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In the Courts of Three Popes ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Mary Ann Glendon has written a very diplomatic account of her service in the courts of three popes. It seems that nothing she encountered necessarily surprised her, but she felt like a “stranger in a strange land,” at a time in history that Bishop Fulton Sheen not long ago called the “end of Christianity.”

In the courts of three popes by Mary Ann Glendon (219 pages, Random House, 2024)

Mary Ann Glendon, a career academic, a veteran law professor and a political appointee turned amateur diplomat, has written a highly diplomatic account of her service in the courts of three popes. Along the way, she probably reveals less than she might about the courts of the three popes, and less about any of the three popes in particular.

The courts of the popes in question are, of course, those of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. The Pope in particular is Francis, and the “less” is an assumption that has nothing to do with anything approaching a possible papal scandal, but has a lot to do with Glendon’s thoughts on and assessment of his papacy.

When it comes to Pope Francis, Glendon was initially pleased that the gathering of cardinals had chosen a relative outsider. Moreover, she hoped that he would be the “hands-on” administrator that neither of his two predecessors was.

Then, early in his papacy, Francis gave a lecture on what he considered various “diseases of the curia.” These included the ‘disease of idolizing superiors’ and the ‘disease of indifference towards others’. But no mention was made of Glendon’s “elephants in the room”: financial misconduct and homosexuality in the priesthood.

Otherwise, Glendon is content to let us know that Francis, unlike his two predecessors, who wrote and spoke with “great clarity,” “communicates more elliptically; his messages are often ambiguous or difficult to interpret; his personality is more versatile; and he often seems to contradict himself.” As you read these words, ask the author to tell us what she really thinks.

Certainly, Glendon is nothing if not transparent about her own life. The same could be said of the Glendon treatment when it comes to dealing with its Church at the ground level. But diplomacy reigns supreme as she reaches the upper echelons of what she calls the “last absolute monarchy” on earth.

Such a label seems to be neither a criticism nor a compliment, but simply a statement of fact as she sees it. And she saw it not just as a “stranger in a strange land,” but at a moment in history, she mournfully reminds us, when Bishop Fulton Sheen not so long ago called the “end of Christianity.”

Not the end of Christianity, Glendon quickly adds, but rather the end of a long era in which one could speak in any meaningful sense of something called “Christianity.” Or perhaps it could refer to a time when the Papacy was not the “last monarchy” on earth, but also to a time when the West and Christianity were essentially synonymous.

But Glendon is nothing if not an optimist. In fact, as she sees things generally, this is also a time of great opportunity for evangelism. Even more, she claims that it is the Catholic laity who should bear the “primary responsibility” for such evangelization.

If there is a primary reason for writing this book, it is to “provide a reflection on the changing role of the laity.” Actually, her book is more than a reflection on this task. In its own way, this memoir is also an indirect, yet intentional, charge to the laity to take a more active role in this evangelization.

In fact, Glendon offers itself as example A of what an engaged and engaged citizen can do. She grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts and lived an ordinary, middle-class life among Protestants who were “virtuosos of good works” and Catholics who were “virtuosos of the faith.” Such facts from local life, she tells us mockingly, help explain why she felt ‘destined’ to first become a student and eventually a professor of comparative law and government.

In between were undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, where it was often repeated that “Jewish professors taught Aquinas to Marxist students.” Although never a Marxist of any kind, Glendon, by her own account, drifted “towards cafeteria Catholicism” in the 1960s, and became involved with an unnamed “African-American lawyer” who she met during her involvement in the civil rights movement. That relationship produced a child, but apparently no marriage.

During those years—and for an undisclosed number of years afterward—Glendon considered herself a political independent (the capital “I” is hers), because Republicans had long been anti-New Deal and Democrats were increasingly pro-abortion .

If there was a guiding light for Glendon during her years of “cafetholicism” (my term, not hers), it was her belief in the sanctity of human life. Her opposition to legalized abortion was older Roe v. Wade, and then intensified.

