Mary Ann Glendon was sworn in as the ambassador of the United States to the Holy See on Feb. 14, 2008. Meeting her in June at the residence of the U.S. Embassy  on the Gianicolo Hill in Rome, I understood firsthand why the Senate confirmed her as ambassador as quickly as it did. She combines an impeccable professional résumé with a gracious, unaffected personal elegance. Ambassador Glendon met me at the portico before we moved to a more comfortable setting, where we spoke with ease and openness.
Mrs. Glendon is also the Learned Hand Professor of Law  at Harvard University and an expert on international human rights and comparative constitutional law in the United States and Europe. Her list of publications is yards long. In 1994 Pope John Paul II appointed her to the newly created Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences ; 10 years later he appointed her its president, marking the first time a woman had been named as president of a major pontifical academy. She is also the first woman to lead a Vatican delegation to a U.N. conference. In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed her to head the 22 members representing the Holy See at the Conference on Women in Beijing. Mrs. Glendon is married and the mother of three daughters.
How did you become ambassador to the Holy See?
I became an ambassador, funnily enough, just as I was in the midst of writing a book about people who were torn between scholarship and politics. I was at home, putting the finishing touches on a chapter on John Locke, when the phone rang. Karl Rove was calling from the White House and asked if I would like to be the ambassador to the Holy See, and I said yes. I probably should have said, “I’ll think about it,” or “Tell me more about the position,” but instead I just said, “Yes, I would like that.” Because I was raising three children in the years when such professional opportunities usually come along, I had more or less thought, well, you can’t do everything in life, and so I never thought about the possibility of something like this happening at this time.
What book were you writing?
It’s called The Forum and the Tower. It’s a book of biographical essays about people who were struggling with the push and pull of whether to go into politics or to stick with philosophy or scholarship or charitable works, or vice versa—people like Plato, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Locke and several others. Many of the people I’m writing about thought they were destined for one thing and ended up doing something else. There probably will be 12 chapters. I was working on Chapter Six when the call came from Washington.
And Plato, didn’t he always want to be a philosopher?
Few people know that Plato came from a political family. He assumed that his destiny was politics. He tried four times to go into politics and failed spectacularly each time, first in Athens and then in Syracuse. So philosophy for him was a second choice, which turned out to be a great thing for the world.
Do you have a job description?
Since I come from an academic environment, I am trying to put my background in international studies and human rights to good use in public diplomacy. So I am devoting a fair amount of time to organizing several conferences on aspects of human rights that are of particular concern to both the United States and the Holy See. That seems to me a fitting way to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, which is on Jan. 10, 2009, one month after the 60th anniversary, on Dec. 10, 2008, of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights .
The conferences scheduled for this year include: a roundtable on the fight against all forms of human trafficking, a forum on the challenges to the universality principle, a forum on what Pope Benedict calls the American model of “positive secularism” and a forum showcasing the “one laptop per child” initiative as a way of bringing to life the right to education. And we are probably going to have a conference on philanthropy, because there is so much interest in Europe about the role that private giving plays in the United States, as distinct from thinking of humanitarian aid as just something that only governments do. We had our first conference in May, where we lifted up the Latin American contributions to the post-World War II human-rights project. Two Latin American embassies co-sponsored it, many attended it, and now the papers are being distributed all over Latin America.
I’m thinking of your book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . What was Mrs. Roosevelt’s basic understanding of human rights?
Mrs. Roosevelt understood that where human rights are concerned culture is prior to law. That understanding was shared by most of her colleagues on the U.N.’s first Human Rights Commission , but she was the one who expressed it best: “Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.... Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
You have said that the United States and the Vatican are in agreement with most of the principles contained in the Universal Declaration. Where is the agreement most evident? Where is it strained?
The points on which agreement is most obvious, because most frequently emphasized by both entities, concern the importance of human dignity and religious freedom. Too little noted, in my view, is their shared commitment to the goal of “better standards of life in larger freedom” for everyone, especially for the most disadvantaged peoples of the world.
A major difference arises from a tendency in the United States to read the declaration as a “list” of rights (like our Bill of Rights), while the Holy See has consistently understood the document’s provisions as indivisible and interdependent.
Did the visit of Pope Benedict to the United States in April solidify relations between the Holy See and the United States?
It is unprecedented for the president and the pope to meet not only once but three times in little over one calendar year. This is big news, and I don’t think that there has ever been more synergy of interest between the United States and the Holy See than there is now. The three visits are, in a way, outward symbols of the close correspondence between the president and the Holy Father.
Do you suppose when they were alone at their April meeting that they might have discussed Iraq?
I can say a little bit about that because the president did tell me that the day before he met with the pope, he checked with Gen. David Petraeus to get the most up-to-date report on the situation, and he began his conversation with the pope with the latest information. The Holy See’s interest now is really similar to that of the United States in that they are very worried about building a stable political order that will protect the rights of Christians and other religious minorities.
How does that look?
