At the National Championship
It was not really a question of whether I would go, but how I would arrange it. When Notre Dame's football team finished the American college football season ranked No. 1, qualifying for the national championship game in Miami against the Alabama Crimson Tide—the defending national champions—I knew I would go. In the overlapping worlds of Catholicism and football, Notre Dame has a unique place. There are only two Catholic universities that play in the first division of American college football (the other is Boston College), and Notre Dame has long been America's flagship Catholic university, in large part due to the prominence of its football team.
So, there I was in the first days of the new year in Miami, taking part in the grand spectacle of the national championship game. It is a moment of grand excess, an exuberant celebration of 21st century American culture, good and bad. There is excellence not only on the field but in every aspect of the organization of what is more a festival than a game. No detail goes unnoticed. No expense is spared. I took the media shuttle from the press centre to the stadium and found myself in a two-bus motorcade with five police cruisers escorting us on the freeway. Yes, it was fun, and perhaps necessary given that some 80,000 people were clogging the immense parking lot for the all-day tailgate party preceding the game. Fun, but excessive. But then the whole affair is marked by excess, a massive orgy of conspicuous consumption. That all of this is for a game says something about what is at the heart of American culture today: commerce and recreation.
And yet there is something more, at least for this national championship. It is sports after all, and sports have not lost their capacity to point us toward that which is noble: excellence on the field, loyalty to a team, participation in a great common experience Ninety minutes before the game and the stadium speakers were blasting that most predictable of all pre-game songs, the Black Eyed Peas telling us that they have "gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night…." But yes, at the very minimum, that is what sports can do for us. We look forward to game nights. We look forward together to the big game, and it draws us up out of the ordinary progression of one night after another. It's the national championship. It's the big game. Yet, it's gonna be a good,good night.
In the end, the spectacle was spectacular but the game itself was rather disappointing. It was over before the first quarter ended, with Alabama playing football about as well as it can be played. It was admirable to watch, even though my sympathies were intensely with Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide dominated utterly. They knocked the gold right off Notre Dame's helmets. The final score of 42-14 was closer than the game actually was.
There remained the deep satisfaction of having been part of something important and historic. By winning its third championship in four years in such impressive fashion, Alabama established itself not only as the most successful program today but, with 15 championships in total, the most successful program ever. Indeed, in Notre Dame vs. Alabama, the importance of sports in our collective memory and identity was highlighted in a particular way.
College football fans still talk about Notre Dame's one-point victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on December 31, 1973, a game between two legendary coaches, Ara Parseghian defeating Bear
Bryant for the national championship. Notre Dame has a national following, born of a time when Catholics in America were second-class citizens and their football team was a matter of collective pride, both religious and ethnic—they are not called the Fighting Irish for nothing. While Notre Dame has a national following beyond any other team, there is no team more important to its home state than the Crimson Tide is to Alabama.
"In those days Alabama was famous for all the wrong reasons: George Wallace, Selma, ‘Bombingham,' fire hoses, police dogs, Bull Connor," writes Mark Childress, an Alabama author, about the 1960s. "Only one thing in Alabama was famous for mostly right reasons: Paul ‘Bear' Bryant and the winning football boys of the Crimson Tide. It was during the Bryant years that football ceased being a passion, pastime or game in Alabama, and became our official religion. When all hope was lost, Bear Bryant descended on beams of light from golden clouds."
For the downtrodden and the disdained, triumph on the football field offers the opportunity to hold one's head high. To be sure, there are unlovely aspects to tribal loyalties in sports. Fanaticism and hooliganism are real phenomena. But that is a corruption of belonging to something shared, something greater than oneself, something that brings pride and achievement and excellence to a people who might otherwise not experience it.
In Alabama, college football is often described as a religion, even as university courses in Quebec offer the opportunity to study the Montreal Canadiens under those rubrics—the Forum as a shrine, the dressing room as a sanctuary, Rocket Richard as the patron saint. That's going too far, but there is something to it. My trip to Florida for the national championship game brought together sports and theology in a personal way.
I extended my visit to Florida for a day to visit Ave Maria University, the Catholic university founded by Tom Monaghan along with the accompanying town, also named Ave Maria. Michael Novak, one of the great influences on my thinking, has taken up residence here after retiring from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and so it was a propitious occasion for us to meet.
Of course, Professor Novak was at the game, too. A man passionate about his Catholic faith, his scholarship in Catholic social teaching and his commitment to mentoring the young, Novak is almost as passionate about Notre Dame football. As a young man, he was an aspirant for the Holy Cross Fathers and studied at Notre Dame for many years. The priesthood wasn't his calling, but theology was, and as a layman he became one of the most influential theologians of his generation.
