The Catholic Thing
Tiger, Tiger Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Wednesday, 16 December 2009

William Blake’s poem no doubt comes to many minds these days: “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The Tiger Woods story does seem, morally, to have its “fearful symmetry.”

Within the week that Woods became the first athlete to be worth a billion dollars, his fire seemed meekly quenched. It is a page right out of the first book of Aristotle’s Ethics. Money is not the definition of happiness. Dishonor is close to the essence of unhappiness. Thus, it was not just money that made him who he was; it was what the man stood for. Over the years, Woods’ “frame” on the links, his prowess, seemed almost fearsome as he stalked down one “leader-board” rival after another.

A black TV commentator said that whatever Woods did was his own affair except when it came to his business dealings. Woods promoted himself, however, as a “family man.” He endorsed products under that rubric when he knew that he was disloyal to his family. That was “hypocrisy,” the man said. On this, the American people do not look “kindly.”

I have often observed that almost the only place where true morality is discussed these days is on the sports pages. There, as in this case, good and bad, glory and dishonor, performance and slovenliness, justice and injustice, faithfulness and unfaithfulness are daily displayed and ruminated on. The world-wide audience for this sort of thing is not just “gossip,” I think. What famous men and women “do” does matter.

Several schools of thought exist on how we should take Woods’ troubles. He himself has now acknowledged that he was wrong. He apologizes, asks forgiveness, and seeks a time of healing. We hope he has “a firm purpose of amendment,” as we Catholics say. What he has said is certainly right in principle and humiliating in fact. Things were “shouted from the rooftops.”

Habits are difficult to break. We wish Woods good speed. The man who had everything going for him is himself responsible for his troubles. Implicitly many commentators recall the words of, I think, Francis de Sales: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

“You’re upset about the Tiger Woods scandal?” Tracee Hamilton writes in the Washington Post (December 10), “and I’m here to tell you whom to blame for that: Yourself.” In this view, anyone who thought that highly paid and famous athletes would do anything else is simply naïve. It happens all the time. The list of athlete-sinners is long and familiar. Nothing is new about it.

“You say that you can’t cheer for someone at, say, the Masters after you’ve learned he cheated on his wife?” Hamilton continues. “Really? That’s the yardstick you use? Then one assumes that you’ve cut everyone out of your life who has ever cheated on his or her spouse, right? Your co-workers, your friends, your siblings, your children, even your own parents? No?” Well, that just about covers everyone. It is not a bad experiential proof for original sin found in the morning sports page. It’s a wonder it is not censored as religious propaganda!

Hamilton’s column interests me, however, for another reason. Those who know their Aristotle or Aquinas are familiar with the distinction between art and prudence. It is possible to be a good golfer, musician, or carpenter and still be a rather lousy man. The good of the practical intellect in art and craft looks to the thing made, not to the moral condition of the maker.

“Woods’ latent talents and his morals are two different things,” Hamilton affirms.” Clearly. The Woods who betrayed you, if you will, is not the fist-pumping force on the PGA Tour, but the guy who is selling you stuff.” So Woods and his golf is one thing; Woods and his salesmanship is another. But of course, that is the same thing; both are crafts. The fine salesman who cheats and the skilled golfer who cheats both do the same thing. Their craft is there, but its place in their lives facilitates other things not quite so innocent.

The major accuser of Socrates in the Apology was Anytos, a wealthy craftsman. On questioning a craftsman, Socrates found that he did know his skill, but thinking he knew this, he surmised he knew everything else.

“What immortal hand or eye?” Our lives do seek symmetry, seek to put all things together. Tiger Woods’ decision to withdraw “indefinitely” does suggest that, despite the fact that his skill is real and unequalled, still he needs to reorder his life. We should be slow to cast the first stone. But we should be glad our faults catch up with us. In no other way can we do anything about them.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Liz, December 17, 2009
This is what happens when we make "heroes" out of people who don't deserve the title. Tiger has talent but he is no hero. And while we're at it - what about the Safe School Czar, Kevin Jennings? His public life is all over the place and he touts it as "good" yet this is exactly the same thing a small percentage of priests and clergy (of all denomnations) did and public "hangings" were called for.
My grandmother said ...
written by Ars Artium, December 17, 2009
My grandmother loved to say "Your sins will find you out." and as Father Schall teaches, thank God that they do. Tiger Woods is a young man living in a sick culture. So are the women who tempted and used him. He has had the grace to understand what penance is and the courage to hope that it will lead to rehabilitation. God bless him and his family.
The Grace of God
written by William H. Phelan, December 17, 2009
Very well done, Fr. Schall. A luncheon group of businessmen I belong to recently featured a speaker who was a lawyer of a very liberal bent. He spoke of PROGRESS and how we had to accept abortion, same-sex marriage, Obamacare, etc. He joined my table and after questionning, we learned he had no religious background at all. After the meeting, a Catholic member remarked at how much we take Supernatural Grace for granted until we meet someone who does not possess it and never has.
cheating begets cheating
written by Ray Hunkins, December 17, 2009
If one deigns to cheat in one area of life it becomes increasingly easy to cheat in other areas. The officer corps of our military understood this well. Adultery was a courtmartial offense no matter how good the pilot or how fierce the infantryman. Similarly, financial institutions were wary of fiduciaries who demonstrated their proclivity to cheat in non financial areas. Would Tiger's mindset allow him to cheat on the links? Larry Kudlow on CNBC and Father Schall here focus on redemption. Good.
Just Wondering
written by Really, December 17, 2009
I suppose much more will be added to the comments page today. I am wondering about one statement made by Ars Artium. I agree that Tiger's 14 mistresses tempted him but how exactly did they use him? It seems to me that Tiger used them to satisfy his carnal desires.
written by dymphna, December 17, 2009
I think half of the commentators on Tiger are just jealous (how faithful is the average American man?) and the other half are angry because they used him as a weapon to criticize black people with and now they are disarmed and they feel betrayed.
surmising we know all
written by Jennifer, December 17, 2009
The second to last paragraph is my favorite in an excellent essay. I am too often guilty of thinking because I'm competent at a number of things that I can judge others. Thank you for this essay. It reminds me how much happier and better off I am with humility in my heart.
WWJD with Tiger?
written by debby, December 17, 2009
"....has no one condemned you? .... Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin any more." John 8:10-11
that's always the kicker. we've been taught by the world around us, "life is short-go do whatever you want, just don't get caught."
then we get caught & are surprised at the consequences!
i pray that tiger & his family fully repent, turn to God our merciful Father, & allow grace to transform them, so they can "sin no more."
i pray that for all of us- we ALL need His mercy!
Tiger's Tale
written by Joseph, December 17, 2009
I seemed to recall Augustine in his Confessions discussing at length his tortured conscience over stealing some pears. He also lamented his carnal past and transgressions and I seem to recall his quote, "Let me be chaste, O Lord, but not now."

Tiger has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse and it looks like his marriage is done. Bishop Sheen said that in any marriage one or the other spouse must "crush the ego" for the sake of the other. Woods never learned humility. Maybe now he will.

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