Mary Ann Glendon: Scholar, Ambassador and Friend of the Unborn

The legal scholar and former ambassador to the Vatican will receive the inaugural Fiat Award from the GIVEN Institute

Mary Ann Glendon with Pope Benedict XVI.
Mary Ann Glendon with Pope Benedict XVI. (photo: Random House )

Long before she became a prominent legal scholar, diplomat, and adviser to popes, Mary Ann Glendon underwent a life-changing personal crisis in her 20s.

In a short span in 1966, she lost her father to cancer, gave birth to a baby girl, and lost the baby’s father — “an African-American lawyer I had met in the civil rights movement” whom she “barely knew” but had contracted a civil marriage with — when he left her.

She decided to move back to Massachusetts, where she grew up, to be closer to her mother and younger siblings, and got a job teaching at Boston College Law School.

She credits the spiritual environment of late 1960s Boston College with bringing her back to the practice of the Catholic faith.

“Through regular prayer, Mass attendance, and the imperative to be the best mother I could be, I became a better Catholic,” she writes in her new book, In the Court of Three Popes.

In 1970, she later married a Jewish lawyer, Edward Lev, in a Catholic ceremony. Together they raised her daughter, had another daughter, and adopted a third daughter.

The difficulties she went through as a young woman draw Glendon to the work of the GIVEN Institute, a non-profit organization founded by the Sisters of Life dedicated to helping adult Catholic women with an interest in leadership “find ways to put their gifts in service to the Church and the common good.”

Mary Ann Glendon
Mary Ann Glendon. Martha Stewart

The organization concentrates on women 21 to 35, a pivotal time, according to Glendon.

“It’s a really perilous journey from a childhood faith to mature Christianity, and it is full of pitfalls. One of those pitfalls is our formation does not prepare people for life in a highly secular world, where the general level of education is pretty sophisticated,” Glendon told the Register. “We need to be paying more attention to formation in this difficult period.”

Glendon is the recipient of the GIVEN Institute’s inaugural Fiat Award — “in recognition” the organization says, of “her dedication to upholding the values of the Catholic Church through her remarkable academic works, and unwavering commitment to defending human rights and religious freedom worldwide.”

She is scheduled to receive the award Tuesday night in Washington D.C., while participating in what the organization calls a “fireside chat” with Montse Alvarado, president and chief operating officer of EWTN News, which includes the Register.


Harvard Law School

Glendon, 85, is a professor emerita at Harvard Law School.

Getting the job in 1986 required giving a sort of try-out lecture to the faculty, on any topic she wanted.

Glendon talked about abortion.

Her research showed that the United States at the time was an outlier, with abortion on demand through most of pregnancy, unlike the more regulated abortion policies in most other Western countries.

As a pro-lifer among advocates of legal abortion, Glendon was an outlier in the room that day.

But the faculty heard her respectfully, and not long after that they voted nearly unanimously to offer her tenure.

“I don’t think that would happen today,” Glendon told the Register.

In 1995, Glendon was the Vatican’s “surprising choice” (in The New York Times’s words) to lead the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, where she contended with international feminists, Hilary Clinton, and members of her own delegation while upholding the Church’s teachings against contraception and abortion.

Mary Ann Glendon shares a moment with Pope John Paul II.
Mary Ann Glendon meets with Pope John Paul II. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Pope John Paul II, who picked her, gave her some last-minute advice before she left: If you run into trouble, consider going to the press. As she writes in her book, a well-timed press release faxed to European newspapers clued in politicians in those countries about how far certain delegates were straying beyond their briefs to push abortion. The publicity stopped their momentum.

Glendon made headlines before, during, and after the conference, performing a delicate balance between promoting the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, and life while supporting the dignity and advancement of women.

When she got back to Harvard Law School, Abram Chayes, an international law professor who had diplomatic experience, was eager to talk to her.

What, he wanted to know, was her brief from the Vatican?

“I said, ‘I didn’t get any brief. I was just told to be a voice for the voiceless,’” Glendon told the Register.


Supreme Court Justice?

During the early 1980s, Glendon was one of the founders of a group in the Boston area called Women Affirming Life, which took as its motto “pro-life, pro-woman, pro-child, pro-poor.”

“We became concerned that the pro-life movement in the press was being relentlessly portrayed as indifferent to the concerns of women,” Glendon told the Register. “The pro-life movement is not only anti-abortion, but a large proportion of its resources are devoted to counseling women who are often in the worst crisis of their lives, to counseling women who have had abortions, and to providing counseling and services to women in the first year after their baby is born.”

Mary Ann Glendon with Pope Francis.
Mary Ann Glendon with Pope Francis.

As a high-profile pro-life legal scholar, Glendon drew interest as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, who served from 1989 to 1993.

