Is Joe Paterno 'in Heaven'?

07/13/2012 07:18 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012
  • Rob Asghar Member, Pacific Council on International Policy

Was Joe Paterno a good man? And if you have religious beliefs, do you believe that he is in heaven?

Both questions would seem to be difficult. How you answer them says more about you than about Joe Paterno or about God or heaven.

As any Penn State alum will tell you, Joe Pa did enormous good for his school and his community. He gave generously, he lived modestly, and he made damned sure that generations of football players got degrees and moved into respectable careers.

But as most non-Penn-Staters will tell you, he seemed to put the image of his school above a rigorous commitment to rooting out monsters. That intuition seems now to be confirmed reality, based on the just-released findings of an investigation led by former FBI head Louis Freeh.

Some would happily (maybe too happily) plunk Paterno into the deepest pit of Hell. Others may ask that more weight be given to the good that he did over his long and storied career, as opposed to sins of omission committed in his declining years.

A few issues come to mind:

Paterno refused to retire several years ago, even when asked by his superiors. In this way, he showed a l'etat, c'est moi attitude that gives birth to so much corruption and abuse. Contrast that with the way UCLA's John Wooden gracefully exited in order to allow a new generation to test its mettle.

Quite telling are the recent words of columnist David Jones:

In covering the man and his football program for 21 seasons, the single most dominant thread is this: his ambition and drive. He would allow nothing and no one to disparage the institution he had built without some form of retribution. And he had complete power over his domain.

He could be a vindictive man. At times, he was pointlessly petty and nasty.

Just like the rest of us. Except that in the case of a man who had accumulated such power, the consequences of his actions could take on much greater impact."

Consider the ethical state of an individual, whether or not you're religious. Character is destiny, Heraclitus said. Our character leads us to inevitable success or inevitable doom, he believed. Yet it's complicated. Had Paterno retired when he should have, in the mid-1990s, he would be viewed in a completely different light. Pateno's vanity kept him from retiring, to the point that he had become a national joke, as The Onion mock-reported that Penn State players were all worried that they would be the one to accidentally land on and kill their frail coach.

Perhaps it is not correct to say "Paterno was bad," and it is not correct to say "Paterno was, on the whole, good." Perhaps it is best to say that Paterno allowed himself to stand in the stream of good and humble and altruistic values, but that he also had the ability to go with the flow of meaner waters. That flow resulted in his inability to be the kind of leader he wanted to be, in the clutch. And it stained, even ruined his legacy. That may have been his dominant character, because that does seem to be his destiny.

If you are a monotheist, you may well believe that Paterno could make it to heaven because of his overall record. Or you may believe he forfeited any chance at heaven because of the nature of his failure to take proper action.

If you are, say, a Taoist, you believe that Joe, in all his good and his folly, has returned to a source that we shall all return to, without everlasting cosmic judgment of a positive or negative kind.

If you are a Christian, you may find yourself believing that he's a good man who did enough good to enough people so that God would let him slide through. But you'd be wrong about your own beliefs. Paterno's life is an illustration of why New Testament theology holds that no one should be lifted up as a saint and no one should "get into heaven" on his or her own merits. If anyone makes it, he or she makes it by divine grace.

I find the Taoist and New Testament approaches to be compelling. We stop adoring supposed saints, we stop ascribing infallible or even "on the whole" goodness to them or to ourselves, and we get on humbly with the messy business of living.

Was Joe Paterno a "good" man? No. But it is not even the question to be asked anymore.