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Opinion: Simone Biles, Uncle Screwtape, and the elite praise of “radical courage”

As Chesterton observed long ago, “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” – and mad virtues are far more dangerous than vices.

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles competing in the women's individual all-around final during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 11, 2016. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s senior devil reminds his protégé that every age and every culture has its characteristic vices and virtues. It is the devil’s job to confuse men as to what those virtues actually are:

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.

If the devils are successful, humans allow their real vices to roam about unchecked – and turn their natural virtues into monstrously swollen parodies of themselves. Thus “Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentalism, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism” – and the devil feasts.

Screwtape’s old counsel came to my mind as I observed national media coverage of Simone Biles’s abrupt withdrawal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Miss Biles, as most readers are probably aware, is widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of her generation (some would say, of all time) and was arguably the face of the US Olympic team entering the Games. After posting the highest individual score in the qualifying round, Miss Biles withdrew from competition after her first event in the women’s team finals – shocking the world and leaving her teammates in an unenviable position. Lacking their most skilled gymnast and forced to compete in events for which they had not fully prepared, the remaining American gymnasts – heavily favored going into the games – finished a disappointing but respectable second. In a post-event press conference, Miss Biles revealed that she had withdrawn from the competition for the sake of her mental health – not, as initially supposed, because of injury.

It is not the purpose of this column to say whether Miss Biles’s decision was right or wrong, and still less to praise or to blame her for it. To render judgment would require knowledge about the severity of the crisis she faced, the dangers inherent in Olympic gymnastics competition, and the impact of her decision on her teammates – knowledge I do not pretend to have. My concern is rather with how the national media have interpreted her decision. A few right-wing critics notwithstanding, the dominant note was not merely understanding for the difficult decision that Biles made, but outright celebration of it; anyone who questioned or criticized the withdrawal was made the subject of immediate vituperation. Thus The Week declared that Miss Biles’s exit was “more impressive than winning”; the New Yorker praised her for her “radical courage”; according to the Athletic, she showed us “the most human meaning of courage.”

There have been some dissenting voices. Wesley Yang noted that we are witnessing a “bourgeois moral revolution” that substitutes “new political propositions, new moral premises, and new psychological underpinnings” for the old, universal ones, and to an extent he’s right: it’s difficult to imagine another age that would characterize quitting in the middle of a team Olympic competition as courage.

But a significant part of me wonders just how new this revolution is: it seems rather a repetition of Screwtape’s old game. It is, of course, good for a culture to be aware of mental illness, and to recognize that mental health is – like physical health – a gift from God. We are its stewards, not its absolute possessors; as such, we must cultivate it as best we can, but also accept that He can withdraw it when He will. So, yes: mental health is a real concern. But is our culture in any danger whatsoever of forgetting this? Mental health is our obsession, and (perhaps not coincidentally) recent years have witnessed an alarming rise in mental illness – especially among the young.

In the face of this, we need resilience, fortitude, courage, and the habits of life that make these virtues possible; what we in fact possess is a smothering and suffocating sentimentality. And so, following good Uncle Screwtape to the letter, our ruling classes champion unbounded compassion, toleration, and accommodation – above all towards those who can be labelled ‘victims.’ This ideology poses certain immediate dangers to the Republic – as when the military drops combat readiness in favor of Critical Theory or the CIA advertises and celebrates employees with generalized anxiety disorder.

But it also signals a wider spiritual crisis: as Chesterton observed long ago, “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” – and mad virtues are far more dangerous than vices.

As René Girard observed in I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, the post-Christian world has gone particularly mad on the principle of compassion. Pushed to the extreme, these such compassion can become nothing less than the spirit of Antichrist, who “boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver.” Under the reign of the Antichrist, compassion is paganized, all is permitted, and simple adherence to the moral law is perceived as an act of violence and oppression.

Unless and until we can correct this tendency, our culture will remain trapped in a nightmare world of Orwellian absurdity, one in which freedom is slavery, war is peace, and the love of Christ a repressive hatred.

