The Catholic Church’s Coaching Tree

CS-St. Peter Balcony-Pixabay

In the years of teaching RCIA, one of the more lively sessions concerns the issues of authority between Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition and how we Catholics accept both. A major sticking point for many Protestant catechumens is acknowledging the historical authority of apostolic succession. In turn, there is often a false perception that there is a conflict between Sacred Scripture and that Holy Tradition. Presenting a historical perspective helps by emphasizing that Church beliefs and practices emerged before any written New Testament. However, I am always on the search for other avenues to illustrate that the “Word” is expressed not just in written form but also in Holy Tradition.

Sports Examples Can Help Explore Religion

Sports and athletics can offer us examples and images as aids to exploring religion and provide a multitude of meanings that can be applied to our faith journey. I experienced a recent example from a discussion with a Methodist Bible study teacher and former NFL player and high school coach. We have been friends and co-workers for over 35 years and have had numerous faith discussions over that time period. With both of us having played and coached football in the past (although I did not go beyond the college level) we are in the habit of using sports terminology in our conversations.

Like many Protestants, he has a great love for the Bible and believes that it is the sole and final source for Christian belief and doctrine (Sola Scriptoria). He likes to use the analogy that the Bible is the “playbook” for faith. That is a good comparison, however, there is another analogy within that context and that refers to the coach who develops and uses that playbook. In other words, there is the ultimate coaching authority that comes into play beyond the playbook per se. With that metaphor, the conversation turned to the age-old Protestant/Catholic differences of opinion on the authority of Holy Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Upon reflecting upon that discussion the following struck me as a way to use this example to explore the authority of Holy Tradition, especially apostolic succession.

While having a playbook is a necessary resource, or even having a book on coaching written by a winning coach, nothing can supplant the hands-on experience of running the plays, talking with and discussing strategy with the coach. That is where you really learn the “craft”. In other words, practicing, experiencing, playing and coaching the game is how one develops as a player and coach. The written playbook or coaching “how to” manual is a valuable resource but it requires the day to day experience of playing and working the game to fully grasp what to do in creating the game plan. In turn, the ultimate authority of the coach is required in the team decision making of implementing and altering a game plan.

The NFL Coaching Tree

The NFL coaching profession has numerous “coaching trees”. These are lineages where a given coach learned from a coach who coached under and learned from a previous coach etc.  In turn, there are many head coaches who were assistant coaches under the same head coach. There are many large coaching trees in the NFL and it is estimated that over 50% of today’s NFL coaches can trace back to the Dallas Cowboys Tom Landry, the Cleveland Browns Paul Brown and the San Francisco 49s Bill Walsh. These coaching trees provide a historical “tradition” for playing and coaching the game that goes beyond written playbooks and their influence is still felt on current coaches.

The Catholic Church Coaching Tree

In using this sports analogy, it is possible to draw parallels that there is a coaching tree for the Christian and more specifically Catholic faith. Likewise, the coaching tree concept illustrates the authority of Holy Tradition and the Church.  

Using the NFL team metaphor, God can be perceived as the team owner and General Manager. Everything else refers to Jesus and his “coaching tree”. Not only is Jesus the first head coach but he designed the “game”. The Apostles were his first players in which he gave the deposit of faith. They, in turn, served as assistant coaches and eventually became head coaches (Bishops) spreading the “game” or faith across the known world in the first century. The Apostles developed other disciple/followers or “coaches”. Peter was given the authority by Jesus to be the first Pope and overall Church leader (football league Commissioner) that oversaw the other Apostles who became the first Bishops (head coaches). This process, known as Apostolic succession, was the formal means by which the deposit of faith was passed down from one Bishop to succeeding Bishops (head coach to assistant coaches) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Successive Popes, the Magisterium (Pope and Bishops in communion) passed down that deposit of faith (Holy Tradition) over the centuries to the modern day. Early Church fathers such as Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus and noted theologians such as Thomas Aquinas all served to expand on the deposit of faith (to provide innovative approaches to the game). As time moved on, the Apostles (first coaches) wrote the Gospels and epistles that served as a supportive “playbook” culminating in the 4th century as a codified New Testament defined by the Catholic Church. In that light, history shows that head coaches (Apostles) preceded the playbook (New Testament). An additional supportive “playbook” that was created by the Magisterium was the Catechism of the Catholic Church that provides a more expansive narrative for how to live the Christian life (play the game).

With this analogy, the “coaching authority” of the Church is the direct link to that first Head coach – Jesus. Because of that, there has been an unbroken line (coaching tree) from Peter and the Apostles to the Pope and Bishops today. They provide an authority that in conjunction with Sacred Scripture (the playbook) gives us the needed direction for our faith journey.



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