WASHINGTON — Miguel Díaz is poised to become the first theologian to fill the role of ambassador to the Holy See in the history of official U.S.-Vatican relations.

Following months of speculation, President Obama named the Havana, Cuba-born Díaz to the post. He would be the first Hispanic, and, at age 45, the youngest person to represent Washington at the Vatican.

Although unable to grant interviews at this point, Díaz issued the following statement: “I am very honored, grateful and humbled that President Obama has nominated me to serve as ambassador to the Holy See. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I will continue the work of my predecessors and build upon 25 years of formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. I wish to be a bridge between our nation and the Holy See.”

Although Díaz is not well known to American Catholics, he is a widely published theologian, focusing on Latino theology, Trinitarian theology and theological anthropology. He received an M.A. and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, where he also taught.

Some initial reports made much of Obama nominating a “liberation theologian,” which would have been a matter for concern, given Pope Benedict XVI’s criticism of a certain kind of liberation theology.

Some of Díaz’s work, such as his essays and his book On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives (Orbis, 2001), does reference liberation theology. His focus, however, is on the communal aspects of faith, particularly in relation to Latino culture and the immigrant population, rather than on the radical/political agenda commonly associated with liberation theologies.

The most notable influence on his work isn’t liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez or Leonardo Boff (both of whom had work condemned by the Pope), but Karl Rahner. (Díaz even served on the steering committee of the Karl Rahner Society.) Although Pope Benedict developed strong reservations about elements in Rahner’s theology, he still holds him in high regard, and Rahner’s work continues to exert a profound influence.

As Dominican Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, one of Díaz’s colleagues at Notre Dame, puts it, he is “committed to an intercultural and collaborative way of doing theology in the service of the global Church. He is deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and committed to Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the social and relational character of being human, the importance of fostering the common good, the call to solidarity and a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized, and respect for all persons and for all of creation.”

Political Views

Díaz served on the National Catholic Advisory Council for Obama’s campaign, which was criticized for downplaying the importance of life issues in order to make Obama more appealing to Catholics. Public records show a $1,000 donation to Obama’s campaign fund,

Díaz was one of 26 Catholics who signed an open letter of support for the nomination of pro-abortion Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Firmly committed to a variety of social justice efforts, he is also listed as an advisor to the progressive group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

The post of ambassador has been empty since Mary Ann Glendon stepped down in January, while the president sought a nominee who would meet the approval of the Vatican. The announcement ended a period of unusual engagement between the Obama administration and American Catholics, beginning with a series of confrontations, ranging from anti-life measures to his appearance at Notre Dame, and culminating with the announcement of Catholic nominees to both the Supreme Court (Sonia Sotomayor) and the Vatican post.

Position on Life?

There was some urgency in the naming of an ambassador, since the president is traveling to Rome in July for the G8 Summit. He hopes to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, and a vacant post would be embarrassing for the administration.

The Catholic News Agency quoted a Vatican official from the Office of the Secretary of State as saying, “The Holy See has always set a very simple standard: The person should not be in opposition to fundamental teachings of the Church that belong to our common shared humanity. He or she may not believe in Catholic dogma if he or she is not a Catholic, but we could not accept someone who is in favor of abortion or [human] cloning or same-sex unions equated to marriage.”

There is little to document Díaz’s opinions on these subjects, although he has stated that he is a “defender of life in all of it stages.” At an Obama inaugural event, he told the Catholic News Agency that Obama was determined to work with people who defend “life in the womb.” He said, “Wherever we can, we should advance life at all stages.”

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, called Díaz “an excellent choice because he knows very well the United States and because of his background in the Catholic Church.”

Latin Americans “should be very proud,” he told Catholic News Service May 28.

Father Robert Schreiter of the Catholic Theological Union has known Díaz for 15 years. He served as the external referee for his tenure appointment and, most recently, his promotion to full professor at Saint John’s University.

“He deeply loves the Church and his adopted country,” Father Schreiter observed. “His theological publications show balance and respect for the Catholic tradition, as he has probed its meaning for Hispanic peoples, who now make up more than a third of the Catholic Church in this country.

“He has a quick mind and a warm, engaging personality,” he continued. “Knowing both the Church and the United States as he does, he is ideally equipped to serve as an ambassador of this country to the Holy See.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes

from Medford, New Jersey.