It might be objected that I am reading far too much into a young woman’s decision not to compete in tumbling. Maybe I am. But I do not believe this is the case. Rightly or wrongly, great moments in Olympics history have always resonated in the world of international politics. Jesse Owens’s triumph over the Aryan supermen in Berlin in 1936, the Miracle on Ice of 1980, and the cheerful dominance of the 1992 Dream Team all served as heralds of new things to come; so too did the rapid Chinese ascendancy in the Beijing games in 2008. I cannot shake the feeling that history may view Miss Biles’s exit from the games – and, still more, elite response to it – in a similar way.

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About Ben Reinhard 5 Articles
Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.


  1. You are reading too much into this.

    Since no one knows what’s really going on, the only charitable response is to affirm her decision and move on with your life. To do otherwise is to pass judgement on a situation none of us knows anything about. I wish her well!

    • Dr. Reinhard was explicitly NOT assessing Simone Biles, or her judgement, in any way. His analysis was of the commentary about it, and what that says about our current culture.

    • I agree with Charles that the “twisties” are very relevant to this discussion, and the article above would present a better-rounded picture if this were taken into consideration. I am not a gymnast, but reading about how Simone mentioned she was suffering from the “twisties,” a brain block where the gymnast’s mind and body go out of sync, making the gymnast lose control, creates a potentially deadly situation. Given that she was dealing with the “twisties,” she had to be brave enough to choose her own safety over competing. It is different than in a lot of other sports, where competing while your mind and body are out of sync means losing, but no deadly consequences. In gymnastics, it appears that if your mind and body are out of sync, a small mistake can create life-altering or deadly injuries.

      It is important to keep in mind that reading about the history of gymnastics in the USA and other countries, athletes have often faced great pressure to compete, even in situations where they were risking serious injury or worse. They were not allowed to listen to their body’s needs. Given the background of the sport, it did take courage for Simon Biles to put her own safety first and step back. It appears that this was more than just an athlete not wanting to lose or look bad with a low score.

      • Dominique Moceanu, who was part of the American gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, has posted her support for Biles, showing of video of herself landing on her head on the beam during competition.
        ‘”I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall,” she tweeted on July 28. “I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later.”‘ She said she never felt she had a say in her own health.

        Even the floor exercises can be dangerous. Elena Mukhina broke her neck and was a quadriplegic for the rest of her life when she landed wrong.

  2. #1. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, in our current cultural climate that isn’t politicized or viewed through the prism of mere politics. Why, even the USCCB bishops cannot produce a teaching document on the Eucharist that avoids the crassness of political considerations.
    #2. I for one have never succumbed to the cultic worship of athletes. I could care less about LeBron whatshisname or whether Cleveland’s baseball team goes by the name of First Nation people (heretofore known as Indians). Sports like just about everything else these days has gone mad.

  3. “Lacking their most skilled gymnast”

    But at that point, was she their most skilled gymnast? If, as I understand it, said she was shaking in the hours before the competition, had never felt like that going into a competition before, and she was losing her bearings in the air as she twisted and flipped, how good a performance would she have given?

    Maybe you should look on it as an example of humility. She didn’t think she was the be-all and end-all (in spite of plenty of encouragement to do so), she did something that must have been humiliating by withdrawing from the competition. And humility is not something of which we’re suffering from an overabundance.

    It would have been folly and, I think, immoral to put herself deliberately in danger of suffering severe injury (like a broken neck or broken limbs) just in order to win a medal, which when it comes down to it is all this is.

    The national media are, by and large, idiots.

    • People will criticize the national media, rightly, but they never seem to label (most of) the national media correctly — the national media are Democrats, and most everything they write is designed to advance the Democrat political agenda. Once you understand that, you understand (most of) the national media.

  4. She’s also a practicing Catholic who is quite open about her faith and trust in God.

    And yes, she did show great courage. Imagine the pressure the she must have been under to continue? Not only that, she has to contend with the ill-informed comments and judgements of people who know nothing about her or her situation.

    It’s good people (and the media) are supporting her. What does the author offer as an alternative? Banishment? Public shaming?

    I’m sorry, but the more I think about this article, the more I think it’s inaccurate and uncharitable. Essentially the author is using this young woman to make some sort of larger point about society or something.

    She seems like a hard working, conscientious and dedicated athlete who is also a sister in Christ. Maybe pray for her instead of dumping on her in public.

    PS: BTW you don’t get to where she is in life without “ resilience, fortitude, courage, and the habits of life that make these virtues possible.”

