National Catholic Register


The Pope, America and the World

Mary Ann Glendon Reflects on Vatican-U.S. Relations

BY Edward Pentin

February 1-7, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/23/09 at 12:30 PM


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 all countries?

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?

The 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 government.

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 view?

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 workers.

Cardinal 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 diplomatic relations?

I 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.

I 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

from Rome.