John Paul II Was Right: Catholic Athletes Must Be Champions of Virtue

If athletic competition builds virtue and is not just “an end in itself,” said Pope St. John Paul II, it can be “a means to total and harmonious physical, moral and social development.”

Unidentified players from the Polish national soccer team give Pope John Paul II a team shirt inscribed with his name at the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican, Nov. 11, 2003.
Unidentified players from the Polish national soccer team give Pope John Paul II a team shirt inscribed with his name at the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican, Nov. 11, 2003. (photo: Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

Twelve-year-old me looked forward to one thing every day: swim practice. Every day, five days a week, I was in the pool churning out laps for at least an hour. And I did not want to be anywhere else.

Between dreams and aspirations of one day living Michael Phelpsian Olympic glory in the water, that hour a day was an important part of my daily Catholic education.

My mother, in her highly-structured homeschool curriculum, was adamant that physical activity was as important to my education as was the time I spent learning about the sacraments, the saints, the American Revolution, fractions and coefficients, and everything else a 12-year-old kid learns in school.

For centuries, it was commonly understood that an education, fully realized, included athletic practice and competition, and the practice of such things nurtured greater virtue and intelligence. The classically educated person nourished mind, body and soul.

Today, athletic competition is no less formative. It has the potential to impress and the potential to depress — to inspire celebration or disgust. And as such, it embraces the human experience, with all its highs, lows, twists and turns. 

There is a reason that many saints had a reputation for outdoorsmanship, sport and even military might. From St. Josemaría Escrivá’s hikes through the Pyrenees to St. John Paul II’s love of skiing, they understood that to be of sound mind means being of sound body, which glorifies God and leads the soul to virtue. 

Long before Christianity, the Olympics in Greece were as much a religious ritual as they were a competition between rivals — a stage to glorify their gods through competition and feats of athleticism. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle spoke of excellence as the only extreme that was virtuous. 

And while the 12-year-old kid who would get up at 4:30 in the morning to be in the water before the sun came up didn’t necessarily think of his daily swim practice in those terms, he was still striving each and every day to be faster, stronger and start and end every swim with a prayer. 


Play like a saint

Sport today is one of the last cultural expressions in which excellence is celebrated. Yet the cultivation of virtue to attain true excellence instead of the illusory pleasure of fame and vanity is often ignored. Athletes can tend toward pride in their feats of strength, speed and skill, and the culture around sport can be unhealthy. Even Catholic schools and colleges with impressive athletic traditions often appear to seek success for its fleeting worldly benefits and not as a means to glorify God and model virtue.

Student-athletes in Catholic education should “come to understand who they are as unified persons of body and soul, as sons and daughters of God and as responsible members of a community,” writes Dr. Dan Guernsey, education policy editor and senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society, in a new set of standards for athletics policies in Catholic education. 

“Every sport,” said St. John Paul II in a 2000 address, “at both the amateur and the competitive level, requires basic human qualities such as rigorous preparation, continual training, awareness of one’s personal limits, fair competition, acceptance of precise rules, respect for one’s opponent and a sense of solidarity and unselfishness. Without these qualities, sport would be reduced to mere effort and to a questionable, soulless demonstration of physical strength.”

Athletics purified by this Christian approach model fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. These four cardinal virtues underpin everything that it means to be a good athlete and a good competitor, and they are the keys to living a virtuous life.

Sport understood in this way, said St. John Paul II, is viewed “not an end in itself but as a means to total and harmonious physical, moral and social development.”


Room for improvement

The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, embraces this approach in its athletics programs “committed to individual greatness through virtuous leadership.” Forming virtue is first and foremost the purpose of the university’s athletics program.

The four cardinal virtues are integral to both practice and competition, and the program also highlights humility and magnanimity. In its strategic plan for athletics, the university notes that its goal in sport is to “both develop and reveal character.”

This “harmonious physical, moral, and social development” is central to a Catholic education, and many other faithful Catholic schools and colleges understand this, places like Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College and Franciscan University of Steubenville. 

Yet too often, Catholic education falls short in virtue formation. At worst, athletics programs may reflect St. John Paul II’s warning against a “questionable, soulless demonstration of physical strength.”

Whether it’s Notre Dame’s multimillion-dollar football program or Georgetown’s and Gonzaga’s profitable basketball programs, sport in higher education is susceptible to greed and exploitation as it feeds the pipeline to professional leagues. A Catholic college that pours money into expensive facilities and equipment, lacks mission-centered coaches and chaplains, disregards prayer and Mass while on the road, and is overly concerned about winning events has lost sight of forming the body, mind and soul in virtue.

In secondary education the financial incentive for winning may be diminished, but nevertheless there is often room for improvement in teaching virtue through sport. Many student athletes at Catholic high schools never learn that the purpose of their athletic achievements is to glorify God and model a life of virtue. 

A character developed in virtue is a key objective of Catholic education. It should be part of any education, but Catholics can lead by example, embracing athletics as a means of formation for all able-bodied students and emphasizing the moral and social as well as physical benefits of exercise and teamwork.

Jeremiah Poff is the editorial associate and public policy specialist at The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.