A very thoughtful acquaintance of ours asked, elsewhere, what the Church has to say about violent sports—think mixed martial arts (MMA) or professional football (NFL, not FIFA).
This is a very good question, which has been on our mind lately. At sports-gossip site Deadspin, Barry Petchesky has a piece, “Wes Welker Is Back and It Feels Terrible,” regarding wide receiver Wes Welker’s return to play for the St. Louis Rams. Petchesky writes,
By all accounts—his own, his teams’, and a top NFL-affiliated concussion specialist’s—Wes Welker is healthy and ready to play. St. Louis badly needs a receiver. Still, when the Rams announced they signed Welker to bolster their etiolated passing attack, my first reaction was disappointment. It’s a strange feeling, to hope that Wes Welker—a talented WR and by all accounts a decent guy—never plays football again.
It’s the concussions. At least six official ones in his career, maybe as many as 10.(That doesn’t count the ones he may not even know about.) He suffered three in nine months with the Broncos, leading one former teammate to publicly declare he wanted Welker to retire. The thing about concussions is that the more you’ve had, the more likely you are to receive more. Welker’s brain is especially fragile and vulnerable. If teams avoided signing the still-useful receiver this offseason solely because of his concussion history—and some very specifically did—it wasn’t necessarily just the potential bad PR in a sport that claims to take brain trauma very seriously. It was legitimate concern for Welker’s well-being.
(Emphasis supplied and hyperlinks omitted.) But Welker is not the only flashpoint for the concussion debate: the NFL has been grappling with the question—and fans have been grappling with the morality—for some time.
Add to this the recent coverage of UFC champion Ronda Rousey’s devastating loss to Holly Holm. Rousey, long touted as an unstoppable fighter, known for thirty-second takedowns of challengers, was knocked out cold by a thudding kick to the head by Holm. But only after Holm had slugged Rousey in the face long enough and hard enough to split her lip and leave her bloodied. (We did not watch the fight, but some observers said that Rousey looked punch drunk. We do not doubt it.) While perhaps not as serious as Welker’s years of concussion after concussion after concussion, which have been discussed repeatedly, the fact remains that Rousey was punched repeatedly in the face, pretty hard as such things go, and kicked in the head hard enough to knock her out. Perhaps we are oversensitive—and we admit that we are not that kind of doctor—but that pummeling cannot be good for the brain.
Therefore, we think that our acquaintance’s question is not only a good question in itself but also a good important question for our time. The problem is that the Church does not appear to have pronounced officially—much less definitively—on the question professional football or MMA fighting or any of a whole host of physically punishing sports. (To our knowledge. If you, dear reader, are aware of something, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or tweet at @semiduplex; we will gladly post any documents you identify.) But the Church has pronounced several times on dueling, and it seems to us that one can analogize profitably from dueling, especially nonlethal academic dueling, to these extreme sports. And from those pronouncements, some general conclusions may be drawn and applied to the question of these sports. The answer will probably not surprise you, though.
We begin with Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical to the bishops of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Pastoralis officii. It begins,
Mindful of your pastoral duty and moved by your love of neighbor, you wrote to me last year concerning the frequent practice among your people of a private, individual contest called dueling. You indicate, not without grief, that even Catholics customarily engage in this type of combat. At the same time your request that We, too, attempt to dissuade men from this manner of error. It is indeed a deadly error and not restricted to your country, but has spread so far that practically no people can be found free from the contagion of the evil. Hence, We praise your zeal. It is clearly known what Christian philosophy, certainly in agreement with natural reason, prescribes in this matter; nevertheless, because the vicious custom of dueling is being encouraged with greatest forgetfulness of Christian precepts, it will be expedient to briefly review these rules.
(Emphasis supplied.) Thus, the answers to the question of dueling were already evident in Christian doctrine. Leo simply summarizes them in response to the bishops’ request for guidance. Leo goes to say, and this is the interesting part:
Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or accept one when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a life or at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident danger when not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be, therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone’s mind that those who engage in battle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that of another’s destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. Finally, there is hardly any pestilence more deadly to the discipline of civil society and perversive to the just order of the state than that license be given to citizens to defend their own rights privately and singly and avenge their honor which they believe has been violated.
(Emphasis supplied.) There are two principles here that ought to be unpacked before moving on to some other sources.
