Special Report

Defending Mary Ann Glendon

For not allowing herself to be used by defenders of President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame, the Harvard law professor is being attacked as a tool of the former Bush administration.

By 5.4.09

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The open letter from Professor Mary Ann Glendon to Fr. John Jenkins declining a Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame almost shimmers with clarity of thought, but some of the people unimpressed by her principled refusal to serve as a token for two presidents now accuse Glendon of hypocrisy.

In the letter, Glendon explains why she has a problem with Notre Dame awarding an honorary degree to President Obama. Although she highlights President Obama's sorry record on life issues, Glendon also makes clear that her chief gripes are with Fr. Jenkins, the university president whose gamesmanship turned a misconceived publicity coup into a betrayal of faith and episcopal confidence.

Parts of that indictment could not have been new to Fr. Jenkins, as Glendon's daughter noted afterward, because they are similar to what more than 50 bishops had already said about the incoherence of claiming a Catholic identity while honoring the most profoundly pro-abortion president in American history.

Hypocrisy hunters and connoisseurs of irony should find more of both of those things in President Jenkins and President Obama than in Professor Glendon, yet some complain about her instead. After all, they reason, how could a principled person have worked for George W. Bush?

That really is their argument. They don't think much of the former president's color-blind Cabinet or herculean efforts to relieve the scourge of AIDS in Africa. To hell with the "Marsh Arabs," the belated but sincere attention to terrorism, the thankless enforcement of United Nations resolutions that other countries ignored, and the mass graves for which Iraq was formerly known, they seem to say: George W. Bush was unscrupulous! He let slip the dogs of war, and huddled with a vice president who was scary rather than genial. Such critics still do not understand why Pope Benedict XVI met so cordially with President Bush.

A comment left at Amy Welborn's Via Media blog represents the breed: "To grasp, as Glendon is doing here, for the moral high ground in opposition to a pro-abortion-rights president even as she has most recently been the public representative -- to the Vatican, no less! -- of an administration that had, as unapologetic policy, such intrinsic evils as torture: well, it is more ironic than I could ever have imagined," huffed one reader.

Because the Notre Dame story is packed with theological angles in addition to its pastoral and political angles, at least one response to the irony-finder of atrophied imagination quoted above can be drawn from scripture: Peter the apostle was no stranger to hypocrisy, either, yet that failing did not disqualify him from fruitful ministry or powerful Christian witness.

Some critics ignore the intelligence-gathering policies of the administration for which Glendon served as an ambassador to single out capital punishment as a blot on the Bush legacy. They forget that, per the grand old principle of subsidiarity, American death penalty cases are usually prosecuted at the state level rather than the federal level.

While Texas did execute people for capital crimes when George W. Bush was governor there, the death penalty is not applied at executive whim, and not properly labeled an "intrinsic evil," which also means that it cannot be the moral equivalent of abortion.

Mindful of the fact that Vatican use of capital punishment persisted into the 19th century with hangings under Pope Pius IX, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as a legitimate but morally hazardous form of punishment that should only be used in those vanishingly few cases where non-lethal means cannot protect the public from the depredations of an aggressive individual. To flout that restriction is not to invalidate it.

Even if Glendon were guilty of hypocrisy, it is not the game-ender that some of her critics think it is. Those seeking unalloyed purity in their messengers might remember that the man who denied Jesus was afterward told by him to "Feed my sheep." In our own time, this is also why I smile at people who wonder whether willingness to pose in bikinis makes it hard for beauty pageant contestants to defend traditional marriage or swimsuit models to speak for the pro-life cause. Carrie Prejean and Kathy Ireland seem to be doing just fine.

Alleged complicity in torture is a more serious charge than support for the death penalty, but whether the American ambassador to the Holy See would have been briefed on the particulars of what the Bush administration euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques" remains an open question. Torture is evil, as almost everybody admits. Fewer people remember that the Bush administration took pains to build anti-terrorist policies on "just war" concepts that theologians have long regarded as matters of prudential judgment proper to civil authority.

It is perhaps fair to say that President Bush botched the just war argument by resorting too frequently to a one-note insistence on freedom. It may also be fair to speculate that back-benchers in his administration probably abandoned a few (but not all) just war principles when they looked harder at legal questions than at moral ones. Some analysts wrongly attempted to justify cruelty on utilitarian grounds. Yet thoughtful people who do not condone waterboarding, for example, can nevertheless make distinctions between extreme discomfort and permanent injury. Moreover, George W. Bush had at least one advantage that Barack Obama does not have: Although he was incapable of soaring rhetoric, and ridiculed for praising incompetent subordinates with phrases like "Heckuva job, Brownie," President Bush never made the mistake of falling in love with his own delivery. His gaffes were those of ignorance rather than intellectual pretension. As a result, he approached ethical questions with a gravity and humility that the current administration has yet to match.

The bottom line works to Professor Glendon's advantage: Serious arguments for just war and the death penalty have been made, while the same cannot be said about abortion. In view of all that, the burden of proof rests not on Professor Glendon, but on her critics.

The other starring figure in the Notre Dame drama wants to have it both ways. He and his inner circle hold 100% approval ratings from the abortion lobby, yet he promises an "inclusive" and "respectful" commencement address at a university whose stewards are least nominally opposed to his most significant policies.

That means that if an oblique reference to abortion or embryonic stem cell research keeps company with boilerplate phrasing about hope, change, and dialog, listeners will have to endure the finest sales pitch for moral equivalence that President Obama and his speech writers can muster. As Francis Cardinal George observed after being lied to, "It's hard to disagree with him because he'll always tell you he agrees with you," yet disagreement is necessary.

Fortunately, Cardinal George not only challenged President Obama's lies (some of which were recycled for a press conference last week); he also described similarities between abortion and slavery, suggesting that if abortion were viewed through the lens of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Catholic bishops would be with Lincoln, and President Obama would be with Douglas.

As the Learned Hand Professor of Law, with research interests in bioethics, constitutional law, and human rights, Mary Ann Glendon could also demolish the talking points to which President Obama has pledged himself, but an award acceptance speech is not the proper forum for that.

Far from being hypocritical, Professor Glendon's service as an ambassador to the Holy See, her lifetime of pro bono work, and her refusal to be part of the John Jenkins Circus for Obama speaks volumes about her understanding of Catholic teaching. Would that we all had her courage. 

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.