Possibilities and Dangers at the Nexus of Sport and Development Discourses: An Analysis of Racialized and De-historicized Spaces

Nicholas S. Mayrand1
1 University of Dayton, Department of Religious Studies, USA
Citation: Possibilities and Dangers at the Nexus of Sport and Development Discourses: An Analysis of Racialized and De-historicized Spaces. Journal of Sport for Development. 2013; 2(3)
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Pairing the discourse of sport with that of development has resulted in innovative and fruitful approaches to development work, but has also reinforced and created racialized and de-historicized spaces that constrain the positive impact of development efforts. This paper traces the evolution and interplay of sport and development discourses within recent Catholic social thought in order to highlight the importance of attention to solidarity and subsidiarity in development contexts that involve sport. The specific focus rests on the positive difference that a dual commitment to solidarity and subsidiarity can make with regard to racialized and de-historicized social spaces. This essay serves as an initial attempt to bring together the “sport for development and peace” sector and Catholic social thought, which the author hopes will be the beginning of a fruitful conversation between the two fields of study.


They (those involved in sports) are called to make sports an opportunity for meeting and dialogue, over and above every barrier of language, race or culture. Sports, in fact, can make an effective contribution to peaceful understanding between peoples and to establishing the new civilization of love.1

Sport is a universal language. At its best it can bring people together, no matter what their origin, background, religious beliefs or economic status. And when young people participate in sport or have access to physical education, they can experience real exhilaration even as they learn the ideals of teamwork and tolerance.2

I begin with these two quotes because this essay brings together two fields of study that seem like an unlikely pair: theology and the “sport for development and peace” sector (SDP). The similarities between the two statements are striking when one considers that the first comes from a Catholic pope, the second from a U.N. Secretary-General. These quotes provide a modest, initial indicator that the two fields may share more in common than many would anticipate. In what follows, I argue that Catholic approaches to the use of sport for human development in both theory and practice prove helpful for dealing with certain issues that leading SDP scholars raise in their critiques. I focus specifically on problems surrounding the production of racialized and de-historicized spaces in SDP efforts, showing that attention to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and virtue of solidarity can help prevent these spaces from forming.

I have organized the essay into three main sections. First, I trace the emergence of development and sport discourses in 20th century Catholicism. This section contextualizes the intertwining of these two discourses and introduces the two key terms: solidarity and subsidiarity. Second, I assess the key critique that SDP efforts have the potential to create or reinforce racialized and de-historicized spaces. This section focuses on theoretical concerns, employing specific examples when appropriate and useful. Finally, the third section features an analysis of solidarity and subsidiarity in an effort to address issues raised in the second section. I highlight specific projects that Catholic Relief Services has recently undertaken in order to demonstrate the practical application of these key elements of Catholic social thought.

I. The Emergence of Discourses of Development and Sport in 20th Century Catholicism

“How can the Church not be interested in sport?”-Pius XII, Address to Roman Athletes, May 20, 1945

Throughout the last century, key shifts in the Catholic tradition have occurred that have generated interest in areas of discourse that were largely absent from the tradition in years past. This essay focuses on two such discourses, namely that of development and that of sport. The importance of the discourse of development was especially recognized in 1967 when Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Populorum progressio, which has been called the Church’s “magna carta on development.”3
This encyclical provides a humanistic understanding of development that has since been refined and updated within the Catholic tradition especially in John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis and Benedict VI’s Caritas in veritate. Concurrently, the discourse of sport has garnered increasing consideration especially following its inclusion in Gaudium et spes.4 Over 200 papal speeches and greetings concerning various sport themes throughout the 20th century together with the founding of the “Church and Sport” Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 2004 and the “Culture and Sport” Department in the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2011 attest to the growing interest in the discourse of sport within Catholicism.5

As these discourses have developed within the Catholic tradition, they have also come into contact with one another. Although no comprehensive treatment of the intersection of these two discourses within Catholicism exists, the idea that sport plays a role in human development has consistently appeared in various texts, speeches and endeavors. For example, at a Jubilee event for athletes on October 29, 2000, John Paul II stated: “We have offered sports to God as a human activity aimed at the full development of the human person and at fraternal social relations.”6 In what follows, I will investigate the evolution and interplay of these two key discourses in order to establish a context for the remainder of the paper.

