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  • Synod Stratagems

    October 19, 2014


    (Vatican Photo)

    If you only read the secular media, you probably think that the recently-concluded Vatican Synod on the Family was a huge disappointment, an ecclesiastical gathering whose primary conclusions were a setback for 21st Century ideas about social relationships.  “Catholic Church Scraps Welcome to Gays…” was the headline of the Associated Press story that went out immediately when the Synod report was released, and that headline was repeated in countless newspapers and online stories all weekend.

    But the headline is wrong, and like most secular media who make hash of religious news, the AP reporters and headline writers went for the sensational rather than the accurate.

    They also missed the really big story.

    The really big story is that Pope Francis I directed that the final report from the Synod on the Family include the record of how many bishops voted in favor of or against each paragraph in the report — when has the idea of disagreement and even dissent been a matter of official record in the Catholic Church?   The very idea that bishops have about as much disagreement on certain issues as the rest of us is a refreshing new thought.  Some people find the very idea of disagreement on religious matters to be offensive — but not the Jesuit Pope who now manifests the respect for the dialogical process that is the hallmark of religious life (and academic life, too!).  The transparency inherent in publishing the vote tallies shows a very shrewd strategy on the part of Pope Francis to engage this dialogue in a very serious and progressive way.

    The big issues at stake concerned divorced and remarried Catholics and whether they could participate in Communion, and how open the Church might be to new forms of family relationships including single-sex partners.  Nobody should expect the Roman Catholic Church to change its rules overnight.  But the very fact that these issues are up for pastoral discussion is amazing news.

    The other really big story is that the MAJORITY of bishops actually voted in favor of the Synod report’s controversial paragraphs on how to treat divorced and remarried Catholics, and the idea of a pastoral “welcome” for gay persons.   [Note:  I can't link to the paragraphs here because the report has yet to be translated into English... Rome Time is very different from Internet Time!]  While the Synod rules require a 2/3 majority vote to approve a report, the fact remains that the vote tallies show that the majority (but not 2/3) has moved to a more open and progressive place.  The secular headlines about “Scraps Welcome….” were sensational but lacking factual nuance.   While it is true that an early report from the Synod had more welcoming language, especially on LGBT issues, and the final report was more restrained, the fact remains that a substantial number of bishops — a majority — appear ready to consider important changes in the pastoral approach to these issues.

    Anybody who thinks that the Catholic Church will change actual doctrine in a very short period of time is just ignorant of how the Church operates.  This is a 2000 year-old-institution where change normally takes centuries.  The insatiable need of the Twitterverse to have something to digest every nanosecond is just weird — and look at how the media treats other issues these days, from Ebola to the Hannah Graham story, the sensational headlines are a genuine disservice to rational thought.

    The Synod process will go on for another year or more, and during this time we will have many opportunities not only to watch and listen to the bishops, but also to participate in the dialogue process.   Already, in the past year, Pope Francis asked bishops to engage parishes in discussions about marriage and family, and they got an earful.  In the year ahead, before the next Synod takes place in the fall of 2015, there will be many more dialogues around the world.

    I hope that the Trinity community can become involved in this process of dialogue and reflection on the meaning of family today — not only is this relevant for our Catholic mission, but all religions share in the concerns and search for meaning, moral guidance and questions about how to adapt to modern times and modern ways of building familial relationships.  Trinity’s very diverse community has a large stake in how these issues unfold, and as a community that emphasizes women’s leadership and role in society, we should have some voice in this discussion.

    Meanwhile, if you are interested in following the news of the Synod, I urge you to read broadly beyond the headlines in the popular press to consider at least the commentaries that you can find from Father Thomas Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter or Father James Martin in America Magazine, or John Allen of the Boston Globe and his new website Crux.  The Catholic News Service also provides updates on these and many issues in the Church.  Of course there are many other sources and I’d be happy to hear from readers about their favorite sources of news about Catholic issues.

    More to come as the documents get translated….!!



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    Girl Power: Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize

    October 11, 2014

    No better way to observe this International Day of the Girl than to listen to Malala Yousafzai’s response to the news that she won the Nobel Peace PrizeMalala is the youngest recipient of the award which she shares with India’s child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.  “It’s my message to children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights,” she declared, accepting the award on behalf of all the voiceless children of the world.

