Mark Shea makes a reasonable point about standing in judgment on Mike McQueary, the Penn State coach who testified under oath that he walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping at 10-year-old boy, and walked away. Shea points out that most of us would probably have done the same thing McQueary did, because the sorry record of humanity shows that we usually act like cowards in such situations. I don’t understand why Mark finds the judgment I make against McQueary — calling him “vile” for what he did — to be objectionable. Is it not vile to turn tail and walk away from a child being raped. It is vile, and deserving of the strongest condemnation. McQueary is vile for having done what he did. If I had done what he did, I would be vile, and deserve to be publicly recognized as vile. As I noted over the weekend in a post about the former NFL play Jon Ritchie’s interview on Sandusky, it is all too conceivable that McQueary didn’t believe his eyes when he saw something so shocking (“didn’t believe” = too shocked to register what he was seeing). But as Ritchie said, it’s what McQueary did, or rather failed to do, after the moment had passed is what is truly worthy of condemnation.

I do not see a contradiction between recognizing that a) what McQueary did was vile and cowardly, and b) that any of us might do the same thing under those circumstances. In fact, I think plain moral sanity requires us to hold both views. I find it to be a dangerous sentimentality that seeks to withhold or minimize condemnation of McQueary on the grounds of imaginative empathy (“I might do the same thing in his position.”) Yes, of course we might — which is why we need to hold before us, clear in our minds, the despicable nature of such an act, as a kind of vaccination against falling prey to the same moral cowardice.

The French have a proverb: “To understand all is to forgive all.” I see that as a warning about the dangers of too much empathy. It is important that we grasp that what McQueary did is something any of us might have done when confronted by such a horrifying situation. But it is equally important that we grasp that the act itself — walking away from a man raping a child — was itself horrifying, and cowardly. The Christian ability to show mercy, to forgive, is a glorious thing, but far too often gets warped by sentimentality. The vulgar version is the who are you to judge? line usually deployed as a rhetorical device when someone prefers to resist passing moral judgment on another’s act. The more sophisticated version is the sort of thing we’ve seen countless times, especially in the cases of priests and bishops excusing, in effect, sexual abuse and misconduct on the part of other clerics: it believes that mercy obviates the requirement of justice. It turns into sentimentality masquerading as Christian virtue. In the case of bishops, they identified so closely with the struggles of their priests that they saw the abused children, and the laity in general, as abstractions. I don’t believe for a second that these bishops were evil in their intent; I think they allowed themselves to be carried away by empathy and sentimentality, minimizing the horror of child sexual abuse, and therefore allowing evil to flourish.

It’s a difficult thing, learning how to balance mercy and empathy with the obligation to seek justice, given that justice requires judgment. To forgive Mike McQueary for his failing, for his moral cowardice, must be an option. We may wish to pardon him, but we have to condemn what he did. Last night, I had a talk with my oldest son about the Penn State scandal, which he’s been hearing people talk about. I used McQueary, Paterno and the others as examples of the kind of man he should not be. We talked about the temptation any of us would face not to do the right thing, but rather to protect our friends, our family, or institutions we loved, even if it meant covering up evil. This is absolutely wrong, I told him, and if he ever finds himself in a situation like that, he must always go to the law, no matter what it might cost him. Loyalty, I told him, is a vice when it justifies allowing innocent people to suffer, especially children who are being abused. It was a good conversation, I think. I tried to help him understand that what McQueary et al. did was monstrous, but they are not monsters, but rather ordinary people who got caught up in a way of thinking that excused evil for their version of the greater good.

Did you ever see the 1960s-era documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity”? It’s an exploration of the thoughts and deeds of the people of a small French city in Vichy France, and how they behaved during the war. It offers an extraordinary look into the mentality of collaborators, and why they did what they did. And make no mistake, what they did was terrible, and absolutely must be condemned as treason. Nevertheless, the film shows you how ordinary people could talk themselves into collaborating. I was particularly struck by someone’s observation in the film that the middle class made the best collaborators, because they had something to lose. Think of McQueary, of Paterno, of all those guys, and what they stood to lose if they didn’t collaborate with Sandusky. And think now of how much more they have lost because of their collaboration with evil.

How will we know what moral heroism is like unless we also know what moral villainy is like? If we can’t say that this man is a hero, do as he does, and that man is a villain, don’t do as he does, how will we morally instruct ourselves, such that we will act as heroes, not as villains, if put to the test? It is morally necessary to humble ourselves to be aware of how we too can easily become villains, in the right circumstances. But taken too far, this empathetic impulse can be an occasion of moralistic preening as a prelude to moral disarmament through rationalization. If we don’t see ourselves in Mike McQueary, we are lying to ourselves. But if we aren’t capable of condemning ourselves as villains if our acts prove us so, we are cowards.