A. Seeds of integral human development and an awakening Catholic consciousness regarding sport

At the 1084th plenary meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1961, the 1960s were declared the “decade of development.”7 This decade was one of not only rapid advancement in terms of technology and communication capabilities but also one of increasingly alarming inequality and division.3 As many “developing” nations tried to cope with newfound independence, cold war rivals invested both economically and militarily in many of these young nations with hopes of gaining strategic advantages.3 It was within this context that Pope Paul VI published his encyclical devoted to development in 1967, Populorum progressio (henceforth, PP).

PP presented a robust and humanistic development discourse. Drawing on the Christian humanism of Louis-Joseph Lebret and Jacques Maritain, PP argued for an understanding of economic and social development linked with the Christian view of human beings in community.3 The human person was placed at the center of this vision of complete development with the goal being the “transition from less than human conditions to truly human ones.”8 Less than humane conditions included not only material poverty but also moral poverty characterized by selfishness and oppression, thus implicating the rich by extending this notion of development beyond the material.3 Conversely, truly human conditions included “the rise from poverty to the acquisition of life’s necessities; the elimination of social ills; broadening the horizons of knowledge; acquiring refinement and culture.”8 These basic conditions paved the way for higher values such as “a growing awareness of other people’s dignity” and “a desire for peace,” which in turn make possible the recognition of the highest values and of God.8 According to PP, these truly humane conditions are the necessary font for faith and “loving unity in Christ.”8

In addition to rooting development in the process of Christian humanization, PP took Pope John XXIII’s concept of solidarity and expanded its significance to make it central to social and economic justice.3 PP established solidarity as the necessary, conscious response of people and emphasized the undeniable interdependence among people and nations. PP also argued that individual development depends on “a joint effort for the development of the human race as a whole.”8 In practical terms, PP claimed that solidarity demands wealthier nations to fulfill three key obligations that cover issues of aid, trade relations and truly mutually beneficial progress.8 PP also concluded with an appeal for joint action from both individuals and nations in pursuit of peaceful development, solidifying the link between solidarity, development, and peace.8

Not surprisingly, PP and its new understanding of development garnered a mixed reception throughout the world. Free market capitalists criticized its interventionist elements while many Latin American bishops worried that the role of politics in development was not given enough attention, which could restrict opportunities for liberation.3 The publication of Humanae vitae in 1968 triggered uproar surrounding the contraception debate and shifted the attention of many scholars from PP, perhaps delaying the critical conversation surrounding the novel conceptions of human development that the document espoused. Despite these factors, PP clearly laid the groundwork for the evolving concept of integral human development that has informed the development efforts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike for over fifty years. In addition to PP’s impact on John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis and Benedict XVI’s Deus caritas est, Deck points out that PP’s development approach has numerous points of contact with development expert Amartya Sen.3

The 1960s were also an important decade for the emergence of a discourse of sport within the Catholic tradition. Although several popes in the first half of the twentieth century had made remarks about sport in a limited sense, it was not until 1965 that sport was mentioned for the first time in a papal encyclical. Within a list of ways that leisure time should be used to “fortify the health of the soul and body,” Gaudium et spes referenced sports activity as that which “helps to preserve equilibrium of spirit even in the community, and to establish fraternal relations among men of all conditions, nations and races.”4 According to Monsignor Carlo Mazza, this placed sport “at the very heart of a culture” and initiated a new consciousness about sport that “led the Church right into the middle of the phenomenon of sport,” providing a foundation for more precise and direct discussion of both the benefits and dangers associated with sport.5

The increased attention to both sport and development discourse within Catholicism in the 1960s eventually resulted in an intertwining of the two discourses. The location of sport within culture as a source of fraternity and the place of culture and solidarity within the integral development of the human person provided a clear link between sport and development. Within the discourse of a Christian humanistic development, it was not a giant leap to see how sport can be used for improving the human person as well as to protect the human person from consumerism or materialism within sport as important parts of integral development.5 This new marriage between the discourses of sport and development evolved and expanded especially during the papacy of Paul VI’s successor, John Paul II (referred to as the “sportsman pope” because of his love for athletics and attention to sport as an area deserving Christian reflection).

