In the Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West is Mary Ann Glendon’s “story of… experiences with the Holy See and what…(she) saw in the courts of three very different popes as they tried to respond to the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly transforming world.” As such, it is many things: a personal memoir, an insider’s account of the Vatican, an exploration of the difficulties facing the Catholic Church today, and “a reflection on the changing role of the laity.” 

Less obviously, though no less importantly, it is a guide to the state of Catholic international relations (IR) theory and practice, as seen from Glendon’s vantage point as professor of comparative law, head of the Holy See’s[i] delegation to the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, held in Beijing, member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS), and US Ambassador to the Holy See, among other experiences. Read in this light, In the Court of Three Popes reveals the Church’s failure to prioritize the renewal of Catholic IR theory, as well as its declining credibility as a moral witness on global issues; at the same time, Glendon highlights the riches of the Catholic tradition and potential for renewal in the realm of international affairs.  

Glendon places her memoir in the context of the Second Vatican Council’s call for aggiornamento, or“updating,” and the cultural changes of the latter 20th century that have made the Church’s mission far more challenging. Contrary to popular misconceptions, aggiornamento was never about “breaking with tradition,” but “rather…is an expression of that tradition’s ongoing vitality.” As Glendon points out: 

“Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis all had to strive to find better ways to fulfill the Church’s mission ‘at the end of Christendom,’ in Fulton Sheen’s words.…[F]or these three popes, the work of aggiornamento meant finding better ways to communicate with modern men and women, reforming inefficient ecclesiastical structures, working to heal old divisions in Christianity, and improving relations with other religions and secular institutions.” [5] [6] 

Glendon recounts her experience working for and with the Vatican under these pontiffs, highlighting how each Pope and his court (curia) have navigated the post-Vatican II landscape. Reflecting her broad expertise, Glendon touches on topics ranging from public diplomacy and human rights to religious freedom and feminism. Glendon is carefully attentive to each of these themes as well as the Catholic IR theory [7] that ties them together in a coherent moral vision.

Glendon relates that, as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS) in 2005, she felt that “Catholic international relations theory was badly in need of aggiornamento.” Given that the last comprehensive anthology on the topic was published in the 1930’s, this seems valid. Today, one is more likely to uncover the Catholic roots of Just War Theory or human rights in a secular IR program than a religious setting.

Glendon’s further recollections offer insight into her understanding of aggiornamento in Catholic IR theory. She notes that 

“…few experts on subsidiarity[ii] in Catholic social thought had discussed it in the context of international relations. Catholic discussions of the subsidiarity concept had been concerned mainly with the relationship between the nation-state and the intermediate institutions of civil society. What needed study was how to apply the doctrine in the globalized twenty-first century world…” 

Thus, in Glendon’s view, the tenets of Catholic IR theory are perennial, but their application must keep up with the changing global context. Having collected two volumes on this topic,

“the academicians had hoped that their essays identifying internal tensions in Catholic international relations theory would lead to fruitful discussions with members of the curia on how to apply the doctrine of subsidiarity to concrete, real-world problems.” 

Unfortunately, the curia proved uninterested.[iii] By 2012, nearing the end of her tenure as president of the PASS, Glendon remained concerned about the state of Catholic IR theory. She recalls:

“…it seemed to me that there was an urgent need for attention to Catholic international relations theory. The Holy See had long been a strong supporter of the United Nations and other international bodies. But as Archbishop Augustine Di Noia…had pointed out…the programs and policies of many international organizations, including the United Nations, had been profoundly influenced by a secular anthropology that ‘espouses the socially constructed character of truth and reality, the priority of cultural diversity, the deconstruction of all moral norms, and the priority of personal choice.’…Clearly, the time was overdue for Catholic international relations theorists to undertake a critical evaluation of the whole field, including the accomplishments, failures, and biases of contemporary international organizations.”

Once again, Glendon was a voice crying out in the wilderness. A “critical evaluation of the whole field” has yet to take place, and with international organizations growing increasingly hostile to Christian values and a breakdown of the international order underway, this task is more urgent than ever. 

In the Courts of Three Popes does more than address Catholic IR theory; without referring to it as such, much of the book is concerned with the practice of international relations in the Catholic Church and the ways it does (or does not) contribute to the overall project of aggiornamento[8] . The Holy See’s status as a sovereign entity and the pope’s roles as both monarch of the Vatican and head of the worldwide Catholic Church create unique opportunities for Catholic engagement in international affairs. Glendon’s past roles as head of the Holy See delegation to the Beijing conference and US ambassador to the Holy See are a testament to this, and her recollections offer a fascinating glimpse of the Church’s influence on world affairs. 

At the 1995 Beijing conference, the Holy See delegation played a pivotal role in exposing the efforts of European negotiators to push an anti-family, anti-religious-freedom agenda in opposition to their own nations’ domestic and international commitments. Glendon expresses admiration for John Paul II’s approach to Holy See diplomacy and promotion of human rights. She also highlights [9] Pope Benedict’s oft-overlooked championing of American-style “healthy secularism” as well as his prophetic warnings about the ideological hijacking of the human rights movement. Also noteworthy is her observation that, with its global network, “the Holy See is well positioned to know what is actually going on in the capitals of societies where the United States has little or no presence.”

Clearly, Glendon appreciates the Catholic Church’s potential to be a moral witness and effective actor at the international level; however, she warns that in recent years, the Church has lost much of this influence. She approvingly quotes the Holy See’s Ex-Foreign Minister Cardinal Tauran as saying (circa 2014) that “he feared that the Vatican was in danger of becoming ‘just another NGO’ rather than a distinctive moral voice in international settings.” In a similar vein, she notes that “much of the Holy See’s influence as a moral voice on the international stage has been lost due to its relative silence on human rights abuses in such places as China, Cuba, Hong Kong, and Venezuela.” 

Overall, the reader gains the impression that the Catholic Church, and particularly the Vatican, has squandered an opportunity to revitalize Catholicism as a [10] moral voice and Christian witness in IR. This should strike all Christians as tragic.

Nonetheless, Glendon is not one to despair. She ends the book with this encouragement:

“…no one should shy away from service to the Church at any level out of a sense that things are so bad that their efforts would be wasted…a few ordinary people willing to live in truth and to call good and evil by name can help to shift probabilities in a better direction.”

Indeed, In the Courts of Three Popes contains numerous examples of such individuals, and the knowledge Glendon shares in this book can help Catholic IR theorists and practitioners chart a renewed path forward. Glendon’s characteristic humility shines through in her writing, and she certainly does not place herself on a pedestal; however, of all the reasons for hope in this book, Glendon’s exemplary life is perhaps the greatest. With humor, grace, and tolerance rooted in profound respect for human dignity, Glendon has fearlessly called good and evil by name throughout her decades of service. If her example can inspire coming generations of Catholics to work humbly and faithfully in the realm of international affairs, the Church will be better off, and so will the world.

[i] Although often referred to simply as “the Vatican,” the Holy See is the official name of the “sovereign entity and the universal government of the Roman Catholic Church” (Glendon 2024, 84). It is distinct from Vatican City, which is a city-state serving as the Holy See’s headquarters.

[ii] Subsidiarity, or the principle “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority rather than by a higher and more distant one, whenever possible,” is a core tenet of Catholic social teaching.

[iii] Readers who are interested can find these documents here and here.