America’s ambassador to the Holy See says the two sides are working to rebuild trust following the leak of alleged diplomatic cables that caused embarrassment late last year.
“What brings us together is far, far, far more than what sets us apart, and I want to focus on that," Ambassador Miguel H. Diaz told CNA in a wide-ranging interview at his hilltop residence in Rome Jan. 19.
Ambassador Diaz said that during his 16 months in Rome he has seen “significant signs that show the ongoing commitment of this President, the White House, and our government in general to fostering and deepening this relationship.”
He said the scandal of the alleged U.S. diplomatic cables, released on the website WikiLeaks has not affected the Vatican-U.S. working relationship.
According to an analysis by CNA, more than 700 cables from the U.S. embassy to the Vatican were among the 250,000 State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
To date, only a handful of them has been released. But some of those have proven embarrassing, including one in which a U.S. embassy staffer poked fun at the “poor communications culture” in the Vatican and another in which Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone was described as “yes man.”
The WikiLeaks affair has been a bump in the road in an otherwise easy and low-key relationship between the Vatican and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, during his first two years in office.
Ambassador Diaz is credited with running a smooth diplomatic operation — especially considering that prior to this he has had no previous diplomatic experience.
The 47-year old Cuban-American was a professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota when the call came from the White House in May 2009, five months after President Obama was inaugurated.
Reportedly, he was not first on the list for the position. However, the president’s top choices had to be rejected because they favored abortion or embryonic stem cell research — positions that would have made their appointment appear to be a snub to the Vatican.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Ambassador Diaz in August 2009, and since then he and his wife, also a theology professor, have been living with their four children in the ambassador's residence atop Rome’s Janiculum Hill.
When Pope Benedict XVI received Ambassador Diaz for the first time to accept his credentials, he did so warmly. But he made a point of emphasizing the Church’s differences with the U.S. administration.
“I think particularly of the need for a clear discernment with regard to issues touching the protection of human dignity and respect for the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, as well as the protection of the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care workers, and indeed all citizens,” the Pope told the new ambassador.
Despite broad disagreements on basic policies, Ambassador Diaz said he is focusing on the values and the interests the two sides share.
"I think it's important to recognize that there are differences,” he said. “But I think it's important not to be paralyzed by those differences. The things that we have in common far exceed the things that divide us," said Ambassador Diaz.
As the ninth U.S. ambassador, Diaz said he is really "standing on the shoulders" of the "giants" that have gone before him.
Unofficial relations between the two states go back to the birth of America, when President George Washington assured Pope Pius VI that the Pope would have full freedom to appoint bishops in the new land.
It would take until President Ronald Reagan in 1984 for the U.S. to establish its first official embassy here. At that time, it was widely perceived that the U.S. president saw the Vatican and then-Pope John Paul II as an important ally in the fight against communism.
The embassy recently celebrated its 27th anniversary. Ambassador Diaz has as a staff of 19 — a formidable presence for promoting U.S. foreign policy at the world's smallest state.
"The size is really inversely proportional to the scope of influence," said Ambassador Diaz. “You can't just think of the Holy See as boxed with the Vatican City walls. We have to think of it as this vast network."
Since his Senate confirmation hearings, Ambassador Diaz has spoken of his vision for the embassy as one of “building bridges.”
And he has pursued that strategy during his 16-month tenure. He has worked diligently to build relationships not only with Vatican officials, but also with the wider institutions of the universal Church — pontifical universities, religious communities, even hospitals, non-profits and humanitarian agencies.
The embassy has sponsored several high-profile meetings to highlight areas of mutual interest.
An embassy-sponsored conference in 2009 brought professionals to the city to raise awareness of the need to stop mother-child transmission of AIDS. The embassy co-sponsored a concert with the Church aid agency Caritas to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims.
An embassy-sponsored conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October encouraged members of different faith traditions to come together in "building bridges." At the event, the director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua DuBois, gave the keynote address.
But Ambassador Diaz said much of his diplomatic work is done in one-on-one conversations — what he called "diplomacy at the table" during luncheons and dinners, and "targeted diplomacy" with Vatican contacts through more formal channels.
The issues of concern to the U.S. and the Vatican are broad and far-reaching.
"One of the greatest challenges,” he said, was how the “human family” is going to “reconcile” its “incredible diversity” of religions and cultures. This diversity, he said, “increasingly threatens to tear us apart.”
On that note, Ambassador Diaz called Pope Benedict’s annual speech to diplomats Jan. 10 “ambitious.”
The Pope used strong language to condemn religious discrimination and persecution around globe, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and China.
"The task of building bridges is essential if we are to bring about reconciliation and peace, and if we are going to tackle ongoing problems such as the trafficking of persons and basic violations of human dignity — including violations for persons to exercise a right to religious freedom," Ambassador Diaz said.
He sees a "bridge-building" opportunity in Pope Benedict's call for world religious leaders to gather in Assisi next October to pray for peace. It is fitting that such an encounter should take place in the birthplace of St. Francis, whose name is associated with peace and reconciliation.
In an "interconnected" world, St. Francis’ message that all things are tied together is important, Ambassador Diaz said. The day of prayer called by the Pope has the potential to "do what religion is intended to do — bring people together and not drive them apart."
"In this interdependent world, civic leaders cannot act alone, no nation can act alone, and the contribution of religious leaders is essential in the building of peace, the defending of human dignity, the fight against any type of abuse. And certainly the religious leaders have a central role to play in that outgoing, noble task," Ambassador Diaz said.
He identified ending human trafficking and promoting education and migration issues as the embassy's top priorities.
"There are so many different areas that wherever the dignity of the human person is violated, that persons … and organizations associated with the Church can help," he explained.
"I think that's where the effective work of building those bridges and defending that dignity would come in, the day-to-day exercise of this relationship."
He does not downplay the continued differences between the U.S. and the Holy See on issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the homosexual lifestyle, and the promotion of condoms for AIDS prevention.
No diplomatic relationship finds both sides seeing eye-to-eye on every issue, Ambassador Diaz noted. "That's the ideal, the ideal will never be there."
He prefers to concentrate on his responsibility as President Obama's personal representative to the Holy See.
"As a person of integrity, I would not be sitting here if I did not believe that there was a significant convergence in my ability to carry out this duty here at the Holy See,” he said. “I'm defending the dignity of human persons in different ways. I am building bridges. And these are fundamental tenets of this administration and fundamental tenets of who I am as a person.”
He would like his time as ambassador to be remembered as one in which U.S. foreign policy and the common interests of the Holy See were united "to advance the common good of the human family."
"If I can do that, even if it's just in little ways, during my tenure here, then I'll call it a success,” he said. “I'll be happy that I did my job, which is to answer the call — certainly of President Obama and of my country, to serve it — and also the call of the human family and the Church to advance the common good."