B. The legacy of PP: The ongoing maturation of integral human development and the explicit role of sport

In 1987, twenty years after PP’s promulgation, John Paul II issued Sollicitudo rei socialis (On Social Concern, henceforth SRS).9 SRS affirmed the Church’s commitment to the integral development laid out in PP and rooted it in the new context of the 1980s. Much like Paul VI in PP, John Paul II discussed false understandings of development, presented the Church’s conception of true integral development, and provided practical steps to bring that integral development to fruition.10 Introduced as a 20th anniversary commemoration of PP, SRS recognized PP’s importance in three key areas according to Curran et al: its success at highlighting additional dimensions of development beyond the economic; its exposition of the interdependent relationships between rich and poor countries; and its contribution that development and peace go hand-in-hand.10

While PP extended the fledgling concept of solidarity, SRS took solidarity and made it a key virtue for pursuing integral development, which counters the ills of both under- and super-development. Solidarity occurs when society’s “members recognize one another as persons,” which transforms the “other” into a “neighbor,” “helper,” or “sharer,” in a common life.9 According to Curran et al., solidarity becomes “a veritable synonym”10 for development in this encyclical that challenges many of the “structures of sin” such as the politics of blocs, various forms of imperialism and trenchant distrust.9 Solidarity brings an awareness that all human persons are united both to God as a common father and other humans in fraternity through Christ, which in turn allows the “positive energies” present in the modern world to be released from the “evil mechanisms” and structures of sin.9

Recognition of John Paul II’s commitment to this robust understanding of solidarity is critical for understanding how he brought the discourse of sport explicitly to bear on the discourse of development throughout his pontificate. John Paul II consistently referred to sport’s role in the integral development of persons, which is understood specifically via solidarity, speeches and homilies that he delivered to various groups of athletes and sport governing bodies. For example, in 1979, he proclaimed to members of Italian soccer club A.C. Milan that sport offers “training in social relations that are founded upon mutual respect for the person, and an element of social cohesion that favors the friendly gathering of persons…”6 His statement makes use of language that fits perfectly with the language he later uses to describe solidarity in SRS. In the years following SRS, John Paul II made explicit the connection between sport and development, with development understood in terms of solidarity. In his homily at the Mass for the Jubilee of the World of Sport in 2000, he stated “we have offered sports to God as a human activity aimed at the full development of the human person and at fraternal social relations.”6 Reflecting on this homily four years later in a speech about sport and tourism, John Paul II urged Christians to pursue a specific form of sport that moves towards integral development:

…sport that protects the weak and excludes no one, that frees young people from the snares of apathy and indifference and arouses a healthy sense of competition in them; sport that is a factor of emancipation for poorer countries and helps to eradicate intolerance and build a more fraternal and united world; sport which contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.6

Similar descriptions of the role of sport show up throughout the 120 different discourses on the subject attributed to John Paul II by the time of his death in 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI has since continued this trajectory with respect to development and sport. His 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate (henceforth, CIV) built upon PP and SRS, referring to PP as “the Rerum Novarum of the present age.”11 Much like SRS, CIV began with a lengthy discussion of the enduring message of PP before applying it to the new context of the 21st century. CIV affirmed once again that “development needs above all to be true and integral”11 and set out to explore what that entails in the context of globalization. Although a full analysis of this recent encyclical exceeds the bounds of this paper, it is important to note that solidarity again emerged as a central concept in this treatment of human development (the term solidarity occurs 40 times in the document). This emphasis on solidarity was accompanied by a strong appeal to subsidiarity, two terms to which I will later return. Through CIV, Benedict carried forward the discourse of development in the Catholic tradition, a fact which he explicitly acknowledged: “At a distance of over forty years from the Encyclical’s publication, I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out…”11

With respect to sport, Benedict followed John Paul II in connecting it to development, understood primarily via solidarity. For example, in an address in 2005 to participants in the “Festa dello sportive,” Benedict stated that sports “contribute to the construction of a society where mutual and fraternal acceptance reign.” In a speech to members of the Venarotta Calcio Association, he again connected sport and solidarity: “Dear Friends, you are messengers not only of the serene joy of play, but also that which comes from partaking in fraternity and solidarity.”12 Benedict also followed in John Paul’s footsteps with the creation of a new office within the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2011. Benedict created the “Culture and Sport” Department to support and further the work of the “Church and Sport” Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which John Paul started in 2004.

