'Politics as a Vocation'

Mary Ann Glendon discusses the importance of Catholics being involved in politics.

NEW YORK — The New York Encounter, New York City’s largest Catholic cultural festival, brought together several thousand Catholics in mid-January from the United States, Canada, Italy and other countries to engage in a three-day event featuring artistic performances and exhibitions and thoughtful discussion and debate on the Church, politics, culture, art and science.

Organized by the Catholic movements of Communion and Liberation and the Crossroads Cultural Center, the goal of the event was to follow St. Paul’s suggestion to “Test everything and retain what is good.”

On Jan. 13, Mary Ann Glendon provided the keynote address of the weekend. Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Recently, she joined four other former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See in endorsing Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

A frequent commentator on the role of religion and public life, her new book, The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, From Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, analyzes the eternal questions that surround political discourse and decisions and how various thinkers such as Cicero, Alexis de Tocqueville, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke and others have responded to these questions and challenges.

During the New York Encounter, Glendon spoke on the theme of “Politics as a Vocation” and encouraged Catholics to seriously consider their role and contribution to society. Drawing from the lessons and examples of history, as well as her experience in both diplomacy and education, she spoke about how Catholics can apply these lessons in their own lives — particularly in this important election year.

The title of your address at the New York Encounter was “Politics as a Vocation.” Do you believe that all people have some form of calling to politics? 

If we think of politics as free persons deliberating about how to order their lives together — rather than just about getting and keeping power — nearly everyone who takes his or her baptismal vocation seriously has some form of calling to participate in that process, as he or she is able. If we Christians truly believe we are called to be a transformative presence in the world — to be salt, light and leaven — we have to do our best to improve the conditions under which we live, work and raise our children. Even our cloistered contemplatives are not merely meditating on the mystery of the universe — they are praying for the world.

You just mentioned that all Christians, by virtue of their baptismal calling, have a political dimension in life. Moreover, in your talk, you note that the Church teaches that it is primarily the responsibility of the laity to engage in this. In this political season, what are some practical ways we can live out our political calling?

As Catholic citizens in a country that affords us many opportunities to make our voices heard, I think we have to take the time to familiarize ourselves with the principal issues, to ponder them in relation to the principles of Catholic social teaching, and to fulfill our basic civic responsibility to vote. Since Catholic social thought is, as Blessed John Paul II once remarked, one of “the best-kept secrets of the Church,” many of us may need to brush up our knowledge of those principles. Beyond that, what a person does will depend very much on his or her abilities and situation in life.  

Some argue that we should spend more time influencing politics, while others say we must first change culture. Ultimately, would you say that politics is upstream from culture or the reverse?

As Vaclav Havel once pointed out, politicians do, in a sense, mirror their society, and that’s why people sometimes say a country gets the kind of politics it deserves. But, he added, the words and example of a public figure can also influence society. It will always be a two-way street.

Among your many accomplishments, you have taught law for many years — first at Boston College and now Harvard. In referring to your many years reading law-school applications, you noted that the most frequent statement among the applicants is I hope to make a difference. Regrettably, after years of law-school training, you note that many of the best students pursue careers outside of politics. Why is that?

There are many reasons. Some say they feel that politics is simply too corrupt. Others turn away because of concerns that their family life would suffer. Some worry that they would have to make so many compromises in order to get into a position where they could be effective that they would lose their own moral compass along the way. And some are discouraged by the immense complexity of the problems and the difficulty of “making a difference.” These are not trivial concerns. But no one who lives beyond infancy avoids such hazards just by withdrawing into private life.

In your talk, you recommend the fictional stories of Pilgrim’s Progress and Pinocchio, which you categorize as tales of “moral risk,” that are meant to teach us lessons about decision-making. What are some of the greatest risks faced by Catholic faithful in pursuing a political career?

I think Pope Benedict put it well in his recent speech to the German Bundestag, when he pointed out that politicians have to strive for success, but that if success becomes an end in itself it can lead to moral failure. The ability to fashion compromise is a necessary and important political skill, but it’s often quite difficult to discern where political compromise shades off into moral compromise and material cooperation in evil. 

In your new book,The Forum and the Tower, you provide accounts of historical figures who have shaped the political process. What role did compromise play in their lives, and what can we moderns — who face a current situation of severe partisanship — learn from them?

The dilemmas faced by statesmen like Cicero and Edmund Burke and, in our day, the recently departed Vaclav Havel, illustrate the enormous difficulty of discerning whether, when and how far to compromise. By their own admissions, they didn’t always get it right. But we remember and honor them for the times when they showed real heroism — putting their careers on the line for principle. One thing we learn from them is that character matters — in politics as in other areas of life.

You also recount the history of Mark Antony and Octavian’s rivalry and how Cicero, the great orator, vehemently attacked Antony. Later, when Antony and Octavian reconciled, Cicero was punished for his attacks on Antony. Can we learn anything from this historical narrative about elections — specifically primaries — when members from one party compete against one another and are later required to show unity?

Cicero’s fate — murdered on Antony’s instructions, with his severed head and hands displayed in the Forum — should remind us of how fortunate we are to live in a republic where elections are decided by voting and where former antagonists often find ways to cooperate with each other.

Speaking of the primary season, you are among five of the former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican who have recently endorsed former Gov. Mitt Romney in his efforts to win the Republican nomination. As you know, many have accused him of flip-flopping in regards to his stance on abortion. How would you respond to this, and what role does conversion have in the political process?

The pro-life movement has worked so hard and staked so much on the effort to change peoples’ hearts and minds through education on the life issues that it would be strange to reject former pro-choice people like Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde and Mitt Romney when they become pro-life advocates.

What issues should Catholics pay the most attention to in this upcoming election?

I really can’t improve on the U.S. bishops’ “Guide to Faithful Citizenship,” which highlights threats to the dignity of human life, especially at its fragile beginnings and endings; efforts to force religious providers of social services to violate their consciences; efforts to undermine the institution of marriage; the need to address an economic crisis that especially threatens the poor and future generations; the need to repair a broken immigration system in a way that respects the human dignity of migrants and refugees; and the moral issues related to war, terror and violence. Among these, the bishops emphasized that “the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life … is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”

Christopher White writes from New York.