Institutions perform poorly because they are composed of human beings. That observation should not come as a surprise to anyone older than 30; yet we are frequently shocked when it happens.
Knowing human beings are flawed, we should expect that collectively they will display weaknesses that we all demonstrate individually. Thus the need for laws, checks and balances, regulations, standards, and enforcement to identify and minimize the adverse consequences of our behavior.
But the regulatory and enforcement institutions are themselves flawed and often fail to adequately perform the functions for which they were designed. This applies across the board to governments, business, charities, and churches. For no one can escape his/her humanity.
At best we can control the most egregious examples of our inherent flaws. For individuals and institutions alike, this requires a lifetime effort; first to identify and then to suppress harmful behavior.
It requires the capacity to honestly look at yourself and the institutions of which you are a part and those that affect you. Having identified what is wrong, that knowledge requires the capacity to change. Such changes are rarely a solution but can be significant improvements.
Legislatures tend to be a mess because of the special interests of paramount concern to many legislators, not the least of which is re-election. The common good is lost in a blizzard of competing interests, pettiness, deal making, partisanship, and poor judgment that now seem to fuel the process.
Stuck in partisan muck and mire, it is a wonder Congress is able to accomplish anything. Money often tips the scales of competing interests in a system where self preservation rules. If it represents the best in us, we are all in trouble.
Where are the statesmen? The sad fact is they probably could not be elected in this environment. Duplicity reigns in what was hoped would be the land of the just. Free at last, the best legislators are often the ones who choose not to run again.
Doing what is right sometimes means acting against one’s self interest. That applies whether you are a politician, bishop, executive, or someone just trying to be “good.” There is a word that you don’t hear much anymore.
I like it because for me it means being honorable, truthful, disciplined, kind, brave, tolerant, and understanding. It is the work of a lifetime; never fully achieved but worth the striving.
The flaws of the Roman Catholic Church, so evident now in the shocking revelations of child abuse and its cover-up, have manifested in other ways through the centuries. Priests, bishops, and popes are human beings and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us. The great tragedy is that they should have been better able to identify and avoid evil.
I understand why many Catholics have turned away in disgust. But I could no more abandon my parents, my family, my country than I could my church for I see in all of them weaknesses I see in myself.
When we act collectively through our institutions, rather than being diminished, those flaws are more likely inflated. The complex interaction of the many combined with outside forces and the desire to preserve and protect the institution too often suppress what Abraham Lincoln called: “The better angels of our being.”
How generous we are in overlooking our own faults, while condemning them in others. William James, the 19th century psychologist and philosopher, wrote: “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law. His e-mail address is email@example.com.