By tracing this historical trajectory within the Catholic tradition, I have tried to show the growing prominence of the discourses of sport and development within Catholicism especially since the 1960s. These discourses have evolved not only concurrently but also in a rather complex relationship with one another. However, theologians have yet to spend much time grappling with both the potentialities and problems associated with the marriage of sport with development. In the remainder of this paper, I will offer a limited “spatial” analysis of the interlocking of these two discourses. I focus on issues of race and history before turning back to the aforementioned principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, principles which I contend offer real possibilities for thinking through certain tough critiques of SDP.

II. SDP and Racialized and De-Historicized Space

The preceding section argues that John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s explicitly recognized the role of sport in bringing about integral human development especially via solidarity. If their claims are to be taken seriously, the following questions deserve attention: First, what difficulties arise when sport and development are linked that prevent SDP efforts from bringing about a robust form of human development? Second, does the Catholic tradition contain elements of reasoning that can provide ways to potentially address problems that crop up in SDP projects?

Researchers in the SDP sector have been addressing the first question at length. These critical reflections together form an increasingly large body of research that incorporates sociology, anthropology and political science in efforts to inform a wide range of SDP efforts. Prominent SDP researcher Richard Giulianotti divides these diverse SDP efforts into four broad categories that allow for more nuanced critiques: nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations (NGO’s); intergovernmental and governmental organizations; the private sector; and radical NGO’s and social movements.13 This essay will focus primarily on the first of these four categories, NGO’s, in order to allow for greater depth with regard to the critiques and potential responses.

Critiques of SDP efforts cover a number of complex issues, a full account of which would exceed the constraints of this essay. Therefore, I have chosen particularly strong spatial critiques that I find repeated across the SDP sector especially regarding NGO’s, namely that SDP efforts potentially create or reinforce racialized space and/or de-historicized space. The analysis of these two related critiques sets the stage for the final main section of the essay where I argue that the Catholic tradition has something to offer in terms of a way forward regarding these critiques.

These critiques begin at the theoretical level with careful attention to the ways that SDP groups bring together sport and development discourses, because that linkage directly affects how those groups formulate the goals and methods that inform their projects. The broad claim that runs across the various critiques is that SDP groups may combine the two in manners that uncritically accept the predominant understandings of development.14 15 This “neo-liberal” understanding of development features a firm distinction between those who carry out development work and those who are said to benefit from it. In what follows, I will track how this division manifests itself problematically in terms of race and distorted historical consciousness.

First, the sharp distinction between subjects and objects of development work often maps onto pre-existing relationships characterized by race. SDP efforts carried out by agencies from the global north (North America, Europe) in countries in the global south occur in a setting where “whiteness” has long been a normative construction. Simon Darnell’s 2007 study of the NGO Right to Play demonstrates how a persistent ethic of evolutionary racism that once served to justify outright colonial domination can show up in modern SDP efforts, pitting the active subjects from the north (white) against the passive objects in the south (non-white).15 SDP projects that rely heavily on volunteers from the north then often unwittingly employ paternalistic understandings of development that divide those involved into the white, rational, problem solvers and the non-white, intellectually inferior, passive bodies. Sport then factors in as a tool for transferring knowledge and skills in only one direction, from white to non-white. In this way, SDP efforts can become modern forms of racially inflected colonial dominance despite the positive intentions of those involved.14

Such racial problems are only exacerbated by the prevalence of multiculturalist efforts to celebrate the unique contributions of particular groups. In the context of SDP programs that feature strong contingencies of northern volunteers working in southern countries, this multicultural mentality can quickly slip into a “stranger fetishism” that over-determines people based on race. Differences between the volunteers and the participants can then be chalked up to race while the real reasons for those differences remain obscured from consciousness. Thus, this over-determination contributes to the formation of social spaces that allow the northern volunteers to experience the “pleasure of having, knowing, and living race… through the volunteer’s experience of encountering, and improving the lives of, bodies of color.”15

