Mary Ann Glendon: Politics Is a Vocation

Social Sciences Academy President Delivers Lecture in Rome

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, MARCH 24, 2011 ( From Cicero to Edmund Burke, the truly admirable statesmen have been both wise philosophers and practical politicians, according to Mary Ann Glendon.

Glendon, the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, spoke on the theme of politics as a vocation using the example of these two historical figures at a lecture at the Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum in Rome last week.

Ambassador Glendon explained how the struggle to maintain one’s moral principles in the face of political compromise was experienced by both the Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero and the 18th-century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke.

Though Cicero and Burke faced much opposition in their own lifetimes due to their refusal to compromise on principles, leading in fact to Cicero’s brutal murder upon the order of Mark Antony, they are praised for this quality today, in addition to their practical effectiveness as statesmen.

Glendon offered this advice for politicians in our own day: «What we have to hope for are states-persons and other decision-makers who have practical wisdom, but also well grounded in theory, and then it doesn’t hurt to get down on your benders and say a few prayers.»

If prayer is essential to carrying out one’s vocation in political life, one prayer in particular can help politicians reflect upon think the meaning of vocation. Professor Glendon quoted the prayer of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, in which he writes eloquently of the service and good we can all do by following God’s will.

It is each individual’s responsibility, Glendon remarked, to build a situation of life and love, for if we fail in this duty we are aiding the other side. As Edmund Burke is often attributed as saying, «The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.»

What we are certain of, Burke wrote in «Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents» (1770), is that «when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.»

Glendon, who is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, excerpted this lecture from her upcoming book «The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt.»

Glendon’s previous publications include other works on the theme of politics as a vocation such as «A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights.»

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