How would Pope John Paul II have gone about self-flagellating?

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Jan. 26 2010 8:32 PM

How Would the Pope Self-Flagellate?

Mortification and the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II. Click image to expand.
Pope John Paul II

A new book about Pope John Paul II alleges that the pope engaged in self-flagellation in order to feel closer to God. Does Catholicism teach a proper way to whip yourself?

No. The Catholic Church does not officially sanction self-flagellation. But some Popes have spoken favorably of it, and passages of the New Testament have been interpreted as approving of the practice. "[S]hall not we be moved by God's grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations?" wrote Pope John XXIII in a 1962 encyclical. Some of the earliest references to mortification, as the practice is sometimes called, are in the letters of the apostle Paul, who wrote in the book of Romans, "If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye live through the Spirit to mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." And in Colossians, he wrote: "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature." Devout Catholics have practiced mild self-flagellation for centuries, often with a simple belt but sometimes using the cattailed whip known as a "discipline." Some still do. But the practice has become rare since the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, and it's rarely discussed in public. (In The Da Vinci Code, members of the Catholic sect Opus Dei are portrayed engaging in self-flagellation.)

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Physical self-punishment may be as old as religion itself, but the Christian practice—known as the mortification of the flesh—has its origins in fourth-century Europe. For years, fervent Christians proved their faith through martyrdom. But when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared an end to the persecution of Christians—effectively ending systematic martyrdom—Christians looked for new ways to establish their spiritual cred. Asceticism became popular among monks, who would set off into the desert and fast for days. Other popular forms of self-denial included sleeping on boards, walking on the cold ground, or wearing uncomfortable camel-hair shirts. The practice was rooted in the philosophy of Plato, who posited that one can achieve wisdom only through death.

Many saints practiced mortification. Thomas More wore a hair shirt in the 16th century. St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque hurt herself as a child, at one point carving the name "Jesus" into her chest. St. Pio of Pietrelcina, who lived in the early 20th century, practiced mortification and supposedly exhibited signs of the stigmata. Some Christians have made a great show of self-abuse. The Flagellants were a famous group that in the 13th century began marching around Europe, staging processions that included whipping themselves. The Pope banned the movement in 1261, and later popes cracked down on them as heretics. In the early 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition burned many Flagellants at the stake.

Theologians have offered various justifications for the practice of self-abuse. The most common describes it as an act of penance, or punishment now in order to prevent it later. Others see it as a purification rite. Some scholars offer a neurological explanation, positing that external pain reduces one's self-consciousness and sense of individuality, which can produce a feeling of connection to God.

Christianity isn't the only religion to practice self-flagellation. Many Shia Muslims commemorate the holiday of Ashura, which marks the death of Muhammad's grandson Hussein, by whipping their own backs with bunched knives known as zanjirs. The Hindu festival of Thaipusam includes a ritual known as kavadi in which people pierce their bodies with skewers and hooks. Native American sun dances have sometimes involved piercing and suspension by flesh. Tribal rites of passage in Africa and South America often involve circumcision without anesthetics.

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Explainer thanks Ariel Glucklich and the Rev. Stephen Fields of Georgetown University.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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