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November 11, 2005 
The Word From Rome
Vol. 5, No. 11

John L. Allen Jr. 
Vatican 
Correspondent

jallen@natcath.org

 

 

The Vatican's new American ambassador; More on the gays in the seminary document; The Vatican and Oil for Food; Britian's new ambassador to the Vatican; Machiavelli: sex abuse survivor?

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

A no-nonsense Oklahoma businessman, a self-described "conservative but pragmatic" Republican, a committed Roman Catholic with ties to both Georgetown and Notre Dame, and a staunch George W. Bush loyalist is set to become the new American Ambassador to the Holy See tomorrow at 11 a.m., when he presents his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis Rooney, 52, becomes the seventh American ambassador to the Holy See since the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican in 1984. He sat down for an exclusive interview with NCR Nov. 9, his first since arriving in Rome Oct. 23.

In that NCR interview, Rooney spoke about his Catholic upbringing, his business success (acknowledging, among other things, that he's likely taking a pay-cut of several million dollars to represent America to the Vatican), his initial perceptions on policy concerns such as China and Iraq, and the origins of his close friendship with his new boss, President Bush.

On the policy front, Rooney said he believes it would be in China's interest to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, assuming that doing so reflects movement towards greater religious freedom.

"It would reflect favorably on China, it would seem to me, for the church to come to the conclusion that it can operate freely there, without some of the baggage that's been attached," he said.

"How China deals with the church has implications for how China is going to deal with other religious groups, and in general how free the people of China will be," Rooney said. "The extent to which we can work with a country depends in some ways on the freedom of its people."

"We're watching," he said.

On Iraq, Rooney said the Bush administration and the Vatican had their differences over the war, but today they're largely on the same page.

"We're trying to build a nation there, and the Holy See is supportive of our efforts," he said. "I know the Holy See has some concerns about the new constitution, because its language on religious freedom is not exactly what they might have liked. There were some practical realities there. Now we have to work together to see that the spirit of tolerance and democracy take root."

He said he does not expect any major policy clash with the Vatican on his watch like the one his predecessor, James Nicholson, experienced over the Iraq war. Rooney said, however, that he would like to bring new "intellectual resources" to bear in dialogue with the Holy See about the nature of terrorism and the moral dimension of how to prosecute a war on terror.

"Terrorism is like fighting a metastasized tumor," he said. "It's just not that clear."

Finally, Rooney expressed enthusiasm for Pope Benedict's "exciting, important and clear" language on terrorism in his meeting with Muslims during his August trip to Cologne, Germany.

"Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence," Benedict said on that occasion, calling Muslim leaders to be sure that this message is communicated to the young.

"That's exciting, because there are tough issues out there, and clarity from the pope will help us figure out how we can work together to address them," Rooney said.

* * *

Rooney is in many ways a prototypical American Catholic success story.

His family came over to the United States from Ireland in the 19th century, but unlike many Irish immigrants of the day, didn't remain on the East Coast. His great-grandfather ended up as a bricklayer in Oklahoma, which really meant he was a sort of general contractor, since in that era bricklayers ran entire projects. Construction developed into the family business; the Manhattan Construction Company founded by L.H. Rooney in 1896 secured the first corporate charter in the State of Oklahoma, and built both the original Oklahoma state Capitol in Guthrie in 1907 and the relocated Capitol in Oklahoma City in 1919.

Among Manhattan Construction's most famous projects would be the Prayer Tower on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa -- ironically, this quintessential Irish-Catholic family built the signature structure on a campus long a bastion of conservative Protestant hostility to Roman Catholicism.

Francis Rooney, however, did not originally see himself moving into the family business. He attended Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., for high school, then received an undergraduate and a law degree from Georgetown University in the early 1970s. At the time, he was flirting with a career in either politics or law.

Rooney laughingly told NCR that he remembers his Georgetown years as a time when "anything went, and anything did go."

