28 is a remarkable act of humility and selflessness, and should be seen as a fitting closure on a papacy that was quietly significant. When Joseph Ratzinger was elected in the 2005 conclave, many pundits viewed him as a temporary officeholder. Yet, Benedict XVI fulfilled the legacy he set out for himself when choosing the name of the World War I Pope. For nearly eight years, Benedict was a firm advocate of dialog with friend and foe. He bravely offered to the world a gift cherished by the Catholic faith— the union of faith and reason. In this capacity, the Pope was a bridge builder, and lived up to his Latin title Pontifex Maximus. Much maligned, Benedict put the Church in the perilous but necessary position between extremist religious fundamentalism and extremist secular materialism.

As United States Ambassador to the Holy See (2005–2008), I met the Pope on several occasions to discuss the symmetry of values between the Holy See (colloquially referred to as the Vatican) and the United States. In those private meetings and his annual ad- dresses to the diplomatic corps, Pope Bene- dict XVI exuded a humility that reflected the solemnity of his office. Elected to succeed the charismatic Blessed John Paul II, he is to be commended for continuing the Holy See’s active role in promoting human dignity for all individuals. A great scholar, Benedict reminds us that religious values have an important role to play in the public square.

In the span of eight years, Benedict visited 24 nations and the Palestinian Territories. He is the oldest Pope to travel outside of Europe. In each pastoral visit, his diplomacy was understated and subtle, principally the act of Christian love. His influence on Catholics, and also ‘‘people of good will’’, is a testament to soft power. For example, the Pope’s letter to Iranian president Ahmadinejad was decisive in resolving the disputed kidnapping of British sailors in 2007. In his trips to Cuba and Lebanon in 2012, Benedict asserted that politics is subordinate to moral considerations.

Two trips epitomize the theme of Benedict’s papacy—Regensburg in 2006 and London in 2010. In the former, the erudite professor was quickly denounced by much of the international media for a criticism against a corruption of Islam that is intolerant and rejects human agency. The complex lecture in- spired violent reprisals by some misinformed and radicalized Muslims around the world. Months later a Saudi prince visited the Holy See to foster and reciprocate the Pope’s forthright dialog.

Four years later, Pope Benedict traveled to London despite vocal opposition from a small group of anti-Catholic critics. Dis- playing tremendous poise, Benedict graciously spoke in Westminster Hall. Learning from Regensburg the need for clarity and concision more than academic merit, Benedict shared his view that ‘‘the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.’’ It was a high point for the Catholic Church, and a statement that religion and spirituality are not incompatible with modern life.

The decision to retire is an act of humility. Benedict has left an indelible mark on the Catholic Church, preserved his theme of bonding faith and reason, and even maintained integrity amidst a much-touted scan- dal over his trusted butler. The Servant of the Servants of God, a phrase introduced by Pope Saint Gregory I near the end of the sixth century, leaves office in an act of selflessness.

Soon after Benedict resigns, a papal con- clave will be called in Rome. The College of Cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel and elect a new Pope. As decreed by Pope John Paul II, Cardinals more than 80 years old cannot vote. As of right now, 118 Cardinals are eligible to vote. 

  • Holy See Diplomacy in the Modern Era (By Francis Rooney)

In the increasingly secular environment of the developed western world, driven by rapid information exchange and an unprecedented degree of inter-personal connectivity, one might consider the role the Holy See might play in the affairs of states and international relations as a quaint anachronism, a vestige of a distant past, and seek to consign the Holy See to obscurity. However, to do so would ignore the ageless foundation upon which Holy See diplomacy is based, and its relevance to humanity in the 21st century just as in the past. It would also fail to account for the unique role the Holy See plays now, lacking a territorial agenda, in the cultural and religion-inspired conflicts in our world today.