It is fragile. Everybody says it is fragile, but significant improvements have been noticed. I don’t think anybody wants to predict with certainty that this will last, but things have definitely been improving. The pope gave a wonderful speech to Holy See diplomats in January. I wasn’t here because I wasn’t yet accredited; but at the end of his speech he said diplomacy is the art of hope, and diplomats must make every effort to discern the rays of hope wherever they appear and however faltering they may be. That’s the art of diplomacy, or what is now called “soft power,” as opposed to force.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has emphatic words about torture. Have there been conversations at the Holy See about torture in light of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?
Yes, there have been conversations with the Holy See. I certainly am not an expert on the subject, but I am not aware of any other country in history that has held itself to as high a standard as the United States has in all the wars in which it has been involved. This does not mean that countries always live up to the standard they set. But just to be even more emphatic, I am not aware of any country that has set for itself such a high standard and that has done as well at living up to that standard as has the United States.
Is the Roman Catholic understanding of human rights distinguishable from rights language in other religions? How universal is human-rights language?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become, for better or worse, the single most important reference point for cross-cultural discussions of what is owed to human beings simply by virtue of their humanity. But no religion, so far as I know, is entirely comfortable with the language of rights. Popes in recent years have praised the declaration, but at the same time have emphasized the need to maintain the connection between rights and responsibilities, to be on guard against manipulation and to search for ways to place the declaration’s small core of fundamental rights on a firmer foundation. The universality principle, and the challenge of maintaining it, will be the theme of an embassy-sponsored forum on Oct. 16 titled “For Everyone, Everywhere.”
How distracting or damaging is it for human-rights language to be co-opted as secular by thinkers like Michael Ignatieff?
I would not single out any particular individual in this respect. Rather, I would say that the more the human rights idea showed its power, the more contests were to be expected over the identity, meaning and implementation of fundamental rights. That is why Pope Benedict XVI cautioned in his U.N. speech that “efforts need to be redoubled in the face of pressure to...move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests.”
What does a faith perspective add to the discernment regarding intervention in or on behalf of nonsovereign states? Is that faith perspective in play?
The rise in aggression by nonstate actors presents international law and Catholic just war theory alike with novel and difficult problems. As a starting point for reflection, I don’t think one can improve upon what Pope Benedict said at the United Nations on April 18, 2008, about “the duty to protect.” A government’s duty to protect the community for which it is responsible, he said, is at the foundation of all good government, and it was implicitly present in the founding of the United Nations. If a state is unable to fulfill its duty to protect its own citizens, he said, “the international community must intervene”—but only “provided that it respects the principles undergirding the international order.” There’s the rub. There are a host of unresolved questions concerning the circumstances under which it is appropriate to intervene.
Is someone at the Holy See looking into the unresolved questions?
This has not come up in my conversations with the Holy Father, but it does come within the purview of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences , which includes a number of lawyers and political theorists. They are aware that we are dealing with an area where the principles are clear, but the application of the principles to new situations is not. High-ranking officials in the Holy See have suggested to us that it would be helpful to the Holy See if we would have our experts devote attention to these difficult and novel questions.
You have said that conversation about faith in public life takes place in the United States more than in Europe. Where does that conversation most excite you?
What strikes me particularly about the United States, in contrast to Europe, is the degree to which the public square is at least open to religiously grounded moral viewpoints. In the wake of the pope’s visit to the United States, many Europeans told us that what impressed them most was the sight on the White House lawn of the leader of a great nation warmly welcoming a great religious leader. For most of them, it would be hard to imagine such an event in their own countries. That event spoke volumes about what the pope calls the American model of “positive secularism.” Italians, especially, were impressed, given the opposition that prevented the pope from speaking at La Sapienza University earlier this year.
You are also planning a conference on what the pope calls the American model of “positive secularism.” Would you say something more about that?
I don’t think that most people know how the American model of religious liberty works. The reason they don’t understand it is because even constitutional lawyers have difficulty explaining it in a way that is intelligible to nonlawyers or non-Americans. Church-state law is extremely complicated, so there’s a challenge for us now that the pope has praised what he calls the American model. People are asking me as the ambassador, and as a lawyer who does some constitutional and even church-state law, for a brief summary. So I wrote to colleagues who are experts in this field to see whether anyone knew of a primer that would be intelligible to nonlawyers. There does not seem to be one. This is what we are going to attempt in January for our grand finale conference. We’re going to elucidate the American model.
Is there a clue you could give us as to how it works?
What attracts a European observer in the model of what Benedict calls “positive secularism” is that you can have a secular state that is not hostile to religion.
If we might return to Eleanor Roosevelt for our final question: How “sell-able” to U.S. women in 2008 is her message that we need “to find how we can best use the potentialities of women without impairing their first responsibilities, which are to their home, their husbands and their children”?
There have been many changes in the status of women since Eleanor Roosevelt made that statement, but many of the challenges remain the same, especially for women who are struggling to balance work and family responsibilities. Today, women and men alike are struggling to find ways to have a decent family life while working in environments where, all too often, they are required to conform to a unisex model in which family life is subordinated to the demands of the job. Broadened to include both women and men, Mrs. Roosevelt’s challenge to rethink the organization of the world of work remains as important as ever.
From the archives, Mary Ann Glendon on the new feminism .