One, the divine law—and the natural law, which is simply our participation in the divine law—forbids killing or wounding a man except in self defense. The Fifth Commandment tells us as much. Remember, too, what Aquinas taught us: a man, including his body, belongs to the community; therefore, injuring a man injures the community (ST IIa IIae q.65 a.1 co. & ad 2). The community’s sanction is needed to injure a man (id.) This goes for blows, too (ST IIa IIae q.66 a.1 co.).
Aquinas’s teaching is not squarely on point here, since Aquinas was talking about injury as chastisement or retaliation. However, the principle seems to hold even in the sporting context: a man is part of the community, to injure a man injures the community. Now, the injuries in this case can be fairly remote. Certain brain injuries, as we understand it, can take years to manifest themselves; nevertheless, if it becomes certain that certain sports result in these injuries, then it seems to us, for the purposes of moral reasoning, the sports activities are the proximate cause of the injuries, even if temporally remote. Remember the lesson of the Second Way: real causality is not “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” and so forth (ST Ia q.2 a.3 co.). Thus, Leo’s teaching, if taken back to its source, seems to apply equally to football as dueling.
Two, one cannot risk death or injury rashly. As the old Baltimore Catechism tells us, “[w]e are commanded by the fifth Commandment to live in peace and union with our neighbor, to respect his rights, to seek his spiritual and bodily welfare, and to take proper care of our own life and health.” (Emphasis supplied.) And as St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us in his Instructions on the Commandments and the Sacraments, God is the lord of our lives and we have no right to throw away our lives or to injure ourselves wantonly. Thus, on this point, too, Leo’s teaching is squarely within the broader current of Christian moral theology. And, unlike the previous point, this point meets squarely the question of violent sports. The Fifth Commandment requires us to take care of ourselves, more or less well, and to avoid unnecessary injury. It seems to us that an argument could be made—convincingly—that an athletic contest does not quite rise to the level of gravity necessary for one to justly risk injury or death.
There are also a couple of decrees of the old Sacred Congregation of the Council, before its transformation to the Congregation for Clergy, regarding German academic dueling: a decree of February 10, 1923, AAS 15 (1923) 154–56, and a decree of June 13, 1925, AAS 18 (1926) 132–38. The latter decree has been excerpted in the current edition of Denzinger, at DH 3672, and it makes it clear that the prohibition on dueling applies even when death is unlikely. (German academic dueling, as we understand it, involved padding and protective gear that prevented serious injury but permitted the flamboyant facial scars seen on a thousand B-movie actors after 1945 or so.) Thus, at least according to the Sacred Congregation of the Council, which undoubtedly would have been aware of Pastoralis officii, the prohibitions on dueling were not affected by measures taken to mitigate the injury. And this makes sense. The Fifth Commandment prohibits this sort of reckless, almost injury-seeking, behavior. We acknowledge that the violation may be only venially sinful. But given the serious neurological disorders that have been mentioned in the popular press, to say nothing of the regular, gruesome injuries that football players suffer, it seems unlikely that one could hold, as a rule, that the violation is a venial sin. It seems that the question of gravity is, as is often the case, one of subjective imputability.
All of this is a long way of saying that, reasoning from the example of dueling and some general comments on the Fifth Commandment, we think that mixed martial arts and professional football are probably sinful. (Once again, if you’re familiar with a more definite pronouncement, let us know and we’ll be happy to draw attention to it, with credit!) Whether, as in the days of dueling, excommunications need to be handed down to players, coaches, support staff, and spectators is another question. What to do, though? Plainly people like extreme sports. While we prefer baseball for a variety of reasons, we enjoy professional football. We root for a team. We have favorite players. We watch games. We talk about games with other people. We are, we admit, football fans. Yet, we have for some time been increasingly bothered by the idea that we are watching men bash their brains out. One can Google very sad stories of ex-players reduced to poverty—or worse—as a result of neurological damage they attribute to football.
Does this mean it’s time to stop formally cooperating in sin? In other words, by turning on the TV or going to a game, it seems to us that an argument could be made that we are formally cooperating in what the players are doing. Buying tickets, watching commercials, or otherwise supporting the broader objectives of the major corporations behind these sports looks an awful lot like formal cooperation, though we would be happy to be corrected by a moral theologian. Is it time to stop? If not now, what would it take? A decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? A papal encyclical?