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UNITED STATES
from issue no. 06/07 - 2010

IDEAS. Obama, the Church and interdependence

Our work is to build bridges


“We’re a nation of many faiths, which are all free, and a good leader must be able to nurture the common ground”. An interview with the United States Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Humberto Díaz


Interview with Miguel Humberto Díaz by Giovanni Cubeddu


The professor (and theologian) Miguel Humberto Díaz, US ambassador to the Holy See, arrives at our meeting holding the National Security Strategy, signed by President Obama which came out last May. It is an anthology of illuminating statements on the shaping of a new direction for America, distinguishing it from its recent past. Naturally we begin the conversation by asking what the salient features of the strategy are.

President Obama with Ambassador Díaz [© US Embassy to the Holy See]

President Obama with Ambassador Díaz [© US Embassy to the Holy See]

MIGUEL H. DÍAZ: Listening, learning and then acting are the distinctive attitudes of this administration, not only at national but also global levels. To which are added our three ‘d’s: dialogue, obviously, diversity, mutual dependence. I find myself at home with this vision of the President, I appreciate the desire to place this ‘we’ at the center of domestic and international relations. It is the art of learning how to engage and do things with others. In the National Security Strategy the key concept is precisely interdependence, not by accident one of the words most recurrent in the text.
How does one remain a leading country in a context of interdependence?
DÍAZ: In the National Security Strategy, as the beginning of the chapter on the strategic approach, the President included a quotation from his speech to the UN in September 2009: “more than at any point in human history – the interests of nations and peoples are shared. The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or they can tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child – anywhere – can enrich our world, or impoverish it”. This is not pessimism, it’s realism. This search for collaboration is an open invitation to other leaders. This is the cooperative leadership that America asks for at this time.
Is it working, for example, with the Arab world?
DÍAZ: The key is mutuality, reciprocity. For us Americans, the principle of religious freedom is a basic. But as in any human relationship, it happens like in any dance, the moment I take a step forward, my partner takes one backwards, while the next time the opposite happens. It’s the art of compromise, in its noblest sense, and it’s a success of the common ground and the common good.
And moreover it makes much of time as a positive factor.
DÍAZ: President Obama takes up Niebuhr and through him the whole tradition of St Augustine when he affirms that in seeking mutuality and reciprocity we need to recognize that human beings are not perfect, that evil exists in the world and we do not always act for the sake of God and our neighbor. Speaking at the University of Notre Dame he recalled that “no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone”, that “finding that common ground – recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a ‘single garment of destiny’ – is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man” and “in all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin”.
Obama closed that address by recalling Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago.
DÍAZ: The natural law is taken up within the Christian tradition, not least because there is also a “tradition of reason”. From my standpoint, I believe that if there is one feature that distinguishes President Obama as a leader it is his reasonable approach to faith. There is a keen awareness within the Judeo-Christian tradition that “reason is not opposed to faith”, or vice versa, it is always instead faith and reason, not extremism on either side. That’s how President Obama thinks. Nuances exist in life.
How can diversity be guaranteed?
DÍAZ: This is not a task that concerns only the current president, but all those who have governed and will govern the country. We are a nation of many faiths, which are all free, and a good leader must be able to nurture the common ground. The recognition that human beings are interdependent beings is a common belief held by numerous theologians, philosophers, anthropologists... But the question is: How do we put this interdependence into practice? The people with whom we don’t agree we must meet halfway, for the good of our children and the country. President Obama is trying this, in national and international politics.
He also learned from his experience as community manager, as head of a social development project in Chicago.
DÍAZ: Yes, not only from that experience, which has certainly played a role, but from many others. It’s clear there has been the influence of the Catholic Church, of the then Archbishop Bernardin. Anyone who has served his neighbor in a parish of a big city understands the significance of encountering others. Translating such encounters into the broader relationship of dialogue at the level of world relations means creating common ground by promoting all the ways in which Americans can interact with European, Asian, and Muslim peoples. It is the game of creativity. We cannot simply cook more of the same food, we must come up with a greater variety of recipes...
How are the ethnic minorities in the US beginning to judge this president?
DÍAZ: The day of the swearing in of the newly elected president my wife, Marian, and I took the train to Washington, along with a friend of ours, a Franciscan nun. I don’t remember ever seeing the trains so packed. Very many people were African Americans. I asked how they felt now that America had elected its first black president. And I told them the story of the son of a waiter who had left Cuba, the sacrifices made by the parents of that boy so he could study, and move ahead in life: I was that boy, happy for my four children, on that day of the taking of the oath of office. The African Americans, my fellow travelers in the compartment, were instead in tears, recalling the stories of slavery, apartheid, racism. There are historical moments in which some people embody something larger than themselves, and if I were asked, I would say that on that day President Obama represented a symbol of hope, inclusion, of diversity embraced. This is America. And all this is much more real than one might think...
That is?
DÍAZ: Recently in the U.S. the Census Bureau announced that we are close to a historical turning point: 48.3 percent of American children come from of ethnic minority families. Soon, very soon, in my country no group will be able to claim the majority. One in seven marriages is interracial. You know how it happens? The children go to study away from home and fall in love. So, this experience gives meaning today to our “e pluribus unum”. Uniformity is not what has made America.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle visiting Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, 10 July 2009 [© Paolo Galosi/Vatican pool]

