US ambassador to Vatican says he built bridges despite tensions
By Matthew A. Rarey
U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz. Credit: Alan Holdren.
U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz. Credit: Alan Holdren.

.- During his tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel H. Diaz found himself seeking a middle ground in the sometimes tense relationship between the Church and the Obama administration, and as he leaves his post he believes he was able to do that.

“I think every ambassador has moments of unease dealing with different policies of his or her own administration,” Ambassador Diaz said during a Nov. 8 evening roundtable interview with journalists at his residence.

CNA asked Diaz, a theologian, if it ever made him uneasy representing an administration that found itself at odds with the Church over the Health and Human Services mandate. The regulation, which was finalized Jan. 20, 2012, requires employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

He replied by referencing the tension he had growing up as a Cuban-born American who emigrated to the United States at age 11.

“I’ve lived my life on that bridge, on that hyphen. I have refused to choose either /or – either your Cuban identity or your American identity. And I am an American who is also Catholic. Living in that tension can be a tension, but it can be a creative tension.”

When he was asked to address the fact that the mandate is having a nationwide impact and that the Church has strongly protested it, Diaz said he believes in a “glass half full” and “both/and” approach.

He thinks the new health care law has helped many people, including a brother of his who does not have health insurance.

“Consider the possibility that people could have found life in this decision,” he said. “Not everything is completely black or white. Generally speaking, ethical life is a complex life.”

He repeatedly stressed that an ambassador’s job deals with foreign policy, not domestic disputes.

Asked about what he brought to the job as ninth U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, he said his strength was in being a “bridge-builder” who could find “common ground and creative solutions” – even when U.S. policies have been opposed to Church teaching.

He pointed to the Vatican conference on HIV/AIDS that occurred early in his tenure as an example of such cooperation. “Should the United States not have partaken in it because it has been the policy of successive administrations to promote condom distribution?” he asked.

Diaz said he found common ground with the Holy See by focusing on preventing the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child.

“After that we obtained a huge grant for the Vatican in terms of medical supplies from the United States,” he noted. “Many times we know that prudence yields much life.”

Rather than be stymied by Vatican differences over Obama administration positions on such issues as abortion and homosexual rights, Diaz said he tried to focus on neutral issues such as human trafficking, humanitarian assistance and violations of religious freedom.

That last issue prompted one reporter to ask him how he reacted when Pope Benedict called the HHS mandate a “grave threat” to religious liberty in the United States that would involve “cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”

“I carried out the work that day that I had on my desk,” responded Diaz. “Unless that statement had led to some kind of diplomatic crisis, in which case I would immediately have stepped in to put out the fire.”

Diaz said that during his time in Rome, every U.S. bishop that came to the embassy was supportive.

“I don’t think there was a single one of them that didn’t appreciate my presence here and the work that I’ve been doing here with respect to the role and importance of having an American ambassador and connecting the Holy See to the U.S. government.”

Reflecting on his tenure, the father of four called it a “challenging as well as a grace-filled time” in which he did his duty according to the mandate he was given.

“As a Christian I can say that I totally believe that life oftentimes emerges out of tension, and out of loss and out of darkness and out of death. I’ve experienced that,” he said.

“I’ve not allowed for tensions to deter me from the job that the President of the United States asked me to accomplish, which was to build bridges, which was to sustain and deepen the diplomatic relation between the United States of America and the Holy See.

“I’ll let history be the judge whether I’ve succeeded in doing that over my past three-and-a-half years.”

Next week Diaz will return to Washington, D.C., and will officially remain ambassador until a classified date for security reasons. Then he will take a six-month sabbatical before returning to the classroom as University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton, an endowed professorship.

He will take his “practical international and diplomatic experience back to the level of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he said, hoping it will enrich his academic contributions as a Catholic theologian.

“I’m going back home to build some bridges,” he told a group of the journalists who mingled afterward.

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