How the Catholic Church is Like the NFL

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

So, the mini-crisis in the National Football League is behind us. Even the most casual of football fans followed the story with interest, even anxiety, and in fact the story had enough importance that it transcended the sports pages to become national news.

At one point it began to encroach upon the presidential campaign.

I’m speaking of course about the labor dispute between the NFL owners and its referees that led to the use of temporary, inexperienced officials during the first three weeks of the season. This arrangement resulted in bad calls, confusion on the field, a lack of discipline among players, and a black eye for the League that prides itself on being pristine and professional. According to some pundits and fans the poor officiating altered the outcome of the games. Sorry, Patriots fans and Packers fans, you won’t find any sympathy from this writer.

Personally, I think the reaction to the temporary referees and the estimate of their impact on the games was overblown. For the most part the refs did a good job and got the calls right. And, as usual, the outcome of the games was determined by good or bad plays, not by the officiating. We also forget that in every season, just about in every game, even with the regular professional refs, there are disputed calls and arguments.

What became obvious, however, is that without the supervision of well-prepared officials interpreting and applying a clear set of rule, anarchy results. And that’s how the Catholic Church is a lot like the National Football League.

Like the NFL the Catholic Church is a well-defined, ordered and disciplined community. We have rules, clearly spelled-out, in our dogmas, doctrines, and disciplines. And we have referees – the pope and the bishops of the Church who are authorized as the primary teachers of the faith. Individuals might love or loathe the Catholic Church because of its structure and teachings, but the expectations for being part of the community are crystal clear.

The fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are found in, or derived from, the Sacred Scriptures and have been developed and articulated by the Tradition of the Church. All this has taken place, we believe, under the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, Jesus promised that He would send us the Holy Spirit to lead us to the fullness of truth.

The Catholic Church doesn’t sway in the winds of popularity or political correctness. Unlike other faith communities we don’t vote on the content of our confession of faith or the application of fundamental moral principles. We’re informed by the Gospel of Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, not by public opinion polls.

The Church is often criticized for being too strict, too old-fashioned. Some critics have suggested that the Church needs to change, to get with the times. But that’s not what St. Paul taught. He said: “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rom 12:2) In other words, Christians are supposed to change the world for the better – to be salt and light – not be corrupted by it.

Like the NFL we have “referees” whose task it is to teach, interpret and enforce the rules. That task belongs primarily to the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and the College of Bishops. The authenticity of the teaching of the hierarchy, the Magisterium, comes not from the personal intelligence or moral superiority of its members – there’s plenty of empirical evidence to prove that! But once again, it arises from the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Second Vatican Council did not hesitate to articulate, in the clearest of terms, the unique role of the hierarchy in teaching the faith. Any skeptics might want to read the opening address of Pope John XXIII at the Council, or its document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. It’s important to keep this teaching in mind if you happen to encounter spurious interpretations of the so-called “spirit of the Second Vatican Council” that emerge from time to time.

The bishops as referees. My friend, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC, explained the concept in a public letter he sent to the U.S. Bishops last year. “It is the specific competence and responsibility of bishops to teach the faith in its entirety,” he wrote. Developing the sports analogy, the Cardinal pointed out that at certain times, especially when there are theological disputes, it is the responsibility of the bishop to step in to clarify the faith, to make the call. “In a tennis match, it is not the player who calls the ball ‘out of bounds’ but the referee . . . Otherwise, there can be no coherent game, no enjoyment of the match, no sense of progress in learning the sport.”

In other words, without recognized teaching authority, the Church would be like the NFL – with amateur referees.

In the National Football League the conference champions play in the Super Bowl to win the Lombardi Trophy. In the life of faith our reward is the Kingdom of Heaven and the crown of eternal life.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad that I belong to a Church that has clear rules and professional referees!