Along with these issues of race, NGO’s run the risk of creating or reinforcing social spaces lacking healthy historical consciousness. Several factors contribute to the construction of this sort of space in the SDP context. First, sport is expected to bear a great deal of pressure as a medium that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. Sport functions (often unintentionally) as a bridge that allows the northern volunteers and southern participants alike to temporarily cross over the messy historical and political constraints that have made the presence of the volunteers necessary in the first place. Those involved thus operate in a de-historicized social space where what matters is the joy and potential of sport. Second, the material requirements of most northern sports often make it necessary for the volunteers to bring sports equipment as gifts for the native participants. The inherent imbalance of this economic exchange places the native peoples in perpetual states of gratitude. The “voice” that the native peoples acquire then is one of thanks that the volunteers may hear as an affirmation of their presence, especially if linguistic and cultural barriers prevent other voices from being heard. Thus, the volunteers and native participants can find themselves together in a constructed space characterized by a patron-client relationship, which occludes the historical space that occasioned the original need for development work.15

Together, these racialized and de-historicized spaces can unfortunately reinforce the prejudices of the northern volunteers. The nature of the relationships between the volunteers and the native peoples has been strongly shaped at levels that rarely leave the subconscious. In other words, these social spaces make it difficult for those within them to identify and confront deeply embedded structures. This is not to say that the influx of economic aid and volunteer efforts is evil, but it is a strong caution that development cannot remain solely economic, nor can it be content to operate within unjust structures. In the next section, I will show how attention to subsidiarity and solidarity as expressed in the social teachings of Catholicism can help NGO’s seeking to carry out SDP efforts bring about a more holistic development that minimizes the creation of these dangerous racialized and de-historicized spaces.

III. Subsidiarity and Solidarity in Catholic Social Thought: Application for SDP Efforts

The preceding section was certainly not an indictment of every SDP organization or effort, but it highlighted the various problems that can potentially plague SDP efforts. I will now demonstrate how solidarity and subsidiarity prove useful for addressing those issues. Recent efforts of the NGO Catholic Relief Services will serve as concrete examples of the application of these two principles to situations involving the use of sport for development work. I contend that these principles are general enough to prove useful in many different contexts, yet not so broad that they lack meaningful definition.

A. Subsidiarity

According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a thorough and trusted summary of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity is a directive that promotes the dignity of human persons as members of societies made up of all sorts of relationships, groupings, associations, and territorial realities.16 Subsidiarity can be understood primarily as a defense of a properly ordered social life that keeps central the dignity of the human person. One central tenet then is that individuals need space to accomplish things through their own endeavors. Community organizations certainly have a role to play when individual effort is not enough, but those “higher” order social groups ought not assume responsibility for things that individuals can accomplish on their own16 (n186). The key assumption operating here is that those closest to the tasks at hand are most suited to deal with those tasks, especially because those people often stand to gain or lose the most based on how the tasks are carried out. (A classic example of this idea is the story of the pact between fishermen of a small village. They agree to only catch a moderate amount of the fish in their waters so that they do not wipe out the supply. This means that they cannot live extravagant lifestyles, but it enables them to adequately provide for their village each year. Then, a large fishing corporation moves into their area and sees that large numbers of fish go uncaught each season. The corporation uses the promise of high wages to contract the fishermen to work for them, but soon require a much higher yield from the fishermen. Before long, the supply near the village is exhausted and the corporation moves on to the next village, leaving the devastated small village in its wake.) In addition, this individualist strain is balanced by the conviction that there are also functions in society that properly fall to groups of various sizes and power. The principle of subsidiarity thus recognizes the need for “higher” order social groups, but only insofar as those groups enable “lower” order groups and ultimately individuals to flourish:

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place.16

Catholic social thought thus understands there to be both positive and negative implications of the principle of subsidiarity. Larger, more powerful (“higher”) social groups have a positive role to play as they offer needed assistance to smaller, less powerful groups or individuals. However, those “higher” groups must refrain from unnecessarily restricting the initiative and freedom of smaller groups and individuals. In other words, “every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”16

The work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offers a useful example of what attention to this principle of subsidiarity looks like in practice. Instead of sending scores of volunteers to carry out development work, CRS commits to building relationships with local partners who know best the needs of their communities. CRS positions itself as a resource for local partners rather than as an interventionist savior for the communities it serves. According to its partnership philosophy, “All of CRS’ partnerships assign responsibility for decision-making and implementation to a level as close as possible to the people whom decisions will affect.”17 CRS emphasizes the autonomy of these local partners in a spirit of deference to local understanding whenever possible, believing in the transformation of unjust systems and structures primarily through strengthening the capacities of local communities and their institutions.18 CRS also recognizes that subsidiarity is often difficult to put into practice due to various requirements and constraints that come with being an international organization. For example, donor requirements or standard record-keeping processes can conflict with local practices posing serious challenges for CRS and its partners.19 Nevertheless, CRS consistently strives through its partnerships rooted in subsidiarity to allow those most affected by problems to take the leading role in responding to those challenges.

