Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Papists and Penn State

I have followed with some interest the unfolding scandal that has engulfed the Penn State University. As is well known, the legendary Joe Paterno has been fired for his involvement (or lack thereof) in the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of Paterno's assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This morning, the sun rises on a new terrain at Penn State: both Joe Pa and the school's president Graham Spanier have been fired.

What has drawn Paterno into the eye of the storm is that he knew of an allegation of rape made against Sandusky by a graduate student. The student reported to have seen a naked Sandusky in the shower with a ten year-old boy. This was reported to Paterno who passed it along to his superiors; as we know now, the cops were never called.

Maureen Dowd draws a parallel between the situation at Penn State and the crises in which the Catholic Church is embroiled:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel, says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program. ~Maureen Dowd
I have to disagree, but only slightly. Doubtless Dowd is right saying that the Church is "an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique." What I disagree with, however, is David Israel's observation. I think the Penn State, just as the Catholic Church, plays perilously by the rules of society. That, I'm afraid, is the problem.

Look around. On high school and college campuses, teachers have to be hyper-vigilant to stave off increasing instances of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. "If everybody else is cheating, why shouldn't I?" seems to be the reigning wisdom. Last night's Republican debate - a debacle on so many levels - did at least bring out some of the ire we feel when we hear of exorbitant bonuses being paid to executives at Fannie and Freddie when they are asking for billions in aide. Baseball and cycling seem forever involved in doping scandals; the Boy Scouts have been accused of concealing over 5,000 child molesters, politicians are involved in affairs and scandals that are hurriedly covered up.

To my mind, it's not that the Church and Penn State are playing by their own rules, apart from society's. It's that both of them claim to be governed by a different type of wisdom, a different set of rules, and they have failed miserably.

The Catholic Church would claim to live and work together in a new economy, one illuminated by the Lamb of God. Penn State claimed to have found its luminosity in Joe Paterno. What happened, tragically, is that the good values we expected to see were blighted out by the mendacity and corruption that seems to be so much a part of our society. It's funny that, if I'm right, it's not that we can't tolerate corruption and's hypocrisy we cannot abide. It's fine if you accept being submerged in the muck-and-mire of daily life but, if you try to hold yourself above it, have a care: the moment you fail or capitulate to our norms, we're going to drag you back down.

Speaking on the Church for a moment, the sex abuse scandal can prove to be a moment of profound and transformative grace. It should show where and how often the Church - on its way to establishing the New Jerusalem - has failed in its mission and surrendered to the forces of darkness. While it is painful to undergo this purging, I pray that this the Church will emerge armed with greater courage and honesty and transparency. So, too, is this my prayer for Penn State. I do not think that Joe Paterno is a bad or evil man. Quite to the contrary, I think he is a very good man who allowed the logic of the world to override his good sense in this tragic instance. It is my hope that, as for the Church, this can be a time of grace, of healing, and a call to greater honesty within a venerable and storied institution.


Jason said...

Well said. Perhaps one of your best posts.

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary.

Mike Bayard, S.J. said...

Jason suggested I read your blog entry. Glad I did. Excellent and well reasoned commentary!