Should a Catholic priest be fighting in a boxing tournament?

Photo by Ryan Tang on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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Stephen Samenuk
1 year ago

Nathan, treat your opponent as if he's the devil......................or a Benedictine.......

Chris Brune
1 year ago

I call BS. In boxing spectators are deliberately cheering for the destruction of another person. Spare us the skill crap.

Chris Brune
1 year ago

I call BS. In boxing spectators are deliberately cheering for the destruction of another person. Spare us the skill crap.

James M.
1 year ago

How does boxing promote the salvation of the man one is beating up ?
How does it sanctify him ?
How does it deepen his love of and faith in and hope in God ?

Priests are uniquely empowered to do these things, in ways that we laity are not. Why do men become priests, if they want to box or do other secular things ?

johnmontague@sympatico.ca
1 year ago

Boxing cannot be justified. I am ashamed of you as a Jesuit. You should know better. How you justify this is delusional. Hurting people physically is archaic and you know that. Talk about discernment the Ignatian way. Get with it Mister.

CHARLES COLLINS FR
1 year ago

How does “landing a punch” on a person contribute to the greater glory of God????

Dcn Cliff Britton
1 year ago

The root meaning of the word “Amateur” connotes “love of the sport”..... AND the competion/otger competitors. This distinguishes it from professional sports where the end aim is much less than friendly. Even the words used to describe professional sports are war-like (kill the other guy, annialate the other team, etc). Father... keep up the passion/pursuit of amateur sports ideals. And have fun. Dcn Cliff

P W
1 year ago

There seems to be a misunderstanding here. Unlike professional boxing, amateur boxing is not about "the destruction of another person" or "hurting people physically." In fact, the incidence of serious injury in amateur boxing is very low indeed. Reliable studies have shown that amateur boxing represents much less physical danger than most other sports-- not only football, but also, among a number of others, skiing, cheerleading and horseback riding (in which concussions and broken necks, unheard of in amateur boxing, are surprisingly common). The physical damage done by amateur boxing is, except in very unusual cases, limited to trivial injuries: a fair number of bloody noses (which typically let up in a matter of minutes), an occasional fat lip (with ice, gone in a couple of days) and some bruises (no real damage done, other than cosmetic, and they clear up in a few days to a week). The Bengal Bouts at Notre Dame have been going on every year since 1931 and there is very little, if any, record of serious injury.

So go ahead and put on those gloves and mix it up tonight, Father O'Halloran.

PS If you want to have a conversation about the ethics of sport and physical damage, take it up with the Notre Dame football program. No priests on the field (that I know of), but recent studies raise some truly troubling questions about long-term brain damage. We didn't know that a decade ago, but now we do, and not to take that knowledge into very serious consideration is unethical.

P W
1 year ago

In fact, even the trivial injuries mentioned in my post above are not necessarily a given. Most of the young men who box in the Bengal Bouts tonight will not end up with a bloody nose or a fat lip. Most will not wake up tomorrow morning with visible bruises. Some will, but most will not. Again, if the argument against amateur boxing is the physical damage participants inflict on each other, that argument needs to be rethought, because it just isn't the case.

Mike Macrie
1 year ago

Absolutely he should Participate in amateur boxing. I wish more Priests would get involved and participate in Outside sports and youth coaching especially in their own Community.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year ago

Friendly kabaddi, friendly boxing, friendly wrestling - these add some spice to our way of proceeding.

P W
1 year ago

The results from last night's bout, from the Notre Dame Observer:

"Fr. Nathan “Priest Mode” O’Halloran def. Adam Braegelman

In the largest weight class of the night, both fighters came out swinging, as graduate student Adam Braegelman attempted to minimize Fr. Nathan O’Halloran’s reach by keeping it close-quarters. But the Jesuit graduate student managed to force a stoppage as the first round came to an end. In the second, O’Halloran kept up the onslaught, forcing another stoppage. In the final round, Braegelman managed to push O’Halloran onto the ropes, but O’Halloran fought back, and in the end moved on in a unanimous decision."

So this means Fr. O'Halloran moves on to the semi-finals, to be held next Monday, February 25. Congratulations, Father. Come out swinging next week, like you did last night, and all will be well.

P W
1 year ago

For what it's worth, there were 29 fights last night. Of those 58 boxers, 4 had their noses bloodied. Of the 29 fights, 5 were stopped by the referee as a precautionary measure when one of the boxers had either taken a particularly hard punch or was overwhelmed and the bout was therefore no longer genuinely competitive. In a setting like this, where the question of safety is of paramount importance, referees definitely tend to err on the side of caution: the ref-stopped fights were stopped not because someone had actually been seriously hurt, but because the ref deemed that enough was enough and stopped the action *before* anyone actually got hurt. It appears that serious injuries at the Bengal Bouts, which have been taking place since 1931, are virtually unheard of.

Jonathan Norman
1 year ago

You know, this decision is hardly easy. On the site (https://www.50plus.de/) I read an article that talked about people who dramatically changed their occupation. In all cases, the main reason was the wrong choice of profession. A person is drawn to what he likes. To look at least now - with each passing day it becomes more and more not sports, and eSports - people like games. Casino, roulette, poker and other gambling games are also gaining popularity. Nothing strange in the fact that people want to try something that is so often shown on TV! Even if it's a priest who likes Boxing.

P W
12 months ago

For anyone who may still be paying attention, Fr. O'Halloran fought another good fight last night (2/25/19) but, alas, won't be going on to the finals. Here's the report, from the Notre Dame Observer:

Ryan “Eat at Yaz’s” Richelsen def. Fr. Nathan “Priest Mode” O’Halloran

Chants of “Priest Mode!” came from Fr. Nathan O’Halloran’s corner, and Ryan Richelsen’s corner had a giant cardboard cutout of its fighter to create quite the atmosphere for the final bout of the night. The taller O’Halloran tried to use his reach to keep Richelsen moving in the first round, but Richelsen — a Morrissey senior — was quick and landed uppercut-like hits on his opponent. Richelsen pushed O’Halloran to the ropes, but the off-campus graduate student quickly recovered, landing a big hit to close out the opening period.

Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” played to start the second round as Richelsen went on a punching frenzy and had O’Halloran in the corner, allowing the former to begin to take control of the fight. Richelsen got O’Halloran in the corner once again and landed a couple of big hits, then came at O’Halloran with successive head-shot attempts. O’Halloran, however, fought back with his own series of head shots. Halfway through the round, both fighters were tired, and O’Halloran gave up head shots to close out the match and the night. Richelsen took home the victory via unanimous decision and was the last man with his hand raised for the semifinals.

P W
12 months ago

By my count, there were 18 bouts last night. Only one had to be stopped by the ref, no doubt erring on the side of caution (as he should). Only one, according the accounts in the Notre Dame Observer, resulted in any blood (not a serious injury, just some blood from a minor cut or two on the face). No serious injuries at all.

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