John Paul II's Penitential Practices, and
There was a time, before the Second Vatican Council prompted religious congregations to return to the charisms of their founders, when practices of self-abnegation including self-flagellation were de rigueur in some communities. Some orders, in fact, practiced self-flagellation in a communitarian setting. A Redemptorist priest I once knew described to me how his community would gather on designated evenings in a dark hallway, where they’d recite the penitential psalms while whipping their bare backs. They also wore cilices, little devices for self-torture with sharp points, which are tied tightly around one’s thigh to induce pain when one moves.
These practices—in particular, the enforced, institutionalized, all-together-now mortification of the flesh in a communitarian setting—tended to go by the wayside in religious life with Vatican II. They did so for a good reason: they ultimately had little to do with what being a nun, priest, or brother was really all about. They had little to do with the charisms and missions of religious communities, with the calling of a community to tend to the sick, live among the poor, teach, provide shelter for the homeless, assist immigrants, etc.
But though Vatican II’s ressourcement—its movement of return to the biblical and patristic sources of theology and spirituality—pointed us away from practices such as self-flagellation, sleeping on the floor, wearing hair shirts or cilices, we now learn that Pope John Paul II routinely practiced self-whipping and spending the night on the floor with his arms extended in the shape of the cross. And we’re being told by those promoting the cause of his sainthood that these practices provide capstone proof of his extraordinary holiness.
The claim that John Paul II practiced self-flagellation and other out-of-the-ordinary penitential practices is made in a new book promoting the cause of his canonization, entitled Why He’s a Saint. At its launch earlier this week, the promoter of the cause of JPII’s sanctity, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, noted that the book’s claims rely on the testimony of more than a hundred people who knew John Paul. The book indicates that Karol Wojtyla was already engaging in these practices prior to becoming pope, and continued them throughout his papacy.
According to Msgr. Oder, Wojtyla/John Paul kept a belt hanging in his closet, which he designated for the special purpose of whipping himself. Oder also notes that John Paul II practiced self-mortification, in particular, before ordaining bishops and priests.
These disclosures, which are apparently intended to silence anyone expressing doubt about the extraordinary sanctity of the late pope (and which are already being used to that effect [and see here]), speak to one of the most noteworthy and ambiguous developments in Catholicism at the end of the 20th century, one out of whose effects Catholics still live. With Vatican II, Catholic bishops worldwide, in union with Pope John XXIII, discerned the Spirit calling the church to return to its biblical and patristic roots in order to strengthen its ability to interact creatively with a rapidly changing postmodern culture.
Vatican II Context of Critique of Practices of Self-Mortification
And at precisely the moment in which the worldwide church was hearing the Spirit’s call to retrieve biblical and patristic notions of the church that had been lost sight of in the period of the church’s reaction to the Reformation and the rise of modernity, John Paul II and his chief theological advisor, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), began a counter-move from the center of the church. A backwards move countering Vatican II’s retrieval of lost aspects of the tradition in order to strengthen the church in its encounter with postmodernity; a move that in key respects not only stopped the momentum created by Vatican II, but turned the clock back on what that council sought to effect.
The restorationist agenda of John Paul II and Ratzinger centers on retrieving medieval models of church polity that revolve around the exalted status of ordained men—a status that sets clergy apart from the rest of the church. Whereas Vatican II had sought to reassert the ancient (and deeply biblical) notion that the Spirit resides in all the people of God, and had encouraged collegial governance in which bishops would respond more freely to the needs of local churches that they know better than Rome does, John Paul II and Ratzinger wished to move the church back to a hierarchical, top-down, Rome-centered model of church. A model in which being ordained sets one decisively apart from the rest of the people of God—in which being ordained gives one a status above the rest of the people of God.
And so the self-flagellation and sleeping on the floor, arms outstretched: just when religious communities began to discard such practices as they returned to the charismatic foundations of their particular institutes, the papacy itself moved in precisely the opposite direction—to retrieve these medieval practices, with their strong connections to a piety that exalts the clerical members of the church while ignoring the way in which laypersons often display extraordinary sanctity in their everyday discipleship in the world.
