Everyday Theology: Bishops’ red card is a call to conversion

"Francis looks at the world’s beautiful game as a metaphor for the improvement of the human person and, therefore, of society."

Are the Bishops of Brazil and Pope Francis on the same page when it comes to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, or did the Bishops miss their CEO’s memo?

At the start of the tournament, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil added their voice to that of Brazilians who for months had been protesting their government’s lavish spending on the tournament.  When millions of Brazil’s citizens lack basic needs and are living in poverty, building enormous stadiums was hard to justify.

The bishops issued a brochure in the shape of a “red card” to express their concern “regarding the inversion of priorities in the use of public money that should go to health, education, basic sanitation, transportation and security”.  They were concerned, too, about the displacement of the homeless, and an increase in sexual tourism and human trafficking.

The bishops want the 2014 World Cup to be more than “bread and circuses”, more than a well-orchestrated distraction from Brazil’s social and political challenges, and are pushing for reforms. Through a campaign called “Steilpass” (translated either as “the decisive turning point”, or, in soccer lingo,  “assist”), the Brazilian bishops, in collaboration with the Conference of Religious in Brazil, presented the Brazilian government with ten proposals focused on building a more just society.

The bishops’ message to government seems to stand in contrast to the cordial message of Pope Francis on the opening of the tournament. While Francis makes no overt references to Brazil’s problems, the shortcomings of human relationships are implicit in his message.

Francis looks at the world’s beautiful game as a metaphor for the improvement of the human person and, therefore, of society.

“Football can and should be a school for building a ‘culture of encounter’ which allows for peace and harmony among peoples”, said the pontiff.

Francis draws three lessons from sport that can contribute to peace.  The first is the need to train so that we can grow in virtue.  The second is to look to the common good because when we are fominhas (individualistic and egoistic) “the entire society is damaged”.  And, the third is to respect our teammates and opponents. Francis remarked that “…by learning the lessons that sports teach us, we will all be winners, strengthening the bonds that tie us together.”

Despite the difference in the tone and content of the message of the Brazilian bishops and that of Francis, both are concerned with the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of society. Francis encourages individuals to forgo selfishness and to seek peace and harmony with one another, while the bishops urge those in positions of power to use the resources at their disposal for the advancement of the common good. Whereas the bishops spotlight the messiness of human society, the pope illuminates the ability of the individual to help tidy the mess.

The bishops and the pope have the same currency in hand; their messages are different sides of the same coin. Flip the coin, and on both sides there is a call to conversion for the sake of social justice, or, in soccer lingo, “fair play”.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology.