Rarely does the arena of sports provide a test for moral thinking, but the signing of disgraced football quarterback Michael Vick to a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles has provoked more discussion about morality than about the Wildcat offense. Yes, on the sports show DNL for Philadelphia fans (I am one), some say “Never!” and some salivate about new options for the Eagles in the red zone. But the ever-wise St. James of Chester grad, Ray Didinger, reflected a Catholic take on the issue: defining the meaning and the application of forgiveness.
The memorized answer of the old Baltimore Catechism of pre-Vatican Catholicism is somehow front and center. It says forgiveness should be given when one repents, confesses to the evil and makes restitution. In certain of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that I have visited each of those steps is performed before the faith community. (This is close to the practice of the early Church.) But we Catholics add that the penitent must also: 1) have a firm purpose of amendment; and 2) avoid the near occasions of sin. These are steps that take place after the expression of contrition. Etymology is some help here: the Latin verb from which the English word ‘contrition’ is derived means “grinding down.”
Let’s be clear: we Catholics have an obligation to forgive. That’s because of the Golden Rule principle contained in the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is hard in the case of Michael Vick. He organized a dog-fighting kennel and ran a ring of this outlawed “sport.” Animals were tortured to make them viciously aggressive; injured beasts were cruelly killed. Vick’s offense was not something “red hot,” like a crime of passion committed in a moment of fury or desire. This was a cold and calculating abuse of innocent creatures of God. I would classify Vick as one “depraved.”
While there are different technical definitions of depravity, I like to use the comparison to losing feeling in one’s arm and hand. Just as in a physical sense the person is “sick” because there is no normal feeling in a part of the body, moral depravity is to lose feeling in one’s conscience about the suffering of other creatures. The absence of a moral sense about the animals that were so abused under his eye and his desire to profit from their suffering falls under my understanding of depravity.
Yet he should be forgiven: that is, if he measures up to the post-confessional, post-prison stage of admitting his guilt and goes onto the Catholic provisions of “firm purpose of amendment” and “avoiding the near occasions of sin.” I think that will be the harder task for Vick. Now that the quarterback is free from prison, the entourage of fortune-seekers and hangers-on are waiting to resume their blood-sucking of Vick’s time and treasure. Will his effort to change his ways overcome this temptation to fall back into old patterns? Of course, as Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger has insisted, “it’s too early to know.”
Eagles’ owner Jeffery Laurie went to so far as to insist that the primary purpose of the signing was to signal the team’s commitment to social change. He said that the positive value of a repentant Michael Vick doing community work and campaigning against the abuse of animals was the ultimate persuasion to his approval of the signing. The emphasis on the social dimension, it might be said, reflects a long-standing Jewish tradition of looking at “the bigger picture.” For Laurie, the Eagles already have a solid reputation for relying on character as a trait for their athletes; now they move into a stage where that righteousness can be transferred to a sinner, badly in need of better role models.
But ultimately – if you pardon the allusion — the ball is in the hands of Michael Vick. He must evidence what contrition is all about: the “grinding down” of his rough edges so as to become a new and different person. The “act” of contrition is really the “acting out” of contrition.