Becoming U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in late February was just the latest addition to Mary Ann Glendon’s already glittering résumé.
Among her many professional accomplishments, Glendon is a Harvard law professor and author of a highly acclaimed book about the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of several other books.
Glendon also has extensive experience at the Vatican: She has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences since 1994 and became its first woman president in 2004, and in 1995 she served as head of the Vatican delegation to the Fourth U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing.
Glendon spoke recently in Rome with Register correspondent Edward Pentin.
You are organizing four conferences to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What aspects of human rights would you like to highlight during these conferences?
On the 50th anniversary, John Paul II said something very curious and thought-provoking. He said, “A shadow hangs over the anniversary.”
The shadow was a doubt that everybody has had: What are the foundations of universal human rights? How can you speak of universal human rights in a world so characterized by discord?
So we thought it appropriate, at the 60th anniversary, to go deeply into that question.
We will explore that, beginning in May, very soon, in a conference that takes us back to the founding of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration. We want to lift up the forgotten story of the role that Latin American diplomats played, first in making sure that human rights were on the agenda at the U.N., in the charter of the U.N., and secondly the role they played in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was chiefly due to Latin American influence that human rights are in the program of the U.N., and that they are in the Declaration in a form that is highly compatible with the Bogota Declaration of 1948, and with Catholic social thought.
Will you also try to bring out the Christian aspects of the Declaration, those aspects that are coherent with Catholic social teaching?
We’re going to have four conferences and the first is well in place. And as we look toward the fourth, we are thinking, since we are marking the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, that we may use the fourth conference to speak about the relationship between Catholic social thought and the human rights idea.
What ideas of Pope Benedict XVI do you most identify with and consider most important for the world today?
As an academic myself, I am naturally very drawn to the Pope’s thoughts about the synergy between faith and reason. And as a legal academic, a lawyer and a professor, I live in a world where the two are not clearly separate.
So I’m expecting to learn more about the Pope’s idea that pure, calculating rationality without being informed by faith can lead to very dangerous and inhuman consequences. But at the same time, turning the coin over, faith that shuts off the good gifts of the Enlightenment, the good gifts of reason, can easily degenerate into fideism, superstition and even to violence.
Did any of these themes come up when you met him to present your credentials?
Of course, in meeting the Holy Father one is kind of overwhelmed by being in the presence of such a person, but yes we did touch on those issues and I received a little encouragement and inspiration myself.
Are these issues at the forefront of the Bush administration’s policy approach?
I think that the present administration in the United States, the ideals that President Bush has put forward, are as close to the values and the Holy See as has ever been the case in the history of the relationship between the two sovereigns.
How much of a contrast is your work as ambassador to your previous position, and how are you adapting to the role?
There’s quite a contrast between the quiet life of a professor and the more public role of an ambassador. But as a lawyer, one does tend to have a foot in both camps from time to time, so it’s more of a shift of emphasis for me than a dramatic transition.
But as it happened, as a coincidence, when I received the phone call from the White House asking me if I would be interested in being the ambassador, I was right in the middle of — literally I went from my desk to the phone — a half-finished manuscript about individuals in history who have been torn between philosophy and politics.
Aristotle said those are the two most choice-worthy vocations and so I was doing biographical essays on people like Plato, Edmund Burke and Max Weber who wrote the famous pair of essays on scholarship as a vocation and science as a vocation.
So now I hope that I have a chance to make some firsthand observations.
How do you deal with the tension between the Church’s teaching and approach to certain global issues and those of the U.S. government?
What strikes me most of all is the close correspondence between the values and ideals that can be summed up in a very simple phrase to which both are committed: the protection and promotion of human dignity, human rights, especially and not exclusively, religious freedom.
So I see my task as an ambassador as primarily building on and reinforcing an already solid partnership in pursuit of those goals. But where there are differences, my role is to try to find common ground, to build on that common ground and, where differences exist, to explain the position of the United States as best I can, and to explain the reasons for it as best I can.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.