Ambassadors discuss Vatican diplomacy

Tuesday night, Georgetown University hosted its annual event for alumni
and friends at Rome's Minerva Hotel. I was asked to moderate a panel
discussion on Vatican diplomacy featuring Ambassadors Francis Rooney, who
represents the United States to the Holy See, and Francis Campbell,
representing the United Kingdom.

Both are Catholics who do not come out
of conventional diplomatic circles. Campbell is a policy wonk who worked
for Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, while Rooney is a
successful businessman with construction firms in Oklahoma and Florida.

Rooney said there is a great "symmetry" between the interests of the
Holy See and the American government in promoting "human dignity and
essential freedoms in the world," which he described as "under attack" in
places such as Venezuela, China, Bosnia and Russia. He specifically
mentioned the struggle for religious freedom in various parts of the

Rooney said the Americans appreciate Benedict XVI's strong language
against terrorism, which he said parallels the Bush administration's own
"war on terror."

"We fight at a lower level, the Holy Father fights at a
higher level," Rooney said.

In Latin America, Rooney praised the work of
the Catholic Church in defending civil institutions against what he called
the "caudillo style of leadership" in countries such as Venezuela and, to
a lesser extent, Bolivia.

Rooney also praised collaboration between the
church and Western governments on issues such as human trafficking, the
struggle against corruption, and HIV/AIDS. Rooney said he would like to
see more of the AIDS fund created by the Bush administration go to church
groups rather than the United Nations.

"There would probably be more
transparency, less corruption, and more people would get the drugs," he

Campbell reviewed what he called the "colourful" history of the
British embassy to the Holy See, pointing out that the first resident
British ambassador took up the post in 1479. After the English
Reformation, however, it largely lay dormant until it was reactivated at
the time of the First World War. Campbell described that decision as part
of a British effort to support the peace initiatives of Pope Benedict XV.

After World War II, Campbell said, the basic British logic for relations
with the Holy See had to do with the fight against Communism in Central
and Eastern Europe. A subsidiary aim, he said, was to enlist Vatican
support for an end to Protestant/Catholic sectarian violence in Northern

With the collapse of Communism in 1989, followed by the Good
Friday Peace Accords and the peace process in Northern Ireland, Campbell
said a new logic for the British relationship with the Holy See had to be

That logic, he said, pivots largely on two points. First, the
Vatican is a privileged listening post. Second, he said, it is one of the
"world's largest global opinion-makers."

As an example, Campbell cited
Pope John Paul II's support for an initiative aimed at global poverty
relief by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, which he
said generated ripple effects in British public diplomacy all over the

Moreover, Campbell argued, 12 percent of the British population
has a direct connection to the Catholic church, which means that Vatican
statements and actions have important domestic consequences.

cited climate change, international development, conflict prevention,
human rights, and ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue as areas of shared
interest between the British government and the Holy See.

I asked both
men to comment on one area of great "asymmetry," to use Rooney's term,
between their governments and the Vatican -- the war in Iraq.

said that when he presented his credentials to Benedict XVI last November,
he expected to talk about the war. In fact, however, he said the pope
joked that "Iraq is old news."

Despite differences over the war, he
said, today the United States and the Vatican share a common interest.

"We're partners to build a pluralistic country respecting civil freedom,"
he said.

Rooney acknowledged that early on, the Vatican expressed
reservations about the new Iraqi constitution and its explicit recognition
of the Koran as a source of law.

Campbell largely echoed Rooney's

"What's coming across is that they have moved on from 2003,"
he said. "They're interested in stabilization, and in Iraq's future. They
want the new government to be stable and secure, not to reapportion blame
from the past."

Responding to a question about immigration, Campbell
said that Britain's experience since it decided in 2004 to open its
borders to other EU nations has had a big impact on the Catholic church,
especially the arrival of some 270,000 Poles. He said the Catholic church
has a capacity to balance strong national identity with universality that
offers a "very good recipe" for immigration policy.

Both Rooney and
Campbell said they would like to see their governments work more with the
Vatican to promote justice and development in Africa.

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