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Dr. Jeffrey Marlett, The College of Saint Rose – Competition and American Catholicism

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jeffrey Marlett of the College of Saint Rose examines how ethnic Catholics have embraced the American spirit of competition.

Jeffrey Marlett is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.  He teaches a wide variety of religious studies and philosophy courses, covering topics such as ethics, mysticism, world religions, Biblical studies, and the history of Christianity. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University.

About Dr. Marlett

Dr. Jeffrey Marlett – Competition and American Catholicism

In moral and social questions the Roman Catholic Church's voice is quite familiar:  beginning and end of life issues, immigration, etc.  But what about a most American value, that of competition?  So many facets of American life hinge on competition: politics, markets, religion, and of course sports. Sometimes our nation's competitive instincts seem too strong when "winning" is worth any price.  Accusations of cheating and malfeasance have derailed promising careers in sports, politics, and business.

American Catholics have made memorable contributions towards this "win at all costs" attitude.  Vince Lombardi gave us "winning isn't everything--it is the _only_ thing", and Hall-of-Fame baseball manager Leo Durocher coined the phrase "nice guys finish last." Neither man was a poster boy for “being Catholic.” Both men swore frequently, and Durocher burned through four marriages. Lombardi frequently attended mass but that very devotion seemed almost robotic in the late 1960s.  Furthermore, their very jobs—coaching professional sports—seemed far removed from the emerging social justice questions of post World War II America.

Both men came from ethnic Catholic backgrounds that valued both hard work and quiet, self-sacrificing suffering. Americans loved winning in sports, but this love once came tempered by a Protestant belief that competition and victory should be demur, almost accidental.  One should win without appearing to try too hard. To cultural elites, immigrant Catholics seeking a new start in America seemed guilty. That was the sin behind Durocher and Lombardi’s desire to win: their words brushed aside a convenient but constricting fiction some Americans told themselves.

Americans of all sorts pattern their lives on such phrases, but their origins lie in tensions ethnic Catholics faced almost a century ago.

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