Moral Outrage

As someone who, during the baseball and football seasons, occasionally (surreptitiously?) checks the scores, I couldn’t avoid bumping into the terrible and familiar-sounding story of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football assistant coach who is accused of many counts of sexual misconduct with minors, and whose superiors appear to have engaged in a cover-up. I read a bit further into a few comment sections, and it was striking, perhaps in an encouraging way, how many who wrote did so with tangible moral outrage.

I say that this is perhaps encouraging not because we shouldn’t all experience revulsion at these crimes, nor because we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent them and report them promptly. One of my strongest convictions is that the research that has taken place as a result of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church should be put to better use than it has for the protection of children. Too many people seem to want to confine the problem to Catholicism or use these crimes for political purposes, to score points in whatever contest our democratic system has placed before them.

My reserve, rather, has to do with the double-edged sword of outrage. In some ways, it is the easiest response, and not a little bit self-serving at times. “If I were that guy’s boss, I would have turned him into the police right away!” Armchair quarterbacks always make the right decision and hit their target. Real life is more difficult, and who really knows what we would do in that situation? I hope that the publicity that the scourge of child abuse has received will make it more likely that we will all do the right thing, but who of us can sit in judgment so easily over other men and women? While doing everything in our power to protect children, we should regard these stories as a constant caution to each of us about how easy it is to make the wrong decision, especially to avoid unpleasant responsibilities. And we should reflect soberly on whether we truly possess the fortitude that we demand from others.

There are deeper and less defined forces at work in our immediate recourse to outrage. One is the totalitarianizing liberal tendency that aims, in the words of a former U.S. President, to “rid the world of evil”. We feel outraged, to a certain extent, because our can-do modern approach to the world takes a hit when big mistakes slip by us. This threatens our sense of omnipotence in the battle against evil. So we redouble our efforts and invest human beings with ever more power and moral authority, leaving God…where? I can’t say exactly how this particular project of hubris will play out, but the old Greeks could tell you that it never ends well.

A further problem with our moral outrage is that it is very selective and, like every form of anger, actually blinds us to the larger situation facing us. The problem of evil is much greater than the horizons of any particular criminal act or category of crimes. Perhaps sports fans are just waking up to this troubling reality, in which case the outrage is a good thing, but only a small beginning.

1 Comment

  • Bob says:

    Fr. Peter,

    In this case and in others, I am less concerned with the crime itself and more concerned with the cover-up. Sandusky is a sinner just like me. Paterno and Penn State are beyond that because they cover up the evil and allow it to continue sacrificing the lives of other young people for the sake of their own goals. The Catholic Church had the same problem: the priests who abused needed help to stop not help to continue. The Bishops who turned a blind eye are more guilty than the priest himself.

    NPR was doing a series on ethics in business and a manager of a coke processing facility that was spewing benzene into the air remorselessly referred to falsified documents that he regularly signed. He had disassociated himself from the wrong being done in the interest of self-preservation.

    There were interviews with Bernie Madoff’s wife on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago and the comment was made that he eventually became trapped by his own crimes. What started as a small misstep had blossomed into a massive fraud because the initial cover-up allowed the error to grow until it was “too big to correct”.

    My outrage with events like these is more tied to the fact that these things occur for years on end with dozens of people eventually becoming involved. Sinners I understand. Those who gather around them and enable them–they are of another class entirely.