US Catholic Faith in Real Life

"Self-mortification" and "Saint" John Paul II?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Catholic world is abuzz with a new book about the late Pope John Paul's "heroic sanctity" by the main advocate for his beatification cause. And what makes JPII so special? He used to whip himself with a belt, as have so many saints of the past and a few modern types, including the Opus Dei.

While there is much about the late pope to commend--his travels, his openness to interreligious dialogue, his witness for peace--and some things to criticize--his handling of sex abuse, his centralizing tendencies, and the fact that he stayed on as pope way too long--I don't think self-abuse is something we should be holding up as exemplary.

For too long Christian tradition has denigrated the human body; add to that the desire to imitate Christ, and let's just say Christianity hasn't always been kind to the corporeal. While it makes sense to keep balance in our "appetites," and periods of fasting have long been recommended as a way to keep the spiritual/physical balance. But our long tradition is one of moderation, not privation or starvation, and certainly not pain.

It also seems to me that to imitate in our own bodies the torture of Jesus is to miss the ponit of his Passion. Torture of any human being is a sin, and what the Roman soldiers did to Jesus was evil. God could not and did not will it, any more than God wills anyone's torture. By seeking pain, we imitate not Christ, but those who inflicted abuse against him.

It's unfortunate that in the Middle Ages Christian piety took a strange turn toward punishing, rather than valuing, the human body. But that is no excuse for continuing a mistake, especially in an age in which intrinsic moral evil of torture is once again becoming acceptable. Rather than held up, this kind of Christian piety should be discouraged, if not rejected outright as a violation of the integrity of God's gift of the human body.