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Outgoing Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon reflects on her one-year tenure in an interview with the Register.
BY Edward Pentin
On Jan. 19, with the inauguration of
a new president, Mary Ann Glendon’s brief yet intense and widely praised tenure
as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See came to an end.
Over 11 months, the ambassador
helped coordinate a papal visit to the United States and a presidential visit
to the Vatican. She arranged conferences to mark the 25th anniversary of
U.S.-Holy See diplomatic relations (see story, page 5) and
even found time to host a couple of movie nights, showing the best American
films to friends of the embassy.
Glendon now returns to the U.S. to
continue lecturing in law at Harvard University, but two days before she left,
she took time out to share with Register correspondent Edward Pentin a few of
the highlights of a momentous year.
You’ve had a particularly busy
year with papal and presidential visits and the series of conferences you’ve
organized on human rights. What have been the highlights to you personally
during these intense few months?
It has been an extraordinary
privilege to represent the United States in the year of those historic visits —
and at a time when there was such a close correspondence between the views of
the U.S. government and the Holy See. Not only did the Pope and the president
share a common outlook on a wide range of social and cultural issues, but there
was a strong common interest in strengthening the global moral consensus
against the use of religion as a justification for violence, in promoting human
rights — especially religious freedom — and in combating poverty, hunger and
disease through partnerships between government and faith-based institutions.
Through that series of
conferences, you’ve helped raise awareness of the U.N. “Universal Declaration
on Human Rights,” which last year marked its 60th anniversary. Why was this
important to you, and how confident are you that the declaration can be built
on and better implemented in the years ahead, not just by the United States but
Sad to say, the “Universal
Declaration” — which embodies so many of the common ideals of the United States
and the Holy See — has recently come under assault from several directions.
In fact, the more the human rights
idea has shown its power, the more intense has become the struggle to capture
that power for various ends, not all of which are respectful of human dignity.
The prevailing approach to the rights it proclaims is a pick-and-choose
cafeteria-style, where nations and interest groups promote the rights they
favor, ignoring those they find inconvenient.
An important aim of our conferences
was to lift up and celebrate the original understanding of that document,
especially the way the rights it proclaims were meant to be understood as interdependent
and indivisible. As to the years ahead, I would say of the “Universal
Declaration” what Abraham Lincoln once said of the Declaration of Independence:
“It has proved a stumbling block to tyrants, and ever will, unless brought into
contempt by its pretended friends.”
You’ve just held a conference on
religious freedom as part of this commemoration of the declaration. What did it
achieve in terms of furthering this goal, which is important to both the United
States and the Holy See?
conference was devoted to the American model of religious freedom — so
frequently praised by Pope Benedict XVI for its success in enabling many
religions not only to peacefully coexist but to flourish.
Over the past year, the Pope
expressed his admiration for what he calls the American example of “healthy
secularism” so often that our embassy received a number of requests to explain
the model. That was a real challenge since the U.S. system of church-state
relations is one of the most complex and controversial areas of American
We thought we could perform a useful
service, therefore, by inviting some of the best experts in the field to
explain how the system has evolved over the years, to analyze the current
situation where several models are vying for dominance, and to offer some
comparisons with the situation in Europe.
Judging from the many favorable
reactions we received, I think we were successful in presenting the American
system with great clarity to an audience composed mainly of Europeans.
The conference also marked the
25th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. What, in your
opinion, have been the main benefits to the United States of these formal ties,
and what do you think have been the main benefits from the Holy See’s point of
I have already mentioned the many
areas where the United States and the Holy See share common ideals and
aspirations. Obviously, therefore, it is of great benefit to the United States
that the Holy See possesses a widely respected moral voice that reaches
practically every corner of the world.
Another factor that makes the
relationship so valuable is that the Holy See, like the United States, thinks
and acts globally. And, as all diplomats accredited to the Holy See can attest,
it is a great “listening post”: It has unparalleled access to local knowledge
through its worldwide networks of parishes, dioceses and humanitarian aid
Pio Laghi, the first apostolic nuncio to the United States, recently passed
away. What are your memories of him and his contribution to setting up
regret that I did not know this great diplomat during the years when he served
as a protagonist, with President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, in the events
that led to the collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe.
came to know him in his last years as a great friend of the United States and a
holy priest who sometimes felt compelled to disagree with us but who never lost
his love and admiration for our democratic experiment.
Edward Pentin writes