The ABCs of moral responsibility

In the previous post, I argued that Pope Benedict had gratuitously insulted Muslims — a serious screw-up.

Some readers leaped to the conclusion that I was defending Islamic terrorism. In my view, such criticism is a moral non-sequitor. Here’s why.

Imagine that you are the parent of two children, Po and Laa-Laa. (Teletubbie names — I wanted to avoid anything ethnic-specific.)

You are in another room when the trouble starts. It takes a while to sort out what happened, because both children are angry and Po is crying. Eventually it becomes clear that Po poked Laa-Laa in the arm repeatedly. Laa-Laa asked her to stop, to no avail. Finally she got so frustrated that she slugged Po in the shoulder.

You’re the parent. Which child’s behaviour do you correct?

The right answer — or so it seems to me — is to correct both children.

Laa-Laa could have asked you to do something about Po’s behaviour, instead of taking matters into her own hands. She certainly shouldn’t have resorted to violence.

But Po is not blameless in this conflict. By persistently “bugging” Laa-Laa, she “started it”. Thus Po must come in for some correction as well.

The point is this: to find fault with Po is not to exonerate Laa-Laa.

I don’t mean to speak down to anyone, but I suggest this analysis is part of the ABCs of moral reasoning. Laa-Laa is responsible for her misconduct; Po is responsible for hers (even if we regard Po’s misconduct as a lesser offence).

Let’s shift our attention back to Pope Benedict. He is no toddler on life’s journey. He is a learned man in a discipline (theology) which specializes in distinguishing right from wrong.

Moreover, as the Pope, his words carry extraordinary weight. He has to choose those words very carefully, because friends and foes alike will parse every sentence.

A well-known text in James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). The text obviously applies to Pope Benedict.

Being the Pope doesn’t elevate Benedict above criticism: it exposes him to a more stringent judgement than one might apply to, say, the pastor of a local church.

Now a quick comment on Pope Benedict’s apology. I don’t want to belabour my point, but apologies are relevant in this context.

Did Pope Benedict take responsibility for offending Muslims? Not in his first apology. As the current issue of Macleans puts it:

Benedict, 79, may despise contemporary moral relativism, but that didn’t stop him from issuing a thoroughly modern “I’m sorry if anyone was distressed by my comments” statement of contrition.

I haven’t followed Pope Benedict’s subsequent apologies, so maybe he has done better since then.

I sure hope so! Because he’s the Pope: he ought to know his ABCs.

copyright © 2006

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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