    It’s notable that Malala was in her Chemistry class learning about electrolysis when the news broke, but she did not take the call on a cell phone disrupting class, nor did she dash out from class ignoring her responsibilities.   She continued with her classes in Physics and English, only going out to meet the press when school was done for the day.  While winning the Nobel Peace Prize is important, she acknowledged that, “It won’t help me in my tests and exams because that totally depends on my hard work.”  An excellent perspective for a great student!

    Malala’s story is a remarkable tale of true grit, amazing courage in the face of grave threats.   At age 11, she became an activist for the education of girls in her native Pakistan.  She persisted despite threats from the extremist Taliban terrorists, eventually suffering an assassination attempt in 2012.  In a hospital in England, she recovered from a bullet wound to the head and has since continued her advocacy as well as her high school education.

    October 11 is the International Day of the Girl, and this year’s theme calls for an end to violence against women and girls and more emphasis on educational opportunities.   As Malala’s work and example illustrate, around the world millions of girls and women are deliberately kept illiterate, out of school and away from any opportunities to grow and develop as complete human beings.   Even as Malala accepted her prize, in Nigeria several hundred girls who were kidnapped from their school mark a half year in captivity.   The civilized world seems to have shuddered and moved on, leaving those young women at the mercy of barbarians.

    Here in the United States, too often we see the education of women and girls taken for granted, and yet, even here the problems of gender discrimination and sexual abuse rob women of their potential constantly.  From the NFL to college campuses to too many homes and mean streets — regardless of social class or celebrity status or race or ethnicity or religion — women and girls are marginalized, maligned and maltreated in shocking ways each day.

    I often get questions about why Trinity sustains our women’s college.  Haven’t women arrived?  Isn’t the idea of a college devoted to women’s education and advancement something that went out with the 20th Century?

    Absolutely not!  So long as the CEO of a major company (Microsoft) that employs very few women executives says that women should not ask for raises, so long as professional athletes punch out their women friends, so long as women on too many major university campuses suffer rape and abuse, so long as some of our Trinity students feel an acute lack of family encouragement to go to college, so long as girls like Malala suffer death threats for wanting to go to school to become educated and intellectually fulfilled — so long as women remain excluded and marginalized from decision-making in many of the world’s most powerful organizations of business and finance, policy and politics, religion and civic life — Trinity and women’s colleges like us must persist in our mission.

    The best way we can congratulate and recognize Malala’s achievement is to redouble our own advocacy for the education and advancement of women and girls.


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    Finding Hannah

    October 6, 2014

    east (Medium)(View East on Skyline Drive)

    From the top of the world, you can see how vast the forests and fields can be, appreciate how utterly small a single human person is amid the giant logs and craggy rocks and dense brush and brown stalks of cornfields stretching for miles across the southern Virginia landscape.  Heading to Charlottesville for a meeting this week, I took the long way down Skyline Drive, as beautiful and majestic a road as any in the United States.  And all along the way, as I stopped to enjoy the view from the many overlooks, I could not help but think about the desperate search that’s been going on for three weeks in the Charlottesville area to find Hannah Graham.

    Hannah Graham is the University of Virginia student who went missing three weeks ago.  A suspect in her disappearance, Jesse Matthew, is now in custody.   However, the search for Hannah continues and thus far it seems that there is little real evidence about what happened to her.

    hannah (Medium)Life goes on in Charlottesville, a bustling small city that is home to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, a place that is, at once, the height of southern gentility surrounded by the more earthy realities of farms and rural life.   Think preppy blue blazers and Carhartt boots.  Amid the well-kept lawns and golf courses, the area is lush with streams and thickets, deeply wooded hillsides and recently-harvested fields.  Hannah could be anywhere.

    Hannah’s story is, tragically, far from an isolated tale.  Several college women have disappeared or been murdered in recent years in southern Virginia, and, nationwide, the problem of missing students became so serious that the federal government imposed regulations several years ago to require colleges to report missing students to the police after 24 hours.   Trinity has a missing student policy which, fortunately, we have not had to use, though we are always concerned if a student does not check in regularly with her friends or family.

    My reflections driving through Virginia were not just about Hannah Graham, though her story is the most recent of many tales of children gone missing.   I thought about the still-unsolved disappearance of Relisha Rudd here in D.C. — how could anyone be so depraved as to harm a child like Relisha?

    Some commentators criticize the Hannah Graham coverage as evidence of media myopia about the much larger problem of abuse, kidnapping and murder affecting children and young adults of many different races and backgrounds.  Is the disappearance of a relatively privileged young white woman more newsworthy than the disappearance of a young black girl who lived in a homeless shelter?

