Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Kneeling at NFL liturgies — it’s a little strange for a Catholic

In this Oct. 2, 2016, file photo, from left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

(RNS) — From a Catholic perspective, the controversy over kneeling during the national anthem is strange. Many people, like President Trump, are criticizing players for kneeling because they say it shows disrespect. For Catholics, however, kneeling during liturgy is a sign of respect. In fact, kneeling before the American flag might be considered idolatrous.

Catholics have had their own controversies over kneeling. If you visit Catholic churches in Europe, you will discover that many if not most of them do not have kneelers. Congregants are expected to stand or sit during Mass. The Roman missal as issued by the Vatican actually calls for the assembly to stand during the Eucharistic prayer, except for briefly kneeling during the institutional narrative or consecration.

RNS photo courtesy Julie Maria Peace

“Church Service Before Battle” depicts a group of World War I-era soldiers kneeling to pray at a church service before going into battle.

Standing while praying actually follows the Jewish tradition, where people stood while praying in the temple. Kneeling was seen as an expression of penitence.

In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea, which is responsible for the Nicene Creed recited at Mass, actually forbade kneeling during the Easter season, which is a time for rejoicing, not penance. Symbolically, the community stands with the risen Christ. Worshippers stand while they await his return.

In the United States, Catholic congregations kneel during the Eucharistic prayer because the American bishops requested an exception from Rome. The bishops argued that American Catholics preferred to kneel and that they would be scandalized by standing. Liturgists objected and lost, although in some progressive Catholic parishes, we see congregants standing.

The meaning of new symbols and symbolic gestures can be confusing, whether in Catholic liturgy or in the liturgy surrounding football games. What is clear from the experience of the NFL and the Catholic Church is that symbolic gestures mean different things to different people. If you go into a bar and hold up two fingers, are you ordering two beers, asking for a table for two or giving the peace sign to friends?

Linguists distinguish between signs and symbols. Signs (like a stop sign) have a single meaning that is clear to everyone. Symbols can have multiple meanings that are culturally determined. Meaning is not always obvious; it has to be learned.

Symbols can have exactly the opposite meaning to different people. Wearing a skullcap in a synagogue is seen as a sign of respect, but for a man to wear a hat in a Catholic church would be considered disrespectful unless he is a bishop in a miter.

Symbols often need to be interpreted to those who see them for the first time. It should not be surprising that they are often misinterpreted.

Who decides what a symbol means? In a hierarchical organization like the Catholic Church, the clergy attempts to control meaning, although not always successfully. Trump seems to think that he is the pope of the NFL — only he determines what symbols mean.

Theoretically, the artist or community that creates a symbol should be the one who determines its meaning, but the creator must also be sensitive to the wider world that will see the symbol.

Standing during the Eucharistic prayer is not disrespectful, but a congregation may need to be educated if its members have knelt all their lives. The meaning of standing needs to be explained.

In the case of the NFL, those kneeling should be allowed to explain their symbolic action. If they say it is a protest against racial injustice and not an attack on the flag, their interpretation should be respected. They are the authors of their action and have a unique right and obligation to explain it. Challenging their interpretation of their actions is arrogant and demeaning. To tell them they cannot express and explain their views is to cut off their freedom of expression.

But the ultimate test of a symbol is whether the creator’s interpretation is accepted by the larger community. As more people support those who kneel and as kneeling spreads from the NFL to high schools, it looks like the kneelers are winning.

Symbols can also be a rich topic of conversation and dialogue. Last year, at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, where my brother is president, three players wanted to kneel during the national anthem. My brother’s only condition was that they talk it over with their teammates first. The players were also given an opportunity to explain their actions to the student body in a school assembly and through a video. 