When he began writing about theology and economics in the 1970s, Catholic thinking was often suspicious of economic activity and frequently hostile to free markets. Novak challenged the regnant view and invited Catholics to think about economics not as grubby grasping after filthy lucre but as a great arena of human freedom. It is in the economy that man cooperates with others to provide for his needs and those who depend upon him, employing his creativity as one made in the image of God.
In 1982, Novak published his most important book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which was so influential that it was passed around by the underground resistance behind the Iron Curtain. He taught us in that book to seek the spark of the divine in the mundane worlds of economics and politics. This football trip to Florida occasioned the re-reading of another of his books, The Joy of Sports, which glimpsed that same divine spark in baseball, basketball, soccer and various other sports, but above all in football. Readers will find in Novak's 1976 book why he is not a theologian of economics as much as a theologian of freedom.
"Play is not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food or shelter," Novak writes. "Play is human intelligence, and intuition, and love of challenge and contest and struggle; it is respect for limits and laws and rules, and high animal spirits, and a lust to develop the art of doing things perfectly.
"Animals do not multiply cultures and languages and forms of play, and organizational patterns," Novak continues. "Animals play as they have for centu ries, while humans ceaselessly invent, produce the multiple varieties of religion and play that establish on the soil of nature the realm of culture, the field of liberty. The religions we have, like the games we have, have issued forth from the historical response of humans to their own liberty. In all these ways, religions and sports have much in common. Sports belong in the category of religion."
Sports are not religion, but they engage the great adventure of human liberty put to great ends. Religion provides ultimate ends for life; sports provide a glimpse of those ends, and the intensity with which they can be pursued, within the accessible confines of our games.
"Sports flow outward into action from a deep natural impulse that is radically religious: an impulse of freedom, respect for ritual limits, a zest for symbolic meaning, and a longing for perfection," Novak explains. "The athlete may of course be pagan, but sports are, as it were, natural religions. There are many ways to express this radical impulse: by the asceticism and dedication of preparation; by a sense of respect for the mysteries of one's own body and soul, and for powers not in one's own control; by a sense of awe for the place and time of competition; by a sense of fate; by a felt sense of comradeship and destiny; by a sense of participation in the rhythms and tides of nature itself."
It is this aspirational dimension of sports—a natural religion as Novak suggests—that allows even those who are not sports fans to share in the joy of sports. I remember my late grandmother joining us in front of the TV to watch Canada play in the 1987 Canada Cup, or the Calgary Flames in their Stanley Cup run in 1989. She was hardly a hockey fan, but she knew that it was important to participate, even as the pews are filled at Christmas by practical atheists who otherwise never darken the door of a church. There are times when it is time to worship, even for the non-believers.
Perhaps the most important part of my national championship experience was revisiting what my mentor wrote back when I was five years old. It explained to me why I write so often about sports and why they attract my attention in the first place. Novak's book was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the best 100 sports books of all time. (Ken Dryden's The Game, a book that explores hockey in Montreal as sport, as politics and as culture, was ranked ninth on that list. It opens with an explanation of Quebec's religious culture in relation to the cursing heard in the locker room.)
While it is possible to appreciate a sport in general, we are passionate about our team in particular. It is one thing to watch any game, but the heart beats faster when it is my team that is playing. My identification with my team is what makes it sometimes unbearable to watch in a close game. It is what makes 30,000 Crimson Tide fans delirious and 30,000 Fighting Irish fans despondent in the same stadium. It is better to be among the despondent than to be among those who care for neither team.
Novak explains too why Catholics love Notre Dame, even if the university should frustrate us from time to time. Papal biographer George Weigel wrote on the occasion of the Miami game of the "singular place that Notre Dame holds in both the American Catholic imagination and the American imagination about Catholicism." Indeed, when President Obama was trying to drive a wedge between the Catholic faithful and the Catholic bishops, he knew that seducing Notre Dame was an indispensable part of that plan. Notre Dame, often far too ready to be seduced by money and apparent prestige, let her virtue slip at first, but has since smartened up and is currently suing the Obama administration for violations of religious liberty.
