The terms “doctor” and “ambassador” do not usually fit together. With the expected confirmation of theologian Miguel Diáz as the United States Ambassador to the Vatican, however, “Dr. Ambassador” will become the standard greeting.
The choice of an academic to represent the country in Rome is a break from the usual practice of awarding ambassadorships to fat-cat political contributors or loyal politicians “temporarily” out of work. But the Obama administration is not the first to send such a well-qualified Catholic to the sensitive post as Ambassador to the Vatican. In 2007, George W. Bush appointed Dr. Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University Law School professor of bioethics.
Dr. Glendon was the first female president of the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. While questions might be asked about Glendon’s motives for later refusing the Laetare Award from the University of Notre Dame when President Obama was to speak in May of 2009, no one can doubt her sterling credentials and effective service to the country and the Church. Her expertise in matters of stem cells and pro-life position on abortion rights made her the perfect insider to keep the Vatican’s links to the United States focused on issues where the Republican Party held a political advantage. Now, I believe, the appointment of Dr. Miguel Díaz is going to favor the Democratic Party.
Like Dr. Glendon, Dr. Díaz is an academic of high standard. Unlike Dr. Glendon, he is a Black Cuban theologian. His expertise is in analysis of the theology of the late Karl Rahner, SJ, and he has demonstrated passion for the world’s poor and oppressed beaten down by structural sin. No less than Glendon, Díaz opposes abortion, but the scope of his vision and his involvement with social justice issues makes him strikingly different from his predecessor.
How might this new Vatican insider change things? A list (in no particular order) might include the following:
- Get U.S. support to make the U.N. less secular by encouraging more alliances with church-related international service agencies. This concern is highlighted in Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. He voiced concern over the monopoly of secularism in matters such as sexual reproduction, political organization, and women’s rights. Having the U.S. – the largest single contributor to U.N. support – working in concert with the Vatican to limit a secular message would make a huge difference in U.N. policy.
- Engage with, rather than abstain from, secular and interfaith cooperation on social justice issues that arise from globalization. This is emphasized in the pope’s encyclical and the new Dr. Ambassador will bring theological arguments from Council Documents like Gaudium et Spes to connect Church with U.S. approaches to international dimensions in social justice teaching.
- Absorb abortion and birth control into a larger, pro-active perspective with world hunger, poverty, environment, etc. This is familiar terrain for the Latin American Theology of Liberation which Díaz has taught. It coincides with the Democrats for Life approach that is now in ascendancy in Washington and presumably in Rome as well.
- Restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba with the Church as intermediary and beneficiary. Pope John Paul II asked, “Let Cuba open to the world and the world to Cuba.” I expect the new Dr. Ambassador to move the U.S. in this direction and encourage negotiations with the Cuban government, while seeking guarantees to Catholicism on the island in its pastoral outreach.
- A Vatican-based “war room” to respond quickly to U.S. bishops who upset cooperation between the President and the Democratic Party. The lack of unity among Catholics has been aggravated by some bishops in matters like denying communion to Democratic office holders or in refusing to accept the legitimacy of general documents like Faithful Citizenship. I expect that the Dr. Ambassador will invite rebuttal articles in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, or publicized pronouncements by prominent theologians and clergymen to counter bishops who break with episcopal unity.
All in all, I expect the Dr. Ambassador Díaz to be a capable conduit of ideas between Rome and Washington. The substance of Catholic teaching will remain, but the medium, and the messenger will have a new tone.