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Vatican City: Inside the Politics of Spirituality

An interview with Miguel Díaz, the former United States ambassador to the Holy See.

By Allison Shapiro


(Photo: djc/Flickr)


With about 450 citizens and 800 residents, the Holy See (Vatican City) is the world’s smallest sovereign nation. Yet for 1.5 billion Catholics across the world, Pope Francis’ opinions on everything from international relations to climate change carry weight. To get a better sense of how politics works in the world’s tiniest country, Pacific Standard spoke with Miguel Díaz, who served as the United States ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012.

The Holy See is so small. Why do people care so much about it?

First of all, the Holy See is arguably the oldest Western sovereign entity [conducting diplomatic relations]. We already have a record of it in the 5th century, right after the conversion of Constantine. We have records of them beginning to send delegates to the Roman Empire to engage the Empire in various negotiations.

Not only does the U.S. have its ambassadors, the pope has his ambassadors. And they not only represent the pope to the local bishops, they represent the pope to the local government.

We have an entity here that has been involved in diplomacy for a very long time. The Pope is not only the head of the Catholic Church but the head of the Holy See. Through the centuries the Holy See has been able to mediate and negotiate various kinds of conflict resolutions. Many ambassadors refer to this as a great “listening post” as the Holy See has ears all over the world, when you consider all the institutions associated with the Catholic Church, by that I mean hospitals, schools, organizations.

What is it about Pope Francis that makes him so fascinating to people?

His message is about denouncing the globalization of human indifference. His message is about seeing things from the periphery. He has taken up this amazing message that calls for all of us to stand for the marginalized and oppressed and the Earth. That certainly appeals to the young. It certainly appeals to many who are tired of seeing so much going on in this world that is dominated by a misuse of power, by privilege, by a misuse of money. So this pope calls for a different kind of vision, one that turns this upside down and says no to an economy that kills. How can it be that the up and downs of the stock market make the news but people who are dying in the street don’t make the news?

What’s the Holy See’s role in world governance? Is there a balance between being a political and spiritual leader?

You’ve seen a little bit of that in the last few months in this country, especially with the tension with Donald Trump. Where Donald Trump took on the pope and said, “Well the pope shouldn’t be in politics,” and the pope very wisely shot back by saying that, as far back as Aristotle, we have understood that the human being is a political creature. To be human is to be political in the general sense of having concern for the welfare of the city, of the people who inhabit those places. The pope speaks to those issues, so many times there are people who interpret the pope’s voice in a highly politicized way. But many times they fail to see that this is in the heart of the Christian teachings, because to be a Christian is to be political, to be concerned with other people. If Jesus was walking today, he’d be called political.

How does the pope accomplish his goals abroad?

Not only does the U.S. have its ambassadors, the pope has his ambassadors. So in every country—and the Holy See has an impressive representation in many countries—there are nuncios. And they not only represent the pope to the local bishops, they represent the pope to the local government. They, along with the network of Vatican representatives, basically advance or lobby for a particular perspective. For example, for a long time the Vatican has advocated for diplomatic relations and an end to the embargo [in Cuba]. I think what has made the stars align is the second term of Barack Obama and the election of Pope Francis, a Latin American pope. There’s no doubt that the Vatican, because of the role Cuba has played in international politics, has favored some kind of shift so that we get a fresh start in relations [between North and South America].

Speaking of Cuba, you are a Cuban-American and were the first Hispanic U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. What does it mean to have a Hispanic pope?

It’s amazing!I’m very excited because in many ways the pope has given an authoritative voice in a universal way to the kind of pastoral and theological vision that many of us as Latinos share. This has to do with options for the poor, the marginalized, the care of the Earth, and value of religious expression.

Big on the pope’s agenda, perhaps top three, is the issue of migration, because he sees how this is an international crisis, something the whole human family has to address. The fact is that migration is a world phenomenon, and it’s such an important aspect in the Americas. For many of us, ourselves or our family members have been victims of the kind of suffering that accompanies having to leave one’s homeland. We get it, and this pope gets it.

Any closing thoughts?

This week, [friend of the pope] Father Carlo Maria Galli and I were talking about why the pope chose the name Francis. Saint Francis is, of course, the most popular of all Catholic saints and widely known in the Christian community. When you think of Francis, there are three things that come to mind. First, the poor. The second is inter-religious dialogue. He was a man at a time when religious conflicts were going on. And the third thing is the care of Earth, brother son, and sister moon. Those three things are already very clearly defining [the pope’s] papacy. He has called for an integral ecology that respects all life. He’s been emphasizing the poor and the marginalized and the migrants all around the world, and his name is very significant. By taking on that name, he’s taking on a lot.