Three football players from St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, who chose to kneel during the national anthem, are supported by their teammates, some of whom knelt while others stood. The adult behind the three students is the coach of the opposing team, Bellarmine Prep of San Jose, who joined the students when he saw them kneeling. Photo by Leya Elias, SI class of 2017, now at Stanford University

“The conversation and dialogue we had went better than I expected,” explained Joe Lofton, one of the kneeling players, to the National Catholic Reporter. “The best part about it was that people were comfortable enough to share how they felt about it.”

One player spoke passionately in defense of America, which had saved the lives of the player’s family by welcoming them as refugees. The discussion brought the team closer together, and when the players knelt, their teammates stood behind them, some kneeling, some standing, with their hands on their shoulders.

My brother took a lot of flak from people who wanted him to expel the students, just as the NFL is getting flak from Trump, who wants the players fired.

Would that adults could be as mature as high school students.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

43 Comments

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  • If people want this to end (I could not care less) just include a prayer while they kneel and the left will implode, with everyone standing up. That is unless they decide to lie down instead.

  • Over a dozen of the Cleveland Browns did this during the anthem before their game on August 21. No one imploded. Sorry.

  • Look carefully at the top photo. There’s at least three black 49’ers and two white 49’ers (players or staff) standing up during the National Anthem.

    Who are they? Don’t know. The only names you are given, the only right-upfront images you are given, are kneeler-in-chief Kaepernick and a couple other kneelers. You, the reader, are supposed to think about THEM, focus only on THEM.

    You’re not supposed to focus on the others, the blacks & whites & browns, the mixed majority of Americans, who are constantly respecting and standing up for the Flag and the National Anthem despite our nation’s problems. That’s not the goal here.
    So please obey your national media. They know what’s best for you.

  • Those whining about respecting the flag or anthem have absolutely no clue. Violations of the flag code, for example, happen all the time without controversy. Wearing the flag, using it in advertisements (examples of this and the former are legion), displaying it horizontally (halftime shows, anyone?), signing it (or otherwise writing on it, a la Sarah Palin & Dubya), standing on it (a la Dubya & spouse), etc..

    As a veteran with more than 22 years under my belt (so far), I couldn’t care less about this or any of the former violations of the flag code. None of it changes my oath or the Constitution I’m sworn to defend, and neither the flag, the anthem, or the nation is harmed by peaceful protest.

    Bottom line: Deal with it.

  • Given that the photo was taken a year ago, the photo was news and it was primarily Keaperhick who got the lion’s share of news /social media coverage following .

    I looked at a photo of attendees at Trump’s inauguration taken during the National Anthem and in that photo, not only do I see a few with hands over heart, salutes by those in uniform, one person applauding, one person texting and at least 6 selfie takers. The last 3 are the ones showing true disrespect .

    Personally, I don’t get playing the anthem at a sporting event that does not involve international competition.

  • Any insight to why Pope Francis does not kneel before the Blessed Host ?
    – age or bad knee ?
    -I noticed JP2 kneeled in depths of his Parkinson’s, and B16 kneeled also despite his frailty
    Thanks !

  • There is another side to this issue that I’m actually shocked isn’t the main driver of the conversation…that is actions of an the employee that harm the company he or she is working for. I’m also a vet and I do happen to find the protest both misguided and offensive, but I would always defend someone’s right to protest…but do it on your own time.

    The players are employees of a business and if the team (company) finds that said protest is negatively impacting their business (which it most certainly is), they should have every right to insist the employee act in a manner the business finds appropriate or they should discipline or fire them. Its a bit of a catch 22 since many players would be hard to replace, but for me this a complete failure of leadership within the companies that has allowed this to happen.

    If it’s a personal protest on the individual’s time (and dime), you bet, deal with it…but when an employee so egregiously impacts a business in this manner then the company should have every right to denounce, discipline or terminate the employee at any time and the employee and his or her supporters shouldn’t be screaming about how this is a 1st Amendment issue.

  • I don’t imagine it’s affected people following the NFL in any way.

    Personally I’m prepared to just remain seated when the National Anthem is played, and happy to explain that an injustice to one is an injustice to all.

