Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Francis Fast Ph.D.
/ Categories: Cor ad Cor

The "Dignity of the Olympics"

I'm currently teaching a class on the social doctrine of the church here at Newman, but I must confess that my academic focus has been sidetracked over the last week by real-world events in the global theatre that bring the central principles of our social doctrine into sharp relief. I don't mean the tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, nor the nationwide protests over COVID restrictions: I mean, of course, the Olympics.

My wife and I are shameless Olympics junkies and we're teaching our young daughters to be the same--although there may be some learning needed for our two-year-old who gleefully clapped and shouted, "Canada is winning!" just as our mixed-doubles curling team went down in painful defeat to the Italians this weekend. Nobody can rub salt in a wound like a toddler.

Now before going further, I want to note that I do not mean to address the many controversies surrounding the Beijing Olympics in particular. A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled over that and some of the stories out of Beijing have been heartbreaking. But in spite of that, there remains something clarifying and perhaps even, on some level, iconographic in the performance of the athletes themselves at the Olympics–and sport in general–that I think we have to acknowledge, even in the midst of (quite justifiable) controversy. Because in spite of all the questions about social justice, it is still the performance of the athletes that counts.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church identifies the dignity of the human person as the foundational principle of society--and sometimes, we can start to take our own dignity a little too seriously. The Olympics reminds us that there is dignity in the human person not only in his high, moral ambitions--like negotiating complex international tensions, ending a global pandemic, or fighting for justice and individual rights--but even in his play. Each run down the slalom, each triple axel (or quad!), each frontside 360, each moment where an athlete strives to be faster, higher, or stronger, is a moment of what the ancient Greeks called arete, or virtue in the true sense, where the athlete reveals to us a small ray of the image of God reflected through his or her humanity. As St. Ireneaus observed, "the Glory of God is man fully alive.”

This is not just poetic imagining. Last week the students and I worked through an argument developed by Thomas Aquinas that everything that exists, insofar as it exists, is a direct reflection of some aspect of the God whose very identity is to exist and is revealed in all existing things. Not just the serious things, or the important things, or the "religious" things, but all things that exist are an expression of the personality of God. If this is the case, then sport isn't just a "secular" entertainment, but is the human person's attempt to enact, for a brief moment, something that has been occurring within the Trinity from all eternity.

It was Chesterton who suggested that the daily rising of the sun could only be the work of a God who, with a childlike glee, says to his creation each day: "do it again!" While this account may leave something to be desired for the philosopher (our students here might identify Chesterton's account as "occasionalist"), it is not hard to imagine that the God who wills even the tiniest insect into being takes a special delight in the earnest play of his human animals and cheers on the athletes with us, saying after each performance, 'do it again!" And he doesn’t wait for our world to be just in order to cheer us on.

Unfortunately for our curling team, it seems that this weekend, God was cheering for the Italians. As Roman Catholics, it's hard to complain.

Francis Fast, Ph.D, is a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the B.A. in Catholic Studies Program.  Apply Today

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