The AP reports that a new book authored by the postulator for the cause of John Paul II's sainthood invokes the late pope's practice of self-flagellation as evidence of his pursuit of Christian perfection. In addition, he'd apparently sleep on the floor sometimes, getting up early to mess up his bed so he'd not be discovered. (He brought his self-whipping belt even on vacation, it seems.) I'm something of a cautious fan of moderate ascetical practices, I confess. (Perhaps I should walk the other half of the camino de Santiago de Compostela for my penance...) I know that simple acts of self-denial can--but do not always--yield spiritual good. Fasting in moderation can sharpen the mind, can bring awareness of sustenance as gift, can invite one to a stance of active solidarity with the hungry that begins to fulfill the challenge of Mt. 25. As with any ascetical practice, the end is never the practice in itself, but the deeper resonances within it, like these. On the other hand, afflicting the body in any way immoderately is, in Thomas Aquinas' words, "to offer a sacrifice of stolen goods." (He cites St. Jerome on this point, but apparently incorrectly.) As with any spiritual practice, the difference between fruitful and harmful ascesis lies in self-awareness, good advice from others, and humility, which includes knowing when it's time to stop. I am also always suspicious of ascetical practices required by others, whether that's Church rules or the dictate of superiors. The alert, responsive and well-companioned soul knows when such are called for, and when they're just pointless sacrifice.However, it is difficult for me to imagine any spiritual benefit from beating oneself with a belt. To whip oneself would need more justification than I've ever run across where the traditional literature recommends this, which tends to see the body as needing chastisement for its unruly appetites. (This seems often to be code for sexual appetites. Odd, then that the "remedy" is such a standard act of sexual fetishism. See, e.g., the leather-clad minions of the Folsom St. Fair here in San Francisco. Along the same lines, I wonder how the postulator, or anyone else, found out he was whipping himself. Who was watching him do this??) If the aim is to make oneself more tolerant of pain, well, that's a Stoic goal, not a Christian one. Solidarity with those in pain? Sorry, that doesn't wash either. In fasting you abstain from food and experience hunger--in self-flagellation you are the active inflictor of pain. A virtue ethicist might wonder whether self-flagellation might make one less compassionate, not more so. In sum, I'm not impressed by this, but weirded out, and more skeptical of the man's sanctity. So I wanna see a REAL miracle for his cause. Let's see a severed limb regrow, say, or a sudden burst of bipartisan fervor yield a national health plan that covers everybody.
Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).