"It was a crazy time in Washington, D.C.," he said. "I can remember my senior year in high school seeing tanks right outside Georgetown. The dean of the college actually got tear-gassed once in his office when they were chasing away a bunch of people."

When his father died of cancer in 1980, Rooney took over the family company, and seemed immediately cut out for the task. Under his leadership, the company secured bids to erect several major structures around the country -- including, as fate would have it, a new baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the Texas Rangers, whose managing partner at the time was an up-and-coming George W. Bush.

Rooney and Bush spent a good deal of time together, going over plans for the project and later walking through the site. Rooney said Bush impressed him immediately.

"When he ran for governor of Texas, it was a no-brainer to support him," Rooney said. "He was a good client and a good person, someone that so many people in our company walked around with on the job, and we really revered him. We supported him big-time, and he was a great governor."

"It's the same with him as president. A lot of people attack him, but he's my friend and our leader; I respect him every day that he's in there, and I'm grateful he has the confidence in me to represent him," Rooney said.

Rooney certainly has put his money where his mouth was.

Rooney Holdings, one of his companies, donated more than $500,000 to the president's re-election campaign in 2004. Data released by the Federal Election Commission on Feb. 7, 2005, also listed Rooney and his wife Kathleen in fifth place on the list of largest individual donors in the 2004 elections, distributing $341,396 to various candidates. According to the FEC data, 99 percent of that money went to Republicans. In 2004, Rooney Holdings likewise contributed $100,000 to "Progress for America," a group promoting the president's Social Security proposals.

Some suspect that largesse had something to do with his new assignment.

Rooney's appointment as Vatican ambassador was recently cited by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group, as part of what it called a pattern in Bush's second term of naming big-money "cronies" to ambassadorial posts.

"I imagine that most of the people holding positions like this were supporters of the president in some fashion," Rooney told NCR. "He's said from day one that he's going to pick people he knows, who he's got confidence in and trusts."

"But if you look at all the appointments the president has made, there are a lot of people who did not give money. It runs the gamut. Probably the common nexus is the track record of competence, the ability in some respect to add value. I think he takes a very business-like approach," he said.

* * *

Although Rooney said he had never been a Republican activist prior to his support of Bush, he nevertheless is firmly on the "Red State" side of America's cultural wars.

"I do truly believe in the free enterprise system," he said. "On non-business issues, it's critical to support people who believe in the life issues, the cultural issues, the issues of the church."

He said he considers himself a "conservative but pragmatic" Republican.

Rooney has traveled widely in Latin America and Eastern Europe for his business ventures, and has developed a wide set of contacts, many of them in Catholic circles. His first conversation with Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the number two official in the Vatican's Secretary of State and an Argentinean, was in Spanish, with the two men talking about mutual friends.

At the same time, Rooney concedes that he's not had much experience navigating the thickets of ecclesiastical politics. The only cardinal he really knows, he said, is Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and only then because McCarrick is involved with the Knights of Malta, a group to which Rooney belongs.

Applying the same hard-charging approach that has served him well in business, he plans to get up to speed soon.

"I'm used to being extremely busy," Rooney said.

He and his wife have taken an immersion course in Italian, for example, and he's already begun making phone calls from his office in the language, something few previous American ambassadors to the Holy See felt up to.

Rooney also has old friends he can call on for advice, including the former governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, who had a stormy tenure as head of the National Review Board, a body created by the U.S. bishops to oversee the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Rooney said that while his new role is focused on foreign policy rather than matters such as the sexual abuse crisis, Keating was nevertheless able to offer some perspectives that might come in handy.

"He shared some of his concerns about different attitudes and understandings of America within the church," Rooney said. "These are perceptions that I know have frustrated a lot of American Catholics."

* * *

At bottom, Rooney expressed great enthusiasm about his new assignment.

"I get to do so many things at once," he said. "I represent the President of the United States and the government of the United States. It's a way to give back through public service for the good fortune I've had in business. And I get to do it right here, in the middle of our church, where the legacy of St. Peter lives. I can't believe I'm here," he said.

