News Analysis

Banning sport on Sunday isn’t a ‘war on athletics’


Archbishop Allen Vigneron issued a new policy last week banning sports games and practices on Sundays in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The order came in response to parents who objected to having to “split” the family between multiple games and practices on the same day, who found themselves squeezing Mass in between athletic activities.

The ban was made public via a pastoral commentary on an earlier pastoral letter, published two years ago, called “Unleash the Gospel”. That document came out of a 2016 local synod in which priests and lay people offered input on the future of the Church in Detroit.

“After prayerful consultation with the presbyterate of Detroit and responding to what I believe is the call of the Holy Spirit through Synod 16, we in the Archdiocese of Detroit will cease sporting events on Sunday,” reads the pastoral note. “This means that competitive athletic programs in the grade school and high school levels are called to no longer play games or conduct practices on the Lord’s Day.”

The move is in keeping with a 1998 letter from Pope St John Paul II about keeping holy the sabbath, in which he wrote: “When Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a ‘weekend’, it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see ‘the heavens’.”

The pastoral note from Archbishop Vigneron echoes the late pope’s words. It says that “keeping Holy Sunday also reminds us of our eternal destiny; it allows us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We put aside the worldly pursuits which are necessary for this life but too often become a distraction from what is ultimately important.”

When a similar controversy erupted in 2004, sports writer Richard Lapchick cautioned Catholics against picking this fight, telling the Boston Herald that “sports is a religion in this country and a lot of the world”. Which, some Catholics might say, is precisely the problem.

The Detroit policy will apply to games played against public schools. Previously Catholic schools in Detroit had already scheduled their games with the local Jewish Hebrew academy around their sabbath, and “this new policy is about extending that observance to our own Holy Day”, Vigneron writes.

Vic Michaels, who works for the archdiocese and runs the Catholic sports league, told the Detroit News there would be no lost practice time or shortened schedules. He told the website Crux that the policy applied to roughly two thirds of the diocese’s more than 9,000 students who participate in sport.

“One of the clearest calls from Synod 16 was for our Church to reclaim Sunday as a day set apart for the Lord, for family and for works of mercy,” the pastoral note reads. “For our local church to be faithful to the graces of Synod 16, we also must commit to seeing Sunday as a day when families can be together. The vision for families laid out in ‘Unleash the Gospel’ requires time set aside from many other good activities so that families can be together, free from other distractions.”

The latest letter is the fourth such note issued since June last year. It was approved by the presbyterial council. Similar policies are in place in Indianapolis and elsewhere, though Detroit, with 1.3 million Catholics, is the largest to implement the no sports on Sunday policy so far.

Not everyone was happy with the archbishop’s decision, however. The most amusing backlash to the archdiocese’s decision was a column in the Detroit Free Press by Mick McCabe. “Archdiocese of Detroit has declared war on athletics,” ran the headline. “With all due respect: This is idiotic.”

The veteran high-school sports reporter was, it’s fair to say, apoplectic at the decision. “Will families spend their extra time dissecting the Bible now when their entire day is suddenly free of athletics?” he asked. “That would be wonderful, but it just ain’t happening. Does the archbishop believe that not having sporting events on Sundays will increase attendance at Mass? Yeah, that isn’t going to happen, either. This simply makes no sense to me on any level.”

Fr Charles Fox, of Detroit’s major seminary, replied in the archdiocesan newspaper to clarify that there was no “war” on athletics. “There is room for reasonable and charitable debate about how best to honour the Lord’s Day and to promote athletics,” he wrote, “but unfortunately McCabe’s article does more harm than good to this cause.”

Fr Fox highlighted the problem of families transforming into shuttle services on Sundays: “Families with a number of children are often pulled apart as they need to be at different games in different parts of Metro Detroit on a given Sunday. And the general decline in reverence for Sunday as the Lord’s Day is undeniable. We are trying a new approach in order to bring a renewed sense of reverence and dedication to the Lord and each other.”

Whatever problems the decision might pose for high-school sports reporters like McCabe, there are likely to be plenty of families happy to be able to spend Sundays with their children rather than driving them to and from practice.