In short, she saw herself as a Susan B. Anthony feminist. Like Anthony, who was also a product of Western Massachusetts, Glendon could not tolerate a movement that “fostered hostility” toward three crucial societal Ms, such as men, marriage, and motherhood, while at the same time emphasizing the right to abortion. often or not, it has particularly benefited some men, namely ‘irresponsible men’.

Although Glendon does not dwell on her own story in these pages, that story only strengthens her broader argument for an engaged and committed laity. Her early missteps and stumbles were followed by a successful marriage and an equally successful and fulfilling professional career.

It may or may not be the case that the highlight of her professional life will prove to be her diplomatic service as ambassador to the Holy See, a post to which she was appointed by George W. Bush, a Protestant who could “speak Catholic.” ” Who knows what comes next for Mary Ann Glendon, even now that she is in her mid-eighties. But for now, her story is worth telling and reading.

This is not so because of this or that achievement – ​​or this or that frustration. Rather, it’s the ordinariness of it all. There is never a sense that Professor Glendon or Ambassador Glendon thinks about themselves the Mary Ann Glendon. For that matter, there is never the sense that Glendon suspects that any of the three Popes thought this way about herself in her professional life as an amateur diplomat.

Naturally, Ambassador Glendon faced moments of what amounted to palace intrigue within the Vatican. Of course, some of that intrigue could be defined as left versus right, Italian prelates versus everyone else, or simply pitched battles within an inevitably contentious bureaucracy. And of course the sex abuse scandal weighed heavily on roughly the last third of John Paul’s pontificate and the entire pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Glendon also devotes a short but complete chapter to the Vatican Bank, or what she characterizes as the ‘Bank that is not a bank’. Originally founded at the end of the nineteenth century by Pope Leo XIII as a kind of welfare institution, it became in fact a bank in 1942. Corruption gradually followed. Glendon describes that corruption, as well as its role in an equally gradual reform.

It seems that nothing she encountered necessarily surprised her. And yet nothing put her in apology mode. Sure, there are moments when she seems sad, but the overall tone is one of resilience and determination – all with a friendly smile rather than a stiff upper lip.

A strong spine also helps. Early on, she noted that ethnic Catholics employed one of two “survival strategies” in dealing with Protestant America. Or they could be turtles retreating into their spiritual lives, or chameleons adapting to their environment. As a pro-life feminist, she was destined and determined to be neither. But by her own account, she tended to shrug off expressions of anti-Catholic prejudice.

That ended during her tenure at Boston College Law School. Overnight, all crucifixes were suddenly removed from the classrooms. Seeing the “situation again,” she joined a challenge against this decision and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. But the crucifixes did not return.

Fast forward to the University of Notre Dame’s decision to award her the Laetare Medal And awarding an honorary doctorate to President Barack Obama, despite the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ request not to “honor those who act contrary to our fundamental moral principles.”

In response to objections from alumni and students, the university tried to calm everyone down by saying that Glendon’s comments would “balance” the program. Suddenly a ‘difficult situation’ had become an ‘impossible situation’. Glendon withdrew, while the other half of this balancing act, described here as a “sympathetic young man” who had once been her law student at Harvard, did not.

There are no similar stories about the development – ​​or developed – backbone of serving as a “stranger in a strange land.” But again: they weren’t necessary. This was her church, or a church that is “always in need of renewal.” And Mary Ann Glendon was and remains ready to reach out.

These memoirs will also remain close at hand. Its epilogue is simply called ‘The Hour of the Laity’. Here all ‘reflection’ disappears. And here she concludes her open case for a committed laity by borrowing from St. John Henry Newman, who when asked what he thought of the laity replied, “Without them we would look quite foolish.”

Apparently not content with mild humor, Glendon turns to Bishop Sheen speaking to the Knights of Columbus in 1972: “Who is going to save the Church? Not our bishops. Not our priests and religious! It’s up to you, the laity! You have the mind, the eyes and the ears to save the Church!”

While the contents of this book are sometimes a reflection of the need to respond to Bishop Sheen and sometimes a testimony to her own efforts, the epilogue offers a heartfelt “amen” to the words—and calling—of the good bishop.

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