  • Not affected them? There was a 12% ratings drop for the NFL last year, 56% of respondents to the poll trying to identify the cause cited “players not standing”. I’d guess the bean counters think there might be a correlation.

  • Trying to portray the NFL as a legitimate “business” for the purpose of denigrating these peaceful protesters quite literally made me laugh out loud. The decades upon decades of spurious tax-exemption status, the special treatment and reduced sentencing of violent felons through special interest lobbying and likely outright bribes, large-scale corruption such as “bountygate”, the handling of the CTE epidemic (what other “business” is allowed to perpetrate this kind of physical harm, repetitively?)- all of these poke a large gaping hole into your attempt to gaslight people into thinking the NFL can effectively use employment law to make the whole thing go away. They may have a legal one, but they have no moral leg to stand on.

  • I’m making no claim that the NFL has the moral high ground at all, in fact I find the tax benefits they receive pathetic and their turn-and-burn strategy with players is indeed very sad…but guess what, people kept showing up for the games so they didn’t change. Whether you like it or not, players are employees and one simply needs to ask themselves, if I were a conservative engineer at google and voiced my political opinion would my job be in jeopardy? If a cashier at the local supermarket decided to come to work wearing an anti-abortion shirt and refused to change I’m quite certain said employee would soon be escorted from the business. When the populace rejects your ‘protest’ you often find the financial consequences are too much to support the business…if you disagree, perhaps I can interest you in an bakery in Colorado.

    You reluctantly recognize the ‘legal’ truth that NFL players are employees of the teams and league and that simple fact negates your suggestion that I’m gaslighting poeple. We live in a country based on laws and lets be honest, morals were thrown out long ago.

    In the end, if my employees ever did something that impacted my business by 12% it would be their last day. The NFL has crossed a line with me, I’m no longer a customer, and it appears a significant number of other Americans are voicing their dissatisfaction with the league as well. Money talks, we’ll see if it changes.

  • Players have their own union and contracts. They are not at will employees subject to an employers whim. They cannot be fired for such public acts. Generally this would be outside potential morals or criminal violation clauses which would void a contract.

  • I guess you are not familiar with how contract workers with their own organized representation and union are allowed to conduct their affairs. Players cannot be fired or subject to fines/punishment on a whim as your terrible analogies would indicate. That is part of the negotiated agreement they have with their employers.

  • Source please?

    The most obvious explanation for reduced ratings is broadcast fragmentation, time shifting, declining market and a growing opposition to the sport due to the visibility of long term concussion damage.

  • Did I miss something? I stopped watching football many long years ago, so perhaps I have. Where are the owners and their lawyers with all the termination letters? How many players have been fired over this controversy to date?

    Let’s examine. In my statement, “gaslighting” referred to your portrayal of the NFL as a legitimate mainstream business, which it is not (as in, sure, legal, but gravity still exists), so nope, not negated. Furthermore, I didn’t “reluctantly recognize the ‘legal’ truth” (mischaracterize much?) of the situation, I was simply pointing out that this is not your average supermarket employment issue over a t-shirt. . The moral leg IS the one that matters here- it’s easy to miss that point. The problem lies with the misconception of what is being protested- I believe this is what Fr. Reese was pointing out in his article. The fact that a bunch of shallow thinkers have lit up both of their neurons and asked for refunds on their satellite TV package has apparently not- or not yet at least, resulted in mass firings. Why not? Could it be that the owners fear that the backlash from what would be an egregious moral misstep might possibly be worse than that from failing to take advantage of this little legal opportunity Trump would so like them to seize? Hmm. Or could it be (gasp) that some of them are feeling their moral compass pulled firmly due North?

    It’s not over yet. The firings may come. And in that case, the owners may join you in your sea of cynicism where “morals were thrown out long ago” and “money talks”. I shall not congratulate you. I prefer to remain rooted in hope, and I do so in honor of Handsome Dan and the other Vicktory Dogs who have proven that good people, through a lot of hard work and sacrifice (including financial), can extract much beauty from the great injustices of Football, even when it seems that no one is paying attention, and that cynicism rules the world.