With Vatican II, the Catholic church made a step forward—a step forward designed to place Catholic ideas and values in fruitful, effective dialogue with the postmodern world. With John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict, the Catholic church has chosen to step decisively backwards—several steps backwards. Back to medieval practices like self-flagellation, and to the claim that such practices are self-evident signs of extraordinary holiness, particularly when performed by a priest and above all a pope.
The Theological Critique of Practices of Extreme Self-Mortification
To appreciate the schizophrenic confusion and stasis that this one-step-forward, two-steps-backward dynamic has produced in the Catholic church, it’s important to look at the theological—the sound theological—reasons why religious communities moved away from self-mortifying practices like scourging oneself or wearing cilices after Vatican II. There’s first a psychological-theological reason, one which accepts the sound theological insight that modern psychological findings can be important in helping people to pursue lives of Christian vocation more effectively in a communal setting.
What some self-mortifying forms of medieval spirituality found unquestionably holy—beating oneself, fasting to extremes, wearing hair shirts and cilices, sleeping on the floor—modern psychology sees with considerable ambiguity. To put the point differently: from the standpoint of modern psychology, the connection between such practices of self-mortification and holiness is not self-evident at all.
There’s first of all the fact that some people may actually enjoy inflicting pain on themselves for psychological reasons that can range from deeply embedded sadomasochistic impulses to a crippling sense of guilt that one seeks to eradicate by punishing oneself. There’s, as well, the fact that some of these practices, when performed in a community setting—e.g., whipping oneself while praying the penitential psalms with members of a community—can have an erotic component that’s perhaps, shall we say, at a remove from the spiritual goal one hopes to achieve through self-flagellation.
And all of this is to say that it’s not self-evident that beating oneself, wearing a cilice, denying oneself sustenance, or sleeping on the floor is holy. Something else has to be present in the life of someone using such means to holiness—something else in the character and behavior of the person performing the practices—to demonstrate that such spiritual practices lead to holiness and not to some other ends.
For Christians, that something else is love: love embodied in one’s relationship with others. Practical compassion is the heart and soul of the Christian life. If penitential practices promote practical compassion in the life of a particular Christian, then it seems they might be considered signs of holiness—or, perhaps better, aids to holiness.
But if they do not promote practical compassion—love enfleshed—then in and of themselves practices of self-mortification are not self-evident signs of sanctity. Sanctity is demonstrated in how a person lives, what she does, whom she affects and how she affects them—not in practices of self-mortification. That is, sanctity is demonstrated in such acts of practical compassion, if the definition of sanctity is rooted in scripture and longstanding Christian tradition about what constitutes the heart and center of the life of discipleship.
I have known some people who practiced pronounced asceticism, whose behavior did not strike me as particularly marked by compassion (though I cannot and would not pretend to look into the heart of another human being and pass judgment on that person’s standing before God). And I’ve known at least one person who, at one point in her life, also engaged in rather extreme practices of self-mortification, who was, in my view, a person of distinct holiness. In both cases, my reactions to these ascetics depended far more on what I observed in their treatment of others than on my awareness that they engaged in self-mortifying asceticism.
And this brings us back to the psychological points I’m pressing here. In the case of several people I’ve known who deny themselves certain kinds of food and drink, who fast excessively, who routinely interrupt their sleep to pray, I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency to authoritarianism that moves in precisely the opposite direction from practical compassion.
There is, I suspect, in the psyches of some people who imagine that they have achieved a kind of self-mastery through extreme asceticism a link between the desire for self-mastery and the desire to master and control others. I have known at least one ascetic, a Benedictine monk who is now abbot of his community, whose spirituality revolves strongly around self-mastering practices of asceticism—and who is, in my view and that of many others who have been on the receiving end of this monk’s punitive behavior, more interested in dominating than loving others.