All three of Rooney's children either have attended, or are attending, the University of Notre Dame, and Rooney serves as a member of the university's School of Architecture Council. (One of his last acts before leaving the United States for Rome was to attend the Oct. 16 Notre Dame-USC football game, which the Irish dropped in a nail-biter, 34-31). He said President Jack DeGioia of Georgetown and President Fr. John Jenkins of Notre Dame have told him the resources of both universities are at his disposal for any programming he wants to do at the embassy.

In his efforts to build relationships, Rooney's deep pockets afford him at least one advantage most ambassadors lack -- his own large sailboat, with its own crew, currently anchored off the island of Elba, which Rooney said he would like to use occasionally to entertain cardinals and other dignitaries.

"I don't play golf, but I could take them boating or scuba-diving," he laughed.

* * *

Last week I discussed the spate of leaks about the upcoming document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries. As if on schedule, another such leak arrived today in Il Giornale, written by Andrea Tornielli, that paper's well-connected Vatican correspondent.

Tornielli writes that he has seen the document, the title of which he gives as "Instruction on Criteria of Vocational Discernment regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of their Admission to the Priesthood and to Holy Orders." Tornielli says that it's eight pages long, and gives the publication date as Nov. 29.

NCR reported last week that the date would be late November.

Tornielli's piece confirms and adds details to previous NCR reports, to wit: Rather than an outright ban on the admission of homosexuals, the document will disqualify "those who practice homosexuality, who possess deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, or who sustain the so-called 'gay culture.' "

To make the distinction between "deeply rooted tendencies" and transitory behavior, the document indicates that a candidate should be celibate for at least three years prior to ordination to the diaconate, which usually precedes ordination to the priesthood.

It is up to bishops, seminary rectors and religious superiors, according to this summary of the document, to ascertain the "affective maturity" of candidates for the priesthood.

Tornielli reports that the document is signed by the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, and dated Nov. 4. He indicates the document received the approval of Pope Benedict XVI on Aug. 31.

The document, according to the report, has three chapters:

  • Affective Maturity and Spiritual Paternity
  • Homosexuality and Ordained Ministry
  • Discernment of the Worthiness of Candidates on the Part of the Church
According to Tornielli, the document states that there is no right to ordination, and that it's up to the church to determine a candidate's worthiness. Spiritual directors are encouraged to determine if a candidate has reached "affective maturity" and is free of "sexual problems incompatible with the priesthood," though without violating confidentiality.

If a spiritual director feels a candidate cannot meet this standard, he should try to dissuade the candidate from moving forward.

The document affirms, according to Tornielli's report, that homosexual persons must be treated with "respect and delicacy."

* * *

On Thursday, President Jalal Talabani of Iraq was in Rome for meetings with officials of the Italian government, as well as a Nov. 10 audience with Pope Benedict XVI. For the Vatican, his visit was a chance to press the Iraqis on religious freedom.

The Talabani visit was also a reminder of another Iraq story to which the Vatican has recently been linked: the Oct. 27 Volcker Report, which documents the scandals surrounding the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, with titillating references to a "Vatican connection."

The report found that Saddam Hussein's regime routinely skimmed money from oil revenues intended to feed the Iraqi people, and used it instead to grease the palms of Hussein's foreign admirers and apologists. According to much media discussion, a Vatican insider was allegedly among those drawing payoffs.

U.S. News and World Report put it this way:

"Prominent opponents of sanctions against Iraq are revealed as taking bribes from Saddam. They notably include Russian and French diplomats, U.N. officials, a former Vatican high-up, and a British MP, George Galloway."

Who is this alleged "Vatican high-up?"

In fact, the French-born Catholic priest at the heart of the accusation, Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin, is not and never has been a Vatican official. No one claims that any of the money Benjamin received from dubious Oil-for-Food revenues, in the form of a one-time $140,000 donation from a Swiss businessman to a foundation he runs, ever ended up in Vatican coffers.