  5. “It might be objected that I am reading far too much into a young woman’s decision not to compete in tumbling.” Regardless, the less attention given her or the Olympics, the better. It’s like weighing on on Britney, Jamie Lynn, or Harry. It’s all Vanity Fair.

  6. The news media and social media are ruining our lives, and we are letting them do it…so who’s to blame? Let us pray for an answer.

  7. Gymnastics? Yawn.

    That being said, it’s great if, as one of the posters stated above, this girl is a practicing Catholic, especially if she knows what “practicing” means.

    But let’s say the “quiet” part out loud: She’s only receiving support and accolades because she’s…wait for it…black! You know BLM, underprivileged, and all that stuff. All white people are bad and all black people are angels, right?

    The pro-BLM media is just virtue-signaling, as always, and what they say means nothing. Which brings me back to my first point: Gymanstics. Yawn.

    • Since you do not appear to have the grace or decency to be ashamed and embarrassed for writing something so bigoted and ridiculous, I am ashamed and embarrassed on your behalf that anyone would post such a thing on this site.

    • James Madison:

      Your comment is ignorant and uncharitable. You couldn’t be more wrong.

      People are focusing on her because she’s:

      a) a human being with a compelling and inspiring story
      b) she showed great personal courage
      c) she’s objectively one of the best athletes in the history of her sport.

      The fact that YOU focused on her race speaks volumes about your preoccupations.

  8. The author clearly stated that he was not judging her; but, rather, the media’s reaction to and characterization of Ms. Biles’s behavior. The media’s meta-commentary is troublesome. We keep allowing the media, not only to critique culture, but to determine culture. Where are we in all this?

    • Thank you, Patricia, for that correction. I was myself wondering how these comments got so far afield of the article’s argument. As has been noticed, none of us know from the inside what brought this on and criticism is unwarranted. However, the gushing over her courage, etc. is nauseatingly gut wrenching.

    • However, in criticizing the media for praising her he is proceeding on the assumption that her withdrawal from the competition was blameworthy and not praiseworthy. Therefore, discussing whether Biles should be praised or blamed is relevant.

      • Leslie, being a practical person the author said he didn’t have enough information to make a moral evaluation of her action. He instead commented on the responses of the media and other onlookers, which seemed to interest him more. Your response is to attack him for that, since he hasn’t shown the obligatory compassion. I get a really funny image of you twisting into improbable positions trying to bow to Simone, turn your nose up at the author, and pat yourself on the back at the same time. Dr. Seuss comes to mind.

        • No, my point is that one can criticize the media response (praising Biles) only if she is deserving of blame rather than praise. So saying “It is not the purpose of this column to say whether Miss Biles’s decision was right or wrong, and still less to praise or to blame her for it,” and then criticizing the media for praising her, is in fact saying whether Biles’ decision is right or wrong – it is saying that her decision was wrong. So he contradicts himself in the article, and that is what I was pointing out. You’ve a fairly odd definition of “attack” if you consider pointing out flaws in an article to be an attack on an author.

          Suppose that Biles, knowing that she was unable to perform properly, had gone on to do her routine, lost her bearings, broken her neck and been paralyzed (as happened to, for example, Jacoby Miles). Would the author then say he’s not writing about whether her decision was right or not but then criticize any media that criticized her for going on when she knew she was putting herself in danger? If so, he would be praising her actions.

          I did not discuss “obligatory compassion,” nor did I ask anyone to have compassion on Biles. It’s not compassion to think that not putting one’s life at risk out of pride just to win a sports medal is not worthy of blame. There is a vast difference between that and risking one’s life to save others, for example.

          “The twisties” may be a mental problem, or, who knows, maybe it has a physical cause that isn’t known yet – the way peptic ulcers and gastritis used to be believed to be caused by stress, until scientists figured out it was actually helibacter pylori. I wonder if the author’s opinion would change if the cause of Biles’ withdrawal from competition had been physical rather than mental.

          “Dr. Seuss comes to mind.”

          Mind? You? Unlikely.

  9. What a monumental waste of time! Why in the world would Catholic World Report post an article like this? Of all the things to write about, of all the articles that could have been published, I have a hard time believing that this was the best available at the time. Sheeeesh! Life is too short for this nonsense. Let’s not turn into a bunch of “know it all” cranks. That’s why I can’t read Crisis anymore.

