Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
August 7th, 2012

Proceed With Honor: A Way Forward for Penn State and the Catholic Church


An unidentified protester stands outside Beaver Stadium prior to the NCAA football game between Nebraska and Penn State last November. (CNS photo/Pat Little, Reuters)

Penn State was a place so honored and revered that it became known as Happy Valley. The entire university built up an image of unfaltering prestige and loyalty. “Success with honor” was the football program’s slogan. That image has been destroyed. The recent investigation into at least a decade of criminal behavior and covering it up has split the allegiances of many alumni.

As a sports fan with a Catholic upbringing, it’s hard for me not to compare the Penn State scandal to that of the Catholic Church over the past few decades. Both scandals involve the highest-ranking officials turning their heads and ignoring child sex abuse. Everyone involved reacted inadequately. It is baffling to me that the people with the power and opportunity to protect children in both situations actually did the one thing that would hurt children more. They covered it up.

The fans and the faithful

Although there are those who will stop going to games or wearing their Penn State gear, I am certain that the majority will continue to support the team as much as, if not more than, before the scandal. It’s interesting to me how quickly and fervently the Penn State community has come to the football program’s defense. When the sex abuse scandal broke in the Church the majority spoke out just as quickly, but fervently against the Church. Is commitment to fandom that much stronger than commitment or support of the faithful? I think we already know the answer: Yes.

Being a fan, especially a sports fan, is part of one’s identity. We build many of our social experiences around our mutual fandom. What’s your favorite this or favorite that? Who are you pulling for in the epic duel of Team A vs. Team B? You get the gist. Faith is a part of our identity and social circles, too, but for most people faith is a one-hour, one-day-a-week commitment. It’s much easier for people to walk away from something that they barely spend any time on. When the Church scandal broke, it was easy for people to cut that hour out of their lives, but if they had to cut their favorite sports team out of their lives, that’s nearly impossible. Right? We make plans months or years in advance to go see a game or plan our evenings around the TV lineup. Yet it can be difficult for some to peel themselves away for one hour once a week to drive 10 minutes to church. It is this realization about America’s commitment to fandom that reveals the real reason behind how something like the Penn State cover up can happen.

Need for change

Penn State has to answer to the NCAA, which took decisive action in the last few weeks. I originally thought that the NCAA didn’t do enough, but I am beginning to realize that it is actually Penn State that is not doing enough. Their new football coach encouraged fans to renew their season tickets: “I would tell them to move forward, turn the page. I would tell them we’ve got a football team that’s working extremely hard for this upcoming season.” I’m sorry coach, but you missed the point.

It is not up to the fans to move on from this scandal or support the football team or Penn State in general. It’s not up to the sponsors to drop or continue to support Penn State with their advertising. It’s up to Penn State to pause, look around, and determine how this was allowed to happen, and lead the way in the healing process. I for one am tired of seeing institutions and individuals commit glaring atrocities and expect to be forgiven the moment they apologize.

No doubt, the Bishops and Cardinals had the same concern about parishioners filling pews after the Church’s sex abuse scandal broke. As was the case then, the real concern should be to learn from the mistakes that made people question their faith or fandom. The Church didn’t really blaze a trail for Penn State. The Church itself failed to recall people, young and old, back to the faith and pushed many believers away with the handling of its own scandal. Many who left have stayed away and wonder if they would be welcomed back if they were to return. Others, however, are staying away because they believe the Church has not changed. I myself am skeptical that the Church is doing what is necessary to fix the problems and present a changed community that would be welcoming to those who have left.

Maybe we need to change college sports and Church culture. Maybe it’s time for Penn State to stop worrying about season ticket sales, for the Church to stop worrying only about parishioners in pews. I would like to see parishes all over the country holding community events that could serve as a way for all those still skeptical to return to a sort of halfway faith house. A space where they can dip their toes back into the faith, if you will. These events would be the perfect way for the Church to welcome people back and say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Penn State: Don’t just take away the statue of Joe Paterno and forget it was ever there. Replace it with another statue that explains why it’s gone and what will happen in the future to make sure these things are never allowed to take place again.

It’s time to redefine what it means to succeed with honor.