References to the Vatican stem from the fact that from 1991 to 1994, Benjamin acted as an unofficial, unpaid and part-time aide to a retired Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, helping Casaroli to organize some international trips.

Yet in a lengthy telephone interview from France Nov. 6, Benjamin told NCR that he never worked in the Vatican, never drew a Vatican salary, and always traveled on his own passport. He was, in effect, a part-time personal assistant to a retired cardinal, paid out of that cardinal's own pocket. His later contacts with the Iraqis, and especially Hussein's cigar-chomping deputy Tariq Aziz, were at his own initiative and on his own dime, with no formal or informal links to the Vatican.

Thus by almost any standard, it's a stretch to style Benjamin as a Vatican representative.

His story is still fascinating, however, at another level. It illustrates how freelance agents such as Benjamin, operating on the margins of the Catholic world, through a combination of audacity and gumption, can exercise a remarkable impact on broader events -- and, at the same time, find themselves neck-deep in all kinds of hot water, often dragging the church into the spotlight with them.

* * *

Benjamin, 59, is a rare Renaissance man in an age of narrow technical competence. He's a musician and composer, an author, a filmmaker and a political activist. As a layman working with the United Nations in Geneva, he composed the official "UNICEF Hymn," recorded in April 1984. A drama he directed based on the life of Capuchin mystic Padre Pio aired on Italian state television in 1999.

Benjamin is also the secretary general of a Catholic non-profit organization called the Fra Beato Angelico Foundation in Assisi, Italy, intended to promote the artistic patrimony of Christianity.

Ordained in 1991 for the Italian diocese of Porto-Santa Rufina, in the late 1990s Benjamin became the public face in Europe of Catholic opposition to the U.N.-imposed sanctions in Iraq. Between 1995 and 2003, Benjamin produced three documentaries on Iraq, focusing on the problems of depleted uranium from the First Gulf War and the effects of the sanctions, as well as several books. All were highly critical of Western policy on Iraq, above all that of the United States.

Through this activity, Benjamin developed a personal friendship with Aziz, a Chaldean Christian and minister in Hussein's government who was the face and voice of the regime in the West.

Their friendship endures. After Aziz surrendered to American troops in 2003, he has written Benjamin three brief letters, and in one Aziz asked if Benjamin would coordinate contacts among lawyers working on his defense. Benjamin agreed. Recently, for example, he set up a meeting for one of Aziz's lawyers with the working group on arbitrary detention at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights.

* * *

What's the charge against Benjamin?

In summary form, the Volcker report found that Benjamin took a one-time donation of $140,000 for his foundation in 2001 from a Swiss lawyer, Alain Bionda, whom he had earlier introduced to Aziz. On the strength of Benjamin's introduction, Bionda won the right to sell millions of barrels of Iraqi oil, in part because he was willing to pay a hefty "surcharge," meaning a bribe, to the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

Benjamin told NCR that as a matter of principle, he never took money directly from the Iraqis. He accepted Bionda's gift, he said, only because it seemed "spontaneous."

According to the Volcker report, accounting for what happened to that $140,000 is spotty; only $25,000 apparently reached the foundation, with the rest spent by Benjamin on his pro-Iraq advocacy, withdrawn in banknotes over the course of several months.

Benjamin supplied NCR with a six-page list of expenses that he prepared for the Volcker commission, both personal and from the foundation, related to Iraq over the period 2003-2005. The outlays come to some $383,000.

The benign interpretation of all this, and certainly Benjamin's view of things, is that a well-meaning priest took a one-time gift from someone he regarded as a friend, not to make himself rich, but to fight what he regarded as an unjust embargo. Critics, on the other hand, tend to believe that Benjamin knowingly took suspect money from the Oil-for-Food program, and spent it on agitprop for the Hussein regime.

