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Are You Playing For Keeps?
I think I've come across a problem that you can't solve. I have a friend who is a "cafeteria Catholic." He clearly is uneasy with my newly discovered enthusiasm for the Catholic faith, and he's especially uneasy about moral issues. He keeps saying things like "Life is so complex, no one can live a perfect moral life. Just be sincere, do the best you can, God will understand."
Baseball and the moral life have more in common than you might think.
I think I've come across a problem that you can't solve. It has to do with the relationship between my favorite game — baseball — and morality.
Look, I may not be able to solve the problem, but at least we've got something in common: Baseball is my favorite sport, too. So step up to the plate and take a swing.
Okay, I have a friend who is a "cafeteria Catholic." He clearly is uneasy with my newly discovered enthusiasm for the Catholic faith, and he's especially uneasy about moral issues. He keeps saying things like "Life is so complex, no one can live a perfect moral life. Just be sincere, do the best you can, God will understand." You know the picture. My big thing right now is that Christ's redemptive work really affects our moral lives. He has healed our natures, making it possible for us to live virtuously.
Looks like the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor has inspired you. Especially article 104 …
I can recite that one by heart! "This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if re-deemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ's redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act . . . . the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit."
I am duly impressed. Now what does all this have to do with baseball?
My friend, you see, read something in Parade Magazine that he has really latched on to. The gist of it is this: A great baseball player bats around 300. That means that amid some great hits, he also has plenty of less-than-perfect swings. So, too, with our moral life: Ideally we'd bat 1000, but no one can be expected to do that. So we should always try really hard, but there's no way we can succeed regularly.
Whose doctrine on justification does this remind you of?
Somehow it sounds both very Protestant and very secular, but that can't be . . .
No, I think you are on to something. According to many varieties of Protestant teaching, due to the depravity wrought by original sin, we are incapable, even after justification, of acting virtuously. Still, we can be saved if we firmly believe that Christ has died for us, has imputed grace and righteousness to us. Secular "orthodoxy" is a variation on that theme: Due to the complexity of life, we are incapable of being moral virtuosos. But as long as we're sincere, God (if He exists) still loves us, and heaven (if it exists) is still ours.
And you can get on base only three out of ten times yet still play in the major leagues.
Okay, let's take a closer look at this baseball analogy. You see, the perfect game, baseball, must be in accord with the Truth, the fullness of which resides in the Catholic Church. Hence, baseball must be Catholic.
That was quite a slider. How about pitching it a bit easier?
Sorry, just tongue-in-cheek. But the point I want to make is that baseball, properly understood, is actually very analogous, not to Protestant ethics or secular ethics, but to Catholic ethics. Your friend is stealing a base on you and you can get him with a straight fast throw. Here goes: In baseball, a professional is expected to do everything right all the time. "Be perfect as Yogi Berra was perfect," we might say, or "Be perfect as Sammy Sosa is perfect." To be sure, professional baseball players make their share of mistakes, but this is not part of the expectation when they are signed. They're paid to do it right, all the time. That's why an otherwise good player gets booed when he makes some mistakes.
But the fact is, they are applauded for hitting 300, and that means they're missing two thirds of the time.
Not quite! If they're doing their job, they're getting it right one hundred percent of the time. What you call "missing two thirds of the time" means that external circumstances get in the way: amazingly good pitching, the quasi-miraculous diving catch by a diving infielder, the brilliant leap above the outfield wall. In these circumstances, the player is doing everything exactly as he is supposed to. He doesn't get bawled out by the pitching coach. His teammates say, "No one could have hit that pitch," or "No one should have been able to catch that hit."
I think I see your point, but can you tie the analogy back to our moral lives?
Yes. We're supposed to act virtuously one hundred percent of the time, just as the player is supposed to do everything just right. God expects it of us because He has given us the necessary skills — namely, the grace of Christ — just as we expect much of the player because he possesses incredible athletic talent.
Now, just as external circumstances can get in the way of the player getting on base, so too external circumstances often prevent us from accomplishing the good we would wish to do. But we are never to do evil, just as the player is never to take a bad swing. If he does, he's in the doghouse. If we do evil, we are, too.
I'm pretty clear on how external circumstances cause the player not to get on base. Can you give an example of external circumstances preventing us from accomplishing good?
Imagine trying to contribute to your workplace. You want to improve the atmosphere. You try some extra doses of kindness; you go the extra mile for your co-workers, and the like. But it can easily happen that you get nowhere! (In fact, it can backfire on you. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.)
Or imagine trying to evangelize within your family. You're very prudent, you're not in the least pushy, but the moment any important issues come up for discussion, you're thwarted in your efforts to make a reasonable argument in favor of the Catholic faith. To give a very concrete contemporary example, consider all the efforts made to give an accurate portrayal of Pope Pius XII's assistance to the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. Many such efforts hit a brick wall, and a great good — an honest portrait of Pius XII — is prevented.
To summarize, our lives are filled with instances of not accomplishing the good we would wish to accomplish. It's a lot like baseball! And yet, we are to keep doing good, and we leave the results in God's hands.
Got it. Isn't there a text in Veritatis Splendor that talks about these very ideas?
Not surprisingly, yes. It says: "It is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions. . . ."
That last point presupposes that we've been given the grace by which we can act well, just as in the baseball analogy we presuppose that we're speaking of a real professional. The pope also notes that "there are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person." Likewise, in the baseball analogy, there are certain kinds of acts that a player just may not do, such as trying for a homer when a bunt is needed.
Well, I think I've got it all straightened out. I'm going to grab my copy of Veritatis Splendor and meet my friend at the game tonight! Should be a very interesting between-innings discussion!
I'll be thinking of you. Some people convert in churches, others in hospitals; why not at the stadium?
Mark Lowery "Are You Playing For Keeps?" Envoy (July/August, 2000)
Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.
Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.
Copyright © 2000 Envoy