The Roman Catholic theologian from Minnesota nominated as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is a "gifted bridge-builder" whose ability "to bring people together for spirited discussions and honest interchanges" would serve him well in the highly sensitive role, a colleague said Wednesday night.
Miguel H. Diaz, 45, a Cuban-born professor of theology at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville who was an adviser to President Obama's campaign, would be the first Hispanic to serve as envoy to the Vatican since it established diplomatic ties to the United States in 1984.
Reached late Wednesday at his home in Avon, Minn., Diaz declined to speak in detail about the nomination or his stances on controversial issues but offered this 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."
William Cahoy, dean of the School of Theology and Seminary at St. John's, said Diaz's colleagues are thrilled by his nomination.
"He's a wonderful guy who's passionate about the church, about the Trinity -- one of his areas of expertise -- and especially about bringing people together, even when that includes difficult conversations," Cahoy said.
He said Diaz, who came to St. John's in 2004, is at the forefront of a series called "Changing Faces," which works with leaders in Hispanic parishes to help them better serve that growing population, and also has sought to improve the position of African-Americans in the church.
Anne Attea, former director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and now pastoral associate at Ascension Church on Bryant Avenue N. in north Minneapolis, called the nomination of Diaz, whom she knows, "an excellent choice."
"As we move into the future, more than ever, society and the church urgently need leaders who can be bridge-builders, who can help us all find common ground," she said. "Miguel has done that on a local level, helping create a crosscultural church, as well as on a national level as adviser to the Obama campaign, and in this new role, he could do it on an international level."
Attea recently served as a panelist in St. John's "Changing Faces" program in which Diaz spoke on topics that included "Jesus on the Border," and said his ideas were enthusiastically received, as was a presentation on the church's changing demographics and responsibilities he made last spring at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
"I'm very excited about this nomination," she said.
Diaz, who was born in Cuba in 1963, recently told St. John's student newspaper that he and his family left Cuba for Spain in 1972. The first person in his family to go to college, he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of St. Thomas in Miami Gardens, Fla., in 1988 and his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame in 1992 and 2000, respectively, according to St. Benedict's/St. John's website.
Before arriving in Minnesota in 2004, he taught at two Florida universities. He is past president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.
He and his wife, Marian, a Winona, Minn., native who also works at St. John's, have four children, Joshua, Ana, Mani and Miguel.
"The presence of our extended family in Minnesota as well as the position at College of St. Benedict/St. John's University drew us to the area," Diaz said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
Stepping into the fire
His nomination comes as tensions run high in the U.S. church over the politics of abortion, stem-cell research and other hot-button issues.
The previous U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Harvard University professor and conservative Catholic scholar Mary Ann Glendon, recently turned down the University of Notre Dame's top honor, the Laetere Medal, because of the Catholic school's recent decision to honor Obama.
In an interview with the Catholic News Service at Obama's inauguration, Diaz said he looked forward "to moving beyond the politics of fear to the politics of hope." He said Obama was "committed to working" with people who defend "life in the womb" and deeply respects those who hold positions with which he does not agree.
Another potential point of conflict is Diaz's support for the nomination of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Catholic governor of Kansas whose record on abortion issues dismayed orthodox Catholics. Diaz was among 26 Catholic leaders who signed a statement commending her record on immigration, education, health care and reducing the abortion rate in Kansas.
Obama will travel to Italy in July, and the next ambassador to the Vatican would help arrange a possible meeting with Pope Benedict.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, Abbot John Klassen of St. John's Abbey praised Diaz as "the leading Hispanic theologian in the United States."
"He is a strong proponent of the necessity of the church to become deeply and broadly multicultural, to recognize and appreciate the role that culture plays in a living faith," Klassen said.
Cahoy said Diaz's nomination fits Obama's pattern of choosing more academics to ambassadorial and other posts, "a departure from what we have seen in the past."
"We're very excited for him," he said. "St. John's will miss him, but he's an excellent fit for this work."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290