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  • The Good Word: The Soul of Sport from a Jesuit Catholic Perspective

    By Patrick Kelly, S.J.
    September 9, 2008, Summer 2008 issue of The Seattle University Magazine

    The Jesuit-Catholic heritage is distinctive when considered alongside other cultural and intellectual traditions, which have shaped the modern world and life in American society. And this distinctiveness can have practical implications with respect to how we think about sport as an aspect of culture.

    First of all, we are heirs to a longer tradition within Christianity, which emphasized the unity of the person. St. Paul wrote about the person as a unity of body, mind and spirit, and later Christian writers would write about the person as a unity of body and soul. In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne expressed this view in an essay on Education:

    We are not bringing up a soul; we are not bringing up a body: we are bringing up a person. We must not split him into two.

    This conviction of Montaigne and other humanists about the unity of the person provided the rationale for the inclusion of play, games and sports in their schools. The early Jesuits followed this lead, incorporating games and sports in their own schools. They brought these educational traditions with them to the United States.

    This emphasis on the unity of the person is different from the dualism of body and mind that became characteristic of the Western world influenced by the philosophy of Rene Descartes. This dualism can be seen in the fact that student athletes in American universities spend so much time on the field or court engaging in bodily activities and yet are rarely, if ever, asked to reflect on what they have experienced in those settings. We often do, in fact, split our young people into two in our contemporary context.

    Secondly, we are heirs to a longer tradition that allows a place for play as a part of culture. As William Baker writes in his book Sports in Western World:

    The Puritans opposed the recreational life of the masses of Englishmen because it was geared to a seasonal cycle associated with the old Catholic church calendar. Various saints' days, the twelve days of Christmas, Plough Monday, Shrove Tuesday, Easter, May Day, and Whitsuntide—all were occasions for common folk to play football, stoolball, quoits, and bowls; to engage in dancing, boxing and wrestling matches, and running, jumping and throwing contests....

    In Catholic intellectual traditions, play was also taken seriously. Thomas Aquinas asked the question in his Summa Theologica, “Can there be a virtue about games?” His response? “Yes”. He pointed out that since virtue was to be found in moderation, it was important that people both work and play.

    Even more, Thomas compared play to contemplation in that both activities were enjoyable and done for their own sake.

    Catholic writers continued to write about the human and spiritual significance of play, and this was especially true during the twentieth century. The tendency to accept play, in both its various cultural expressions and as a subject matter for reflection, made Catholics distinctive in the U.S. context where godliness had traditionally been linked to work, and where play tended to be regarded with suspicion and was commonly associated with sin.

    These longer traditions would suggest that the activities we engage in in our bodies have a relevance for our thinking and that play itself is important, even for our spiritual life. These traditions have implications for the lives of all of our students, but they are relevant for our Division 1 level student athletes as well. The reason our alumni and others will watch our students play in person and on television has something to do with fun and enjoyment, after all. And it is precisely this aspect of their participation that will be most important in terms of the educational experience of our student athletes.

    Father Patrick Kelly is the LeRoux Professor at Seattle University, with a dual appointment in Theology and Religious Studies and the Center for the Study of Sport and Exercise.

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