How can Catholic teaching help us understand and approach the Trump presidency? That’s the pressing question that attracted Fordham students, alumni, and faculty to the McNally Amphitheatre on Jan. 26, only six days after Trump’s inauguration.
This discussion engaged a wide variety of members of the Fordham community seeking guidance and insight. When asked the reason for her attendance, Mary Segers, a political science professor from Rutgers in attendance said, “I’m very worried about the president’s actions in the first week of this administration. It’s clear that we have to be a lot more active than passive so, anything these people have to say that helps that is great and I’m willing to hear it.”
Arranged a few months before the election, the event was changed from a discussion about the future of civil discourse in a divisive political climate to “Dear Mr. President: Catholic Social Teaching, Civil Discourse, and the Trump Presidency.”
J. Patrick Hornbeck, Associate Professor and Chair of the Theology Department, opened by asking the panelists what they would like Trump to know about “matters dear to the heart of the Fordham theology department: Catholic social teaching and civil, pluralistic discourse.”
In regard to this question and having “alternative facts” on their minds, many of the panelists gravitated toward truth and “speaking truth to power.” Rev. Bryan Massingale, Fordham professor of theology, stressed the Catholic teaching of devotion to preserving fundamental human rights, including the right to be truthfully informed about public affairs. Father Massingale explained that Mr. Trump’s “loose association with the truth” is “profoundly dangerous” because truth is required for “just and humane social living” as well as effective civil discourse.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., graduate of Fordham College Rose Hill and associate professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, connected the theme of truth with the tradition of Catholic education. “We have Catholic universities because we believe the pursuit of truth is not only possible, but worthwhile and divine,” she said. “We have a responsibility to stand up for what is true.”
In instructing the audience on speaking truth, Rev. Massingale referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who has reminded people of the uncomfortable truth and therefore was demonized and vilified. He told the audience to wear this vilification “as a badge of honor.”
Christine Emba, columnist at the Washington Post, responded to the overarching question that it is time to accept reality. “Donald Trump is the president now.” she said. “It’s time to look forward to the future.”
Hornbeck and the other panelists agreed that it is time to move on from the election. David Gibson, a national reporter from Religious News Service, said it is time to get down to business and “organize, vote, do politics.” And “work with people who disagree with us.”
Emba added that the public can make change through politics, but also on the level of the individual by looking out for our neighbors, looking out for the poor and standing in solidarity with those who are especially threatened and will be negatively affected by Trump’s policies.
The other two panelists touched upon compassion and understanding for those individuals disagree with as another approach to the future. Natalia Imperatori-Lee advised the audience to listen to those who support Trump. She told them, “Don’t talk, just listen,” and to understand that Trump supporters are hurt and in pain.
Massingale shared the story of the days after the election where he postponed an exam to have a discussion about not only the fears of those who are against Trump, but also the fears and ideologies of those who voted for him.
After the discussion, Vasiliki Patsiogiannis, a senior theology major from Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) shared that what struck her the most was when Rev. Massingale mentioned the silence from Christian leaders. “There was silence from all Christian bishops in America and that was something that I had never thought of before,” she said. “When Catholicism is supposed to be shedding light on confusing and complex and hurtful perspectives and issues, there was complete silence which is astonishing to me.”
While there was some backlash toward Trump from Christian leaders, Pope Francis in particular has been vocal ever since he accused Trump of not being Christian in February of 2016. Preaching kindness and sympathy, he has especially been hard on Trump for supporting a proposed restriction on Muslims entering the United States and a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.