Remarks for the Trinity Medal and Honor Agreement Ceremony: Class of 2006
Congratulations to the Green Class of 2006!
Tonight I want to talk about the importance of this central educational ideal at Trinity that we call the Honor System and the powerful message it sends to this sad and troubled world that we can still have something so genuinely and profoundly moral in its essence. Tonight you join a powerful tradition of Trinity Women who have signed the Honor Agreement before you, who have worn the Trinity Medal with pride. You have accepted the responsibility that this long history now vests in you to be good stewards of our tradition, to be exemplars of the ideals of honor and integrity as a way of life.
Simple honesty as a way of life is not a particularly popular concept in contemporary society. Integrity as the sacrifice of personal desire for the common good seems almost quaint in the face of the ‘me first’ messages that fill the air. The Honor System is rooted in the idea of Justice as the virtue that speaks to what I owe to the community because of what God has given me — rather than the modern distortion of justice as ‘getting mine, too, because I deserve it’ — well, when was the last time anyone spoke of Justice as a personal obligation to serve others? This is a very hard concept in the acquisitive society of modern America.
I think it’s not too strong a statement to say that the catastrophes of our current national and world situation reveal a profoundly disordered relationship with the idea of Honor and its corollaries, Justice and Truth, as central principles of human existence. In our national scandals — the Enron case, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom and other accounting scandals; or the case of bishops covering up for pedophiliac priests; or, locally, the forging of names on the mayor’s election petitions — these scandals seem actually quite simple in the realm of honor — or dishonor, if you will. We see Men Behaving Badly — and Martha Stewart, too, just to ensure gender equity — revealing the pitiful lack of respect for the idea of honor and integrity. Lies abound; selfish, unjust, dishonorable behaviour fills each day’s front page. Seeing corporate executives in handcuffs may give some people primal pleasure, but to me it suggests an educational failure that all serious teachers must contemplate. What went wrong in the education of an accountant who deliberately falsifies financial statements? Was the bishop absent from class on the day that sister taught the lesson on truth telling; or did the lesson not get taught at all, perhaps pushed aside because so many other things need to be taught? Where did a politician learn that deception is ok because that’s how you win? In all of the talk we hear these days about failing schools, almost no one talks of the failure of moral education — and yet we see well educated, elite people acting in the most immoral of ways.
These national failures of honor and integrity are obvious, almost too much so. Certainly, you might be saying, if I ever were the bishop — that’s a long shot — I certainly would do the right thing immediately. If I ever were the CFO — maybe not so long a shot, because I’m a Trinity Woman and will be all-powerful — I certainly would not cook the books. Really? What seems so simple from afar can get really complicated on the inside. What if you just bought a new house, have a baby on the way, and the boss tells you simply to enter the numbers in a different column, or not enter them at all? What if you have the opportunity, just this once, to cheat on your spouse while away on a business trip? What if getting your child into the best school means that you fudge a little on supplying recommendations — who reads them anyway? Only in movies does the dishonesty play out in a straight story line. In real life, the gray zones are everywhere, and sometimes the lie starts out as a small mistake, a third rate burglary that turns into the toppling of the president. The Honor System’s intent is to prepare you to find your way through the gray zones.
But if these examples are simple, the rest of the world poses a much harder case. Around the world, the terrorists who have killed and maimed countless other human beings often speak of Truth as a value that they claim to be defending, a point of honor in their twisted logic. But no deliberate, wilful destruction of human life can be an honorable defense of Truth, indeed, murder is quite the opposite — the unjust destruction of God’s gift of life to another. Terrorists often claim to be acting in the name of religion, but the Truth is different — no religion, not Islam, not Judaism, not Christianity tolerates the profound immorality of murder to advance its interests in the world. A terrorist act is a profound lie, a false claim to be vindicating God’s righteousness.
And what of the desire to make war to avenge the killing? How can we judge whether the basis for such a profound decision is honorable — the defense of innocents — or corrupt — motivated by political considerations? This is not the decision of people down on Capitol Hill or at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue alone —- you, too, as citizens of the nation and the world, you must make a moral judgment about war and its consequences.
