Pope Pius XII and Sports

Source: District of Asia

No pope has spoken so often, so well and on so many subjects as Pius XII. He had an amazing gift for adapting himself to every kind of audience – Children or statesman, factory workers, young couples, bankers, army generals, railway workers, doctors, etc., and to speak to them of their own problem with sympathetic insight and presenting them a catholic solution.  Countless people of every class went to see him and hear his counsels.  In his address on Nov 6, 1955 he mentions about “the ever-growing numbers of those who want to not merely to see the Vicar of Christ but to hear his counsels on the most varied topics”.  “There is a holy desire,” he added, “to seek in the doctrine of Christ the principles for solving the problems which are keeping individuals and nations in suspense”.

While our children are having their summer holidays, it is opportune time for the educators to reflect a little bit on the sports as part of Catholic education.  How does the church see it?  What are the Catholic principles regarding sports & athletics?  Well, Pius XII, has given us some principles from which we can surely draw some beautiful lessons.  While we may quote plenty of discourses (cf. Note 1), we will here present the Holy Father’s allocution to 800 participants in the Italian Congress of Sport and Physical Education, on Nov. 8, 1952.  What follows here is a summary of an article written by Fr. De Letter SJ, presenting this discourse of Pope Pius XII. (cf. The Clergy Monthly, 11 (1953) pp. 223-229)

Hierarchy of Finalities

As to the moral and religious evaluation of sport, its guiding principle is that of the hierarchy of finalities.  For there is more to that activity than the above-mentioned purpose.  A four-fold gradation can be detected in its finality: “its immediate end is the education, development, and strengthening of the body, statically and dynamically; a more remote end, the employment, by the soul, of the body so prepared, for the development of the interior and exterior life of the person; an even more profound end, is that of contributing to the soul’s perfection; its supreme end, as of man in general and of every human activity, is to bring man closer to God”.  Consequently, what is helpful to attain these ends according to their proper hierarchy is right; wrong is what is not conducive to these ends or upsets their mutual order.

Following the simile of art – instrument, artist, and use of the instrument – the Holy Father distinguishes in sport also, the instrument: the body; the artist: the soul; the use of the instrument: the sport activity.

The instrument: the body

Religion teaches that man’s body was formed by the Creator to be the dwelling-place and instrument of the soul: that is, matter was raised to be in the immediate service of the spirit, and thereby the material and the spiritual worlds were mysteriously joined in the unity of human nature.  More still: the human body was called to be a temple of God, of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6, 13, 15, 19, 20), and a member of Christ.  Such is the actual dignity of the Christian in a state of grace.  And though naturally tending towards decay and death, like other living things, yet the human body will rise again unto immortality (1 Cor. 15, 42f.).  So much for the dignity of the human body according to God’s supernatural design.

This theoretical teaching entails a practical rule.  Because of the dignity of the human body, natural and super natural, a greater respect is due to the instrument of the spirit and the temple of the Holy Spirit.  This respect should be of the right kind, as it will be if the primacy of the spirit is maintained: the body does not come first.  Hence “the practical maxim: care and strengthening of the body, yes; cult or divinization of the body, no”.

Besides, revelation also tells us (Rom. 7. 23) about the inner conflict in fallen man, conflict between the spirit and the flesh in which “the instincts and forces of the body assert themselves and, stifling the voice of reason, prevail over the strength of the will’s aspiration to what is good”.  Theology calls this inclination to evil by the name of concupiscence.  This sequel of original sin must be taken into account.

In a word, just as the body itself, so also its exercise in sport, must serve and help, not command.

The artist: The Soul

Sport which does not serve the soul is nothing more than a vain movement of the limbs, a show of fleeting attractiveness, an ephemeral pleasure”.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6, 64).  A fundamental maxim of Christian life is that the soul is the determining factor, the commanding principle, in every external activity of man, in sport as well; just as in music it is the touch of the artist, not the instrument, that determines the melody.

Accordingly, all external bodily activity as that of sport, in order to be truly human and worthy of a Christian, must obey the following three laws:


  1. The principle of the hierarchy of finalities must be a basic criterion in judging sport and athletes: the highest admiration must go, not to him who has the strongest muscles, but to him who knows best how to submit them to the spirit.
  2. In case of conflict of interests, those of the soul may not be sacrificed to the body. “Truth and probity, love, justice and equity, moral integrity and natural modesty, due care of one’s life and health, of one’s family, of one’s profession, of one’s good name and true honour, must not be subordinated to sport activities, to athletic victories and glory… In sport too, it is an unchangeable law that success is not a sure guarantee of moral rectitude”.
  3. Sport must keep its proper place in the scale of human activities.  Both reason and Christian conscience tell us that sport and athletics are not the only chief thing in human life; they are a help, but not indispensable values.  To make sport one’s supreme scope in life would be strangely to ignore man’s greatness.

The Pope gives striking confirmation of his teaching in a moving reference to the sick and crippled, the war-crippled especially, who are unable to practise sports.  “A crippled and sick body can house a great, even a genial and heroic soul.” Sick or crippled people who accept their mission of suffering and strive to fulfil the mysterious design of God have a special title of nobility and greatness.  They should not envy the healthy, but generously take part in their joy.  Able-bodied men, in their turn, should show the disabled sincere understanding and great kindness, for the sick carry the burden of the others (cf. Gal. 6, 2; 1 Cor. 12, 26).

Practice and Sport and Athletics

Here the pope speaks of the concrete means of making the practice of sports conform to their right conception.  “Do you wish to act rightly in sport and athletics?  Keep the commandments! (cf. Mat. 19, 17-20)”.

In particular: Keep your duty towards God (Exod. 20, 2f.); keep holy the Lord’s day.   Keep your duty towards your family (Exod. 20, 12): family obligations take precedence over the demands of sport or of sport associations.  Keep your duty towards human life, in yourself and others (Exod. 20, 13); health and life should not be exposed inconsiderately to serious danger.

Keep the commandments, and the natural virtues of sportsmanship will be safe: “sincerity, loyalty, a chivalrous spirit”, which avoid the use of trickery and deceit, and consider the good name and the honour of the adversary of equal value as one’s own.

Be faithful to this right order, “the physical exertion becomes, as it were, exercise of human and Christian virtues; and so it should be if sport is to rise above itself, attain one of its moral objectives and be preserved from materialistic deviations which would debase its value and nobility”.

“When the religious and moral implications of sport are respected, then it is called to enter a man’s life as a factor of equilibrium, harmony, and perfection, and as a powerful help for the fulfilment of his other duties”.  “Enjoy, then, the correct practice of sport and athletics,.. but, in the midst of this thrilling and exhilarating activity, do not forget what is more precious than anything else in life: the soul, conscience, and at the summit of all things, God”.

Fr. Therasian Babu, SSPX