A Hispanic Roman Catholic theologian who was an adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign will be nominated to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, the White House announced Wednesday.
Miguel H. Diaz, 45, an associate professor of theology at St. John's University and the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, would be the first Hispanic to serve as ambassador to the Vatican since the United States and the Holy See established full diplomatic ties in 1984. Diaz was born in Havana.
The announcement comes in the same week Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, to the Supreme Court. She would be the high court's first Hispanic justice.
The selection of a Vatican ambassador rarely attracts scrutiny. But Diaz's nomination comes as tensions run high in the U.S. church over Catholics' voice in the public square and the politics of abortion.
Obama's recent commencement speech and acceptance of an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame -- Diaz's alma mater and the nation's flagship Catholic university -- provoked controversy and criticism from dozens of Catholic bishops because Obama's abortion stance clashes with a core church teaching.
The previous ambassador to the Vatican was Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University professor and conservative Catholic scholar with longtime Vatican ties. Glendon turned down Notre Dame's top honor, the Laetere Medal, because of the school's decision to honor Obama.
In an interview with Catholic News Service at Obama's inauguration, Diaz said he was looking 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 people who hold positions he does not agree with.
"Wherever we can, we should advance life at all stages," Diaz said.
Reached at his home Wednesday, Diaz read a brief statement expressing gratitude for the opportunity and saying, "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."
He declined to answer questions about his positions on issues, saying it would be inappropriate before his confirmation hearing.
One potential point of conflict is Diaz's support for the nomination of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic whose abortion rights record angered conservative Catholics. Diaz was among 26 Catholic leaders and scholars who signed a statement hailing Sebelius as "a woman of deep faith" and citing her a record on immigration, education, health care and reducing abortion rates in Kansas.
The son of a waiter and a data-entry operator, Diaz was the first person in his family to attend college. He taught religious studies and theology at Barry University, 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.
Diaz is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. He is past president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States, and a father of four.
According to public records, Diaz donated $1,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint committee of Obama and the Democratic National Committee. He served on the Obama campaign's Catholic advisory board.
Diaz was far from the most visible -- or controversial -- Catholic to campaign for Obama. Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic law professor and former Reagan administration lawyer, was targeted by conservative Catholics and denied Communion by one priest for his support for Obama.
Kmiec, who was mentioned as a possible Vatican envoy, applauded the choice of Diaz on Wednesday, calling him "a gifted theologian and a natural teacher. And his love for the faith is unquestioned."
Cathleen Kaveny, a Notre Dame law and theology professor who also served on the Obama campaign's Catholic advisory committee, said it was significant Obama chose a theologian and a representative of one of the fastest growing demographics in the U.S. church, Hispanics.
"He is not a big donor, he's not a big professor," she said. "He's someone very knowledgeable about the Catholic tradition and Catholic theology. What you see is President Obama taking seriously not just Catholicism as a political force but as an intellectual force."
The advocacy groups Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good issued statements Wednesday night praising the choice of Diaz.
Obama is scheduled to travel to Italy in July, and the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican would likely play a role in arranging a possible meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Other shared interests between the U.S. and the Vatican include Middle East peace and relations with the Muslim world.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)