Soccer and Catholicism

Yesterday was my friend Carlos’ birthday, and he’s been asking me for weeks to do a post about “how soccer is like Catholicism,” without giving me even a hint where he’s seeing a connection. After giving it some thought, here’s what I’ve got:

Catholicism is very diverse, but not in the way that Protestantism or Orthodoxy is diverse. Their diversity comes, all too frequently, through division and schism — the Russian Orthodox are pretty distinct from the Byzantine Orthodox, and operate under independent leadership, openly sparring on points of doctrine; meanwhile, I don’t need to go into any great detail to show the lack of unity and cooperation between, say, Presbyterians and Anglicans. Even within an umbrella denomination, there are schisms and warring bodies — within American Presbyterianism, for example, there’s the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Presbyterian Church – U.S.A. (PCUSA, Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States, plus countless smaller bodies, all claiming to be “Presbyterian,” while disagreeing on issues from abortion to just war to homosexuality to women’s ordination. In fairness, Catholicism certainly has dissenters within Her ranks — those who wish the Catholic Church were more Anglican. But as a Church institution, She’s got clear rules, and a clear governance structure. It’s easy to see whether someone agrees or disagrees with what the Church they belong to believes: so we have essentially only two camps, “orthodox Catholics” and “dissenting / heretical / bad Catholics.”

It’s precisely because of the Magisterium, the living teaching Authority of the Church, which serves as a backbone to the Church, as a Gate to allow the flock to roam freely without getting lost. And as a result, within orthodox Catholicism, there are fascinating and distinct styles of worship and forms of devotion. In addition to the Mass, for example, there are Catholic Liturgies deriving from the Alexandria, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine traditions — all of which are in use on any given Sunday by the Eastern Catholic churches.

Here’s where I see a parallel to soccer. Within football, there are schisms — for example, Canadian rules football, Australian rules football, and good old American football. These divisions are along national lines, and patriotism and nationalism will probably keep us from ever all playing a single form of football. This struck me as similar to the problems plaguing Orthodoxy – there is no governing institution higher than the national level, so no body to appeal to in order to decide whether American, Australian, or Canadian-rules football is the ideal form.

Within other sports, there are also fundamental differences — for example, there are different camps on the appropriate way to score tennis, leading recently to the longest tennis match in history, because Wimbledon requires you to win by 2. Here, the governing bodies are often very localized — individual tournaments having different rules than the tournament a few miles down the road. This, of course, reflects the problems that Protestantism has — they can’t even find a national-level governing body to which they can all appeal. They instead form their own bodies. Tennis players who prefer clay or grass (or concrete) will opt to play in tournaments with those kinds of surfaces. It means that in a very real way, the player chooses which rules he or she wants, rather than adapting their style of play to an objective and universal set of rules. Protestantism suffers similarly: believers will claim that they “submit” to the church, but it’s a church of their own choosing, chosen precisely because it reflects their pre-existing beliefs. If those beliefs change, they’ll simply change churches to find a more suitable surface.

But Catholicism is like soccer, if you understand the Magisterium to be like FIFA. It’s an international governing body with clear authority over all legitimate forms of professional soccer. It means that there can be such a thing as a World Cup, a single tournament which unambiguously can claim to be the top tournament (whereas golf or tennis both have different tournaments which are viewed as of particular importance).

The concern is that a single governing body will squash legitimate innovation — that’s the concern for both soccer and for Catholicism. But it hasn’t happened. Within soccer, there are radically different styles of play, as this last World Cup has demonstrated. The Dutch soccer team had a style of play called totaalvoetbal, or “total football,” in the 70s; the Brazilians played joga bonito; the Spanish team, which just won, played tika-taka (lots of short, quick passes, rather than the “long-ball” favored by, for example, a lot of Eastern European teams).

Within Catholicism, as I’ve begun to allude, there’s a similar wealth of diversity: the numerous Catholic Rites, the various religious orders with different emphases (those who deal primarily with the poor, those who spend nearly all day in silent prayer, those who study and teach theology, and so on), and the innumerable religious devotions. Each saint is, at once, fully Catholic and fully individual. God doesn’t call any two saints to the exact same calling, and it’s remarkable.

St. Paul sums this all up nicely in 1 Corinthians 12:12-29:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

That’s a tall order: we’re to be a single, undivided Church, “combined” by God, with “no division” (a Church Paul simply calls “Christ”). And we’re to do that without simply being automatons of one another, or trying to be other than we’re called to be by Christ. To be at one united and diverse. FIFA soccer is a good demonstration of what that looks like. A well functioning multicultural society is another good example. But the best example is the Catholic Church Herself, living this reality daily.

Happy Belated Birthday, Carlos!

Dutch Catholics in orange, in support of their soccer team. Yikes. The Dutch martyrs who died at the hands of the House of Orange for refusing to give up the Mass are probably less than amused. Even less amused is anyone who thinks that the Mass should be about reverence, and the worship of God, rather than the worship of self and sports team:

If you’re not familiar, the Netherlands used to be a Spanish colony. They split over multiple reasons, not least of which was that Spain was Catholic and the Dutch were largely Protestant. The Spanish crown tried to win the right for the Catholics to say Mass freely; the House of Orange refused, and a bloody war was the result. The Dutch, allying themselves with the Muslim Ottomans, won then. The Spanish got their payback yesterday.


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