In fact, many leaders at Vatican II urged elimination of the diplomatic role of the Holy See, arguing that the Church should exclusively devote itself theological and pastoral issues. In his papal letter of 24 June 1969, Sollicitudo Omniam Ecclesiarium, Pope Paul VI articulated the rational for continued diplomatic engagement as a means of helping the community of nations ‘‘achieve the implementation of great human hopes, peace between nations, the domestic tranquility and progress of each country.’’ These words call to mind the Preamble to our Constitution and the lofty goals of U.S. foreign policy of protecting human rights and dignity and spreading the essential freedoms around the world.

A leading Vatican diplomat, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, describes the diplomatic force of the Holy See more tangibly as a ‘‘moral authority’’ able to ‘‘contest systems or ideas that corrode the dignity of the person and thus threaten world peace.’’

As the only nation founded from its beginnings on the principle that man is endowed with inalienable rights, emanating from his being and not by the grant of some government, and the creators of the 1st Amendment’s protection of the freedom of religion, often called ‘‘the first freedom’’ from which others derive, the United States is a natural partner to the Holy See and can leverage its own goals and policy objectives by continued alignment with it.

The Holy See is most effective when using its platform to denounce actions which undermine human dignity, inhibit freedom and oppress people. It has influence by moral per- suasion, often called ‘‘soft power,’’ which can accomplish results hegemonic authorities often cannot on their own. It is also effective in working quietly and bilaterally on certain types of issues which relate to its human rights orientation, and in using the power of its global network of clergy and Catholic organizations to advance its agenda. In countries of high Catholic populations, there is even more potential to have an impact.

The successful alignment of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II’s efforts to undermine communism in the 1980’s is well known. As Premier Gorbachev said, ‘‘Everything that happened in Eastern Eu- rope would have been impossible without the pope.’’ In fact, the Russian KGB had identified the future pope as a strong anticommunist in 1971 and upon his election, the Communist Party of Poland called him ‘‘our enemy’’ against whom ‘‘all means are allowed’’ in opposing him.

There are many less obvious examples of important work on the part of the Holy See on conflict resolution and the stimulation of dialogue. Pope John XXII played a critical role in creating a window for conciliation during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, via a subtle, clandestine exchange of communications among the pope, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, using the editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, as an intermediary. This effort culminated with the well-known papal message on Vatican Radio on 25 October 1962 and its publication on the front page of Pravda then next day.

The work of Myron Taylor at the Holy See during World War II, as President Roosevelt’s personal representative, is well documented. In addition to the use of Vatican neutrality to maintain his routine visits to Pope Pius XII and to allow his assistant, Harold Tittmann, to remain in country throughout the war, the Holy See diplomatic pouch was used to send messages to the U.S. through Switzerland, all of which served to maintain a robust and valuable channel of information exchange throughout the war. The role the Holy See played soon thereafter in nudging newly elected (over strong U.S. opposition) Argentine President Juan Peron to send food to alleviate post war famine in Europe is not so well known.

Recently, while I was serving as ambassador, we engaged the Holy See to work to unify the Christian block in Lebanon prior to the 2006 war, so as to fortify the power sharing coalition of Druze, Hezbollah and Christian which had brought relative stability to the country for several years, and to bring the Holy See’s influence to bear in Latin America as several leaders, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales in particular, became increasingly hostile to U.S. interests. It was also during my time in Rome that Pope Benedict intervened to help a group of sailors from Britain who had strayed in to Iranian waters, at the request of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It is worth noting that in June 2009 when Manuel Zelaya, having been removed after provoking a constitutional crisis, attempted to return to Honduras and contest the successor government of Roberto Micheletti, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga played a significant, if not decisive role in keeping him out of the country.

While these examples of tactical diplomatic engagement are interesting, and demonstrate how effective the Holy See can be, the more sustaining and impactful recent expressions of the Holy See’s exercise of its ‘‘soft power’’ come from Benedict XVI’s

Regensberg speech and subsequent visits to the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

When the pope spoke at Regensberg, Germany, in September 2006 against the misuse of religion to incite violence and advance extremism and intolerance in the Islamic world, he used a poignant and controversial metaphor to make his point, and brought the attention of the entire world to bear on the question of how to temper the religious fervor of some interpretations of Islam with the reason and rationality of the modern world. Subsequent to this speech a group of 38 Muslim scholars has convened and explored avenues toward accomplishing this goal, seeking ‘‘a consonance between the truths of the Koranic revelation and the demands of human intelligence.’’ While there is much to achieve in this regard, the position of the Holy See, as both global interlocutor and one of the three Abrahamic faiths, has a special role to play.

