Sports touch the lives of many people, and while they can be a vehicle for character growth, they can also pose moral dangers, as in cases of abuse or corruption, warned a Vatican document released Friday.
Published June 1 by the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, the document addressed specific abuses which can and do take place in the world of sports when the emphasis on the dignity of the human person is overshadowed by the attitude of “winning at all costs,” or the desire for money, fame, or power.
“The Church feels co-responsible for sport and for safeguarding it from the drifts that threaten it every day, particularly dishonesty, manipulations and commercial abuse,” the document stated.
Among these problems, it emphasized, is the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of minors, who “have the right to be protected in their bodily integrity.”
Any incidence of abuse by coaches, trainers or other adults is an affront to God and to the young person “who is created in the image and likeness of God,” it continues.
In a question and answer session with journalists June 1, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, said that problems of abuse in sports are something the Church “will always condemn,” doing whatever it can within its power to stop it or prevent it from happening.
“It is not acceptable, we have zero tolerance for any kind of abuse,” he said, noting that the topic cannot be avoided, nor can the Church deny that abuse happens, but the Church will always speak out and do whatever it can “to ensure the safety of all people, especially children.”
The document also calls out the injustice of illegal doping and the problems of spectator violence; mistreatment and inevitable injury of the body; and disrespect for players’ freedom of expression.
Athletes, the text said, “have the right to associate and represent their interests together. They must not be prevented from expressing themselves freely as citizens and according to their conscience.” It also stated there is no ethical justification for sports that “inevitably cause serious harm” to the brain or body.
Those involved with sports must also be careful to not debase the body or treat it as a machine, the document continues, as when a young person is put into the hands of parents, coaches and managers “who are only interested in the unilateral specialization of a single talent,” rather than the overall well-being of the person, who is comprised of both body and soul.
The document also draws on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas concerning play and games, in which he argues there can be “a virtue about games” because they promote moderation, particularly that of the balance between work and recreation, which is necessary for living a virtuous life.
The Vatican document emphasized several positive values sports can cultivate, including joy, harmony, courage, equality, solidarity, and sacrifice.
Practicing sacrifice in sports, through diligent training and discipline, the document said, can help to strengthen the will to make sacrifices in daily life, a necessary part of the Christian life.
“All of the noble sacrifices we make are important in the Christian life, even when they take place in seemingly insignificant human activities such as sport,” it stated.
Sports also provide a way, according to the text, to combat the negative impacts of the technological and digital revolutions — such as the increase in anxiety, loneliness, and isolation among youth — with the benefit of face-to-face interaction and engagement with others.
Titled “Giving the Best of Yourself” it is the first major document to be issued by the dicastery on laity, family, and life, which was instituted by Pope Francis in August 2016.
The 30-page document had its genesis before that, however, said Farrell, noting that it has been in the works for about three to four years.
In a letter to Cardinal Farrell, praising the publication of the document, Pope Francis said that sports are a “very rich source of values and virtues.”
“Like the athlete during training, practicing sport helps us to give our best, to discover our limits without fear, and to struggle daily to improve,” he said. “In this way, ‘to the extent that each Christian grows in holiness, he or she will bear greater fruit for our world.’”
“For the Christian athlete, holiness will, therefore, consist in living sports as a means of encounter, personality formation, witnessing, and proclaiming the joy of being Christian with the people around oneself,” he continued.
The Vatican text concluded with a pastoral proposal on sports, giving guidance to people involved in what they dubbed “sport pastoral ministry,” including parents, families, coaches, managers, priests, consecrated, and religious.
Whether in parishes, schools, universities, amateur clubs, or professional sports arenas, “pastoral care through sport cannot be improvised, but requires people trained and motivated to… get involved in the service of a Christian vision of sport,” it states.