The Archbishop Takes on Little League: Does Sunday Matter Anymore?

John Cardinal O’Connor has had enough. Angry that Major League Baseball will play games on Good Friday, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York announced that he will not attend any Mets or Yankees games this year, though he is well known as a fan of both teams.

“I resent it. I protest it. I will not go to a game in 1998,” wrote the Archbishop in his weekly column in Catholic New York. Major League Baseball was unmoved. The games will be played on Good Friday.

But if taking on Major League Baseball in the Big Apple was not controversial enough, the Archbishop decided to take on a really powerful institution—Little League Baseball.

Yogi Berra once quipped that “Little League baseball is a good thing ’cause it keeps the parents off the streets and the kids out of the house.” All that is well and good, but the Archbishop is angry that too many altar boys are missing Sunday morning services, citing baseball and soccer games scheduled for the same hour.

“Why is it religion that must always accommodate?,” asked the Archbishop. “Why must Little League and soccer league games be scheduled on Sunday mornings? Why create this conflict for kids or for their parents? Sports are generally considered good for kids. Church is good for kids.”

The Archbishop blamed larger cultural trends for the competition for Sunday priority. “This is the constant erosion, the constant secularization of our culture, that I strongly believe to be a serious mistake.”

This time Cardinal O’Connor hit a live wire. It was one thing to take on the Major Leagues—but taking on Little League is an entirely different matter. If the Major Leagues responded with quiet calm, Little League parents let loose a firestorm. The issue was played out on the pages of the New York Times, where parents let the Archbishop know exactly what they thought of his argument.

“I don’t think he knows what he is talking about,” said Arlene Lopez, whose two young sons were hard at play in Sunday morning games. Her bluntness was echoed by Josue Torres, who hopes that his son Alec will be a Little Leaguer when older. “I don’t think anyone has the authority—hopefully not in this country—to tell you that,” he said, responding to the Cardinal’s statement. “Everybody’s got their beliefs, and perhaps he’s overstepping his bounds.”

Another Little League mom was even more bitter in her rejection of the Archbishop’s appeal. “He’s out of touch and he’s interfering,” she said. “Today, you can’t just plop a child in church and think he’ll learn what he needs to be a good person. You have to give kids a broad base of experiences, and you have to do that within very tight schedules, weekends usually.”

In other words, so far as New York’s Little League parents are concerned, the Archbishop struck out. They told the Cardinal Archbishop of New York to get back to the Cathedral where he belongs, and leave parents and kids to take care of what is really important—team sports. If the games conflict with Sunday worship, so much worse for the church. Get real, Archbishop, and don’t meddle where you don’t belong.

Taken as a portrait of postmodern America, this little squabble reveals a great deal. There was once a day when a statement like this—from the man known simply as His Eminence to most New Yorkers—would have brought Little League to a Sunday standstill. No more. The erosion and secularization the Cardinal blamed for a decline in Sunday observance have eroded his authority as well.

Americans now treat Sundays like other days, though for many work takes a back seat to leisure activities. Federal Express now runs commercials boasting that since our lives don’t stop on Sundays, the deliveries will go on as well. Sociologists have traced the demotion of Sunday and the decline of worship attendance for years, and have offered a variety of explanations. Their theories all come down to the secularization of the American soul.

The legal protections of Sunday as a day of religious observance have been stripped away—the so-called “Blue Laws” are now a part of the nation’s legal history. The day Christians throughout almost twenty centuries have known as the Lord’s Day is now treated as a day for personal fulfillment, whether at work or play.

Catholics are not alone in feeling the loss. The erosion of Sunday is noticed by Protestant ministers as well, and they face the same competition. Catholics both responded to and contributed to the pattern by encouraging Saturday evening mass—leaving Catholics a way to protect Sunday for their own uses. Some Protestant churches are now trying Saturday services as well, with evangelical megachurches leading the way.

Actually, the Archbishop did not make a very compelling argument in his attack on Sunday sports. His article is full of lament and nostalgia, and calls for parents to rethink their “priority of values.” Missing is any claim of divine authority for his argument. The erosion of Sunday observance is the inevitable result of a decline of Christian conviction. A loss of faith preceded the encroachment of Little League. If enough Christian parents refused to let their children play on Sundays, the league would have to adjust.

Those who know Jesus Christ as Lord will know Sunday as the Lord’s Day—that day of worship set aside for the gathering of Christians for worship. The Lord’s Day commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and looks back to His atoning death as Savior. A secular society will have no use for a day of Christian worship. The problem is a lot bigger than the Archbishop yet thinks.