Catholic Magazine Calls Boxing 'Merciless, Inhuman'

A leading Roman Catholic magazine has denounced boxing, calling the sport merciless and inhuman. Mike Pesca reports on the reactions of priests and pugilists to the article, where the authors declare the sport in violation of church teachings.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

But now we turn to religion of the Catholic variety. A leading Catholic journal, which is vetted and approved by the Vatican, has decreed the sport of professional boxing to be `an immoral enterprise.' `It is a form of legalized murder,' says the magazine, `merciless and inhuman.' Whether this message has much impact on boxers, many of whom are Catholics, or fight fans depends on how it filters from the page to the pews, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Boxing is referred to as `the sweet science,' a phrase which conjures the clack of the automatic typewriter and the stink of the nickel cigar. But those are the words of the hacks, dashed out just before cracking open a desk drawer for a pull of the ubiquitous flask hidden within. Read instead the words printed on the robes of the boxers themselves, and a more sanguinary message emerges: The Hitman, the Manassa Mauler, the Michigan Assassin, Blood, Bone Crusher, Homicide Hank. It is this tradition, and the recent death in the ring of Lavendar Johnson, that prompted the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica to editorialize that boxing was contrary to human and Christian morality and gravely damaging to man, his life and dignity. Luciano La Rivera(ph) is one of the Catholic priests who penned the editorial. He says that if the basic purpose of a sport is to harm another human, then that sport is sinful.

Reverend LUCIANO LA RIVERA: Sin is connected to what you do, and if you know what you do and you have a true intention to do what you are doing, if that--during the match, the boxer try to make harm to the other.

PESCA: Sure, looked at one way, a boxer is trying to harm or even to incapacitate his opponent. But that isn't how a lot of boxers think of it, and not just because of self-justifying reasons.

(Soundbite of boxing ring activity)

PESCA: Over at the boxing Mecca of Brooklyn, Gleason's Gym, where Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and hundreds of other pros have trained, Javid Banyez(ph), a Catholic and a boxer, talked about the issue of intent, which is at the heart of the church's definition of morality.

Mr. JAVID BANYEZ (Boxer): A boxer's intent is not to go there and kill the person; it's just to beat them, you know?

PESCA: Well, to hurt them, though, right? To inflict harm? That's--they say that that's immoral, if you--if the intent is to hurt someone and to inflict harm, that that's immoral. Do you ever think of that?

Mr. BANYEZ: Yeah, but you have to understand, also, it's a combat sport that involves hitting the other man, but you can't really compete against a heavy bag, you know? You have to compete against a person. And unfortunately, you know, deaths and, you know, injuries sometimes happen in this sport.

PESCA: Even if Banyez sees the issue differently from his church, that doesn't necessarily mean he's in a state of sin, says Father James Martin, an editor at America, the Jesuit magazine. While a disapproval of boxing is the official Vatican position, that doesn't mean it's as important as other fundamental decrees like `Thou shalt not kill,' from which the opinion against boxing is derived.

Reverend JAMES MARTIN (Editor, America): The Catholic Church is what they call a hierarchy of truths, so there are certain things you have to believe in, you know, like the Resurrection, the Trinity, those kinds of things. Civilta, when they will publish an article about something like boxing, for example--I mean, you can go against that and still be a good Catholic.

PESCA: For his part, Martin, not a boxing fan, says the idea is an interesting one. If we think cockfighting is wrong, why not boxing? They're very similar. They engage blood lust and life is damaged or destroyed. Father Kevin Wildes, the president of Loyola University New Orleans, is a moralist by training and a boxer by hobby. He is an amateur, which is endorsed by Civilta Cattolica, but he also sometimes attends pro fights.

Reverend KEVIN WILDES (President, Loyola University New Orleans): I know full well the church's teaching on it, and actually, I don't necessarily disagree with it, but I'm still going anyhow.

PESCA: Wildes says he does a lot of things that are probably wrong. We all sin every day. If a boxer came to him in confession and said, `I don't know what to do; it's how I earn my living and feed my family,' here's what Father Wildes might say.

Rev. WILDES: A confessor might well say, you know, `This is really not a good thing. You really should think about some other way to make a living, but until you do, you also have a moral obligation towards your family, you know?' So there is a weighing and a balancing that goes on.

(Soundbite of gym activity)

PESCA: Back at Gleason's, boxer Shayden Hamilton(ph) was wearing a large cross around his neck. He's not Catholic but is Christian, and says he doesn't think God objects to the activity that has given him focus, drive and an outlet for his aggression.

Mr. SHAYDEN HAMILTON (Boxer): I believe that--you know, that the man upstairs, whoever it is and whoever it might be--but if I was Catholic it would be God or Jesus Christ--but I feel like, you know, he knows what's inside of the heart. He knows what we're out here doing, and I don't think the situation of him chastising us for doing what we love to do and just playing a sport.

PESCA: The fighters and the priests do agree on some points: that the professional game is more brutal than the amateur, and that the greed that underlies a lot of pro boxing certainly is immoral. But as for boxing being a sin, the long hours, hard training and quick jabs are hard enough. No one here even considered the possibility that all this sacrifice was in any way offending the Almighty. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Yeah, Lord, 15 rounds. Oh, yes. I'm gonna win this fight for Jesus and I'm going 15 rounds, 15 rounds, O Lord, 15 rounds, Lord. I'm gonna win this fight for Jesus and I'm going 15 rounds.

ADAMS: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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