What She Saw at the Holy See

REVIEW: 'In the Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West' by Mary Ann Glendon

Mary Ann Glendon (Mark Wilson/Getty Images), 'In the Courts of Three Popes' (Amazon)
June 30, 2024

What is the essence of a diplomat's charm? Perfect manners infused with personal warmth; self-confidence leavened by self-deprecation; a fund of anecdote that never degenerates into gossip; an ability to drop names, not obnoxiously but just enough to make the listener feel they're getting the inside track; a little more erudition than you expect; a willingness to satisfy curiosity while gently steering you away from the question you perhaps wanted to ask.

Mary Ann Glendon's memoir of her Roman adventures—as head of the Vatican social-science academy, board member at the Vatican Bank, and briefly U.S. ambassador to the Holy See—is charming in all these respects. It is also a record of the Church's upheavals since Glendon was growing up in postwar Dalton, Mass., where the Protestants did the good works—the bake sales and the bus trips to the March on Washington—and the Catholics did the faith, observing a harsh Lent and piously reciting their novenas and rosaries. "With some five thousand inhabitants," Glendon remarks, "Dalton was the size that Aristotle envisioned for an ideal city," and you remember that she is also a professor at Harvard Law School.

In some ways Glendon fits the picture of the high-achieving conservative Catholic woman of her generation, who climbs to the top of her professional tree while raising a family. But that summary doesn't quite cover it. In the '60s she fell away from the Church, and was very briefly—and invalidly—married to "an African American lawyer I had met in the civil rights movement": Between his departure and her Catholic marriage a couple of years later, she raised her daughter alone. Though a pro-lifer who endorsed Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns, she is also a lifelong New Dealer who proudly voted for JFK and has, she tells us, "remained an Independent." And despite her diplomatic savoir-faire, she is willing—as we will see—to commit some striking and very deliberate indiscretions.

So In the Court of Three Popes can surprise you; and never more so than when Glendon reflects on the life of her cousin Barbara, who joined a strict religious order in the 1950s. After Vatican II, in a familiar series of events, Barbara "became an activist for social justice, exchanged her traditional religious habit for a pantsuit, moved into an apartment," and told Glendon that "the institutional church is totally irrelevant."

Just the details to have traditionally minded believers like this reviewer tut-tutting and lamenting the replacement of good old Catholicism with the post-1960s religion of the self. But then:

When I visited my prickly cousin in her agonizing final illness, I found her with a world atlas on her bed, open to Africa. She was offering up each day's suffering for the poor, hungry, and ailing of that continent, choosing a different country every morning. She had given her entire life to Christ, while I merely gave speeches, wrote papers, and went back home to a loving husband, three wonderful daughters, and satisfying work.

The reference to giving speeches is, as any reader of this book will confirm, well-justified. Glendon has endured more synods, conferences, and official functions than any human being should be required to. Nevertheless, her accounts of the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women, and of the workings of the Vatican, are well worth reading for anyone who can bear to find out how the sausage is made.

At the 1995 conference in Beijing, Glendon—as head of the Holy See's delegation—is optimistic that the United Nations will produce a sane document on women's rights, emphasizing the need to support families and provide economic security. A healthy consensus seems to be emerging. But then, all of a sudden, delegations from developing countries start coming to meetings with position papers all repeating the same phrases—which happen to be the stock phrases of pro-abortion NGOs.

Worst of all are the EU negotiating bloc, who try to eliminate the word "motherhood" and any mention of parental rights and duties—in flagrant contradiction, as Glendon points out, of their own national constitutions and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. When legislatures back in Europe start asking questions about the conference's radically progressive turn, one EU delegate wails to a Holy See negotiator: "Why did you people have to bring all this out in the open?" A lot of the NGO money sloshing around the United Nations, Glendon observes, is devoted to forging links between development agencies and Western programs to push abortion, sterilization, and contraception—"population control on the cheap."

As for the Vatican, the problems are less ideological than personal. Some of the machinations are petty enough: The veteran diplomat Archbishop Renato Martino, who is offended to find himself taking orders from a woman, subsequently "forgets" to pass on a papal invitation to dinner. (Years later he and Glendon patch it up.) More sinister are the host of "serpentine" figures around the Vatican Bank—where Glendon, as a board member from 2013, joins the efforts to root out corruption. Everyone who tries to reform the bank, oddly enough, seems to end up out of a job. To compound matters the bank's general director, Gian Franco Mammi, summarily fires the hugely respected deputy director Giulio Mattietti. The board opens an investigation; Glendon suspects "professional jealousy." But Mammi is an old friend of the pope's, and Francis swiftly closes down the investigation.

Glendon shies away from directly criticizing the Holy Father, though she does mention, what no honest observer could deny, that "his statements on matters of faith and morals have often been ambiguous or contradictory." And she allows herself a rather pointed epigraph, from Norbert Elias's The Court Society, to her chapter on the Francis era: "The affairs, intrigues, conflicts over rank and favour knew no end. Everyone depended on everyone else, and all on the king…"

Even so, as Glendon shows in her chapter on Pope Benedict, the Vatican cannot really be run by a sweet-natured, cat-loving scholar either. Here the epigraph, from Plutarch's Life of Phocion, is especially well-chosen:

So much was his old-fashioned virtue out of the present mode, among the depraved customs which time and luxury had introduced, that it appeared, indeed, remarkable and wonderful, but was too great and too good to suit the present exigencies, being so out of all proportion to the times.

But the pope who looms largest in this book, as he looms over so much recent Catholic history, is John Paul II. Yes, he was a poor administrator, as even his allies were already admitting in the mid-1990s; and the crises and scandals which have blighted 21st-century Catholicism were certainly beginning to develop under his watch.

Nevertheless, you cannot read this account and not be reminded of John Paul's towering greatness, in small moments as well as dramatic ones. The year before his death, his body distorted by pain, his face frozen by Parkinson's, this mighty defender of marriage and the domestic sphere speaks his last words to one of the hundreds of millions of Catholics he inspired. Except Glendon can't make out what he's saying. "His words were so slurred that I had to ask him to say it again. Very slowly, he repeated, 'How's the family?'"

In the Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West
by Mary Ann Glendon
Random House, 240 pp., $27

Dan Hitchens is senior editor of First Things.