    FWIW, “In a recent survey conducted by the Cato Institute, 61% of Americans oppose NFL players being fired for not standing for the national anthem to make a political statement.” -USA Today

    Good day.

  • I have more than a little passing exposure to contract workers rights and I never suggested the idea of firing was done on a whim but rather the detrimental impact these actions are having on the teams/league. The personal conduct policy for the league, which covers owners, coaches, players, et al, are bound to, states ‘Everyone’ must refrain from “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL. I think there are more than a few people out there that view this conduct as detrimental to the public confidence but that’s for the teams/league to address. The players are responsible to this standard as negotiated in their NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement and if I were a team owner I could very easily see players in violation of that agreement.

  • The source is all over the internet, Google 12% drop in NFL ratings for 2016…I originally read it on an ABC news piece. Sure, there are a number of issues that can impact ratings…but the survey I quoted clearly stated that “players not standing” was a considerable issue for them tuning out…is it the only reason, clearly not, but they did cite it as one of them.

  • That’s between the owners and the players. If the owners decide to keep the players, they choose to bear the consequences, good or bad. It remains to be seen what this will do, if anything, to the NFL. Negative business effects don’t manifest overnight. And I’m sure we’ll hear about it either way. So, for the time being, those who care about football (admittedly, I’m not one of them) will just have to choose how much it matters to them.

  • Might want to read a bit more on that. Causal relationships usually aren’t so simple, and people can cite multiple reasons for their choices. Using just CBS’s reporting last year as an example, yes, as you say, 56% cited players not standing. However, 50% also cited the distraction of the presidential campaign, while another 47% cited the controversy over the handling of domestic violence cases involving players. You’ll notice that’s over 100%, so the causes aren’t mutually exclusive.

  • I agree with you on all accounts, my 2 points all along have been very simple.

    1) The players are bound to a collective bargaining agreement, they are employees of a business, and the actions of a few are potentially impacting the bottom line. Their agreement is broad in definition and interpretation but at the end of the day I’d say the owners would have a very good chance in court if they could show a significant financial impact (damage) to their business. Again, I’m all for anyone’s free expression as long as it’s done on their dime and I just don’t see that as the case here.

    2) Failure of leadership. The owners and the league should have nipped this in the bud when CK first took a knee last year. They should have brought the entire league together at the time to find a method to both engage in conversation and, present a unified solution to the country which would have prevented the current situation from happening. I put this squarely on the coaches, owners and the leadership of the league.

    In any case, it will be very interesting to see how this all ends.

  • Nope. Didn’t see it. But Trump tweeted something to that effect. Which we all know isn’t worth a pile of fertilizer. Got a link?

  • If you had some idea how contract workers rights worked you would not have made your comments. Ones more appropriate for at-will employees.

    So you are saying a peaceful protest made by a brief symbolic gesture is an act which shows lack of integrity or destroys public confidence? Given the reaction to Cheeto’s rants, I would say it has produced the opposite effect. It has increased the public confidence and reputation of the organization. One not really known for its pro-social behavior. Even owners are joining in or promoting such behavior. It has become a way to produce publicity on a positive note for the players.

    “if I were a team owner I could very easily see players in violation of that agreement.”

    And you probably would be laughed out of the mandatory arbitration for doing so.

  • Sure, great, you win, you’re right counselor. You can’t seem to perform a summer associate like search for data but you’re the all-knowing end-game on workers rights, contract law and perception of damages…LexisNexis should be watching.

    Fortunately folks like you have the internet to attempt to quash honest discussion and air perceived grievances from behind a pseudonym.

    Carry on justice warrior, the world is clearly a better place due to your efforts.