The Author : Chad Houston
Chad Houston graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Theology in 2008. He has been working for the university since the age of 15, and is now striking out into the world to gain a deeper knowledge of himself and learn as much as he can from the writers and readers of Busted Halo.
See more articles by (5).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • John Legerski

    Provocative and thoughtful reflection, Chad. I’d like to offer an additional thought: Even as the worst of the Penn State scandal was showing itself, there were many who proudly reaffirmed, “We are Penn State!” They saw themselves as an essential part of the university, even without the iconic image of Joe Paterno. I don’t remember, during the revelations of the church cover-ups, who were rallying and affirming, “WE are the Catholic Church!” Is it possible that, even after 50 years of Vatican II and theological insights by Avery Dulles and others about models of the church, deep down inside, most Catholics still see the church primarily as the institution? Do most see the scandal as a scandal of “the Church”, rather than just that of the leadership of the Church? If our government leaders soil themselves, most of us don’t deny their citizenship as Americans. It seems as though we Catholics still have a stunted ecclesiology that’s never allowed us to see ourselves as Catholics apart from the hierarchical view. And it seems tragic that so many of our current church leaders keep trying to reinforce that very “top-down” model.

  • Heidi D

    Joanne – I, too, am an educated Catholic woman and I am unsure about your thinking that nuns are the soul of the Church. Isn’t Christ the soul of our Church? Also, it would be fair to claim that women are indeed having an ‘effect’ (as you say) on the Church. Women are leaders of many Church groups, organizations, and not to mention how active they are in parishes. I pray you do not estimate the influence you have by serving Christ’s Church. However, if you are referring to the LCWR, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Christ gave authority to the Magesterium, in which case it is a call from God Himself for the Church to lead the flock, men or women, to truth away from false doctrines concerning divinity of Christ, Trinity, and human sexuality (concerning issues for LCWR. Read directly: http://www.usccb.org/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=55544). I fully agree the Church could handle scandals with much more grace, as suggested in this article. But our faith should not depend on inevitable human error, but rather on the truth He reveals despite our inefficiency.

  • Joanne McCrea

    Interesting, but foolish take on comparing the Catholic Church to Penn State. Catholics believe because they were taught their church and priests cared about them and served due to love of God. Nothing to do and not at all comparable to being a sports”fan”How trivial, and male. What the priests, not the nuns, did was a Sin against God and the Church for which they were ordained to serve and to be an example to the faithful. Perhaps you did not hear a male reporter say on TV that the problem in the church was the same as that at Penn State – a group of men without the mediating effect of women. And now the men, i.e. priests/bishops/Pope propose dictating to the women nuns who are the soul and spirit of the church. Shame? “better that they have a grindstone hung around their neck and be dropped into the river(s). As an educated Catholic woman, for the 1st time in my life, I am ashamed to say I am a Catholic.

  • Ed Thompson

    Your well-written article touches on, but does not fully address the central difference between Penn State and the Catholic Church. Penn State punished the officials who covered up child abuse. The church did not. My trust in our bishops would improve if the USSCB acted like the NCAA. Their failure to do so is the # 1moral leadership issue in the church today.

  • Zeb

    I was a student at Penn State in 2002 taking a graduate class on American Catholicism with Dr. Philip Jenkins, one of the foremost experts on the pedophilia scandal. One of the main points Jenkins made that few in the media or the public was willing to hear was that all available evidence showed that there was no statistical difference between the church and the general public in the prevalence of pedophilia, child abuse, OR covering those up and sweeping the perpetrators under the rug in one way or another. The lesson to take from that fact is that pedophilia is rare but widely spread and that people generally have a tendency to avert their attention and minimize it rather than confront it, and that we need society-wide institutional reforms to overcome that tendency. The spring when I took that class happened to be the same spring Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower on campus, a bitter irony. If Penn State, and America generally, had looked at what had happened in the Catholic Church and said, “That could be us,” instead of, “What’s wrong with priest and bishops?” Sandusky might have been stopped earlier. And now that Penn State has become the center of attention people are asking, “What’s wrong with college football?” It’s the same self serving scape goating, and it is not going to prevent many children from getting abused. Of course people at Penn State and the Catholic Church are guilty and should be punished. But it is not Penn State the needs to change its ways, or the Catholic Church. It is our entire society that needs to change, and that needs to include the Catholic Church and Penn State and every country Pentecostal church and every scout troop and every YMCA basketball club and every public school etc. If no child is ever abused by a priest or on the Penn State campus again and that makes the other 98% of America feel better and less concerned about child abuse the tendency to turn away from it and cover it up, I will not consider that a victory.

  • Tom Gibbons

    Sorry I called you “Joe,” Chad. Great article nonetheless!

  • Tom Gibbons

    Great article Joe – you really address a dimension of the scandal that has gone way overlooked. I pray that we as a church—and Penn State as an institution—will use this as an opportunity to grow in integrity.

powered by the Paulists