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Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

Ambassador sees chance for common cause with the pope

Francis Rooney is rich, big Republican donor and Bush friend


America’s new ambassador to the Holy See believes it would be in China’s interest to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, assuming that doing so reflects movement toward 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,” Ambassador Francis Rooney told NCR in an exclusive interview Nov. 9, his first since arriving in Rome Oct. 23.

“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.”

Rooney also told NCR he sees potential for common cause between the Bush administration and Benedict XVI on the war against terror, citing as especially “exciting, important and clear” the pope’s strong language condemning terrorism in a meeting with Muslims during his August trip to Cologne, Germany.

Relations with China and containing the potential fallout from the war on terror, especially in terms of Christian-Muslim relations, are top diplomatic priorities of the Vatican, and are certain to loom large in Rooney’s exchanges with Vatican officials.

Rooney, 52, is America’s seventh ambassador to the Holy See, and like all his predecessors, he’s a Roman Catholic, with an impeccable Catholic pedigree -- he graduated from Georgetown University, both undergraduate and law, and two of his three children have gone to the University of Notre Dame. He has served on the Notre Dame board of trustees.

Confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October, Rooney presented his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 12.

Rooney described himself to NCR as a “conservative, but pragmatic” Republican, and a staunch loyalist of President George W. Bush.

He expressed 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.

A native Oklahoman, Rooney is a highly successful contractor with a track record of landing and completing big-budget projects across the United States. He owned Manhattan Construction and Hope Lumber in Tulsa, Okla. The company, founded by his family, erected the state’s first capitol building. He has also served as CEO of the Florida-based investment firm Rooney Brothers Inc., as well as Rooney Holdings.

Rooney said the skills he developed as a manager and deal-maker will be useful in his new assignment. Being an ambassador, he said, “is almost like client development, only our product is values.”

Rooney did well as a businessman. According to a financial disclosure report he filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Rooney had more than $40 million in income from Jan. 1, 2004, through July 2005, though experts caution that this figure better represents the earnings of Rooney’s company rather than personal income.

Rooney confirmed to NCR that taking the ambassador’s job means a potential pay cut of “several million dollars” over the course of what is likely to be a three or four-year term.

“I think it’s pretty well known that public service, whether in Washington or as an ambassador, requires you to make a sacrifice,” he said.

Still, Rooney said, there are benefits.

“In terms of emotional, psychological, and hopefully spiritual pay, this is the greatest raise my family could ever have,” he said.

So far, Rooney seems to be taking the same gung ho approach to his new job he did in business. He and his wife have taken an immersion course in Italian, for example, and he has already begun making phone calls from his office in the language, something few previous American ambassadors to the Holy See felt up to.

Rooney freely concedes that he doesn’t have much experience navigating the thickets of ecclesiastical politics -- the only cardinal he really knows, he said, is Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. Rooney said he came to know McCarrick through his membership in the Knights of Malta.

Yet Rooney is familiar with the broader Catholic scene. He enjoys close relations with the Augustinians, for example, because of the Tulsa high school his children attended, Cascia Hall. His business dealings involved wide contacts in Latin America, where he got a sense of Catholic life. In fact, in his first conversation with the No. 2 official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, an Argentinean, Rooney and Sandri spoke in Spanish about mutual contacts.

Moreover, Rooney 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 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 internationally,” Rooney said. “These are perceptions that I know have frustrated a lot of American Catholics.”

Rooney brings another thing with him to the new job that every successful ambassador needs: access to the head of state he or she represents.

In Rooney’s case, his friendship with George W. Bush goes back to the late 1980s, when Bush was the managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and Rooney’s firm bid for the contract to construct a new stadium for the team in Arlington. Bush picked Rooney’s company.

“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 as president. A lot of people attack him, but he’s my friend and our leader. I respect him every day’s he in there, and I’m grateful he has the confidence in me to represent him,” Rooney said.

Rooney Holdings 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 contributed $100,000 to “Progress for America,” a group promoting the president’s Social Security proposals.

Rooney’s appointment 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.

“Sure, I supported him, and 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 1 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 to the process. I think he takes a very businesslike approach,” he said.

Rooney replaces former ambassador James Nicholson, now serving as the secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Bush cabinet. While Nicholson represented the United States during a time of great tension with the Vatican over the Iraq war, Rooney said he does not see a similar clash looming on his watch.

“God willing, Iraq is going to work,” he said. “If we can foster tolerance and democracy, it will open up a new paradigm. We’re not looking at new military conflicts anywhere else.”

In that sense, Rooney said, the Bush administration and the Vatican should be free to pursue a wide range of common interests, under the broad heading of promoting human dignity.

“The president is a very values-driven person, and he considers the Holy See the apex of articulating the values of human rights and human dignity. It’s just natural for him to see it as an important point of reference,” he said.

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 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 said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

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