"The life of imagination, the life of the spirit, needs nourishing if intellect is to flourish," writes Novak on the importance of football to Notre Dame as a university. "And few phenomena in American life compare with the mythic power of Notre Dame football. The very words ‘Notre Dame' mean a certain kind of spirit; a spirit of never quitting, of using one's wit, of playing with desperate seriousness and intense delight, of achieving not just excellence but a certain kind of flair that must be thought of as gift and grace. When John F. Kennedy was about to give the most important address of his electoral campaign, before the Baptist ministers of Houston, a technical difficulty delayed his entrance for a long and nervous several minutes. A quite secular aide leaned over to the Catholic layman who had written Kennedy's address and whispered: ‘If you know any of those nuns who pray for Notre Dame, call them quick.' You can't think of Notre Dame without invoking a world in which grace and the miraculous are as linked to human excellence as atmosphere to earth."
Notre Dame, Novak, the national championship; not a bad way to spend a few January days in Florida. Better than not bad. Grace, gift, the miraculous, human excellence, intense delight, a certain flair. Sports gives us in part what our faith gives us in full.
A First Nations New Year
The new year began with an unexpected burst of activity on the First Nations front. The hunger strike by Theresa Spence, chief of the wretched Attawapiskat First Nation, somehow captured national attention, and eventually the prime minister agreed to a meeting with First Nations chiefs, which Spence then refused to attend on the curious grounds that the Governor General would not be present. It all descended into farce from there, with much reason to lament that Aboriginals are governed by parties able to produce such a fiasco.
In the midst of the protests, an important Federal Court of Canada ruling was handed down, determining that hundreds of thousands of Métis and non-reserve Aboriginals are to be considered Indians for which the federal government has responsibility, akin to its fiduciary duty toward Indian treaties and reserve. The judgment—douptless to be appealed to the Supreme Court—was hailed as a major victory for the plaintiffs, those Métis and non-reserve Indians who will now stand to benefit from more government programs, services and money.
How all this will be worked out remains to be seen. One expects that the latest summit between First Nations chiefs and the Prime Minister will produce what previous summits have produced—precious little. Meanwhile, the open dissension among chiefs portends a fractured and factional aboriginal leadership. But given the protests and the Federal Court decision, one question comes to mind. Given the sorry state of aboriginal life in Canada, can it be that what Aboriginals need is more government action provided by the federal government and their own chiefs? Perhaps the decades of failure that have produced both the conditions at Attawapiskat and the grossly inadequate leadership of Theresa Spence are a sign that the model of government provision does not work. To put it another way, why would the Métis and other Aboriginals think that being looked after more closely by the federal government would improve their lot? One might think the contrary, namely that native Canadians who, for whatever reason, are not dependent on government—either federal or local aboriginal—are the fortunate ones.
Andrew Coyne at the National Post gets it right:
"What native people need to improve their lot is not hugely different than what any people need. Collectively, they need more control over how they are governed, meaning not just devolution of powers from the federal government, but more accountable and transparent government on the reserve. Individually, they need more of that indispensible [sic] tool of wealth creation, capital: human capital, i.e. education, and physical capital—the right to own property, and to borrow against it, the wellspring of so many business startups. Land claims and treaty rights, however valid in law, cannot substitute for these essential reforms. Native people will lift themselves out of poverty, not by claiming wealth, but by creating it; not by making demands, but by making goods and services they can sell to others. Yet these are the very measures that have attracted the most opposition, whether from ideologues, who prefer to dwell on the inherent nature of aboriginal rights and the spiritual joys of communal ownership, or from chiefs, who fear losing their power and perqs (but who are not above invoking the arguments of the ideologues)."
Aboriginal Canadians who are genuinely frustrated by the conditions in which too many of them live may have found the early weeks of January exhilarating, both on the streets and in the courts. Yet the whole thing may have been moving in the wrong direction, toward more of the paternalistic government that has made such a mess of things for so long. The protest movement calls itself "Idle No More." It may bring just more of the same.
A New Archbishop of Canterbury, A New Coptic Pope
In March, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, until now Bishop of Durham, will be enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral, the successor, after a fashion, to Augustine of Canterbury and Thomas Becket. His appointment was approved by the Queen before Christmas after being recommended by the Crown Appointments Commission and the Prime Minister. He will succeed Archbishop Rowan Williams, who retired after 10 years to become Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge.
A few weeks before Bishop Welby was appointed, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria—the principal Christian church in Egypt—elected their new pope. He succeeded Pope Shenouda III, who died last March after governing the Church of Alexandria for an evocatively biblical 40 years, four months and four days. The new shepherd is Pope Tawadros II, the 118th successor to Saint Mark, as the Coptic tradition has it. The Copts elect their pope by consulting among the bishops in order to produce three names, which are then placed in a crystal chalice. A blindfolded boy then picks one of the names.