    In fact, ALL of these stories command our attention and demand our action.  Violence against women and children is a social plague that makes a mockery of our allegedly advanced society.  College campuses have turned out to be no different from the meanest of streets when it comes to violence, particularly violence against women.   Perhaps the media glare seems more pronounced in some cases because of the shock of realization that neither wealth nor status are adequate protection when evil stalks the human psyche.   In the end, savage evil stalks the Hannahs and Relishas with equal fervor in a society where violence against women and children runs rampant just beneath the surface appearance of civilization.   Cashmere blue blazers over muddy hunting boots.

    We pray for Hannah and Relisha and all of the lost children.  But the miraculous ending for missing children is mostly a fantasy.  The real miracle we need to accomplish can only come in an entirely changed attitude in society toward the dignity and worth of every person regardless of age, of gender or race or social status, and a determination to eradicate the violence that destroys too many young lives.

    Finding Hannah, like finding Relisha, will bring some level of resolution, a bitter sense of closure, for family and friends.   But finding Hannah resolves nothing in the larger context of violence against girls and women unless and until we resolve the conditions that lead to too many search parties and too much grief.

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    Congratulations, Seniors!

    September 29, 2014

    seniorsCongratulations to all seniors who received their caps and gowns over the weekend!  The rites of Cap and Gown Weekend are among Trinity’s most cherished traditions.  Achieving senior status and the right to wear academic regalia signifies great intellectual achievement.  Congratulations!

    During the Courtyard Sing on Sunday, the officers of the new Green Class of 2018 received the class banner to the cheers of the seniors — another great Trinity tradition!

    freshmenseniors 2senoirs 3Good luck to all members of the Gold Class of 2015 as you complete your final semesters at Trinity!

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    CONSTITUTION DAY: Justice Denied in Ferguson, Missouri

    September 17, 2014

    constitution 3Today is Constitution Day, the 227th Anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States at the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787.  If you think politics was more genteel and harmonious back then, go back to History class — or do some reading about the bitter arguments and unsavory compromises forged by the men (yes, all white men back then) who we call the “Founding Fathers.”  (Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis is a good summary of the bold egos and serious disputes around the founding of our nation.)

    A product crafted through months of contentious compromise, the Constitution was far from perfect from the very start.  “We, the People of the United States” really meant white male property owners.  The exclusion of women from full citizenship rights was not the worst of it (corrected through the passage of the 19th Amendment 133 years later).   The most notorious flaw in the original Constitution was the “three-fifths compromise” that treated a slave as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of taking the census to apportion Congressional representation for the population of each state.  That profound injustice — allowed because leaders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could not bring themselves to do what they knew was the right thing to abolish slavery at the founding of this nation, in part because their own wealth depended on slavery — would not be corrected until the Reconstruction Amendments (13-14-15) after the Civil War.

    But more than two centuries after the enactment of the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights that emanated from the first ten amendments to the original document, and the later amendments to correct the other injustices, “We, the People of the United States” remain in a state of frequent conflict, disagreement and outright hostility at times to the fundamental principles guaranteed in the Bill of Rights — the guarantee of justice, the blessings of liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws, among other rights protected by the Constitution.

    Racial justice, in particular, has proved vexing and elusive across the decades.   In the 20th Century, major legal milestones like Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other laws and court rulings at the federal, state and local level all aimed to end race discrimination and to protect the rights of all people to equal justice and freedom without prejudice.  Despite all of the years of laws, movements and widespread commitment to make justice a reality, justice is still denied on the basis of race in too many places in this nation.

    The most recent notorious public controversy over racial justice took place in Ferguson, Missouri in August when a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.   Mr. Brown was unarmed.  Officer Wilson has disappeared and no investigation or indictment appears on the horizon.   Was the shooting at all justified?  Without Officer Wilson’s presence and testimony, it’s almost impossible to ascertain what exactly happened, but the appearance of an unjustified police shooting is overwhelming.   Each passing day during which the responsible officer remains in hiding adds to the perception of grave injustice.   While the killing of Michael Brown is the most serious moral and legal question at stake — due process and equal protection issues are all over this case — the subsequent police treatment of protesters and press at demonstrations that ensued also raise important legal and Constitutional issues.

