Why the institution is more important than the victims

The Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This seems pretty accurate to me, although nowadays I think we need to expand the definition of religion to include football.  Probably not that much of a stretch.

Joe Paterno was a good Catholic, and as a good Catholic he was probably familiar with the idea of giving scandalHere’s a good summary of the concept.  When the sex abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, the explanation trotted out by some of the clergy was that they didn’t publicize the abuse because they didn’t want to give scandal.  Non-Catholics might misconstrue this as having something to do with the common usage of scandal–the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Watergate scandal…..  But that’s not the kind of thing we’re talking about.  Here’s the relevant Merriam-Webster’s definition:

Conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another

The bishops felt that it was their duty to keep these problem priests secret, because if the faithful found out about them, they might lose their faith.  It’s hard to disagree with this analysis, actually.

The assumption, of course, is that the institution, and people’s faith in it, is more important than individual lives.  If you want to apply this belief to your own life, you can become a martyr.  I expect that some of the bishops involved in the scandal might in fact be willing to become martyrs, if circumstances required it.  Who knows?  But they were willing to apply this belief to innocent young lives that were placed in their care.  And that’s where Weinberg’s quote applies.

So here is Joe Paterno, by many accounts a secular saint–an upright and moral man beloved by one and all.  His institution was a clean, successful football program–not exactly the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but close enough in Happy Valley.  And in the end, his institution mattered more than anything, more than morality, more than human lives:

The consequences of the lack of action by Mr. Paterno and others, whatever its explanation, were grim. Mr. Freeh said that by allowing Mr. Sandusky to remain a visible presence at Penn State following his retirement from coaching in 1999, he was essentially granted “license to bring boys to campus for ‘grooming’ as targets for his assaults.”

“Good people” doing evil.

5 thoughts on “Why the institution is more important than the victims

  1. Well, Weinberg did get his Nobel in physics, not psychology or sociology, so I mean no disrespect to his science when I say I think he’s wrong. What it takes for good people to do evil is any number of things, including temptation, the seduction of power, corrupt surroundings that cloud one’s moral thinking, guilt and fear that keep people from coming clean… in short, the whole panoply of human weaknesses. Religion might play into it, and sometimes does, but it\’s just scapegoating to blame religion for it in general.

    Institutions, now–I think you’re on to something there. What led to the abuse coverups in the Catholic Church wasn’t the religion–and by religion, I mean not the church but the underlying faith that is the church’s reason for being–but, as you say, the belief that the institution was more important than the individuals being hurt. Even the slightest examination of the Christian faith makes clear that the faith is not about covering up wrongs, but rather shining a light into dark places. So the fear of hurting the institution (and the powerful, guilty individuals) led to wholesale abandonment of the actual tenets of the faith. It wasn’t the religion at fault, but a corrupt institution, and human weakness at its ugliest.


  2. Did you make some change here? I had to jump through all sorts of hoops, including creating a new password, to post this time.


  3. Pingback: More on Weinberg on religion | richard bowker

  4. Pingback: “You knew full well what was right, but you chose wrong.” | richard bowker

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