The Courage to Say No
Mary Ann Glendon answers an important call.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

New YorkBefore there was the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, there was Notre Dame’s announcement that they’d be awarding Pres. Barack Obama an honorary degree last spring. In some circles, the news from South Bend was even more reason-defying than this more recent announcement would be: The Nobel Committee’s honoree list already included Yasser Arafat, after all, so the outrage meter was broken in Oslo.

Of course, Notre Dame had already provided the forum for Mario Cuomo’s infamous “personally opposed” speech. All the more reason, as Our Lady’s university and one of the most prominent Catholic schools in the country, to get this one right. And yet they did the exact opposite: They gave the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States, as some of us are wont to acknowledge, their most prominent forum and thus political cover.

At least, I suppose, they did it before the president called the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops — along with other religious leaders — liars, actually accusing them of “bearing false witness” for characterizing his health-care push as a threat to our most vulnerable human lives, those of the unborn. It’s not like he had already put his support behind the deadly, expansive Freedom of Choice Act. (Oh, yes, he did, didn’t he.) It’s not like he had already reversed the Mexico City international-abortion-funding-prohibition policy. (Of course he did; that was one of the very first things he did in office.) It’s not like he was still refusing to take government-directed abortion expansion off the health-care reform table. (The U.S. Catholic bishops — no right-wing think tank — certainly believe differently.)

These actions were in many ways made easier — perhaps even possible — by prominent Catholics in his administration and by Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor him. Mercifully, Mary Ann Glendon made a different decision entirely.

She did not win the Nobel Peace Prize (though in her career as law professor, author, and diplomat, one could very well argue she should), but on Wednesday night at the Waldorf, Mary Ann Glendon was honored by the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund “for a trip that she declined to take to a small town in Indiana” because she knows that “a conscience is a terrible thing to waste.”

Glendon was asked to accept Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal at the same graduation ceremony. But upon receiving the news that she would be providing cover for Barack Obama, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican declined.

At the time, responding to Notre Dame’s president’s insistence that there would be a fruitful dialogue between the pomp and circumstance, Glendon wrote that: “A commencement . . . is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision — in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops — to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

To put those guidelines aside would be to put principle aside, she worried. To put identity aside. She wrote: “With recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.”

During her Waldorf speech, Glendon warned that “choices last,” and said that is why she made the one she did. Continuing to use the word that happens to be the abortion industry’s favorite euphemism, she said that “choices make us the people we are.” And “collective choices make us the kind of culture we are.”

“Each time,” she cautioned, we make policy decisions on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic experimentation, “we are shaping our country’s moral ecology for better or for worse.” She further warned of “how easily today’s atrocity can become tomorrow’s routine.”

But how do you make choices without a well-formed conscience? In a 2002 article called “The Hour of the Laity,” Glendon worried that Catholics in America “no longer know how to talk about what they believe or why they believe it. The people-called-together have lost their sense of who they are and what they were called to do.”

Identity, in other words, is the problem.