Even the non-football fan has likely heard rumblings about the NFL fining the New England Patriots and suspending their star quarterback for being big fat cheaters (again) and secretly letting a little air out of footballs to gain a competitive edge throughout last season.
The whole league erupted with commentary after Commissioner Roger Goodell brought the hammer down, but I found the comment from John Elway, GM of my beloved Denver Broncos, the most intriguing.
“One thing about it is the game is No. 1 — the integrity of the game is No. 1,” Elway said in an interview the day after the announcement.
[See also: 6 Bibles Verses to Help You Survive Game Day]
Aside from the fact that Elway is (probably unintentionally) paraphrasing St. Paul (“an athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules” -2 Tim. 2:5), his quote speaks a very unique truth about the game of football: If we don’t play by the rules, then what’s the point of playing?
The same vein has run throughout all of the sporting world for years — why sanction Lance Armstrong for doping, why come down hard on Mark McGwire and others for shooting ‘roids, why discipline France’s star soccer player in the final minutes of the World Cup final if not to uphold each respective game’s integrity?
This begs the question: Why is upholding the integrity of the game worth doing? Even further, why is upholding the integrity of anything worth doing?
The answer is very simple — Integrity is a good thing. Both for the game and for the people who play it. Rules & boundaries then, by extension, are inherently good too, and are needed in order for integrity exist at all.
On the essential need for boundaries, G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But [when] the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice, they did not fall over . . . they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
This excerpt from Orthodoxy shows us something interesting, counter-intuitive, and altogether odd: Cheating — saying “to hell” with the rules, removing the boundaries for our own motives, and thereby making the game about us and not playing in service to the game and to others — is just incredibly boring.
Cheating literally takes all the fun out of playing. Cheating makes the game pointless.
To thwart a childish adage, rules are not made to be broken. Rules are made to be followed, not, as our modern society would suggest to us, so that we can be stripped of our freedom, but instead in order to protect the integrity of it.
Even further, so often we never stop to ask why a particular rule ought not to be followed. Quite honestly, whenever we don’t like a rule, odds are it comes not from a place of genuine injustice, but from a perceived slight — something we just don’t like, something that doesn’t feel good. We rarely, if ever, consider why a rule was made in the first place.
Along those lines, Chesterton also wrote about the concept of not scrapping a rule until you know and understand why it was made, saying:
The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to [a fence, or gate in the road] and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
If we wish to change a rule, we must first understand the rule itself, then secondly understand that the rule exists as part of something that’s outside of any one person’s opinion. Something that exists outside ourselves naturally points to a necessary interaction with someone, or something, else to arrive at a solution.
What integrity demands in all cases is cooperation. If integrity means upholding and following the rules, then it inherently means we aren’t asked to change them. Having integrity is then, by definition, selfless. A person with integrity understands that the “game” isn’t about him. It doesn’t matter what rules he doesn’t like; no one’s requiring him to play the game at all.
This is something that’s true in a smaller sense with such things as football or basketball, but it’s true in a much larger sense with something like the Catholic Church.
Respecting the rules of a game requires respecting the game itself, that being the governing bodies of both sports (and how they developed) in the cases of football & basketball, but, much more significantly, being the Magisterium of the Church (and how it developed) in the case of Catholicism and Christian faith as a whole.
Reading virtually any news source — secular, Christian, Catholic Left, or Catholic Right — will show all sorts of people lobbying for some form of change in what Catholicism teaches. Heck, in some cases people seem to just go right ahead and do their own thing anyway, hoping someone in Rome listens.
But what these people always seem to miss is that the guidelines and boundaries of the Church have been laid down with a purpose, and weren’t just some arbitrary effort to marginalize some subgroup of the population at a certain point in history.
What one sees when delving deeply into the purpose and origin of key Catholic teachings is not only an origin in Jesus Christ or a solid and well-documented development and understanding over 20 centuries, but a focus on true human flourishing, a pursuit of true happiness by becoming more like God, and a life lived “more abundantly” (John 10:10).
The boundaries laid down by the Church haven’t been created arbitrarily. More to it, the reason they haven’t changed (and won’t change) to suit the “signs of the times” isn’t just to be a stick in the mud, but instead to show reverence to the Church’s divine Founder and integrity to the institution itself.
As a result, we should start working to understand the rules we didn’t make, no matter how we feel about them, instead of constantly trying to change them.
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