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle visiting Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, 10 July 2009 [© Paolo Galosi/Vatican pool]

In one of your writings, On Being Human, you take from the Cuban-American theologian Justo González the notion that “there was a time when Havana was the capital of Georgia” and that “if we look at time it is not the Latin American tradition but the Anglo-American one which is the neophyte in the country”...
DÍAZ: Yes, González simply underlines both the original story of what ultimately was to become the “United States of America” and the ongoing Hispanic presence in the southeast and southwest. He also recalls that nineteen years before the British founded the colony called Virginia, the Spanish – based in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean and the American continent – had already founded a city that still exists, St Augustine, Florida – and the descendants of the first community of blacks freed from slavery is at Fort Mose, near St Augustine. These slaves fought alongside the Spanish Catholics, who had promised to free them from their chains. But today we must loosen the knots of interdependence in religious matters, in Islamic-Christian dialogue and with Judaism. In the United States thanks to the First Amendment, there is clarity of vision, and we, with a tradition of respect for religious freedom, have had great public figures who belong to different traditions and religious communities. In the States, the practice of safeguarding one’s faith can even be protected before a civil judge...
You have held conferences on Jacques Maritain, whose influence on the texts of the Second Vatican Council concerning the condition of the Church in the contemporary world is well known. As is the relevance to Maritain’s thought of his stay in the United States...
DÍAZ: His ideas as expressed in his work Integral Humanism are still very relevant. In this work Maritain makes clear that there can be no radical separation between worldly realities and the life of faith. Living in the United States for a while enabled him to experience this integral approach between faith and worldly realities. With all the qualifications that any kind of “isms” entail, perhaps Pope Benedict is referring to this experience when he speaks of positive secularism. From this point of view, which the American ambassador to the Holy See supports, there are certainly points of convergence between President Obama and Benedict XVI.
Which?
DÍAZ: It is not an exhaustive list: the concepts of human interdependence, of human community and of dialogue, and the concept of the relationship between reason and faith that brings the Pope to embrace the positive dimension of modernity and the president to embrace, in a not uncritical manner, the notion of modernity.
Let’s attempt to assess the level of cooperation between your government and the Holy See.
DÍAZ: I am not so naive as to imagine that disagreements will not arise. But I would say, looking at the bigger picture, that we have witnessed a shift in American foreign policy. This can be seen in our commitment to a real reduction in nuclear weapons. This move is judged positively by the Vatican. Other common concerns include: making interreligious dialogue more concrete; caring for the environment; respecting human rights; our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; and ending the conflict in Iraq. Then, of course, the pressing problem of war as an “instrument” to preserve peace, to which, the president said: “that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy”. We’re all still in the midst of so many critical situations, and we’re trying to honor our commitments.
Let me quote an opinion on America by Thomas Jefferson that you used recently: “I hope that gradually as our strength grows so also will our wisdom increase”.
DÍAZ: Well, I interpret it like this: it is a sign of hope that we will be able to identify with the concerns of others, and that the responsibility of power, in the end, needs to be shared. In July 2008 in Berlin, Obama spoke as presidential candidate, recalling that just as old walls had fallen, so must new walls fall. He affirmed that in today’s world the time had come to build bridges. This is now my job.


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