From Cicero to Burke - Mary Ann Glendon speaks in Princeton University's Whig Hall on politics as a vocation during the inaugural Aquinas Lecture Feb. 7. Monitor photo by Scott Alessi
From Cicero to Burke - Mary Ann Glendon speaks in Princeton University's Whig Hall on politics as a vocation during the inaugural Aquinas Lecture Feb. 7. Monitor photo by Scott Alessi

Although many wish to pursue the noble goal of making a difference in the world, the path to bringing about true change is often a bumpy road.

Nonetheless, according to law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, it is still important to pursue such ideals, as one never knows how significant or long lasting their impact may be.

Drawing upon the lives of two noted political philosophers, Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University Law School, outlined the challenges that one often faces in attempting to improve the world around them during a talk before a packed crowd on the campus of Princeton University Feb. 7. Her presentation, entitled “Cicero and Burke on Politics as a Vocation,” was sponsored by the Aquinas Institute, Princeton University’s Catholic campus chaplaincy.

Glendon noted that Cicero, a well-known orator and political figure in the Roman Republic, and Edmund Burke, an Irishman who rose to prominence as an 18th-century British statesman, entered the world of politics with high ideals. At the end of each one’s life, however, they seemingly failed to achieve the goals they set out to accomplish.

Yet centuries later, both have come to be known through their writings as being among the most influential thinkers of their day.

“I think the message here is that just because one doesn’t see the results of one’s own vocation in one’s own lifetime, doesn’t mean that those efforts were in vain,” Glendon said.

Moral Compromise
Throughout her career, Glendon said, she has seen many promising students with ambitions of improving society who change their mind about entering politics. Their greatest concern, she said, is the fear that they will either be forced to give in to political corruption to succeed or risk being ineffective should they stick to their values.

“Many wonder whether they would have to compromise their principals so much in order to get into a position where they could have some influence, that they might become a different kind of person, that they might lose their moral compass along the way,” Glendon said. “And many wonder whether even if they somehow survived with their principles intact… things are so hopeless in the country or in the world that they won’t be able to, as they say, ‘make a difference.’”

Cicero and Burke, she said, dealt with the very same concerns, and both had to delicately balance efforts to maintain their popularity without sacrificing their ideals.

“Both Cicero and Burke,” Glendon said, “had to struggle with this problem of when, whether, and how much to compromise, and when does political compromise – which might be acceptable – shade off into moral compromise.”

Catholic Voice
In an interview with The Monitor prior to her presentation, Glendon said that Catholics, as well as people of other religious backgrounds, have an important obligation to “present religiously grounded moral viewpoints in public” and “to do so in a language that is accessible to persons of all faiths or no faith.”

In particular, she noted the success of the pro-life movement in America that has “slowly but surely changed opinion in this country.”

“It has changed understandings of what happens in abortion and it has especially changed opinions among young people,” Glendon said. “I think that the pro-life movement just continues on its way, through education and persuasion and trying to bring out the very best in what this country stands for – hospitality toward the weak and the vulnerable and the outsider.”

In addition to bringing a faith perspective to political discourse, Glendon said that Catholics must also work to dialogue with people of other faiths in order to promote religious freedom.

Following the call of Pope Benedict XVI, who has placed a great emphasis on the need to increase religious freedom around the world, Glendon is herself working to “make a difference” in this area. In her role as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Glendon has organized a worldwide conference entitled “Universal Rights in a World of Diversity: The Case for Religious Freedom,” to be held at the Vatican April 29 to May 6.

The conference, she said, will be an attempt to bring different faith leaders together to discuss “in a globalized, multi-cultural, religiously diverse world, how we can have an understanding of religious freedom that allows all religions to flourish, but in such a way as to not do harm and violence to other religions.”

Religious leaders, she added, must also work together to address the threats to their freedom that come from a highly-secularized culture that can often be hostile toward religion of any kind.

“I think it is just the right moment for us to be bringing people together to be talking about these issues,” Glendon said. “One of the things that the pope is saying is that it is up to the world’s religions to motivate their followers to find the answers to these questions so that they don’t tear us apart.”