Again, I cannot and would not dream of pretending I have the right to look into this person’s heart and claim that I know how he stands before God. I suspect he is far holier than I am, by almost any index one might use to judge holiness—including his penchant for denying pleasures to himself.
Still, in observing and working with this monk over a period of time, and in listening to the observations of others who know him well, I cannot help wondering if there is not some strong causal link between his asceticism, with its goal of self-mastery, and his coldness and inhumanity to others. And if that’s the case, then I have to conclude that asceticism may not lead self-evidently to the practical compassion that is, in my understanding, the goal of the life of discipleship. It may lead in precisely the opposite direction, to a desire to extend to others the mastery one believes one has achieved over oneself.
As I also note above, I have known at least one person, a nun, who practiced extreme forms of self-mortification at one point in her life, and who is one of the most outstandingly holy persons I have ever met. I learned of the self-mortifications not from her but from others who knew her, including several other nuns.
At one point in her life, this nun fasted repeatedly until she was weak, and she also slept on the floor, interrupting her sleep several times each night to pray. That is, she engaged in these practices until other sisters in her community found out about them and she was forbidden to continue them—particularly when the nights on the floor led to pneumonia.
And I am open to being convinced that these forms of self-mortification may well have had something to do with this nun’s outstanding holiness. I’m open to being so convinced, because there did sometimes seem to be a direct correlation between the self-mortification and her willingness to spend herself in an admirably self-denying way in service to others.
This nun spent some years as a chaplain in a Catholic university. As a chaplain, she lived in the women’s dorm, among the young women to whom she ministered. And I know from what I observed of her behavior as a chaplain, and what others told me, that she often spent entire nights sitting up with someone who needed to talk to her—that she was always available when someone knocked on her door at any hour of the night, and that she denied herself sleep on many evenings in order to listen to someone’s painful story, encourage someone whose spirits were flagging, help someone through a hard patch.
Everything depends, it seems, on the use to which we put our practices of self-abnegation—on whether those practices tend towards generous, self-giving love or towards some other less desirable ends. Ascetics like Teresa of Avila, who routinely got up before her sisters during the night as they went to the chapel for prayers, so that she could hold a lantern on the stairs and help them make their way in the dark, suggest that self-denial oriented to the service of others can be the means to extraordinary holiness.
But ascetics whose self-mortification rubs away humanity and undermines tenderness of heart: those ascetics can be the bane and not the blessing of a religious community. Everything depends on love.
Everything depends on love, because it’s clear when we root the life of Christian discipleship in the narrative that ultimately norms the behavior of followers of Jesus—the gospels—that Jesus viewed practical compassion as the fulfillment of the whole law. And this is the second theological reason that, in my view, accounts for the turn of most Catholic religious communities away from extreme practices of self-mortification following Vatican II, and towards a retrieval of the charisms of their founders—charisms grounded, without exception, in how those founders heard and responded to the gospels.
Bearing the Cross and Christian Discipleship
One of the primary effects of Vatican II’s return to the sources was to restore to Catholic spirituality—to place front and center for Catholic spirituality once again—the centrality of the gospel story, of the way in which the gospel narratives recount and reflect theologically on the life of Jesus. When the gospels are read with careful attention to the cultural and historical context in which they were produced, it is clear that Jesus was not a world-denying ascetic who viewed the flesh as the enemy of the soul.
He was, instead, a peripatetic Jewish rabbi who proclaimed that in his life and ministry, the promised reign of God was breaking forth in the world. He both preached about what that inbreaking of the reign of God meant, and enacted the message of the inbreaking of the reign of God through symbolic actions. His preaching and his symbolic enactment of his message were an invitation to those who heard his message of good news to respond by joining him as he wandered about teaching, and by emulating his behavior.
And that behavior had a strongly earthy, visceral, embodied component that is central to the message he proclaimed. Jesus touched those he healed. He took their wounded, disfigured bodies into his hands as he worked healing for them.
