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The Catholic Church has not condemned professional boxing. Many have wondered why not. The eager expectation of ecclesiastical intervention could easily contain a distorted notion of the function of the Church. While she jealously guards the purity of morals, it does not follow that condemnations do or should issue from her at the slightest provocation—if for no other reason than that this discourages intellectual effort in the ranks by seeming to render it unnecessary. We stand to learn a great deal from this controversy.
Many reasons suggest themselves in explanation of the Church's official silence on the matter. First of all, and most important perhaps, the matter simply is not clear to her. While the Church speaks frequently on changeless moral principles, she is generally quite content to leave the application of these to her theologians. But theological opinion has been, possibly still is, somewhat divided, or at least hesitant. Most of the serious writing has been unfavorable to boxing, but there are many voices yet to be heard.
Second, professional boxing is largely, but not exclusively, a local American problem. The U.S. champion is the world champion, the big gate is here and the big fights are generally here. If public statements are called for, it is reasonable to think that this would be left to local bishops.
Finally, even should the Church desire to take a strong stand, there is the difficulty of formulating a statement which will avoid the impression that all boxing is being censured. It is foolish to lump the pillow fights of the sixth-grader with the hard smashes of the professional. And even at the professional level the differences between individual fighters are tremendous. There are those in superb condition who fight once or twice a year to defend a title—and these are the champions who are hit the least. Then there are those who all but drag themselves into the ring to have their brains rattled on a month-to-month basis. To group these together in a single sweeping rejection would be unrealistic and hazardous.
Not only is the central moral issue challenging: there are also many fringe problems no less tantalizing. One that is increasingly aired: Is the victorious fighter guilty when his opponent dies as a result of blows received in the ring? Though boxing is different from other sports in its direct aim (the infliction of damage), death is such a departure from the average that its occurrence should be regarded as an undesired byproduct of the sport. Morally it is an accident.
Problematic too are the possibilities involved in allowing a man with a past to contend for the crown (SI, Feb. 12). The issue is scarcely one of Christian forgiveness or rehabilitation. Surely we can hope that we are both humble enough and large enough for this. The problem is rather the defenselessness of our children against their own hero-worshiping simplicity. On the other hand, a clean break with an unfortunate past might actually provide a very helpful example to youngsters. Whatever the answer may be, there is a moral dimension even here.
The question of professional boxing is a vexing one. The issues seem clear. Defenders of the sport insist that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Those who censure it, while admitting the advantages, believe that the moral discussion must begin with the sport itself, not only its circumstances. They see the sport as directly injurious and as one which tends unduly to foster the instinct of brutality in all concerned. Perhaps this is not necessarily true; there are many laudable attempts being made to supervise the sport more thoroughly (SI, April 23). Nor is it factually true of all professional fights; but it is too generally true of the sport today. Thus the majority vote among those who have written on the moral question is unfavorable.
Unless the arguments leveled at professional boxing as it is today can be answered, I believe the sport would have to be labeled immoral. I realize that other theologians may take a different point of view. It could be that not all the facts are in. Perhaps, too, we have a great deal to learn about our own principles. Premature conviction slams the door to enlightenment as effectively as refusal to face the moral issue.
If there remain some uncertainties to haunt us, the general implications of our sincere and honest interest are clear. For, regardless of what answer we come up with, it is both a sign and guarantee of our abiding spiritual health to face issues at their moral root. It is never easy to question the moral character of our own pleasure and entertainment. Since, however, moral issues are not defined by the convenient and inconvenient, the pleasant and the annoying, but reach to the division between good and evil, they are too important to receive less than an earnest, but calm and dispassionate, treatment. Failure to do this would be a collective shrug-of-the-shoulder at moral values and, as such, a threat to the spiritual goods upon which we have built our dignity and freedom.