In a similar vein, the pope and clergy from around the world have discussed the risks to freedom and democracy from degradation of religion in modern society and its replacement with a material secularism. Pope Bene- dict XVI summarized the position in an ad- dress to the German parliament on 22 September 2011, ‘‘Politics must be striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace . . . systems of laws have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what has to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity.’’ Whether the internal national politics of a country, or the external pursuit of relations among states, the thesis is that without the ‘‘moral compass’’ and values of human decency and respect for individual rights inspired and taught by religion, it is difficult to have justice and freedom for long. The 20th century examples of totalitarianism, in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia come to mind.

We will see how the new pope, Pope Francis, takes these principles forward just as Pope Benedict expressed them in a con- text different from his predecessors, but nonetheless they remain the same, fundamental principles. Popes have consistently applied these concepts through the years, John Paul II focused on Communism, Bene- dict XVI on radicalization secularism, John XXIII on nuclear war and Benedict XV and Pius XII on the evils of the two World Wars which dominated their papacies.

I am hopeful that this ‘‘new world’’ pope, appearing to be more conversational and less formal, will be able to broaden and deepen the message, and deploy the ‘‘soft power’’ of the Holy See more effectively than ever to challenge abhorrent and oppressive behaviors in the world. So far, his emphasis on the social mission of the Church squares well with a diplomacy based on the inalienable rights of man and the protection of human dignity for all. 

  • U.S. must embrace Holy See (by Francis Rooney)
The past few years have seen cordial but cooling relations between the United States and the Vatican. Since President Obama took office, he has visited the Vatican just once, and the administration has demonstrated little more than a perfunctory interest in the Holy See's diplomatic role in the world. This is a lost opportunity at a critical time for America. U.S. foreign policy has much to gain from its relationship with the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church. No institution on earth has both the international stature and the global reach of the Holy See — the "soft power" of moral influence and authority to promote religious freedom, human liberties, and related values that Americans and our allies uphold worldwide.


President Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984 because, among other reasons, he realized that he could have no better partner than Pope John Paul II in the fight against communism -- and he was right. The administration of George W. Bush continued to expand these relations, even in difficult times while engaged in a conflict in Iraq of which the Holy See had strongly and vocally disapproved. Before President Obama's recent appointment of Ken Hackett as the next U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, there was growing speculation that the administration was considering completely eliminating the diplomatic mission, or reducing it to an appendage of the Embassy in Rome. While the Obama administration has been in conflict with the Catholic Church on a range of issues from abortion to contraception, it is clearly in America's national interests to strengthen diplomatic ties with the Holy See to advance our interests around the world.

The United States and the Holy See remain two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite these differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that "human persons" possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.

The Church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking, and advances the cause of human dignity and rights more than any other organization in the world. The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international predicaments. In 2007, for example, the Holy See helped secure the release of several British sailors who had been picked up by the Iranian navy. Its long-standing bilateral relations with Iran and the lack of such relations by the British and other western governments created an opportunity for successful intervention.

And more recently, the Holy See issued its diplomatic note concerning the civil war in Syria, calling for a "concept of citizenship" in which everyone is a citizen with equal dignity. It is urging the commissions which are working on a possible future constitution and laws to ensure that Christians and representatives of all other minorities be involved. This immediately helped place a spotlight on the plight of Christians and the ongoing exodus of all non-Muslims from most Middle East countries for the last 30 years. The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated. A benevolent monarchy tucked into a corner of a modern democracy, the Holy See is at once a universally recognized sovereign representing more than a billion people (one-seventh of the world's population) -- and the civil government of the smallest nation-state on earth. It has no military and only a negligible economy, but it has greater reach and influence than most nations. It's not simply the number or variety of people that the Holy See represents that gives it relevance; it's also the moral influence of the Church, which is still considerable despite secularization and scandals.

