On Tuesday night, Feb. 19, I will fight in the 89th annual Bengal Bouts boxing tournament put on by the University of Notre Dame’s amateur boxing club. Three years ago, I was the first priest to fight in the tournament—and lost in a split decision in the heavyweight final. I consider it an honor to participate again (under the boxing nickname “Priest Mode”), but I am also aware that many people object to anyone, much less a Catholic priest, engaging in what they see as recreational violence.
Bengal Bouts was founded in 1920 by the legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. He started it to help his football players stay in shape in the offseason. (It is quite likely that early Bengal Bout fighters took part in the famous 1924 clash with the Ku Klux Klan in downtown South Bend in which one of the “Four Horsemen” threw a potato to knock out the last red light bulb on a Klan “fiery cross.”) Bengal Bouts continues to this day as an organization that fundraises over $150,000 annually for the missions of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (the University of Notre Dame’s sponsoring religious order) in Bangladesh. The women’s tournament, Baraka Bouts, often raises more.
Boxing is, first of all, a skill sport, one that teaches discipline and ingenuity and strengthens courage and intelligence.
I live with Brian Daley, S.J., a professor of historical theology at Notre Dame and one of the Bengal Bouts coaches, who encouraged me to take up the sport. He first started boxing as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford and continued to train in a Harvard gym during his years of teaching at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He convinced me that boxing is, first of all, a skill sport, one that teaches discipline and ingenuity and strengthens courage and intelligence. He is in agreement with the great boxer George Foreman, a former heavyweight champion of the world who once said, “Boxing makes kids less violent because it teaches them how to control their emotions, their anger and their fear.” I have found this to be true: Boxing has given me a healthier sense of my own limitations, and in my two years of fighting, I have never felt even the semblance of anger toward an opponent.
There is plenty of inspiration for boxers to draw on in our Catholic tradition. St. Paul uses boxing as a metaphor for the ascetic life (1 Cor 9:26-27). St. Thomas Aquinas notes in an aside that “goodwill sometimes arises suddenly, as happens to us if we look on at a boxing-match, and we wish one of the boxers to win” (Summa Theologiae, II-II.27.2). In the classic Catholic film, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) teaches one of her students how to box in self-defense. On a night before my fight, I will gather together some friends to watch “Cinderella Man,” the true story of the Irish Catholic boxer James J. Braddock.
Yet the morality of boxing remains controversial among Catholics. The Jesuit journal in Rome, La Civiltá Cattolica, published an editorial in October 2005 calling professional boxing a “legalized form of attempted murder, in the short or in the long run.” The article was written on the occasion of the death of boxer Leavander Johnson. It distinguished between the violence of professional boxing and boxing in a gymnasium, arguing that the latter is “purely an exercise of the muscles,” without the object of hurting the other person.
I will strive to fight, as I am called to do in all things as a Jesuit, ad majorem Dei gloriam.
The moral theologian Richard McCormick, S.J. made a similar distinction in his entry on “Prizefighting” in the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia, as well as in the pages of Sports Illustrated. McCormick restricts his analysis to “prizefighting (professional)” boxing, “though amateur fighting at some levels possesses many of the characteristics of professional boxing and would share to some extent the same moral analysis.” He observes that “the Catholic Church has made no official pronouncement on the morality of professional boxing” but that theologians increasingly have trouble defending it.
The worry about boxing is often built around the question of “intention.” Morally speaking, the intent or object of a sport cannot be to hurt another person. McCormick argues that in other sports, injury is incidental, while in boxing injury is the “direct intent.”
Leaving aside the morality of professional boxing, the intent of amateur boxing—the boxing of Bengal Bouts—is certainly not to injure one’s opponent but to score points. The more punches that connect, the more points won, regardless of the strength of the punch. We wear headgear and large gloves and have coaches and trainers constantly monitoring workouts and spars. While two opponents square off in physical combat in boxing, the object, as in wrestling, is to score more points than the opponent, not to cause injury.
Because there is no intent to harm built into it, there is, I would argue, nothing immoral about amateur boxing. When I step into the ring next Tuesday, I will be thinking about my technique and attempting to quiet the butterflies in my stomach. I will have a heightened sense of my limitations and a deep respect for my opponent. And most important, I will strive to fight, as I am called to do in all things as a Jesuit, ad majorem Dei gloriam.