  • The burden of proof is on the person making the claims. It is not my job to disprove your assertions. It’s your job to present them credibly. Claims made without evidence can be rebutted by the same level of proof.

    If you can’t be bothered to provide a link when questioned about the veracity and accuracy of your claims, you forgo any reason to be taken seriously. You are simply being lazy and dishonest. You made a claim you clearly can’t support. Now you are whining and acting like a sensitive snowflake.

    Just to add insult to injury:

    National Labor Relations Board has decided that an employee may not be disciplined for having a political opinion provided they are not overt. That would mean they may not be forced to stand, wave a flag, or sing along with the National Anthem. They could be punished if they ran on the field waving a sign saying “SUPPORT HILLARY”, but not for not doing it.

  • Wow, never underestimate the appetite of the trolls. So now we have a burden of proof that must be met in a discussion forum…you really need to get back to the courtroom. Mr. Samuelson seemed to find the link in seconds and he and I had a pretty cordial exchange regarding the issue. While I’m surprised I have to mention this to someone like you, posted links on forums are often automatically rejected due to spam and I really didn’t think this was quite as difficult to find as you’re making it out to be.

    I not trying to change your mind ‘Spuddie’ because you clearly have a belief that you are confident is infallible…I have an opinion that is no less valid than yours. I’ve been fortunate…or perhaps not so fortunate, to see that our legal process is never as black and white as one side or the other wants it to be…regardless of their tenacity or ‘proof’. You have a belief, I’m glad you embrace it. I have an opposing belief. You want to label me for not providing a web link, so be it, I’m lazy, dishonest, sensitive and a ‘snowflake’.

    I’ll wear that last one with pride.

  • There is no doubt that’s a possibility, however CK’s lack of a contract seems to suggest they see this act as a liability.

  • You don’t want to present yourself in a credible manner, so be it. Just don’t whine that people won’t take you seriously.

    I don’t do homework for the lazy. In all the time you took to complain, you could have posted a link to the source of your assertion. Oh well.

  • A lot of the owners seem to agree with the players at this point that police misconduct and relations with minorities are a continuing problem in this country that needs to be redressed. But Kaepernick has made many controversial statements beyond the kneeling. He has worn socks comparing police to pigs. He compared police officers to fugitive slave catchers and called for “the system” to be “dismantled” — not changed or improved. The Fidel Castro shirt. This is not someone teams are champing at the bit to sign, even if his numbers were better.

  • Jewish tradition *today* involves mostly standing or sitting, along with some bowing. In *the* Temple, i.e. the ancient ones in Jerusalem, kneeling and prostration were part of the service. In fact, one of the few times that prostration takes place today is on the High Holidays. One of these occasions is on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (begins this Friday night), in which the congregation symbolically re-enacts the actions of the Kohen Gadol [high priest] in preparing the two goats, one sacrificed on site and one sent off a cliff in the wilderness. This was the only time of the year that any person was allowed to pronounce the YHVH name. The modern service recounts that when the people heard the ineffable name pronounced by the high priest, they prostrated themselves.

  • The very suggestion that someone taking a knee during the national anthem is a sign of disrespect to the flag, the nation, the anthem, or veterans of service, dead, alive, or still serving is simply a blatant lie. And what a howler of a lie it is. “Bending a knee” is universally considered a sign of respect and/or submission to gods, monarchs, religious leaders, fallen comrades, meaningful symbols, what-have-you. It is insane to suggest otherwise. It should go without saying that the people who are doing it have clearly stated they are doing it to symbolically protest police violence and racism. If there were no police violence and racism in this country, one might wonder. But there is. They have never said a word against the flag, the anthem, or service members. It is a disgrace that some monsters are trying to twist this humble act into something it isn’t at all. You know what’s unpatriotic? RACISM.

  • I’m curious why you think protesting police violence and racism is “offensive”. Particularly when people do it in such a humble, respectful, and poignant manner – silently taking a knee during the national anthem. Are you in favor of police violence and racism? Because that’s what this protest is about – protesting police violence and racism.

