In the Courts of Three Popes
From Dalton to RomeI thought I knew everything when I came to Rome, but I soon found I had everything to learn.
—Edmonia Lewis, American sculptor
I attended the University of Chicago at a time when the wags used to say that it was the university where Jewish professors taught Thomas Aquinas to Marxist students. Works by Augustine and Aquinas were taught by the likes of Richard Weaver, Leo Strauss, and Richard McKeon. Catholic luminaries like Jacques Maritain and Martin D’Arcy were frequently on campus for long visits. I became acquainted with the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition through the core “great books” curriculum installed by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who once referred to the Catholic Church somewhat enviously as having “the longest intellectual tradition of any institution in the world,” and who drew freely from that tradition in constructing Chicago’s mandatory core of courses. Not only did I thus become familiar with the “greats” in my own tradition but I observed that those thinkers were held in high esteem by the best Chicago teachers.
The same education that reinforced a critical approach to learning also helped reinforce the religious habits and practices I had acquired in Dalton. Especially significant to my formation was the work of Thomas Aquinas. He understood the intellect as a gift from God—a gift whose use would advance one’s ability to better know, love, and serve the Creator. I absorbed a little of Thomas’s approach to knowledge, which had enabled him to engage pagan philosophy with confidence that his desire to know would not unsettle his faith but rather bring him closer to the mind of God.
As in the case of many Catholics of my generation, my education gave me a lively appreciation for the spiritual and intellectual riches of Catholicism, but I had minimal exposure to Catholic social thought, the body of Church teaching about economic and political matters. That changed with the appearance of Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclical Pacem in Terris, “Peace on Earth.”
It was the spring of 1963, and I was in Belgium, finishing a year of graduate legal studies at the fiercely secular Université Libre de Bruxelles and working as an intern at the headquarters of the European Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union. I had been active in social causes as an undergraduate and a law student at the University of Chicago, and so I was excited that the pope himself was endorsing the ideals I believed in. His emphatic insistence that “racial discrimination can in no way be accepted,” his affirmation of women’s roles and rights in contemporary society, and his praise for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave me a feeling of pride that my Church was in the vanguard of historic changes.
For an American Catholic like me, it was also a certain source of pride to see the wide public attention that the encyclical commanded. For the first time in history, a papal encyclical—a letter traditionally circulated to churches—made use of modern human rights language. Moreover, it was addressed to “all men of good will,” which attracted notice beyond religious circles. The New York Times published it in full, and over two thousand prominent statespersons, scholars, and diplomats from all parts of the world attended a United Nations conference devoted to the document.
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which was being debated in Paris while Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, was papal nuncio to France—became an important point of reference for the Church when speaking to a secular society. Because the declaration had come to serve as a model for most post–World War II rights declarations and was instrumental for cross-national discussions of human freedom and dignity, it made good sense for the pope to invoke it. In later years, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI would follow John XXIII’s example, drawing upon the declaration while also expressing reservations about its susceptibility to misuse.
Although Pacem in Terris captivated me, and though I was excited by the Second Vatican Council, I fell out of touch with much of what was happening in the Church for a few years in the 1960s when I drifted toward what today would be called cafeteria Catholicism.
A painful personal crisis, however, brought me up short. In May 1966, my beloved father died at age fifty-five of a rapidly advancing cancer that had been diagnosed only three months earlier. Ten days after Dad’s death, my daughter Elizabeth was born, and shortly after that Elizabeth’s father—an African American lawyer I had met in the civil rights movement—moved on to other interests. I found myself with sole responsibility for a beautiful little baby girl, far from friends and relatives, and I was forced to face the fact that my own decisions—a civil marriage to a person I barely knew—had brought me to this pass.
I decided that I would leave my job as an associate in the Chicago law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt and move back to Massachusetts so that I would be closer to my mother, who was then suffering from mental problems, and to my teenage brother and sister, who were devastated by the unexpected loss of our father.
Unsure about how best to transition back to Massachusetts, I consulted one of my mentors at the University of Chicago Law School, Soia Mentschikoff, who had been the first woman to teach law at Harvard. Soia put me in touch with the Dean of Boston College Law School, Father Robert Drinan, who invited me for an interview that led quickly to a job offer.
In the summer of 1968, I moved back to Massachusetts with Elizabeth to begin my academic career. The Boston College environment was a great help to my spiritual life. I was surrounded by faithful Catholic colleagues who became good friends, and I was welcomed to participate in interdisciplinary projects by the learned Jesuit who chaired the philosophy department, Joseph Flanagan. Through regular prayer, Mass attendance, and the imperative to be the best mother I could be, I became a better Catholic. And through Boston College study groups, I received something like a graduate education in theology while reading and discussing works by Romano Guardini, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Bernard Lonergan, and others. These interdisciplinary sessions helped me to see legal problems in relation to the manifold challenges that the Church was facing in a secularizing postmodern world.
Two years later, it was my great blessing to be married in a Catholic ceremony to Edward Lev, with whom I had worked at Mayer, Brown & Platt, and who moved his labor law practice to Boston. It was a time of incredible blessing. Edward adopted Elizabeth, our daughter Katherine was born, Edward won the American Bar Association’s Ross Essay prize for a brilliant article on arbitration, and I was well on the way to tenure with the publication of a text with Max Rheinstein, who had been my supervisor in the University of Chicago’s Master of Comparative Law program. In 1973, in gratitude “to Whom it may concern” (as my Jewish husband would say), we adopted an adorable three-year-old Korean orphan, whom we named Sarah Pomeroy Lev after my mother, who had died earlier that year.
Throughout the 1970s, family life and work as a beginning law professor occupied nearly all of my time and attention. For better or worse, most of that eventful decade—the Vietnam debacle, the pontificate of Paul VI, the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, Watergate, Woodstock, Roe v. Wade, the Iran hostage crisis—just passed me by. My one effort to serve the Church in that period was a disaster. Teaching law students was a breeze compared to a catechism class for eighth graders!
In October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla stood on a balcony overlooking the Piazza San Pietro and introduced himself as “a Pope from a faraway land,” I had no idea how that event would change the world and affect the rest of my life. The following year, when the new pope, John Paul II, visited Boston, the only member of our family who went (in pouring rain) to hear him speak was Elizabeth, then twelve years old.
When I was ready to devote time to pro bono activities, I scarcely recognized the causes to which I had once been devoted. I remained intensely interested in care for our natural environment, in human rights, and in issues affecting women and families and the world of work. But I couldn’t see how to engage with the movements that were then dominant in those areas. My dissatisfaction with these trends eventually led me to look for better approaches in organizations grounded in Catholic social thought. In the Berkshires of my youth, I had been steeped in what we called conservationism. Berkshire natives were already concerned about the dangerous chemicals that Pittsfield’s General Electric plant was dumping into the Housatonic River and vigilant about the need to protect Mount Greylock from commercial exploitation. My grandfather Pomeroy enrolled me in the National Wildlife Federation when I was ten. So I was drawn to the new field of environmental law. But the mood and tone of the environmental movement in the seventies was so focused on population control as to seem almost anti-people. It seemed distant from the concept of stewardship for all of God’s creation.