U.S. envoy Diaz: A Cuban-born Midwestern theologian in Pope Benedict’s Court

October 13, 2009

diaz-and-pope-1A few days after he presented his credentials to Pope Benedict as new U.S. ambassador to the United States, Miguel Humberto Diaz, invited a few journalists to his residence on Rome’s Gianicolo Hill for a chat. It was his first meeting with the media in his new role and I was the only member of a major international news organisation to be invited to the first round.

Diaz, a very amiable man, is the first Hispanic and the first theologian to fill the post of U.S. ambassador. He took questions in English and Italian on a range of topics but most of the comments were centered on what he wanted to make out of the post. Here are some excerpts. The questions have been synthesized to reflect the conversation:

(Photos: Ambassador Diaz and Pope Benedict, October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)

How did you get the news that President Obama had chosen you as new envoy and how did you feel?

“When the call came in from the White House I was, like anybody would be, pleasantly surprised and honored and humbled to have this opportunity to serve my country, to serve under this president. I had been part of an advisory team of Catholic theologians and activists during the campaign.

“One of my desires for this president was that this kind of engagement between religious ideas, public service, people of faith and service to one’s country could continue beyond the campaign. I was of the opinion that of religious thinkers could continue to participate in some kind of ongoing advisory group. When I first received the call i thought  that the president was going to ask me to do …  instead I was very honored that the president had selected me to become the next ambassador to the Holy See”

What do you think led President Obama to choose you?

“The president, in his (book) Audacity of Hope, argued in a persuasive way that religious principles, that people of faith have an active role to play in society and that within a democratic and pluralistic society what one needs to have is a persuasive translation of those principles than can be placed at the service of society for the benefit of the common good. So in many ways the professor in Obama spoke to the professor in Diaz. His style and appeal to a reasoned approach to arguments was very much persuasive…”

diaz-and-pope-2Won’t you miss being a theologian and an academic?

Maybe after my appointment as U.S. ambassador I will have time to pursue those kinds of conversation but, again, this is going to be a sacrifice, this is going to hard for me to abandon the classroom and do abandon the pursuit of theological ideas so I can embrace diplomacy …

“it is clear that no other ambassador in the past has been asked to totally shed their past so what I hope is that the theological and philosophical background that I have can somehow be useful in the service of bringing people together, so if I can learn to translate in an effective way — both in terms of communication and in terms of what I do — some of the those basic principles that I believe in, then I think I might be able to become an effective communicators and engage in the kind of things that I like to engage in — inter-religious dialogue, inter-cultural dialogue, inter-racial dialogue for the sake of building peace and the common good for humanity. So if I could somehow tap into that past without offending anyone and certainly by creating bridges then maybe I can succeed as an ambassador.”

Wouldn’t you love to have a one-on-one theological conversation with Pope Benedict, even if it had to be kept secret?

“I guess you’ll never find out if  I have one. But I don’t like to work in secrecy because hardly ever does the press not find out about it. I think that we’re about transparency in this administration so, if I were to have a theological conversation with the pope, I would not like to hide it from the world. I don’t want to operate behind closed doors. But there is no doubt that this is part of who I am but I am also very conscious that as part of who I am know, as ambassador of the United States I am not here primarily to have theological conversations with the Holy Father, but I am here to represent my president, my people, my country…”

How will you build on past relations between the Vatican and Washington?

We all stand on the shoulders of giants in some ways. We don’t start from scratch. we build on the positive things that others have done. We are celebrating 25 years of formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States and over those 25 years we have done wonderful work. We have together rejected religion as a means for violence, we have rejected terrorism, we have worked together on issues related to food security and I suspect this will continue to be part of our work. We have worked on trafficking in person and this will be part of out ongoing engagements and in a few days we will have a conference with Caritas Internationalis on the prevention of  transferring HIV/AIDS from mother to child. These are some of the things that have preceded me. Because of my background, because of my educational background, I will invite my co-workers to engage themes such as inter-religious and inter-cultural relations and (seek) ways that we can cooperate with the Vatican and various Catholic organisations to promote these areas for the sake of human peace. Another big issue on the horizon will be climate change. This particular pope has increasingly drawn attention to the issues of distortion of the earth, global warming and so those are also issues that are dear to me …. that will also be on my radar screen.

“Given my educational background and my work with youth I would like to extend a bridge out to young people. the presidency of Barack Obama is a huge magnet of attraction for youth and I would also like to engage in conversations that engage them. As a leader I think one has to listen and one has to judge things as they come up and respond to things as they come up.”

obama-popeThis is only the second Democratic U.S. administration since relations between the Vatican and the United States were established 25 years ago. The last last time there was a democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, relations were quite tense, particularly over abortion, which came to a head at the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994. Do you think there is a danger of this happening again and what do you think your relationship with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference will be?

(Photo: Pope Benedict and President Obama at the Vatican, 10 July 2009/Osservatore Romano)

I think I am going to follow the example of my president here. I’m not going to look to the past but to look to the present and the future. I will certainly do everything that I can to keep the lines of communications open between our two countries. I cannot and will not get entangled in the domestic issues because I represent the United States at this international level, from one sovereign entity to another. So that while I think that this is a good conversation that my country is having at the domestic level but that conversation is being held there and I will do the job that the president would like me to do here. There is a differnce between what the U.S.  ambassador should do and what the Holy Father should do as the pastor of the Church which also has responsibility for and a relationship with the local Church. I am not representing the U.S. Church. I don’t have a relationship to the local Church nor to the (U.S.) Conference of Catholic Bishops. Of  course, wherever the dignity of the human person is involved the Holy See is going to have something to say. But I think its important to make that distinction, who is speaking for whom and under what circumstances.”

What other person attributes to you bring to the job?

“I am the child of an exile. I have immigration in my story. I know what it is to live and negotiate between cultures and peoples and speak different languages … I had to mediate with my parents, who still to this day do not speak the English language completely or perfectly … in some ways this was engrained in my very being while growing up.”

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Is there a proofreader in the house?

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

Pete Cann, sorry, the wrong version got posted. The correct one is up there now.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

This ambassador is a pretty funny guy! He makes Obama sound like a messiah because he saved the nation from a recession, bailed out the rich bankers, is pushing socialized healthcare, made everything 100% recyclable, acheived World peace, eliminated death, eliminated racism and brought the country together. LOL! He was chosen by Obama so no wonder he’s singing his praises.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive