The first recorded sports match in Vatican history took place on January 7, 1521. With Pope Leo X looking on, two teams clashed in the Cortile del Belvedere in a game known as Calcio Fiorentino, a forerunner of football that looked more like a cross between rugby and boxing. We don’t know what Leo made of it, but we do know that the Vatican didn’t host another major sporting event until 1947, when the state’s lay employees held a football tournament. The matches were reportedly so bad-tempered that the competition was suspended. For the next few decades only friendly matches were permitted.
In 1994 Vatican City made its international footballing debut (a dull goalless draw against fellow microstate San Marino). Since then it has been something of a whipping boy, losing 9-1 to the Palestinian national team and winning just one match. The Vatican cricket team, founded in 2008, has fared slightly better.
But despite dabbling in ball games since the 16th century, the Vatican has never produced a document on sports. Until last week, that is, when the new “super-dicastery” for Laity, the Family and Life issued Giving the Best of Yourself, a 21,000-word reflection on sporting ethics.
Critics of Pope Francis will see the text as further evidence of Vatican trivialisation. But there are compelling reasons for the Church to offer counsel to the sporting world. One is the vast number of people who either watch or take part in sports. An estimated 3.4 billion people – almost half the world’s population – are expected to tune into the World Cup this month in Russia. Some 265 million, meanwhile, regularly play football.
Another reason is that sport offers an ethical training for life. Before his playing career was cut short by TB, the philosopher Albert Camus was the goalie for a junior team in Algiers. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations,” he wrote, “I owe to football.” The virtues that sport teaches – discipline, selflessness and perseverance – are also the cornerstones of spiritual life.
Yet the sports world is experiencing an ethical malaise. Journalists have exposed astonishing levels of corruption at FIFA, football’s governing body, forced the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to admit cheating, and exposed Russia’s state-sponsored doping pro-gramme. Against this background, the Church has a duty to speak out.
Giving the Best of Yourself is well judged. To Catholic parents worried about children playing sports on Sunday mornings, it says: don’t worry, it’s fine as long as the family attends a Saturday vigil or Sunday evening Mass. To gifted children, it says: adults must not put excessive pressure on you to succeed.
The text also acknowledges the work of doctors such as Bennet Omalu, a devout Catholic who uncovered the devastating impact of multiple concussions on American football players. “Sports that inevitably cause serious harm to the human body cannot be ethically justified,” it says, though it doesn’t call explicitly for a ban on contact sports.
While the Vatican does not have a distinguished sporting history, there is one area in which it excels: moral guidance. We’ve waited a long time for a Church document on sports. This one, as baseball commentators say, knocks it out of the park.
Europe’s phantom Christians
The Pew Research Center has published its latest findings about attitudes to religion in Western Europe. The most religious country remains Portugal, where 83 per cent of the population declares itself to be Christian. Italy and Austria both claim 80 per cent adherence, as does Ireland. Britain is not so far behind, with 73 per cent. France comes in at 64 per cent.
The only country with a majority claiming not to believe is the Netherlands, where a mere 41 per cent identify as Christians. Over the border in once Catholic Belgium it is a modest 55 per cent. Among Nordic nations, there is an outlier: Finland, where 77 per cent identify as Christian, compared with little more than half of the population in Norway and Sweden.
Identifying as Christian and actually going to church are rather different things. In Western Europe the non-practising vastly outnumber the practising. Even among practising Christians, the majority are in favour of both same-sex marriage and legal abortion, though this should come as no surprise to anyone after the Irish referendums on both matters. So, Christianity remains a strong marker of cultural identity, but, worryingly, it has been largely emptied of any real meaning.
The researchers were keen to ask questions about attitudes to immigration, and to see how these tallied with attitudes to religion. The report reached the surprising conclusion that “both practising and non-practising Christians are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults to say their culture is superior to others, and to favour reducing immigration from its current levels”. This would strongly suggest that Christians are more likely to be on the side of, for example, the new Italian government, than to share the attitude of Pope Francis who has urged Europeans to welcome migrants.
The Church’s teachings on abortion and gay marriage have not found a receptive audience. And it seems that its recent pronouncements on immigration haven’t either.