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Former Holy See Ambassador: Pope 'Breaking Down Barriers'

By Bill Hoffmann   |   Wednesday, 30 Oct 2013 06:08 PM

Pope Francis is forging ahead with reforming the Vatican's rank-and-file management even though there is ongoing resistance to change, says Francis Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

"I'm sure that there are people in the Curia that are not happy with his different lifestyle and informality. And sometimes that formality is built up as a barrier, you know, and this pope is breaking down barriers in a really constructive way," Rooney told "The Steve Malzberg Show" on Newsmax TV.

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"Right off the bat, he quotes Ignatius of Antioch . . . and that was a very clear statement of what he was going to stand for, because in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch was concerned about the church being distracted by organizational things and said it's important not just to be Christians but to be Christian."

In that sense, Francis is similar to his predecessor Pope Benedict, who resigned from office earlier this year.

"Pope Benedict, before he was elected . . . gave a great speech about the dictatorship of relativism. So, for . . . two popes, there's no doubt about where they stand."

Rooney — author of a new book, "The Global Vatican: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See," published by Rowman & Littlefield — said change in Vatican City is already in the works.

"He will, and he's already set about it. He's appointed a commission to reform the Vatican bank and make sure that they comply with all the requirements for anti-money laundering and anti-tax evasion transparency," Rooney said.

"He's also set up a commission to look at reforms for the Curia. You know the American hierarchy was very vocal prior to the election about needs for Curial reforms and better decision-making and more collective decision-making.

"This pope's taken that at hand. He's appointed some really good people, like Cardinal [Seán Patrick] O'Malley and Cardinal [Óscar Andrés Rodríguez] Maradiaga from Honduras, on that committee.

Rooney thinks fears that Francis will be a more liberal pope, focusing less on such issues as homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, are more of a media creation than a reality.

"He just said they need to broaden the dialogue, that there are a lot of other things that the Holy See stands for and needs to stand for in the world today," he said.

Rooney says another area the pope can excel in is working against the persecution of Christians around the world.

"It's an area where the Holy See can really offer a lot of value to the world of diplomacy and the way that different states deal with each other," he said.

"Pope Benedict used the unique position of the Holy See to speak out more clearly and aggressively against radical Islamic terrorism and the use of religion as an instrument of persecution than any elected official has.

"Pope Francis did issue a diplomatic note two weeks ago about Syria where he reiterated the same principles, calling for focus on the centrality of the person and calling for a broad concept of citizenship which includes Christians and all minorities, which really needs to be taken up concerning the whole Middle East."

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Rooney said Francis' appointment of Pietro Parolin as secretary of state is a signal he will maintain a robust diplomatic posture in the world, and particularly the Muslim countries.

"We've got to be trying every possible way to seek this acceptance of modernity by the Muslim world. And as more and more Muslims do that, maybe we'll solve this problem."

Francis is also seeking to "create a climate which is more stable for the poor and for the middle class, which will enable real democracies to flourish there, instead of these election-driven autocracies that we have in many parts of Latin America."

"Being from Argentina . . . the pope's got the battle scars to be ready to do business with authoritarian regimes, and by introducing this strong social mission, maybe he's laying the predicate."

Rooney is not encouraged by the Obama administration's relationship with the church.

"For many years the Holy See was very monarchical and, of course, we were the country that was founded on a revolution to get away from monarchies and stateism. But all of that worked out and, starting with President [Ronald] Reagan, we've had a very robust engagement up until the election of President Obama," he said.

"He, right away, alienated the church and the Holy See with some of his stances on the life issues, which seem to have been long put to bed by eight years of George Bush . . . starting with Ronald Reagan and even [Bill] Clinton.

"But now, Obama has waged a full-fledged attack on many things concerning the life issues, the specter of rationed care under the Affordable Care [Act], and now, lately, squaring off against the First Amendment with the healthcare mandate. So, obviously, it's no surprise that the Holy See hasn't spoken favorably about those things."

Rooney says he was heartened this week by the scene of a little boy clinging to the Pope's robes and not wanting to leave him.

"[Francis is] incredibly warm, and I love his kind of new-world openness and informality and candor. It's very refreshing to see," he said.

"My hope is that because of his warmth and his attention to these kinds of symbolisms, that he will be able to carry the Holy See's diplomatic message to a much more broad and deep understanding."

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Pope Francis is forging ahead with reforming the Vatican's rank-and-file management even though there is ongoing resistance to change, says Francis Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

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