* * *

Speaking of ambassadors, the Vatican gave its agreement last Thursday, Oct. 3, to the appointment of Francis Campbell, 35, as the next British Ambassador to the Holy See. The formal announcement is expected early next week.

Observers say that Campbell is a rising star in the British civil service, an articulate spokesperson with a deep command of policy issues and a direct pipeline to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Campbell is also Roman Catholic, making him the first Catholic to serve as British Ambassador to the Holy See since the era of Henry VIII.

Campbell was born in Newry, Ireland, on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It's unusual for an Irishman to rise to the ranks of a British ambassador, and the appointment will thus be a special source of pride for Catholics in Northern Ireland -- many of whom are still hoping for a papal visit.

In recent months, some have wondered if the British are losing interest in the Vatican. Both the offices of the embassy to the Holy See and the ambassador's residence were closed. The ambassador now works out of the same compound as the ambassador to Italy, though in separate offices. Staff for the embassy has been reduced. In an especially curious twist, the vacancy for the post of Ambassador to the Holy See was advertised in British newspapers.

In that light, some may be tempted to read the choice of a 35-year-old as a further indication of a lack of interest. Yet Vatican sources told NCR this week that they see Campbell's appointment in very different positive terms.

For one thing, youth and insignificance do not necessarily correlate in the British civil service. In the English system, a select group of promising young officials are put on a "fast stream." They follow an accelerated promotions schedule and work exclusively on policy questions. The result is that the "best and brightest" tend to arrive at senior positions early in their careers.

Such is the case with Campbell, who worked at 10 Downing Street as part of Prime Minister Tony Blair's elite policy unit, seen as perhaps the most important center of real authority in the Blair administration. Campbell's focus was on the European Union.

Campbell's close ties to Blair also don't hurt.

"One of the most important things you want in an ambassador is direct access to the decision-makers in the home country," a Vatican diplomat said this week.

Ironically, this official said that a recent article in the London Daily Mail quoting criticism of Campbell's appointment as an example of favoritism to "Tony's cronies" actually impressed some in the Holy See.

"If he really is a Blair crony, it means he'll have the ear of his boss," the official said.

During his 2003-2005 stint at the British Embassy in Rome, Campbell picked up a basic command of Italian, so he hits the ground running on that front as well. During that period, Campbell helped organize a private visit by Blair to the pope just before the Iraq war.

Current hopes are that Campbell will be able to present his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI before the end of December, so that he can officially represent Britain at Christmas ceremonies at the Vatican.

* * *

All news, like all politics, is local, and this week offered a classic illustration of the point. While the church's sexual abuse scandals have never generated headlines in Italy, the country's leading paper, Corriere della Sera, on Wednesday nevertheless splashed the news that an American historian has concluded that 16th-century Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli was molested as a young man by a Catholic priest.

Machiavelli, author of The Prince, is the most famous political theorist in Italian history, and was a leading critic of the secular power of the Catholic church.

Recent studies had already suggested that Machiavelli may have been bisexual. Now historian William J. Connell of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., has concluded on the basis of correspondence between Machiavelli and a friend that a priest named Ser Paolo Sasso, Machiavelli's Latin and grammar teacher, pressed the young man into sexual acts over a period of years.

That experience, Connell suggests, may explain some of Machiavelli's anti-clerical hostility.

Connell told Corriere della Sera that he's sure "beyond a shadow of a doubt." He cites a 1515 letter from Machiavelli's friend Francesco Vettori, in which Vettori says that behind Machiavelli's "love for men" was a teacher who "had his way" with the young man.

Whatever the historical judgment on Connell's assertion, it's fascinating to observe that alleged sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in the 16th century counts as news here, because it was directed at a famous Italian. Reports of sexual abuse in the church today, on the other hand, have thus far by and large not registered in the Italian media.

* * *

After a lengthy process of examining all current operations, the Paulist Fathers have reconfirmed their intention to continue to staff the Church of Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome.

