Mary Ann Glendon Declines Notre Dame’s Invitation

As Brendan noted a while back, the Notre Dame controversy, “has all the staying power of an inebriated relative after a dinner party.” I’m loathe to post on it again, but there has been a fairly significant development: Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon has decided not to attend the graduation or accept the Laetare Medal. Here, via First Things is the text of her letter to Father Jenkins:

April 27, 2009
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
University of Notre Dame

Dear Father Jenkins,

When you informed me in December 2008 that I had been selected to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, I was profoundly moved. I treasure the memory of receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1996, and I have always felt honored that the commencement speech I gave that year was included in the anthology of Notre Dame’s most memorable commencement speeches. So I immediately began working on an acceptance speech that I hoped would be worthy of the occasion, of the honor of the medal, and of your students and faculty.

Last month, when you called to tell me that the commencement speech was to be given by President Obama, I mentioned to you that I would have to rewrite my speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the task that once seemed so delightful has been complicated by a number of factors.

First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

• “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

• “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

A commencement, however, 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.

Finally, 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.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.

In order to avoid the inevitable speculation about the reasons for my decision, I will release this letter to the press, but I do not plan to make any further comment on the matter at this time.

Yours Very Truly,

Mary Ann Glendon

Mary Ann Glendon is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. A member of the editorial and advisory board of First Things, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2007 to 2009.

32 Responses to Mary Ann Glendon Declines Notre Dame’s Invitation

  1. And in other news, Jesus accepts the invitation of a tax collector to visit him at his home! News at 11.

  2. Dale Price says:

    Wow. An impressive stand on principle, and good reason for it, too, citing the “ticket balancing” references, which I had not seen. That rhetoric is analogous to Bilbo’s “gross” invitees, suggesting she was selected as cover for the laurels to be rained upon the President.

  3. John Henry says:


    It might be more productive to specify why you disagree with Prof. Glendon’s decision (if you do disagree with it), rather than (facetiously?) making an analogy of dubious relevance.

  4. SB says:

    I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t sucking up to the tax collector and giving him honors; in fact, I seem to recall something about calling the tax collector to repentance. Quaint old notion, repentance.

  5. paul zummo says:

    And in other news, Jesus accepts the invitation of a tax collector to visit him at his home!

    And we all know that when the tax collector and Jesus chatted, Jesus didn’t call the tax collector to repentance and conversion. Instead, Jesus spoke about the weather and how well seasoned the fish was.

    Look, if you’re going to snarkily make a biblical reference, it would probably help if the situations were analogous. But that would require a depth of reasoning beyond your pay grade.

  6. Dale Price says:

    Henry, that analogy only works if you are contending that Jenkins and the university sinned and repented. But using her as cover suggests that the administration is far from repenting of anything.

    As opposed to making an award to Glendon out of mixed motives. Which your analogy also fails to account for.

    Also, it would be nice of you to admit that the University put Glendon in a Hell of a spot: to offer even the mildest criticism of the President in front of the “honored” (read: star-struck) Domers would have risked that greatest of sins of progressive Catholicism: divisiveness.

  7. Matt McDonald says:

    Isn’t Henry Karlson calling Notre Dame a sinful tax collector? Maybe Prof. Glendon should go and reproach them?

  8. Glendon shows great character here. Commencements are not the place for fighting; the focus should be on the graduates. Giving Glendon a medal while expecting her to be the hired gun to try to salvage the university’s moral authority isn’t an honorable move nor is it one truly oriented to the graduates. Glendon did the right thing.

    Now, the university is in a bind. They just got slapped in the face hard b/c of Obama. One still hopes they switch course (though that is highly unlikely at this point) because now they just had the prestige of their highest honor lessened and may deem the Laetere Award (a symbol of their own prestige) more valuable than Obama.

  9. James says:

    Didn’t Jesus go to sinners to tell them to stop sinning?

  10. de Med says:

    Rush L. used the same “argument” to rationalize writing a column in Playboy: you’ve got to go where the sinners are. Henry K., weak, very weak.

  11. Tom says:

    Didn’t Jesus go to sinners to tell them to stop sinning?

    Walk me through this, please.

    Mary Ann Glendon plays the role of Jesus, right? So you’re saying she should go to Notre Dame and, while accepting the Laetare Medal, tell someone to stop sinning?

    Who is it she should tell and what should she tell them?

    And if you’re going to criticize her for being insufficiently Christ-like, can you explain why it’s her responsibility to tell whoever she should tell whatever she should tell them?

  12. James says:

    Actually Tom you missed my point. I was pointing out that Jesus went to sinners to tell them to stop sinning. I think Notre Dame giving an honorary degree is not telling the sinner to stop sinning, it is rewarding. The comment related to Henry’s post and not to Glendon’s refusal to go. I think this sort of refusal is appropriate in that she has made her objections known.

  13. Tom says:

    Actually Tom you missed my point.

    I sure did!

    Based on the comments he made at dotCommonweal, though, I think Henry was criticizing Glendon, not defending Notre Dame.

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Glendon to Jenkins: Find yourself another figleaf!

  15. James says:

    Yes, my comment was not completely clear. But my point was to criticize N.D.

    Thanks for the link.