    I asked members of the Trinity community to offer their reflections on what happened in Ferguson.   I am pleased to share some of the reflections here:

    Robert M. Chappetta, a pre-OTA student in the School of Professional Studies, Class of 2017 writes:

    “As a young white person in America today, I don’t worry about racism very much. In fact, I’m one of those people who for too long thought we were living in a “post-racial” society, and that claims of contemporary racism were merely paranoia. It is now clear to me that I was very wrong. What may confuse the issue for some is that, prescriptively, we do live in a society where everyone ought to be treated equally and afforded the same opportunities. Save pockets of proud self-proclaimed racists, most Americans agree that discrimination and prejudice are wrong. This is reflected in our laws! However, a descriptive account of modern American society does indicate that racism is thriving: case in point, Ferguson, MO. It’s time to stop pretending that we’re not racist. Policies must be reformed and refined to reflect this truth. First step, hold the police accountable for their actions. That they are given the benefit of the doubt both propagates and perpetuates pure racism.”

    Patrice Sykes, a Communication major in the Class of 2018 writes:

    “The most powerful legal solution for Ferguson is equality. The mistreatment, discrimination and racial profiling among other things have occurred for years in Ferguson; including a shooting of an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, in April of this year. Minorities are not treated fairly in this small town. Minorities are often pulled over for “investigation stops.” Investigation stops is a tactic used by the Ferguson police force to pull someone over that looks suspicious (“Policing the Worng Way”). Similar to the most recent event in Ferguson, an unnamed child was shot in the back several times by a police officer because he looked “suspect.” Even if the boy was a threat and if he had a physical weapon. The Ferguson police department is has a bias and accusatory structure against minorities. Whether the child was armed or unarmed, had never commitment a crime in his life; it doesn’t matter because the color of his skin already displays that he is guilty.

    “Because of the bias physical notations of the police department, it’s hard to form a solution. For one the police department should be diverse. The police department should represent the population of Ferguson not a certain percent of it; even in the sense of relation through familiar cultures. Some people may find it easier to talk to a minority cop than a white one. Due to the negative perceptions and actions from the white cops in this area some minorities are scared of the police. Aren’t the police there to instill protection and not fear?

    “The issues in Ferguson reflect the flaws of a small town. In other populous areas would this behavior be tolerated? Small towns are known preserving traditional rules —even spiteful ones—like discrimination. The legacy of civil rights is being denied in Ferguson. The minorities are being out cast and not be treated as equal. The minorities in Ferguson are on the lowest hierarchy and I’m not sure if there is any changing the stubborn mindset of the police department because the law enforcement are set in their ways. The public statement they send out offering condolences and “ the [great] disappoint” they have in the justice system seems staged. The solutions to this issue are in the police department’s hands. Is the law enforcement willing to change? Would the county have made efforts to change if the discrimination issue were not in the public eye?”

    Shari Jackson-Small wrote this in 2008, and feels it still is relevant to the questions posed on this Constitution Day:

    From Alabama to Obama

    “Clearly the man was outraged. His face was red and he spat when he spoke. His hand, holding the cigar shook spasmodically. “Who do you think you are, walking right alongside a little white girl like that in this town?” he roared. “N_____, you better learn your place!” He jabbed his burning cigar into the chest of the brown-skinned six-year old where it sizzled for a few seconds through cloth and against flesh.

    “The year was 1965. The place was Ft. McClellan, Alabama. The burned child was me. The “little white girl” was my light-skinned sister.

    “I am now a 48-year old resident of this nation’s capitol with children of my own who cannot imagine such a society. They cannot fathom their skin color being of any less value than that of their Caucasian counterparts, many of whom are quite vocal about the ugliness of racism that shames some of them today. As an educator, I have shared details of the incident with various classes and groups (Black and White) that were studying the negative impact of racial disparity and exclusion, and without exception, each and every individual in the audience appeared visibly shocked; sometimes even angry. And yet, racism, along with its ugly step-sisters discrimination and bigotry, is still very much alive and well, thank you very much; even here in the nation’s capitol. The only real change between the sixties and now is that the pool of the discriminated has increased exponentially with the inclusion of other ethnic populations that have arrived in this country for the very same purposes as the Pilgrims and their current day ancestors who proudly continue to perpetuate the ugly (not to mention untrue!) notion of racial superiority. The irony is staggering.”

    What are your thoughts?  If you want to join this conversation please add a comment by clicking the link for the comment box below, or send your reflections to me at

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    Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
    Phone: 202.884.9050   Email:



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