- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

Miguel Diaz, the Obama administration’s new nominee for ambassador to the Vatican, is a theologian celebrated by the Catholic left but an unknown to many conservative Catholics.

He is also the youngest person to be named the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See since the U.S. established full diplomatic relations in 1984. And as a native of Cuba, he represents the latest Obama administration outreach to Hispanics, who make up one-third of all U.S. Catholics and are the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. church.

But many of the Catholic public figures at a Catholic University of America symposium Thursday celebrating the 25th anniversary of U.S.-Vatican relations, professed ignorance of the 45-year-old college professor who teaches theology at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota.

“No one here seems to know him,” Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl remarked.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, called Mr. Diaz “an excellent choice.”

“It’s a sign for the Latino Catholics in the United States,” he said, adding that he had no input on the selection of Mr. Diaz.

Joseph Capizzi, a moral theology professor at CUA, said the Hispanic connection was the key factor in Mr. Diaz’s nomination. He recalled knowing Mr. Diaz in the early 1990s when both men were graduate students at the University of Notre Dame. Mr. Diaz, he said, was highly involved with Hispanic concerns even back then.

“That’s what probably placed him on the administration’s radar,” he said. “I was surprised because he’s young.”

The other eight U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican have been in their 50s or older.

“But this is a young administration,” former Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told listeners at CUA. “I don’t think his age should matter. I think he will have a tremendous opportunity to do good for this country.”

Mr. Diaz is on the theological left, having been one of 26 Catholic signatories to an open letter supporting the nomination of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is pro-choice.

The nominee had only this statement in response: “I wish to be a diplomatic bridge between our nation and the Holy See, and if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I will continue the work of my predecessors and build on 25 years of excellent relations with the Holy See.”

The choice was quickly lauded by two liberal Catholic groups.

“Professor Diaz has always connected his impressive body of academic scholarship and intellectual rigor with an unwavering commitment to living out the social justice tenets of our faith,” said a statement from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, for which Mr. Diaz serves as theological consultant. “Our nation could have no better representative to the Holy See than Professor Diaz.

“Doctor Diaz is a devout Catholic, a respected theologian, a leader in the Catholic Latino community and a dedicated husband and father of four children,” said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United. “We have full confidence that he will serve our nation well.”

He has written heavily on views of God from black and Hispanic perspectives, including two books, both published by Orbis Books: “On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives” and “From the Heart of Our People Latino/a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology.” Articles in America magazine and by the Catholic News Agency identify him as a proponent of liberation theology, which emphasizes justice to the poor and oppressed through political activism.

President Obama’s selection of a potential Vatican ambassador received heavy media coverage this spring after the Italian media reported the Vatican had rejected several liberal candidates, such as Caroline Kennedy, for the position.

But on the other side of the Catholic culture war divide at CUA on Thursday, neither scholar Michael Novak nor Thomas Melady, who served as ambassador to the Vatican from 1989 to 1993, said they knew the nominee, although Mr. Melady termed Mr. Diaz’s academic credentials as “very impressive.”

Mary Ann Glendon, the most recent U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a law professor who rejected the University of Notre Dame’s highest honor because of the school’s honoring of Mr. Obama, refused comment on the administration’s choice.

Mr. Diaz, whose fluency in Italian will aid him in his new post, has taught religion and theology at Barry University in Miami, the University of Dayton and Notre Dame. From 2001 to 2003, he was academic dean at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla.

He is on the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America and is past president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.

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