He invited himself to eat and drink with public sinners, with social outcasts who, in the culture of his day, brought uncleanness on anyone who touched or ate with them. Jesus broke bread with them, and with his apostles, to demonstrate that the good news of God’s imminent presence in the world through the inbreaking reign of God was good news for everyone—for both souls and bodies, for the rich as well as the poor. For the poor, the outcast, the despised and discarded first and foremost.
Because he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus was regarded by his detractors as anything but an ascetic. He was charged with being someone who loved to eat and drink with a profligacy unbecoming a man of God. His movement also included women, who traditionally did not consort with a wandering rabbi since their menstrual cycles made them unclean, a source of uncleanness for any man who touched them.
And because his behavior, which eradicated lines between the rich and the poor, the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the damned, turned upside down the world of those who needed these lines in place in order to consolidate their power at the top of the social hierarchy of his culture, he was crucified. He was put to death on the cross, an instrument of capital punishment reserved for the lowliest of criminals in his society, a punishment designed to demonstrate to other refractory disturbers of the social order the fate they might expect, if they challenged the powers that be.
So there’s the cross in Jesus’s life, the cross, which is central to the gospel narrative, and anyone reflecting on the significance of the path Jesus walked, anyone who seeks to walk on that path, must take the cross into account. Here, too, the attempt (abetted by tools of historical-critical research that became available to theologians in the late 19th and 20th century), to read the gospels in the cultural and historical context in which they were written casts significant new light that has shifted, for many believers, the meaning of carrying one’s cross in emulation of Jesus.
For the medieval piety that cherished practices such as self-flagellation or sleeping on the floor with one’s arms outstretched, self-mortification provides a privileged way of sharing with Jesus in his passion on the cross. Punishing the flesh becomes an important way, for those who share the presuppositions of such piety, of carrying one’s cross in imitation of Christ.
But note that this piety depends on a worldview foreign to the gospels and the Jewish cultural milieu in which they were produced. It depends on a body-soul dualism characteristic of Greek philosophy rather than of Jewish belief—a dualism that the Christian outlook began to incorporate as Christianity spread from its original Jewish cultural base into Graeco-Roman culture. This dualism, which has been deeply influential in Christian thought and spirituality, views the body as an obstacle to the spirit, something to be beaten into submission by those who wish to live authentically spiritual lives.
This dualistic notion of body and soul, with its disdain for the material world, with its exaltation of suffering that beats the flesh into submission so that the spirit may thrive, is far removed from the Jewish cultural milieu in which Christianity was born, and which Jesus reflected as a wandering rabbi whose life became foundational for Christianity. Nor does this body-soul dualism have anything to do with the theology of the cross in the gospels—with the call of Jesus, in the gospel narrative, for his followers to take up their cross and walk with him.
As Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder noted in his ground-breaking 1972 study The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), the gospels do not view the cross as any and every kind of suffering a follower of Jesus may endure. Instead,
[t]he believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost (p. 96).
The gospel narratives’ meditation on the cross and its significance for the Christian life relates bearing the cross to discipleship—to taking up one’s cross and walking after Jesus as a disciple doing what Jesus did, as one who lived within the present world a vision of the world’s possibility never completely incarnated in its current political, cultural, religious, or economic structures:
The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice. . . . The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the politically, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society (p. 129).
Not just any suffering, then, and certainly not physical punishment inflicted on oneself in isolation from the struggle one encounters as a disciple of Jesus to live the values of the gospel in a resistant world: the cross is about discipleship, in the gospels’ telling of Jesus’s life story and their reflection on the significance of that story.
Retrievals of the profound meaning of the story of Jesus’s cross-bearing in recent scripture scholarship such as Yoder’s challenge us to think very differently about the role of suffering in the Christian life, and about the connection of suffering to Christian discipleship. They challenge us to think very differently than our medieval forebears did about practices such as self-flagellation and sleeping on the floor with our arms outstretched.
From the standpoint of the gospels, there is an inbuilt cost, an inbuilt and predictable suffering, when we choose to walk the way that Jesus walked. That suffering arises from our attempt to incarnate the values of the gospel in the world in which we live—through our life in communities of faith and of practice remembering Jesus, and through the ministry of those communities to the larger world.