CRS’s efforts in South Sudan show how this partnership philosophy rooted in subsidiarity can be of use for SDP work. CRS’ involvement with Sudan began in 1978 when it aided in refugee resettlement stemming from a major civil war in 1972.20 When a second civil war broke out in 1984, CRS elected to relocate its operations from Khartoum in the North to South Sudan. Despite the move, CRS continued to serve peoples in North and South Sudan, as evidenced by its participation in “Operation Lifeline Sudan” in 1989 along with several United Nations and non-governmental organizations. CRS is now based in Juba in South Sudan and has partnerships across the South in places like Nimule, Torit, Eastern and Central Equatoria State, and Bor of Jonglei State. In keeping with its partnership philosophy, CRS states: “In South Sudan, as elsewhere, CRS relies on its strong partnerships with local Church and secular organizations, the host government, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies to efficiently and effectively deliver services to those most in need.”20 Among CRS’s partners include the Archdiocese of Juba, Caritas Juba, an organization called “Solidarity with South Sudan,” and the Government of Jonglei State. Through strategic relationships with partners like these, CRS has engaged in the process of integral human development in South Sudan.

One clear way CRS has used sport in its efforts to bring about integral development in South Sudan is through its support of a course on peacebuilding through sport and culture specifically designed for teenage females through one of its partners, the Loreto Girls’ School.21 The course aimed to strengthen and empower these young women to be peace-builders in the community. Sports played a key role in fostering bonds among the participants as the various sporting activities “transferred new skills to students from different ethnic groups and enabled them to spend time together outside the school in a non-threatening setting. These people-to-people gatherings helped deepen their sense of compassion and acceptance of each other.”21 Rather than rely on international and national institutions to go about the complicated process of building peace within this highly fractured region, CRS has opted here in the spirit of subsidiarity to provide support to a local partner in an effort to bring about peace through individuals who are arguably affected most by the region’s violence: young Sudanese women.

It is important to note that attention to subsidiarity does not mean putting blind trust in local organizations, nor does it mean that NGO’s do not have useful knowledge, skills, and resources to offer. CRS has stringent qualifications for its local partners and offers a great deal of input concerning the direction of programs it supports. The key to the relations between CRS and its partners is the real possibility that knowledge can move in both directions.17 This is perhaps the main strength of approaches that take subsidiarity seriously. Not only does this reciprocal exchange of knowledge ensure that the concerns of local groups and individuals are not ignored in development work, but it also enables NGO’s to make more effective use of their resources. Furthermore, cooperation with local partners lessens the burden on sport to bridge barriers like language. Because local groups directly organize sporting events, sport can more easily provide a space for interaction free of the power and racial relationships that seem to plague SDP efforts that rely heavily on northern volunteers.

B. Solidarity

As noted at various points in the first section of this essay, the meaning and use of the term solidarity has changed and developed throughout the last century in Catholic social thought. Here, I will focus on how solidarity understood as a moral virtue can keep SDP efforts from perpetuating the problems of race and history outlined above. Solidarity as a virtue is the consistent, authentic commitment to the common good that the increasing interdependence of the modern world requires of every individual and nation.16 The underlying principle here is that the life of each person in the world impacts the overall health of humanity. (For Christians, this claim follows from the message of Jesus Christ in the gospels. However, it also has relevance beyond just Christians given technological/scientific advances that show how the smallest behaviors by peoples on one side of the world have real effects on the lives of those on the opposite side of the globe.) Solidarity as a virtue thus requires and enables humans to attend to social conditions and structures that limit the common good, transforming “structures of sin” into “structures of solidarity.”16 Structures of sin include any and all relationships between peoples and nations based on domination and inequality.

The virtue of solidarity functions in order to expose and change these into structures that benefit rather than detract from the common good of humanity.