  • I note that network TV viewership overall is on the downswing. Is this due to boycotts? Or simply that people have so many more choices about their entertainment? Youtube, Hulu, Netflix… I live in San Francisco, and people laugh when they hear my boyfriend and I still pay for cable. We’re considered “old school”, in a market that is famous for being the first to abandon dated paradigms and adopt new technologies. Indeed, we’re quite recherché in that that we still like football.

  • “Are you in favor or police violence and racism?” Statements like this are a perfect example of why this protest is so grossly misguided.

    If you have to tell others what your protest is about you’ve failed. Moreover, CK took a “humble, respectful, and poignant” knee only after first sitting during the anthem and the backlash he received for doing so. He ‘protested’ the racist violent cops by wearing the pigs dressed as cops socks so ‘respectful’ hasn’t been what’s come to mind…no.

    If you read what I said above you realize my argument has been about whether or not this is an employment issue, not the purpose of the protest.

    I served the country in uniform, the flag and anthem are sacred to me and I suspect the mixed response to the protest seems to suggest they are sacred to a good chunk of the country as well.

    In the future, if you want people to take your position seriously don’t use pejorative statements to try to make your point. If someone doesn’t support a woman for President it doesn’t mean they’re misogynist. If they favor strong borders and want our immigration laws enforced, it doesn’t mean they’re xenophobes. If they want their daughters to be able to go to their school and know that all the girls in the locker room are in fact physical girls, it doesn’t mean they’re homophobes. Finally, if one happens to look at the statistics regarding police violence, particularly when events like Michael Brown are used as examples of such and they find fault in the premise, those people aren’t racist.

    Racism exists, there are bad cops out there, but I don’t believe that its a systemic issue worthy of disrespecting the country that the flag and anthem represent.

  • “From a Catholic perspective, the controversy over kneeling during the national anthem is strange. Many people, like President Trump, are criticizing players for kneeling because they say it shows disrespect. For Catholics, however, kneeling during liturgy is a sign of respect. In fact, kneeling before the American flag might be considered idolatrous.”

    I’ve spent several decades in the Episcopal Church, and the churches I’ve attended have both knelt and stood during the liturgy. I can see it both ways–kneeling as a sign of humility and contrition, and standing up for the liturgy to claim one’s status as a fully forgiven and restored Child of God.

    I can’t see how this kneeling-in-church issue relates at all to those–quite unwise, in my opinion–NFL players who refuse to kneel during our national anthem, because they have a political beef about racial politics, etc. Most of those players make several million dollars, so they need to show up for work ready to earn a PART of their pay, just as highly paid C-suite occupants of large corporations.

    We’ve yet to hear in the media, that any of these very-fortunate individuals have knelt on the sidewalk in front of their buildings, to try and register their gripe with the public about a political decision that wasn’t in their favor.

    To me, these are examples of equally stupid and obnoxious adult behavior!

  • Well, Sgt. J.C. Samuelson, I REFUSE to deal with this stupid matter! I’m also an AF veteran who swore an oath to defend our Constitution, so the way some of our fellow countrymen disrespect our flag is most definitely a big issues with me–and should be one with you as well!

    So maybe YOU should deal?!

  • “Racism exists, there are bad cops out there, but I don’t believe that
    its a systemic issue worthy of disrespecting the country that the flag
    and anthem represent.”

    And that’s where your problem lies. No one ever said they are deliberately “disrespecting the country or the flag” by taking a knee. This is a false, twisted, and frankly sick narrative. My cousin, aside from being an ordinary veteran of war won almost every flying medal it was possible to win and is buried in Arlington. My uncle was a decorated New York City police officer. Both of those men are worthy of the greatest respect, by everyone, not just me because I am fortunate enough to be related to them. Both of them hated racism, as do I. You do not get to twist a protest about racism into disrespect for anything they fought for.

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