In the past year, three big enablers of American society the federal government, big business, and the Roman Catholic Church have been shown to be partly disabled.
All three were driven to a crisis of trust by the failures of a few, but all three are being held accountable to restore that trust.
These giants of daily life that normally lead are now being led by the force of public opinion and law to reform themselves and regain their credibility. First, the Catholic church:
Last week, the US bishops adopted rules to take priests who molest minors out of any ministerial activities. The bishops say they will report accusations of abuse to civil authorities and let boards of lay Catholics oversee their commitment to the new rules. A national board could ask the pope to remove a bishop if he obstructs justice by protecting an abusive priest.
Why this radical shift? The interests of the larger society to prevent sexual abuse of children forced the church to override its traditional method of seeking healing for both priest and victim mostly through forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation. The bishops will become secular law enforcers in their institution as much as moral leaders. Where once they saw themselves answerable only to God, now they also answer to the people, at least on this issue.
"An abuser who recognizes the profound harm he has committed and who has shown remorse can indeed be forgiven for his sins," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He just doesn't get a second chance to do it again. Period."
On Saturday, a federal jury found one of America's largest accounting firms, Arthur Andersen, guilty of obstruction of justice for its coverup of Enron's shady financial deals. It was the most drastic punishment yet, coming after a string of questionable practices by big business, from Enron to Global Crossing to Tyco.
Andersen's conviction should reinforce current moves to reform this profession so central to the integrity of a free market. Without reform making the accountants accountable a lingering mistrust of business will keep investors wary and stock markets sluggish.
But corporate governance in general is under suspicion for not being transparent enough. Like the Catholic church's new rules, imposing more rules to catch the bad apples in business adds new layers of external controls and internal checks, and takes away some freedom for individuals to make their own moral choices.
Fixing the system of business or a religion to ensure it catches its mistakes is often necessary. At some point, however, reducing freedom of thought for individuals in order to safeguard the basic institutions of society undercuts the very reason for those institutions to ensure freedom.
Over the past month, a burst of finger-pointing has erupted in Washington for alleged failures of the intelligence agencies to detect the Sept. 11 attacks. A top-to-bottom review of the agencies, as well as the role of Congress and the White House themselves, is needed to ensure that government can do as much as possible to stop another attack.
But shuffling the bureaucracy and spelling out new rules for communication can go only so far. Government, like religion and business, must still rely at some point on the capacity of individuals, unimpeded by rules, to make the right decisions.
All institutions rest on the virtues of people within them. They care for society but also guard its liberties. They help define the duties of each individual using such virtues as mutual respect and self-restraint that balance public order with public freedoms.
Reforming these institutions cannot rely on asserting either their authority or tradition, but on reaffirming and reinforcing the basic character and goodness of the people who serve them. When moral limits are broken, the moral commitment must be renewed, either by new rules or, better, a renewed consensus.
Protecting people from their stupidity, bias, or aberrant desire must be carefully done to avoid a loss of human liberty. It's a difficult balance to tell people to think for themselves but also set the rules for how they should think. Reforms should conserve human dignity, not erode it.