Views mixed on Bush pick for envoy to Vatican
Mary Ann Glendon, a prominent legal scholar and a papal adviser poised to become the next US ambassador to the Vatican, is known for staunchly defending Catholic doctrine while striking a conciliatory tone with opponents, colleagues said yesterday.
Supporters said Glendon would bring a measured sensibility to a politically sensitive position, but opponents criticized her as a social conservative in lockstep with the Vatican’s opposition to contraception and gay marriage. In recent years, Glendon has been a leading legal specialist on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and was tapped this summer to lead an advisory group on judicial matters for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The White House announced Monday that President Bush will nominate Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor who has advised the Vatican for more than a decade, to the position, which requires Senate confirmation.
Glendon, 69, also an opponent of abortion rights, is considered an authority on family law and social policy, bioethics, and international human rights. In 2004, she became the highest-ranking female adviser in the church when Pope John Paul II chose her to lead the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a powerful panel that helps the church establish social policy.
Raymond L. Flynn, the US ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997 and a longtime friend of Glendon’s, said her sharp mind and even temperament would serve her well in the diplomatic realm.
“She’s an extraordinary legal mind and a very loyal American,” said Flynn, a former Boston mayor. “She has dealt with the great scholars of the world, but is still a really down-to-earth person.”
Flynn, who recently returned from a two-week visit to Rome, said top Vatican officials were excited at Glendon’s appointment because of their long relationship.
Glendon was an adviser to John Paul II and in 1995 became the first woman to lead a Vatican delegation, at the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing.
Glendon, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, would succeed Francis Rooney, the envoy for the past two years.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley praised her nomination. “Dr. Glendon’s career is marked with numerous achievements in law, education, and international affairs that provide her exemplary credentials for this post,” he said.
Flynn said Glendon, who has been discussed as a potential Supreme Court nominee in recent years, is committed to “social and economic justice rooted in the philosophy of the church” and does not cling to political partisanship.
“American political opinion is often at odds with the Catholic Church,” Flynn said. “It’s a fine line you have to walk, and sometimes it can be very difficult. But she’s really not a political person. She approaches a lot of issues from a legal standpoint and keeps personal opinions out of the mix.”
With heightened tensions between the Vatican and the United States over the war in Iraq, which the Vatican has sharply opposed, naming someone with Glendon’s judicious mindset is well-timed, said the Rev. Robert Imbelli, a Boston College theology professor who has worked with Glendon.
“She has a very gracious presence that lends itself not so much to polemics but to debate,” he said. “That’s very much needed at this delicate juncture, which makes her choice so important.”
But critics said Glendon’s views represent the right wing of the church and are out of step with mainstream Catholics.
“She has also been an outspoken critic of feminism, tending to write it off as a relic of the 1970s,” said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theologian, “all of which endears her to conservative Catholics and makes her an ideal choice for President Bush.”
During the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Glendon criticized news organizations for exaggerating the extent of the abuse and singling out Catholic priests.
Jon O’Brien – president of Catholics for a Free Choice, which supports abortion rights – called Glendon a reactionary.
“Dr. Glendon’s stance on many matters of importance is not representative of Americans’ views on these issues, let alone those of American Catholics,” O’Brien said in a statement. “Her appointment comes at a time when the global community needs more critics of the Vatican’s policies on sexual and reproductive rights.”
But David O’Brien, professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, described Glendon as “a centrist” with a deep understanding of the Vatican and the American church.
“She’s a good choice for this administration and has always stood well with the church hierarchy,” he said. “She certainly knows her way around the church.”
A native of Western Massachusetts, Glendon received her bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Chicago and taught at Boston College from 1968 to 1986. She came to Harvard in 1986.
She is married with three children and lives in Newton.
Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried described Glendon as a “terrific and terrifically sensible person who has managed to be faithful to the church without ever being extreme or strident.
“She always understands where people are coming from even if she doesn’t agree with them,” he said.
This article was originally published in the 7 November 2007 edition of the Boston Globe.