The Holy See advocates powerfully for morality in the lives of both Catholics and non-Catholics, and in both individuals and nations. One may disagree with some of the Church's positions and yet still recognize the value -- the real and practical value -- of its insistence that "right" should precede "might" in world affairs. At its core, the Catholic Church is a powerful and unique source of non-coercive "soft power" on the world stage -- it moves people to do the right thing by appealing to ideals and shared values, rather than to fear and brute force. America's foreign policy is much more likely to succeed with the support of the Holy See.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently gave a nod to this soft power in his Washington Post op-ed when he decried the "framework that has emphasized hard power and the use of brute force." One can speculate on the motivations and intentions of such an unlikely source, but at least there is an admission of the importance of diplomatic alternatives which are based on persuasive fundamental principles.

No two sovereigns are more naturally aligned than the United States and the Holy See in the pursuit of diplomacy founded on the core moral principles of the inalienable rights of man, his essential God-granted human dignity, and the right of all to religious freedom. This is rightly called the "first freedom" because our other freedoms seldom flourish in its absence.

  • Reflecting on the Life of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Dipolmat of the Holy See (by Francis Rooney)


The death of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Papal Nuncio to the United States for the last five years, is a great loss for the diplomatic community in Washington, D.C. and for the world. A veteran diplomat with many years experience in Israel and Palestine, Archbishop Sambi brought a depth of knowledge and personal credibility to the diplomacy of the Holy See which will be greatly missed.

Prior to his posting in Washington, Archbishop Sambi was stationed in Cuba, Nicaragua, Belgium and India. As papal representative to Israel and Palestine from 1998 until 2005, he was instrumental in the planning and execution of the Holy Land visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 and was deeply involved in the Holy See’s diplomacy during the 2006 Lebanon war, where the traditional power sharing coalition was challenged by the presence of Hezbollah. His personal credibility was important during this war in mobilizing the Christian coalition there.

His Cuba and Nicaragua experience was important in his understanding of the challenges the United States faces in these countries and in expressing the Holy See’s goals for religious freedom and pursuance of the democratic process there. He was Nuncio in Nicaragua as the Sandinista revolution took control of the country and challenged church authority and democratic institutions there. He was involved in planning Pope John Paul II’s 1983 visit wherein the Pope challenged Daniel Ortega and his government.

While Archbishop Sambi was in Cuba in an earlier time, from 1974-1979, his efforts in working with the local church were valuable in keeping the goals of freedom and tolerance alive. The recent release of the last of the March 2003 political prisoners in Cuba by the Castro government exemplifies the valuable contributions of Holy See diplomacy, the result of many leaders like Archbishop Sambi.

He was, in short, a most qualified diplomat and a man whose warmth reminded many officials of the first apostolic pro-nuncio to the United states, Cardinal Pio Laghi.
In meetings with him I realized his keen understanding of the unique role of religion and faith in the United States as protected by the First Amendment. He realized, like his predecessor Archbishop Pio Laghi, that the American experiment of the First Amendment has much to offer the world.

Though it is only natural for a prominent priest to proclaim the importance of religious freedom and its importance in sustaining civil society, Sambi was also an earnest proponent of the freedoms of speech and press. He warmly received journalists in an effort to connect with an American audience that went beyond the capital beltway region and daily withstood anti-Catholic protestors picketing just outside his office. In times of crisis within the Church and without, he resolutely defended the goodness that religion offers the world—peace, justice, love, and true individual freedom.

Many times he made a point of explaining that the foundation of the diplomatic mission of the Holy See is rooted squarely in the pursuits of freedom, tolerance and the protection of human dignity. The “soft power” of moral rectitude and persuasion is what drove the Archbishop in his work.