  10. Yes, the author was trying to make a larger point and barely spoke about the gymnast. Regarding the gymnast, I believe the media contributed to her need to withdraw. During the trials, she was closely and continuously followed by a cameraman who captured every emotion. In addition to the twisties, I imagine the scrutiny was more than a 24 yo woman could bear.

  11. I do not fault Ms. Biles. I fault the media. Although this young woman is a great athlete, the media actually undermined her and by doing so…the entire team.. with an overblown laser focused worship of her. This extreme pressure most likely added to the built-in pressure to perform to perfection that Olympic athletes face and in her case she was already competing against herself to outdo her own record. The media undermined her ability to perform as she was trained to perform. The other athletes stepped up and they let their lights shine. When will the media learn to stop worshiping idols? I hope Ms. Biles finds peace and builds a future that will help young, hopeful athletes to become better. She has experience and this disappointing end to her career may actually be something she can study and help others in competitive fields avoid. I wish her well.

  12. It’s amazing how some can read an article then ignore the main point. It was -not- a criticism of Miss Biles. The reactive responses reveal how they have fallen into the very trap described in the article.

    Now, to address the elephant in the room. This situation really has little to do with the current mental health zeitgeist. The media’s weeks (months?) of build-up about what is expected from the young athlete put unbearable pressure on her. Remember back in the day how critical they were of the countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ when it was revealed how unrelenting was the pressure placed upon their young athletes to win in the interest of National Pride. Perhaps that’s the nature of socialists, then and now.
    Redirect your vitriol toward the ones who had the lions share of responsibility for Miss Biles situation. Don’t saddle her with a convenient diagnosis.

  13. If you have watched a video of Simone Biles perform you would understand that she executes the near impossible. Any loss of concentration could result in paralysis or death.
    When I was diagnosed with osteoporosis, I gave up horseback riding. It wasn’t cowardice; it was common sense.
    Ms Biles showed great courage by withdrawing. Her teammates competed well. Common sense. Maybe Uncle Screwtape would have been delighted to see her soldier on and fail horribly.

  14. Before she started feeling symptoms, did Simone Biles take one of the covid vaccines, all of which are highly dangerous? If she did, could that have been the cause of her difficulties?

    • I was wondering whether the twisters might have a physical cause – even a tiny undetectable inner ear problem I would think could have catastrophic effects.

  15. I think the author ‘read’ into Ms Biles’ action simply what he saw as a reflection of the current bizarre ‘reality’ we’re confronted with daily. Something very similar must have been on the mind of Voltaire when he opined his famous quote about belief in absurdities leading to the commission of atrocities. It was true in the 18th century and my ‘read’ is that it’s becoming more probable each day.

  16. I think Simone Biles showed humility and common sense in her decision. If anything, it should increase our understanding of the risks to life and limb that many athletes face. I wish her well. If this is the end of her performance career, I think she has nothing to be ashamed of.

  17. I wanted to take a moment to respond to this opinion column. I was disappointed when I read it for several reasons. First of all I feel your connection of this Olympic incident to the struggles of our culture are poorly connected especially given your confession that you don’t fully know the mind of Simone Biles nor do you understand the complex sport of gymnastics which is very different from other traditional sports. As a 4-time USA gymnastics team member, I can fully understand the courage and humility it must have taken to step down- allowing yourself to be vulnerable and giving an opportunity for a more equipped gymnast at the time to step in. I won’t use this space to try and explain the complex dangers of the sport and the historical problems (with emotional, sexual, and physical abuse involved) that come with a sport that involves intense training of up to 40 hours a week at a very young age. You can go and read about that on your own. What I am mostly disappointed in though is how this impacts the evangelization of our faith. As a student pursuing my master of faith and culture at a Catholic University, I understand your concern for our culture, but I feel the aggressive tone you use impedes fruitful dialogue and your lack of understanding of the sport and poor connection interferes with your message. Your article creates just as much harm as the media you are attacking.

  18. She shouldn’t be competing in gymnastics. The attire worn is very immodest, and – for this particular sport – it couldn’t be any different. It could be the case that the same principle might hold for men for this sport. No human should wear clothes that are very tight.

    Also, the picture is slightly immodest and should be changed. Granted it could have been much worse. I believe that a big – and hidden – purpose of the Olympics is scandal with regards to men.

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