A New Face of Catholicism: Obama's Pick for Vatican Ambassador Embodies U.S. Catholic Currents

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, June 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

A New Face of Catholicism: Obama's Pick for Vatican Ambassador Embodies U.S. Catholic Currents


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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National churches don't have delegates in Rome, officially nobody's ere to speak for American Catholicism. Informally, however, high-profile Americans in and around the Vatican pre sent faces of the Catholic community in the States, both to Rome and to the wider Catholic world.

In that light, President Barack Obama's May 27 appointment of Cuban-American theologian Miguel Diaz as ambassador to the Holy See is especially intriguing, because Diaz embodies two currents in American Catholicism heretofore not terribly visible in the Eternal City: its burgeoning Hispanic wing, and its center-left theological guild.

In part because Diaz is not well known outside theological circles, and in part because he doesn't have a clear record on the hot-button issue of abortion, reaction to the appointment has been fairly muted. As time goes on, however, two baseline readings seem plausible:

* Diaz could be seen as a deft nod to the diversity of the American church, as well as a potential bridge between Catholicism's traditional centers in Europe and North America and its emerging voices in the global South.

* Or Diaz could be seen as the product of "divide-and-conquer" politics, meaning an attempt by Obama to mute Catholic criticism of his pro-choice stance by throwing a bone to Hispanics and peace-and-justice liberals.

Whichever reading one adopts--and, to be sure, both are already circulating in different Catholic circles--the appointment should open an interesting new Chapter in U.S./Vatican relations, as well as in Roman impressions of American Catholicism.

Diaz, 45, has no previous diplomatic experience. Born in Cuba, he and his family left when he was 8. Diaz earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2000, and has served as a professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., since 2004. Assuming Diaz is confirmed by the Senate, he could be on the job by early July, when Obama is expected to meet Pope Benedict XVI while in Italy for a G-8 summit.

Diaz has described himself as uncomfortable with liberal/conservative labels, saying he regards himself as a "Trinitarian theologian." Scanning his writings, his main political interest seems to be social justice matters, above all immigration. Some have described Diaz as a liberation theologian, but he distinguishes between the "option for the poor" in Latin America and an "option for culture" in Hispanic theology in the United States, focused on Latino identity. Colleagues say that Diaz has also built bridges between Hispanic theology and feminist and African-American perspectives.

Vatican reaction seems largely positive. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope's ambassador to the United States, called Diaz "an excellent choice ... who knows both the United States and the Catholic church very well."

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Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was a bit more circumspect, telling NCR that the conference has a policy of not commenting on appointments. Nonetheless, George said he's sent a private letter to Diaz congratulating him and inviting him into conversation.

Diaz would become the ninth American ambassador to the Holy See, and the first Hispanic to hold the job. …

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