But her legal views aren’t doctrinaire — she describes herself politically as an independent — and they ran afoul of a young lawyer who interviewed her for the administration. Asked whether the legislative history of a bill should come into play when interpreting a law — something Justice Antonin Scalia said a judge should never consider — Glendon offered a nuanced view: No, if it’s something a legislator said from the floor during debate; Yes, if it’s a report the chamber unanimously accepted and upon which the resulting legislation is based. The lawyer didn’t like that answer, and she never got a call back.


Ambassador to the Holy See

Meanwhile, at Harvard Law School she was a sort of a harbor light for pro-life Catholics.

Dan Olohan, a student there who was involved in pro-life activities on campus during the mid-1990s, including putting on a pro-life symposium through the law school’s Society of Law, Life, and Religion, recalls Glendon as “this beacon of hope and confidence.”

“The magic of Mary Ann Glendon is that she’s so dignified, so charming, and so smart that she puts such a positive face on being Catholic and pro-life at Harvard, that they couldn’t just dismiss us,” said Olohan, now a corporate lawyer. “She was an outlet for us. We could go to her, and she had instant credibility.”

Glendon took a leave of absence from the school to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from late 2007 to early 2009, during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Mary Ann Glendon poses with Pope Benedict XVI alongside President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
Mary Ann Glendon poses with Pope Benedict XVI alongside President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

While she was still in Rome in January 2009, she got a call from the president of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, telling her she had been picked to receive the university’s Laetare Medal, which many consider the most prestigious award for a U.S. Catholic.

A couple of months later, she learned that the new president of the United States, Barack Obama — a former student of hers — would be speaking at the same commencement. She liked that.

Then she heard he would be getting an honorary degree.

That put her in a quandary, because it seemed to her a violation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2004 statement that public officials who support abortion, as Obama did, “should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

She was torn. She loved Notre Dame, and she didn’t want to cause the school trouble.

“It was actually a tough decision, and my first inclination was that I was going to figure out a way to do it,” Glendon said.

She sought the help of friends to try to draft a statement that would justify accepting the award, but found after a couple of days that she couldn't justify it no matter what she wrote.

So she sent Father Jenkins a detailed letter explaining why she couldn’t accept the award. It wasn’t that Obama would be speaking at a Catholic institution, but rather that he would be honored by one.

“The distinction to me was very important, because I feel Catholic universities should not be afraid of debating anybody. We have a great intellectual tradition,” Glendon said.

Refusing the Laetare Medal galvanized pro-lifers at a low point in the movement, when abortion advocates controlled the U.S. Supreme Court and pro-abortion politicians controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

“I think that was great, because in academic culture there’s a premium on just getting along, conforming to the prevailing winds. Unfortunately, a lot of Catholic schools have succumbed to that. And I think her basically declining the award meant that she wasn’t on board with that agenda,” said Dwight Duncan, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law, who has collaborated with Glendon on pro-life legal activities. “It takes a certain amount of courage.”



While Glendon is known as an advocate for the unborn and for the Catholic Church, she is anything but a lightning rod.

For this story, the Register sought comment from academics — a famously fractious group — who know Glendon, including those who often agree with her and those who often don’t.

Several responded almost immediately after being contacted.

Dominican Father Romanus Cessario, a theology professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, said by email that Glendon has demonstrated an “admirable compatibility between the vocation of spouse/mother and the occupational work of university professor, jurist, diplomat, and counselor to Popes,” and that she “shows the way for sound Catholic intellectuals to deal with secular values even when they emerge within a Catholic setting.”

“In addition,” he wrote, Glendon “understands and practices the much-lost art of friendship. She is a loyal friend and a tremendous human being!”

Mary Ann Glendon during a meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis.
Mary Ann Glendon during a meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis.

Even those on the ideological divide praised Glendon.

“Mary Ann Glendon is an international treasure,” said Laurence Tribe, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and a liberal legal scholar who made the short list for the U.S. Supreme Court in certain Democratic administrations, by email. “She and I have disagreed about many issues, but hers is always a deeply thoughtful legal position, and debating her is an invariably enlightening experience. A widely admired scholar and legal theorist, Professor Glendon has long been a marvelous colleague and an inspiring teacher as well as an accomplished diplomat.”

Another Harvard Law School colleague, Alan Dershowitz, the civil libertarian, appellate lawyer, and political commentator, also praised her courage and discernment.

“Glendon is a force for moral clarity in an age of hypocrisy and double standards. She knows what is right and wrong and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power,” Dershowitz said by email. “She is also the nicest and most supportive colleague and friend.”

Prominent conservative Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University is inspired by Glendon noting her ability to blend secular achievement with witness to the Gospel.

“Mary Ann Glendon is a magisterial scholar and public intellectual and a humble follower of Jesus. That’s an extraordinary combination of qualities,” George said, by email.

He continued, “Pope John Paul II famously said that ‘faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to the contemplation of truth.’ In her work and witness, Mary Ann Glendon has shown us that those need not be mere pretty words. We can embody them in our lives. For me and many Catholics — and other people of faith — in academic life, Professor Glendon has been our inspiration and role model.”


Matt McDonald is a Register staff reporter and the editor of New Boston Post.