‘The Popes and the Presidents’ Discussed by Sheen Center Panel


In a discussion on global affairs at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in lower Manhattan, three former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican spoke about “The Popes and The Presidents: Commemorating 35 Years of Diplomatic Relations Between the Vatican and the United States.”

All three—Kenneth F. Hackett, Miguel H. Díaz and R. James Nicholson—are Catholic. As U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican, they represented the president of the United States and the American people, but each acknowledged the significance of their faith in their worldviews.

The Sept. 10 evening panel discussion was moderated by Father Matt Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine, who described U.S.-Vatican relations as “the collaboration of the two moral forces of the world.” More than 110 people attended the event, which was presented by the Sheen Center, America Media and the Center on Relgion and Culture at Fordham University.

“It’s Catholic social teaching—the service-oriented projects that Catholic schools and universities do,” Díaz said in answering a question about what best prepared him to work in diplomacy and social justice programs.

“Why I became a diplomat and why I love diplomacy is Catholic social teaching…All of us being Catholic, it is helpful to carve a certain relationship once you’re there (at the Vatican)…Diplomacy at its best is about building bridges. It’s about finding common ground, making prudential judgments.”

Díaz served as ambassador from 2009 to 2012 under President Barack Obama. Born in Cuba, Díaz is a former president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.

Hackett said, “We (the United States) want to be associated with the moral good that they (the Holy See) offer, but also the knowledge that they offer, and they do have a lot of knowledge…

“When Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, that was really a highlight; he said his speech was to Congress, but also to the American people.”

Hackett added how he learned early on from a British ambassador that “it’s not transactional, it’s relational; you’ve got to build relations…There’s a balancing that goes on; it’s quite a challenge.” Hackett, who was nominated by President Obama, served as ambassador from 2013 to 2017.

Hackett was president of Catholic Relief Services from 2003 to 2011.

Nicholson spoke of how diplomatic savvy sometimes has to be used with extra caution, such as when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, and Pope John Paul II firmly opposed the move.

Later in the discussion, Nicholson said, “But there is a common set of values that our country aligns with the Holy See—the fundamentals like freedom, peace, human dignity and hope…It’s a great partnership, a great alliance with a lot of common goals.” Nicholson served as ambassador from 2001 to 2005 under President Bush.

Nicholson served as U.S. Secretary for Veterans Affairs, 2005-2007.

The wide-ranging discussion topics included U.S. and Vatican efforts to address political turmoil, social unrest, humanitarian concerns and human rights in many countries, including Cuba, Iraq, Syria, Russia, the former Soviet Union, and the nations of Africa and Asia. Concerns related to nuclear arms, human trafficking and climate change were also discussed.

It was noted how President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul II, long stressed the importance of the Iron Curtain coming down. It was also noted how President Bush and Pope John Paul II expressed concerns about human rights issues in Iraq, and how President Obama and Pope Francis shared concerns about the paucity of social liberties in Cuba.

These and other topics were expanded upon during the Q&A portion of the panel discussion. The audience questioners included Daniel Dougherty, president of Cristo Rey New York High School, and Sarita Hanley, a member of the CRS Foundation Board. Mrs. Hanley asked about the role of Catholic women religious in matters of global diplomacy and policy. Panel members said they were pleased that such a role has been increasing in recent years.

Jose Moya, 18, a senior at Cristo Rey, told CNY afterward, “At school we learn about social justice, and how the Church helps facilitate these things in different countries; it was interesting to hear how at the Vatican it’s a religious thing, but it’s also a nation within itself.”

Cristo Rey was one of three Manhattan Catholic high schools that sent students to the panel discussion; the other two were Regis High School and Loyola School.