His death last Friday following a serious lung operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital is a time for reflection on the twenty-seven years of official recognition between the U.S. government and the Holy See in Vatican City. In that short period, the bilateral relationship has flourished into a deep commitment. Together, the world’s most influential state and the world’s smallest sovereign state combine to address serious problems like human trafficking, extremist violence and religious intolerance.

As I mourn the loss of my friend, laid to rest in his hometown of Sogliano al Rubicone, Italy, I am thankful for his witness and example, and also have to pause and reflect on the moral leadership of the United States around the world, which Archbishop Sambi so deeply appreciated and valued.

  • Pope Francis' First Visit to U.S. Provides Historic Opportunity (by Francis Rooney)


Pope Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States offers an opportunity to advance our understanding of the significant role that the pope and the Holy See play in world affairs. And just as important, the Papal Visit will afford Pope Francis a glimpse at the fundamental values at work in the United States—providing a unique occasion to inform his views on crucial economic, human rights, and environmental issues. Pope Francis has never visited the United States, so there is a historic opportunity to demonstrate how American values can help resolve many vexing global problems.

The pope will break new ground in addressing the Joint Session of Congress. By responding to Speaker Boehner’s historic invitation, Pope Francis will engage with the Congress as no pope has previously, reinforcing his role as a global leader and drawing unprecedented public attention to his major diplomatic themes and objectives.

Thus far in his papacy Pope Francis has laid out several important priorities which might surface in his address and broader visit to the United States.

From the beginning, the pope has made a priority to highlight the global challenge of migration and the ensuing deprivation of basic human needs of people displaced from their homes. The lesson of his first papal trip, to Lampedusa, resonates today with the increase in refugees from Syria and Africa. He urged the world to “oppose the globalization of indifference” to the plight of these people.

Recently, in his encyclical Laudate Si, Pope Francis used forceful language to call attention to environmental degradation and, somewhat controversially, linked consumption and waste in industrialized countries with poverty and lack of opportunity in the emerging world.

One success of this visit could be that the pope sees in the United States a people who also care for their environment yet offer practical solutions to reduce pollution like nurturing the use of cleaner fuels, deploying advanced technologies and supporting alternative energy sources throughout the world.

Another aspect of Pope Francis’ diplomatic outreach has been criticism of capitalism as abusive and insensitive to the poor and the disadvantaged. In many respects what the pope has expressed is consistent with historic Catholic social teaching, descending from Rerum Novarum and Pope Leo XIII, but he has brought a different tone and diction to the discussion of political economy.

This may be the greatest result of the papal visit—if Pope Francis experiences something different in the United States, distinct from his experience in Latin America. In Argentina, broad-based corruption and crony capitalism dominate; oligarchic businesses feed off of the state and provide little to their workers. Many parts of Latin America, the pope’s basis of perspective, have significant inequality of wealth, abusive governments and abridged freedoms. The opportunity to rise up and achieve one’s God-given talents is circumscribed.

Our challenge during his short time in the United States is to draw his attention to the fundamental American values of economic and personal liberty. This unique combination of religious and personal freedom, as Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw in the early 19th century, created an engine for prosperity of its citizens unlike any previous governmental experiment.

The itinerary of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States represents the quintessential new world experience; Washington DC, the epicenter of political power in the United States and derivatively in the world. Next he will travel to New York, the locus of financial power and influence in the world, and the home of the United Nations, the ultimate gathering place of all nations. Finally, Pope Francis will stop in Philadelphia, where American democracy began. Hopefully Pope Francis will depart the United States with a heartfelt understanding of the good that can result when political and economic institutions foster individual liberty and freedom.

Likewise, if the attention the pope draws from the citizens of the United States serves to increase their understanding of where he comes from and what he seeks to accomplish, another important goal will have been achieved—enhanced appreciation for the important and constructive role the papacy and the Holy See play in the world today, in the diplomatic engagement among states as well as in Catholic theology.