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Special Report
May 12, 2011
A look at Barack Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to the Holy See.

The reaction of Vatican officials to the nomination of Miguel Diaz as President Obama’s ambassador to the Holy See has been largely positive, although some Catholics remain suspicious about the president’s motives behind the choice.

The White House announced Diaz’s nomination on May 27. A 45-year-old father of four and a professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, Diaz will be the first Hispanic and theologian ever to hold the position.

He claims to accept fully the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life. But many Catholics wonder how he squares that commitment with helping to elect the most pro-abortion president in US history. Diaz served as a member of Obama’s Catholic advisory board during the president’s election campaign, donated $1,000 to help Obama get elected, and added his signature to a list of 26 Catholic figures who publicly supported the appointment of Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. As governor of Kansas, Sebelius had repeatedly vetoed pro-life legislation.

Concerns have also been raised about Diaz’s previous sympathies for liberation theology, which was regularly condemned by Pope Benedict when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Further suspicions surround Diaz’s esteem for the questionable work of Karl Rahner.

Diaz, who at the time of this writing had yet to undergo Senate confirmation hearings, is not allowed to give interviews and gave just a short statement on the day of his nomination in which he pledged to build on the work of his predecessors and “to be a bridge between our nation and the Holy See.” But close acquaintances and colleagues of Diaz have shared their opinions of him with CWR, offering a better picture of the probable next US ambassador to the Holy See.

Born in Havana in 1963 to Cuban parents, Miguel Diaz spent his first 11 years growing up in the Communist country before emigrating with his parents to Spain, where he lived for two years, and then moving to the United States, where they eventually settled. He received a master’s in theology from the University of Notre Dame in 1992, and in 2000 was awarded a doctorate in philosophy and theology from Notre Dame.

Since then, most of his academic career has been spent as a theology professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, where he began teaching undergraduate and graduate students five years ago. He has written and co-written two books and a series of articles in recent years, all of them having to do with theology from a Hispanic perspective, Trinitarian theology, and theological anthropology.

He has written one book, On Being Human: US Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives, which was published in 2001 and won a prestigious Princeton University award, and is the co-author of From the Heart of Our People: Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology, which is also based on Hispanic culture and was published in 1999.

“He’s very moderate in his theology,” asserted Father Robert Schreiter of the Catholic Theological Union, who has known Diaz for 15 years. “His background in liberation theology provides him with a great sensitivity to the needs of the poor, but he really doesn’t use that as a principal framework with which he does theology.” Father Schreiter added that Diaz has recently focused on the theology of the Trinity, drawing on the work of Karl Rahner.

Another close associate, Father Dale Launderville, OSB, who is chair of the theology department of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, said Diaz is also interested in Rahner’s work on issues of “community and inclusiveness.” Hearing the voice of peoples from Latin American cultures and understanding them as a Christian community is a “high priority” for Diaz, said Father Launderville, and Diaz “tries to show how Rahner’s thought applies to and can be adapted in a multinational context.”

Diaz is said to be “respectful” of the Church’s tradition. “Bluntly going after Church policies and traditions without much respect—he would never do that, but rather he wants to try to find ways of getting the voice of the marginalized into discussions within the Church,” said Father Launderville.

But some observers see Marxist leanings in his writings and say that as a professor he was known to disagree with elements of Church teaching. Ben Durheim, a recent theology graduate of St. John’s University and a former student of Diaz, said that although everything Diaz taught “seemed very much informed by official Church teaching,” there were areas “where he probably would be a little hesitant to speak in the exact way that the official Church documents do.”

Diaz approaches pro-life issues “pragmatically,” says Father Launderville. Around the time of the presidential inauguration, Diaz told Catholic News Service that he believed Obama was “committed to working” with people who defend “life in the womb.” Despite Obama saying recently that he sees the positions of pro-life and pro-abortion activists as “irreconcilable,” Diaz thinks that common ground is possible, according to Father Launderville.

On the issue of his support for Kathleen Sebelius, Diaz holds that she wanted to reduce the number of abortions as governor of Kansas, despite the fact that during her tenure she vetoed antiabortion legislation in 2003, 2005, 2006, and again in 2008, and also vetoed a bill aimed at strengthening late-term abortion laws and preventing “coerced abortions.”

Diaz enjoys a reputation as a bridge-builder. Durheim recalled his ability to “foster healthy conversation between people who agree, but also between those who disagree.” Mary Geller, vice president of student development at the College of St. Benedict, remembered how he had to work with a large faculty full of very strong and differing opinions, and over a period of time “he brought people to consensus.”

Intercultural dialogue is of keen interest to Diaz, and he and Geller cochaired an intercultural council at the college that involved preparing students to live in an increasingly globalized world. Geller said there are “a lot of parallels between his personal and professional passions and his being tapped for this position.” She also stressed that Diaz is not a “career politician” but “a very humble man with lots of integrity and humility and he loves the country and the Church.”

Certainly, in terms of personality, Diaz is unlikely to ruffle feathers. “He has an inviting approach,” said Father Schreiter, and an “easy-going” personality. “He’s very focused and on that basis is able to stick with a particular topic and work it through,” he said. “He’s also a very good listener, which often doesn’t go together with being very focused, but in this case it certainly does.” Diaz is “a delightful person,” said Mary Ann Baenninger, president of the College of St. Benedict. “He is a very competent scholar, very committed to inclusiveness in the Church and generally, and an interesting conversationalist with all varieties of people.”

Father Launderville believes his knowledge of Catholic tradition will be an advantage, as it will enable him to “to keep everyone in the conversation” on those issues where there is “debate and polarization.” Father Schreiter believed his theological background would give him “greater sensitivity” to the Vatican.

Diaz already knows Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, having taken part in previous discussions with him and other Church leaders. As for his Latino origins, he will be able to represent the voice of the Hispanic community in a way no US ambassador to the Holy See has done until now.

But notwithstanding his background and extensive knowledge of the Church and theology, coming to grips with the complexities of foreign policy may prove daunting. Father Schreiter acknowledged that could be an issue, but stressed that Diaz is a “very quick study.” On immigration, at least, he should have a head start.

More difficult will be if, as predicted, the administration continues to push radical anti-life policies internationally, such as advancing abortion as a global human right through the United Nations. Diaz would then be placed in an invidious position. Those who know him insist he will not support such policies if he finds himself in this dilemma. “If there were radical steps that were not pro-life, he would challenge that— I’m sure he would,” said Father Launderville, though how much influence Diaz would have on changing such policies, and how willing he would be to oppose concretely the administration he represents, is not at all clear.

Nevertheless, Vatican officials appear happy with Obama’s choice aftermonths of speculation that the president was finding it hard to locate a pro-life Democrat to fill the position. According to informed sources in Rome, the “agrément” to the Diaz appointment did not take very long, which is a sure sign that the Vatican reactions were “positive.” There were apparently some initial concerns about his leanings towards liberation theology, but they fell away since he is not considered a radical or vocal champion of its teaching.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, called Diaz “an excellent choice because he knows very well the United States and because of his background in the Catholic Church.” Latin America, he told Catholic News Service on May 28, should be “very proud.”

Now Diaz has to wait for confirmation hearings, which he is predicted to pass but which, as CWR went to press, had not been scheduled. Diplomats in Rome expect him to be in the post by September.

 

 
About the Author
Edward Pentin 

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
 

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