There is inbuilt asceticism in the Christian life, insofar as we live, hope, work, and put up with one another (and with ourselves) in the communitarian context. With its communal context—its re-membering of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in a communal context, over and over throughout history—there is a world of inbuilt asceticism designed to temper our tendency to selfishness, pride, despair, and other besetting sins.
There is about ascetical practices like self-flagellation, indeed, an extrinsicism that is perhaps easier than the constant hair-shirt quality of seeking to live according to the gospel in a communitarian context with others hearing and responding to the gospel along with oneself. In the struggle to hear and live the gospel communally (and, in the life of discipleship, there is a constant communal context to this struggle), there is a never-ending process of whittling away one’s rough edges, tempering one’s expectations, chastening one’s certainties about what one knows with absolute conviction to be true and right.
And that asceticism—that cross—is even more apparent when members of the faith community seek to embody the values of the gospel in the world through active discipleship: through ministry. Particularly when we choose to place ourselves in solidarity with those for whom daily existence is a constant struggle for survival—when we stand with the millions of the world’s citizens who struggle to find enough to eat each day, to obtain shelter, medicine, education, freedom from oppression—we will find the cross. We will find the cross among the millions of the world’s citizens who would not dream of needing to punish their bodies through self-flagellation as clerics and religious have often done, because merely living in this world and trying to hang onto existence are, in their own way, punishment enough for those citizens.
Competing Narratives about Holiness in 21st-Century Catholicism
This lesson of the embodiment of the cross through a discipleship of solidarity with the wretched of the earth is one that a number of holy witnesses to the gospel gave to the Christian community during the papacy of John Paul II. Because he spoke out in defense of the poor of Central America, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in 1980 by a death squad closely connected to military leaders of El Salvador. He was shot as he stood at the altar celebrating Mass.
In the same year, lay minister Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford were raped and murdered by a military death squad in El Salvador. Their crime was that they lived among and assisted the poorest of the poor in El Salvador. Donovan and Kazel had stood vigil with Archbishop Romero’s body following his assassination.
Romero, Donovan, Kazel, Clarke, and Ford are now venerated by many Catholics who regard these followers of Jesus as icons of holiness in the world today—as saints who show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, bearing the cross, in the postmodern world. Though there have been many voices raised asking that these saints be canonized—including the voices of millions of poor and struggling Catholics in Latin America—John Paul II placed a moratorium of fifty years on any talk about the canonization of Oscar Romero.
By contrast, when John Paul died, a campaign that appears to have been orchestrated began even before his funeral, in St. Peter’s Square, to have him declared a saint immediately with shouts of santo subito! ringing out among those gathered to mourn in the square. And the revelations of this week that John Paul practiced self-flagellation and slept on the floor at night with his arms outstretched are part of that campaign—a political campaign, one has to note, which seeks to place the stamp of canonization on the church-politics of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and on the re-clericalization of the church these two popes have sought.
And so at this point in history, many Catholics find ourselves caught between competing narratives about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world today: between a narrative that seems entirely consistent with what the entire church heard the Spirit saying to us at Vatican II—the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford—and a narrative that seems to be essentially about asserting the power and privilege of clerics in the church—the revelation that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation and other extreme forms of self-abnegation.
It seems almost certain that, from the center of the church, the latter narrative will prevail, while the other continues to exist on the margins of the church. At the same time, it seems almost certain that, for increasing numbers of Catholics, the more compelling narrative of what it means to be a holy follower of Jesus in the world today is the former narrative, and insofar as we who are the church, too (since the church is much more than its clerical elite), remember and celebrate that narrative, it will be carried forward in the memory of the church. And who knows—since such things have happened in the past, when the faithful cling to what they know is central to the gospel story despite the center’s determination to impose another worldview on us—there may come a point in the history of the church when it will be regarded as a far more credible story about holiness than the story of the previous pope’s self-flagellation.
With thanks to Phil Little.