In the NFC Divisional thriller between Green Bay and Dallas, the player of the game wasn’t #12 of the Packers, Aaron Rodgers, who valiantly fought through injury, nor was it #9 of the Cowboys, Tony Romo, who battled doubters about his ability to win the big game. Rather, it was Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 of the NFL Rulebook. This incredibly complex definition of a catch, situated in the labyrinthine code of NFL law, overturned a miraculous 4th-down reception by the Cowboys, and sealed their fate as playoff losers.
Gone are the days of the boys hitting the gridiron and battling it out with body and soul to determine the champion. Instead, every great play now must have a 5-minute session in the judge’s chambers so Judge Judy can arbitrate between Ben Matlock and Perry Mason. These arguments have caused the major networks to enlist former referees full-time to let the fans in on the case and provide their commentary, often the most valuable of the game. The athletic drama is now replaced by legal drama.
The game cited above is not a unique case, not even close. In fact the previous Dallas Cowboys game was decided, much to the chagrin of self-loathing Detroit Lions fans, by not one but three governing rules, all applied in controversial fashion on one single play: rules Rule 12, Section 2, Article 14; Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(a); and Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(j).
Almost every game there are multiple plays where, for all intents and purposes, the player scores a touchdown, but thanks to instant review, they discover the ball was 9 inches away from the (invisible) plane of the front-most portion of the goal line. Thus, they have to review it, have a commercial or 5, then overturn it, run another play from the (invisible) 9-inch line, and achieve the same result (touchdown) 5 minutes later.
I won’t even get into “Deflategate,” the top sports story these days before the Super Bowl: were the Patriots’ footballs between the required 12.5-13.5 psi? Oh, the humanity!
All this leaves fans like me feeling like the game isn’t as fun as it used to be. There can be a similar phenomenon in the spiritual life. Many people think of the final judgment as a sort of official booth review of one’s life, where all one’s life choices are set up on the screen, and Jesus has his headset on and phones in with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and determines whether or not you kept two feet in on all your actions. And heaven forbid if your pinky toe stepped out of bounds: looks like it could be a very long offseason for you! After review, we find that John Jones was a good husband for 63 years and was a Knight of Columbus, but on the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, when he was 71-years-old, his knee failed to contact the ground on his genuflection upon entering church. As a result of the play, he will be sent into the everlasting lake of fire. His children will be charged a timeout.
Well, friends, I’m happy to say that this is not the case at all. Our individual actions do indeed have consequences, and seriously damaging acts separate us from God and each other. However, someone may be tormented by obsessively and often erroneously analyzing the minutiae of his actions, and this over-thinking has a name in the Catholic spiritual tradition: scrupulosity. Human beings face difficult moral decisions all the time. There is the deliberation before the act, the experience of carrying out the act, and the inevitable “Monday-morning-quarterback” analysis of our past actions. Given the fact that we all are imperfect and have imperfect powers of evaluation, these three stages of fact-checking can be stressful and lead to self-doubt, and in severe cases, crippling self-analysis. Once someone has reached the more advanced stages of scrupulosity, either they become afraid to act and despair of their salvation, or they realize this is no way to live and cast out all doubts by abandoning the project of self-examination altogether. So how can one live a self-examined life without turning into a basket case?
We are not isolated. We must internalize the Word of God, appropriate the teachings of the Church, live in a relationship with God, and—maybe the most difficult—seek the advice of others. But in all of this, we have the theological virtue of Hope, which gives us assurance when we think we have committed a good act, with good intentions, in good circumstances. This Hope is a gift from God himself, and through it, we can be confident that God does want to bring us to live with him, not to trip us up at the last second. This confidence does not excuse sinful actions, but it does give us the ability to be assured that salvation is possible and desired for us by God himself.
The glory of God is man fully alive. Man fully alive is not destined to be a limp, navel-gazing, self-paralyzed blob. Christian men and women are meant to be confident and vivacious, rushing to the goal of life with panache and vibrancy, not worried about some NFL-like “official review,” but confident in the providence and mercy of God. The game of life is rigged: Jesus has already won. All we have to do is remain on his team.
Image: The early days of NFL instant replay