SDP efforts that consciously seek to foster the virtue of solidarity are capable of affecting changes that account for these “structures of sin” rather than operating within them. Again, the work of CRS offers a useful example of how this concretely plays out. In conjunction with its efforts on the ground with its partners in South Sudan, CRS has also used sport to foster the virtue of solidarity in an attempt to inspire people to go after larger structures holding back South Sudan’s development. For example, CRS’s “Playing for Peace” program in partnership with the University of Notre Dame tried to inspire solidarity among college students. By marketing the event as primarily a 3v3 basketball tournament, CRS and Notre Dame created an inviting space for members of the campus community to come together. At a break between games, the participants listened to the stories of Sudanese students studying at Notre Dame as well as a video message from Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng, who was forced to flee Sudan as a child. According to Michael Hebbeler of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns (oral communication, April 19, 2013), sport played a crucial role in its ability to draw an impressive 400-plus participants. These men and women then took part in what Hebbeler identified as the most important part of the event: the collection of more than 1,000 signatures for a petition bound to the White House. This petition thanked the President for his efforts in ensuring the peaceful passing of South Sudan’s independence referendum in 2011, but called for continued engagement with the process due to the unstable nature of the region in the wake of the vote. The petition also called for funding for aid and development programs in Darfur, Sudan, and South Sudan referring specifically to legislation such as the FY11 Continuing Resolution and the FY12 Budget that were in the works at the time. It concluded with an appeal to the principle of solidarity and finally by identifying assistance to Sudan as a “moral responsibility” rather than simply an “optional commitment.”22

Representatives from the Playing for Peace initiative personally delivered this petition to Samantha Power, a member of President Obama’s National Security Council staff and head of the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. These representatives met directly with Power for one hour and expressed the concerns of the Notre Dame community. According to the Playing 4 Peace report, Power “said this initiative is ‘significant and unusual’ as she applauded the unique nature of the event which brought a community together around a sporting event while leveraging the opportunity to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for a serious social justice concern.”23

“Playing for Peace” presents a unique example of an SDP effort that focuses specifically on fostering the virtue of solidarity in order to bring about structural change. Although tracking the concrete impact of this effort has proved difficult, the continual use of sport in “Playing for Peace” style advocacy events attests to CRS’s confidence in the ability of this form of SDP to affect structural change via solidarity. For example, CRS has since worked with Georgetown and Villanova on separate occasions to craft variations of Playing for Peace events. This endeavor represents an effort to take concrete historical realities into account (e.g. the tenuous and incomplete nature of South Sudan’s independence) and through advocacy attempt to create a network of people in solidarity that may be able to influence structures and systems (e.g. Notre Dame students and faculty who contributed through prayer, financial means, and the petition to the U.S. government).

When paired with subsidiarity-inflected SDP efforts on the ground, this approach to SDP is well suited to use sport for development in a way that can attend to racial and historical difficulties rather than perpetuating or creating them. NGO’s can gain vitally important knowledge of local capabilities and needs from local partners that then inform the direction of their broader advocacy work, which can then affect influential structures via solidarity. This sort of two-pronged SDP work will certainly take different forms depending on any number of factors (context, available resources, donor requirements, etc.), but has the potential to make positive changes in the world, as evidenced by the efforts of CRS.


This call for attention to the principle of subsidiarity and the virtue of solidarity is not intended as a sweeping indictment of established, ongoing SDP efforts. This essay is primarily an initial attempt at bringing the SDP sector into conversation with Catholic social thought, especially given Catholic thought’s relatively recent interest in sport’s role in human development. I have focused the analysis on issues of race and historical consciousness within the SDP efforts of NGO’s arguing how efforts that take into account subsidiarity and solidarity are well-suited to bring about change in a way that may steer clear of the creation or reinforcing of racialized and dehistoricized social space. I do not wish to hold up the combination of subsidiarity and solidarity as some form of magic bullet that solves all problems of race and domination, but I hope I have shown that these resources from the Catholic social tradition can be of some service to the ongoing maturation of SDP projects in the midst of the challenges of the 21st century.


1. Pope John Paul II. Jubilee of Sports People: Homily of John Paul II [Internet]. 2000. Available from: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20001029_jubilee-sport_en.html
2. United Nations. Universal Language of Sport Brings People Together [Internet]. 2004. Available from: http://www.un.org/sport2005/resources/statements/kofi_annan.pdf.
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