What does your pledge of Honor tonight have to do with the terrible forces in conflict on the world stage today?
We Trinity Women must accept the responsibility that this education imposes on us to be witnesses for a different kind of world, a world of justice and peace whose guiding principle is honor. A community of honor has no need for vengeance; a community of justice is a place of true peace.
But in the face of all of the terrible news each day, you might be tempted to say, what does it matter, what can I as one person do to make a difference — shouldn’t I just try to be happy for myself, get what I can to enjoy my life, forget about being a hero? Wouldn’t that be a bleak world, a place in which everyone took as much as they could for themselves, not caring about anyone else? Imagine the alienation, the fear, the violence – even more than we know right now, but isn’t that part of what’s wrong right now? People acting only for themselves, not caring about how their actions affect others — we wind up living in the horrific world forecast by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a place where life is ‘cruel, nasty, brutish and short’ because the social contract of community has failed entirely.
The Honor System is about a view of society favored by more enlightened philosophers like John Locke who described the social contract that human beings make with each other to build free and peaceful communities that are better and more secure than the state of nature. The enlightened philosophers’ view of the social contract and free human society is more in keeping with the teachings of major religions, including Christianity and Catholicism, where a great emphasis is placed on social justice as the organizing principle for the human community.
Such enlightened communities depend heavily on each person’s commitment to justice, and justice requires honor and integrity for its vitality. You need to learn what those virtues mean, and how to put them to use in the construction of free, peaceful and just communities in the future. Honor requires that you be informed, that you speak out, that you weigh in with your opinion on the great national and international issues of this day; honor requires that you exercise the duties of citizenship.
In your days here at Trinity, you are preparing yourselves for very significant roles as citizens, parents, workers and leaders of communities large and small. Some of you will become famous, Trinity Women of great renown, women following in the footsteps of Trinity’s notables like Nancy Pelosi, Class of ‘62, the highest ranking woman in Congress; or Maggie Williams, Class of ‘77, now chief of staff to former President Clinton and formerly chief of staff to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady; or Kathleen Gilligan Sebellius, Class of ‘69, who is running for governor of Kansas and is likely to win. Most of you will be not quite that famous, but through your good deeds and hard work, you will create a great legacy for the future in the children you will raise or teach, the co-workers you will influence, the neighborhoods you will help to shape.
Whatever your individual calling, you will also be a voice for doing what is right, for making right and honorable choices in all matters. If we teach you well here at Trinity, if the Honor System has the effect we intend, you will become strong women of integrity, people of justice and true courage. You will demand the same of others. You will know how to make choices in favor of honor and integrity, whether in the board room or at the ballot box or in the great bazaar of consumption that is part of the world struggle. Or in the quiet of your own room, when no one is watching, because you will also know that honor is a consistent principle of living that requires no witness save your own conscience.
More than a century ago, a valiant group of religious women gathered with a handful of students on this ground to create a community that was new, at the dawn of the 20th century, a place where women could gather in peace and security to learn and to grow, a place that enshrined the virtue of honor as a fundamental organizing principle derived from their philosophy and their faith. Today, the legacy of Trinity’s Founders sits in this great Chapel, the latest generation of Trinity Women to accept the responsibility inherent in a Trinity education.
By accepting your Trinity medals tonight, by signing the Honor Book, you affirm your commitment to live by Trinity’s values of honor and integrity in all things, great and small. On the large public stage, or in the silence of your own heart, you accept the obligation to speak and live by the Truth.
May you go forth from this Chapel tonight wearing your Trinity Medals as badges of honor, symbols of your commitment to use this education in service to others. May the blessings of our Founders, those great Sisters of Notre Dame, go with you each day, giving you the strength to live honorably, the wisdom to make good choices, and the charity that will make your hearts large enough to embrace without reservation the people you will serve all the days of your lives.