  16. de Med says:

    Henry K., I read your comment in Commonweal. I think what she was doing is not being cynically used by Jenkins to give “cover” to ND — “see how balanced we are.” It blew up in his face. As she points out, her speech would be short and not really that appropriate time to do a point by point or pro-life philospy talk to an honored President. She was as wise as a serpent. As the following article points out, Jenkins got schooled by a ‘Ahvard law prof.

  17. While it’s disappointing not to have Glendon there to provide a Catholic voice at the event (as I seem to recall the local ordinary had said he hoped to see happen, when he originally said that he was choosing not to attend for principled reasons) it seems to me that the university was putting Glendon in a deeply untenable situation. On the one hand, all of Obama’s explicit or tacit supporters would expect her to say all sorts of positive things about his presence there (or at least ignore it) while those (including the local ordinary) who have decried the Obama invite would expect her to deliver a Jeremiad of some sort.

    Either way, it seems clear that Glendon was being set up to the the fall guy (fall lady?) of the event by both sides, and I think it shows wisdom on her part to simply back out. There was no gracious way to deal with the situation she was being thrust into.

    If Henry requires a biblical allusion, perhaps he should turn to where Jesus asks the Pharisees whether John the Baptist was a true prophet as a condition to his answering their questions.

  18. de Med says:

    This will provide an even greater Catholic voice than if she went and did some speech. Her action speakly loudly — Catholic teaching matters; character and integrity matter. This is a bombshell and watershed moment in Catholic public life. I don’t care what else she has done, I will never forget her sacrifice and integrity.

  19. John Henry says:

    de Med,

    I agree this is a watershed moment of some type; I’m not sure which way it will go though. It could lead to a more explicit and permanent break in the already uneven relationship between the bishops and Notre Dame (not to mention colleges even less interested in preserving a Catholic identity). On the other hand, the sharp backlash from the bishops could provide motivation for presidents of Catholic universities to take the bishop’s statements and, by extension, their Catholic identity more seriously. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve been very surprised by the forcefulness of the bishop’s criticism; as, I’m sure, has Fr. Jenkins.

  20. de Med says:

    John Henry,

    I agree. I think the bishops will be emboldened by her actions. It’s hard not to respect her integrity and courage. They will naturally want to emulate it. I think more will register disapproval. At some point, Jenkins looks foolish. How many US bishops have to be against you to make that happen? This event is a dividing line. Univ., are you Catholic or not? Make up your mind. I just think there are enough ND faithful who will side with Bishops as against ND. ND runs the risk of being marginalized. ND is special, precisely b/c they are Catholic. If they lose that identity, they’ve lost a pearl of great price. Jenkins has ND and himself in a box. I think we didn’t think through possibilities. He got caught up in the moment — something which I’m guilty of myself.

  21. Joe Hargrave says:

    Using Jesus this way makes it harder for us to invoke him the right way.

    I would invite Obama into my house for dinner on the condition that he listen to what I have to say about abortion.

    I wouldn’t honor him with any sort of degree, which only legitimizes his position. While I agree with him on some things, probably more things than I did Pres. Bush, the dividing line in our culture is between the culture of life and death. Those on the death side can be engaged respectfully, but they must not be honored.

  22. Dualism fails to ignore the dignity of the human person, and also the dignity of offices. Sad.

  23. daledog says:

    “A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families.”

    So simple, yet so elusive to Fr. Jenkins.

  24. Matt McDonald says:


    I would invite Obama into my house for dinner on the condition that he listen to what I have to say about abortion.

    good post! Sadly that is not what Fr. Jenkins has arranged.

  25. de Med says:

    Henry Karlson,

    I’m sorry — I’m missing something. What are you saying?

  26. Mike Petrik says:

    de Med.
    Henry is saying that Catholicism does not allow for the belief that people fall into one of two buckets — good and bad. This means, therefore, that the conferral of an honorary law degree upon a lawyer whose most famous legislative contribution was to ensure that infants may be legally deprived of ordinary care if born as a consequence of a failed abortion is perfectly ok. Or more precisely, to think it is a bad idea is to be less than Catholic. All clear now? You will know if you are laughing.

  27. de Med says:

    Mike, what view of Catholicism is he espousing that doesn’t recognize people who do evil? Give me more info — I’m still a little unclear. This is a new concept to me. Is he saying ND was right to give this honorary law degree to Obama?

  28. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Mike, I was going to comment, but you have said it all. Bravo!

  29. Dale Price says:

    de Med:

    “Is he saying ND was right to give this honorary law degree to Obama?”

    Not quite in so many words, but for all intents and purposes, yes.

    What he has said explicitly is that objecting to the conferral of the honorary degree is un-Christian and fails to follow the example of Christ’s parables in some way known only to Mr. Karlson.

  30. de Med says:


    Thanks, for the clarity. I sincerely didn’t know where he was going – it was vague. I asked a ND student about this. I asked her “is there anyone who you think would be disqualified from getting such an honor? Where do you stop? And if it’s somebody really really bad, then what does that say about how you view abortion? I would like to know Henry’s criteria and who he thinks wouldn’t pass muster.

  31. S.B says:

    You’re assuming that Henry has any criteria here, besides reflexively opposing whatever real pro-lifers do or say.

  32. Robert Sorbet says:

    In my opinion everyone loses: President Obama, Notre Dame, its students, Fr Jenkins, its Board of Trustees, Mary Glendon, the Bishops. This is a mess
    that breeds ill feelings and broken hearts,

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