“In his closet, among his vestments, there hung on a clothes hanger a particular kind of belt for pants, which he used as a whip.” —From Why He’s a Saint, by Msgnr. Slawomir Oder
Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, beat himself with a belt in order to bring himself closer to Christian perfection. So says Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Vatican official at the head of the push for John Paul’s canonization. “What makes this saintly?” a layperson might ask. Many would associate whipping with the military penal code, the punishment of slaves, or even sadomasochistic sexual practices. But in spiritual circles, flagellation is a vehicle for disciplining the body while honoring the absolute power of the deity who desires the individual to avoid sins of the flesh.
Violence Toward the Self, Violence Toward Others
While a spiritual practice that involves hurting the body might seem strange to contemporary ears, and even create some suspicion of psychological imbalance, mortification of the flesh has a long history within the Roman Catholic Church. Within its spiritual tradition, acts of depriving, disciplining, and devaluing the body are rife. Catholic philosophy insists that the body be controlled if a human being is to reach spiritual heights: the body is to be dominated by the soul, its superior partner. Of course, this influences how the Church understands sexuality.
The connection of Catholic suspicion of the body and self-flagellation is well illustrated in the case of Peter Damian, an 11th-century bishop who promoted a harsh asceticism. Among his writings is a treatise that praises self-flagellation as an invaluable means toward repressing the body’s impulses. Sexuality was a deep concern for Damian, who believed that sexual acts were a sacrilege; celibacy and a renunciation of the erotic body was the proper road to Christian perfection. Damian’s hyperbolic language against the body and sexuality would meet its apex when he advanced a campaign to weed out priests in monasteries who were practicing same-sex acts. With Damian, we have a church leader with an erotophobic ideology, a belief that sodomites deserve the death penalty, and a personal dedication to the spiritual act of whipping his own body in order to control its sexual drive.
Besides Damian’s call for the death penalty for individuals who practiced same-sex behavior, there are other historical examples of a connection between flagellation and acts of violence against others. In the 13th and 14th centuries, for example, self-whipping was associated with a spiritual sect called the Flagellants who practiced this act in public, shedding their own blood for others to witness. This same group was committed to violent actions against the Jewish people. Eventually, this militaristic group would be condemned as heretical by the Church.
However, flagellation itself has never been condemned. In fact, members of the Church have typically associated it with “saintly” behavior and seen it as admirable.
“Sexuality is a Gift”
Catholic teaching, with its body-soul dualism, places a box around sexuality, allowing for highly limited and very specific sexual forms of expression. In most of its history, the Catholic Church taught that sexual pleasure was not good for the human person. The sexual act was solely meant for the procreation of children and taking pleasure in the act was potentially sinful. As the teaching evolved in the 20th century, the Church finally taught that the sexual act and its associated pleasure could serve as a unifying inspiration for the couple in its bond. But, even so, the sexual act needed to be controlled, connected to the possibility of procreation, and found within the limited circumstance of heterosexual marriage. This is evidenced in the encyclical letter by Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, which outlaws the usage of birth control in any circumstance.
The Catholic Church has attempted to incorporate more positive language about sexuality in more recent history. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II himself states that “sexuality is a gift” which provides the person with an opportunity “to give and receive love” and, thus, find the meaning of life. While more romanticized visions of sexuality are communicated, the limits on sexual expression and experience are unchanged. Sexuality still needs to be controlled or it leads to sin and death.
At the very time that Pope John Paul II was reinforcing the limitations of erotic desire and whipping his own body in order to unite his soul with Christ, the public at large was being introduced to the problem of pedophilia within the American Catholic Church. Perhaps most disturbingly, we learned of the systemic coverups in which bishops reassigned priests, failed to involve the authorities, and looked the other way with full knowledge that sexual assaults were occurring. The pedophilia crisis revealed the lengths which bishops and priests would go to protect an all-male celibate clerical power base.
The pedophilia crisis also demonstrates the implications of the Church’s problem with sexuality found in both ideology and praxis. We need to say plainly that the Catholic Church encourages its male priests to subordinate their sexuality and, in doing so, repress sexual desires. This propagates an unhealthy acceptance of sexuality and a type of sexual immaturity. The sexually immature priests end up expressing sexual desire with other “innocents” who also have not yet explored what it means to be sexual in a healthy and mature manner.
We should not miss the irony that within weeks of hearing of John Paul II’s interest in flagellation, we learned of the depth of the cover-ups of pedophilia that occurred in Ireland and the newly emerging cases in Germany. Indeed, the pedophilia crisis has gone global and word of Pope Benedict’s own personal connection with the cover-ups in Germany show the breadth of the problem.
Promoting the holiness of a man by revering his denunciation of the body is telling. Should we learn from him and subordinate our bodies to our souls? Will this make us perfect in Christ? Or, will it make us perfectly conflicted in our sexuality?