Founded by Fr. Isaac Hecker, a former Redemptorist, in 1858 as a missionary community for the Americas, the Paulists in many ways incarnate the history of American Catholicism. Ideas loosely derived from Hecker's theological writings would later form the basis for a system of thought called "Americanism," condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae. Though most historians believe the episode was largely the result of misunderstandings, it nevertheless illustrates the tensions that have sometimes clouded the relationship between Rome and America.

Today the Paulists define their mission in terms of evangelization, reconciliation, Christian unity and inter-religious relations.

* * *

Tuesday, November 15, I'll be in Chicago to deliver the Bernardin Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Catholic Theological Union. The event will be held at 5:30 p.m. at DePaul University, Lincoln Park Campus. Readers in the Chicago area are most welcome.

* * *

Readers interested in finding my new book on Opus Dei on-line may do so here: www.amazon.com.

A no-nonsense Oklahoma businessman, a self-described "conservative but pragmatic" Republican, a committed Roman Catholic with ties to both Georgetown and Notre Dame, and a staunch George W. Bush loyalist is set to become the new American Ambassador to the Holy See tomorrow at 11 a.m., when he presents his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis Rooney, 52, becomes the seventh American ambassador to the Holy See since the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican in 1984. He sat down for an exclusive interview with NCR Nov. 9, his first since arriving in Rome Oct. 23.

In that NCR interview, Rooney spoke about his Catholic upbringing, his business success (acknowledging, among other things, that he's likely taking a pay-cut of several million dollars to represent America to the Vatican), his initial perceptions on policy concerns such as China and Iraq, and the origins of his close friendship with his new boss, President Bush.

On the policy front, Rooney said he believes it would be in China's interest to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, assuming that doing so reflects movement towards greater religious freedom.

"It would reflect favorably on China, it would seem to me, for the church to come to the conclusion that it can operate freely there, without some of the baggage that's been attached," he said.

"How China deals with the church has implications for how China is going to deal with other religious groups, and in general how free the people of China will be," Rooney said. "The extent to which we can work with a country depends in some ways on the freedom of its people."

"We're watching," he said.

On Iraq, Rooney said the Bush administration and the Vatican had their differences over the war, but today they're largely on the same page.

"We're trying to build a nation there, and the Holy See is supportive of our efforts," he said. "I know the Holy See has some concerns about the new constitution, because its language on religious freedom is not exactly what they might have liked. There were some practical realities there. Now we have to work together to see that the spirit of tolerance and democracy take root."

He said he does not expect any major policy clash with the Vatican on his watch like the one his predecessor, James Nicholson, experienced over the Iraq war. Rooney said, however, that he would like to bring new "intellectual resources" to bear in dialogue with the Holy See about the nature of terrorism and the moral dimension of how to prosecute a war on terror.

"Terrorism is like fighting a metastasized tumor," he said. "It's just not that clear."

Finally, Rooney expressed enthusiasm for Pope Benedict's "exciting, important and clear" language on terrorism in his meeting with Muslims during his August trip to Cologne, Germany.

"Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence," Benedict said on that occasion, calling Muslim leaders to be sure that this message is communicated to the young.

"That's exciting, because there are tough issues out there, and clarity from the pope will help us figure out how we can work together to address them," Rooney said.

* * *

Rooney is in many ways a prototypical American Catholic success story.

His family came over to the United States from Ireland in the 19th century, but unlike many Irish immigrants of the day, didn't remain on the East Coast. His great-grandfather ended up as a bricklayer in Oklahoma, which really meant he was a sort of general contractor, since in that era bricklayers ran entire projects. Construction developed into the family business; the Manhattan Construction Company founded by L.H. Rooney in 1896 secured the first corporate charter in the State of Oklahoma, and built both the original Oklahoma state Capitol in Guthrie in 1907 and the relocated Capitol in Oklahoma City in 1919.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is  jallen@natcath.org


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