How adults ought to think about responsibility

New Statesman columnist Carla Powell disapproves of public disapproval of the pope’s impending visit to the UK:

[O]n recent visits to London, I have been shocked by the negative criticism of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Why are so many of the capital’s liberal elite upset? Why is Pope Benedict, an 83-year-old retired university professor, causing such anxiety?

The child abuse scandals central to all this have been a stain on the Catholic Church. But it is important to remember that this is a problem the Pope has been working to resolve for at least a decade. Grave as it is, the scandal should not be allowed to obscure his core message.

Dang it, Powell is right. Because Ratzinger’s central message is one of love and compassion, we shouldn’t judge his character entirely on the worst thing he did.  Just like we shouldn’t let Enron’s surviving executives’ core message of  service to the public in their maintenance of the energy infrastructure be overshadowed by their financial indiscretions. Just like we shouldn’t let Nixon’s illegal, secret bombing campaigns or conspiracy to conceal burglary by his own staff overshadow his core message of preserving Constitutional checks and balances and the rule of law. Just like we shouldn’t judge Mussolini for falling in with a rough crowd–after all, he made the trains run on time!

When people do good things, or say they’re doing good things, we can’t hold them responsible for the bad things they do. Because that’s how responsibility works: rewarding people for their stated intentions regardless of the actual consequences of their actions. Even if those consequences result in the thwarting of justice for 200-plus rape victims. Because it’s central message that matters; whether or not the person reciting said message actually lives up to it is beyond the point. Pontificating about selflessness, compassion, and justice aren’t about actually making sacrifices, taking into considerations the pain of people we’ve hurt, or actually affecting justice. It’s about saying things that make us feel good about ourselves.

Contrary to common prejudices, giving lip service to principles in public while also denying our part in the most extravagant defilements of those same virtues isn’t hipocritical or or sycophantic at all; they are the qualities that make heroes. Heroes like Ratzinger, as he exists in Powell’s imagination.

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