Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Basketball Coach as Theological Guardian?

So there I was taking my mid-morning break scanning the ESPN webpage for news about my favorite team, when I see a story that made me wince. No, it wasn't another story about Michael Vick. Instead, it was a story that positioned a college basketball coach as Catholic spokesperson. When does a college basketball coach have to take on the public role as theologian? Rick Majerus, who coaches at St. Louis University, a Jesuit University, was recently asked what his views on abortion are.

It makes me uneasy that a college basketball coach is asked to make public statements on his personally held views concerning faith and morals and these statements should become fodder for public debates about the Church especially among the folks who read ESPN. I shudder to think what Jim Rome is saying about all of this.

The journalist who asked Majerus about his Catholic faith and his stand on abortion was trying to stir it up and create a story by raising an issue that strayed beyond the coach's professional office. The journalist succeeded: it did become a story, all right, but for what end? It's no news to learn that there are practicing Catholics whose faith is complex and multifaceted. Ask any Roman Catholic out here about doctrines and teachings and you'll find a lot of people who fail the litmus test if "official" church teaching is the standard....just start asking about the Death Penalty. There are more than a few "faithful" Catholics who protest against abortion and support capital punishment. Chances are you'll even find them among coaches and players of the NFL and NHL, but that wouldn't be as interesting for journalists to write about. The journalists writing for ESPN are really not interested in religion, the challenges of living a life of faith, or about the Catholic Church (or any other church). They're just interested in stirring up trouble and dropping it. Thanks.

But my real concern with the story, though, is with the actions taken by the archbishop. Why should an archbishop take the bait and make a public statement on Majerus's statement and assert that no Roman Catholic should hold such views? As much as I respect a bishop's role in "watching over his flock," taking an authoritarian position is not the best pastoral position to take among intelligent, thoughtful people these days. It was the archbishop's statement that made this story news. A coach's personal views would have remained private and un-news-worthy without the archbishop's statement. All those impressionable students at SLU who haven't given much thought to the elections would never have heard what their basketball coach thinks had the archbishop taken up his concern directly and privately with the coach, himself.

Instead he took a heavy-handed approach and went to the university's president and made a public statement to the press.

It reminds me of an art exhibit that ended up earning fame and some notoriety in Chicago during the winter months of 1995/1996. "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary: Feminist Views of the Blessed Virgin Mary," would have had a quiet and relatively insignificant run at WomanMade Gallery except that some offended Catholics (who had heard of some of the pieces but who had not seen the exhibit) wrote to Cardinal Bernardin who, without visiting the gallery and seeing the exhibit--i.e., without engaging with the ideas and the poignant concerns of the artists--issued a public statement condemning the exhibit. That public statement made the news, and every day after that for the remainder of the run of the exhibit, the small, sleepy gallery was full of people. I know. I caught the exhibit, but only found out about it because of the press the cardinal gave it. The gallery made money and sold lots of video tapes and even some pieces...all thanks to the added unintentional publicity from the Cardinal.

The assertion of clerical power without respectful dialogue inspires ridicule and drives people away. After everything that has happened among the clergy in the Catholic Church in recent years, the ordained at all levels--whether they be newly ordained deacons or long-standing archbishops, cardinals or even popes--need to start from scratch and earn the respect of both those of us in the pews and those of us who shun the pews. Their authority has been so depleted of integrity, asserting clerical power, as if it is widely respected, is misguided.

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