- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The United States and the Holy See continue to enjoy a favorable bilateral relationship. Miguel Diaz, appointed by President Obama and approved by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 5, 2009, is the ninth U.S. ambassador to serve in that position since the establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1984.

When the appointment of Mr. Diaz was announced in 2009, a few observers remarked that because President Obama’s viewpoints on one issue - abortion - differ from Catholic teaching, the relationship would be bumpy. That has not been the case because of the intrinsic nature of the bilateral relationship. The United States in 1989 recognized the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church. In doing this, the United States did not become involved in the internal teachings and workings of the church.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the first years of his term saw the importance of establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Advised that he would not obtain Senate consent as required by the Constitution, he appointed a personal envoy to the pope with the rank of ambassador. This lasted through Roosevelt’s presidency and the first few years of the Truman presidency.

Truman was unsuccessful in attempting to establish full diplomatic relations. There was no diplomatic contact with the Vatican in the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

In 1969, President Nixon broke the long absence of papal contact and appointed Henry Cabot Lodge as his personal representative to the pope. President Carter continued the personal representative role with the appointment of former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner.

In the exercise of his executive authority, President Reagan on Jan. 10, 1984, announced the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See and appointed William A. Wilson as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Mr. Wilson’s appointment was followed by Frank Shakespeare. By the time I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, the structure of a bilateral relationship between the two states had developed, and I was confirmed without any opposition in the U.S. Senate. The appointments by President Clinton, a Democrat, of former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and former Rep. Lindy Boggs also were well-received. Three ambassadors served in the two-term presidency of George W. Bush: James Nicholson, Francis Rooney and Mary Ann Glendon.

Mr. Diaz is the ninth U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. An academic, he is fluent in Italian, French and Spanish. Mr. Diaz has a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas University and master’s and doctoral degrees in theology from the University of Notre Dame. Before being named ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Diaz was a professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Mr. Diaz also taught religious studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Dayton and Barry University.

Mr. Diaz has been a strong representative of Hispanic culture in the United States. He was the co-editor of “On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives,” which was later named the best book of the year by the Hispanic Theological Initiative at Princeton Theological Seminary. Born in Havana to a Spanish family, he moved to the United States at the age of 11. He also served as president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. These pertinent positions have enabled him to relate to the incoming, predominantly Catholic-oriented Hispanic immigrants. Although it is an American tradition to send a Catholic ambassador as a representative, it is not in any way required, as the Holy See accepts ambassadors of numerous faiths.

In terms of contemporary developments in Vatican-U.S. relations, there have been two major recent visits between the respective leaders. In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to the United States and called upon President George W. Bush. After the election of Barack Obama, the president visited the pope on July 10, 2009. The president’s visit to the pope is a historic tradition. President Wilson was the first to visit the Holy See, and after a lull of 40 years, President Eisenhower re-established this tradition. Since then, every president has made a visit to the Vatican and has had the personal attention of the pope. This relationship has led to numerous diplomatic victories for the United States, including the apprehension of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Now, 27 years after the diplomatic recognition of the Holy See by the United States, the bilateral relationship is well-established and transcends domestic politics. Today, the United States is among 178 states and other international agencies that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. One of the more recent ones is the Russian Federation.

In the case of the United States, there is no doubt that the Vatican-U.S. diplomatic relationship is beneficial to both sides.

Thomas P. Melady, the former U.S. ambassador to Burundi, Uganda and the Vatican, and J. Cushman Laurent, executive assistant to the senior diplomat in residence, are associated with the Institute of World Politics.