John Paul II the GreatAccording to a newly-published biography by one of the men investigating the possibility of his canonization, the late Pope John Paul II engaged in the practice of self-flagellation. This biography adds a few other revelations about him, including that he had investigated the possibility of resigning as Pope if it proved necessary, and had even set up a possible mechanism by which he might have done so. Time magazine reports (WebCite cached article):

Book: John Paul II Whipped Himself, Weighed Retiring

A new book by the priest in charge of the Vatican’s official case for Pope John Paul II’s sainthood is packed with fascinating — and, apparently, meticulously verified — revelations. The one that grabbed most of the headlines was the claim that John Paul whipped himself with a belt, an act of corporal penitence designed to draw the flagellator closer to Christ’s suffering, and one that is usually associated with a very distant century, or a Dan Brown novel.

“As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear, John Paul flagellated himself,” writes Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish prelate who collected testimony in his role as “postulator” for the Pope’s canonization. “In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip.”

The Roman Catholic Church has always had a kind of push-me-pull-you relationship with the practice of self-flagellation (or ritually flogging oneself). It has what has periodically been viewed as a scriptural support, e.g. these passages:

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

Self-flagellation, then, is a kind of ritual “killing of the body” or mortification, which is supposed to — at least spiritually — “kill” the physical impulses that interfere with salvation. While self-flagellation goes back to the early history of Christianity (and may have been practiced in pre-Christian times as well), the Roman Catholic Church has not always smiled on the practice. In the 14th century a disparate collection of Catholics, known as the Flagellants, became well-known, and the practice came into vogue. Pope Clement VI, after a brief period of indulging them, officially suppressed the Flagellants.

Since then, the Catholic Church has taken a middle-of-the-road approach to self-flagellation: As long as it’s not too obvious, too public, too brutal, too obsessive, or physically injurious, it’s acceptable for Catholics to engage in the practice. Nevertheless, I find it odd that a Monsignor might view the late Pope’s self-flagellation as evidence of his piety and as supporting his sainthood; the Church’s repression of the Flagellants suggests that Catholicism does not view self-flagellation as being as “holy” a practice as has been suggested.

Another revelation is that John Paul II laid the foundations of a mechanism by which he might have resigned, if needed. For the most part, over the last several centuries, Catholicism has presumed that the Pope is supposed to remain the Pope until death, that resignation is something that’s just not done. Of course, this assumption flies in the face of history, because some Popes have, in fact, resigned; e.g. Gregory XII, whose resignation effectively ended the Great Western Schism. At any rate, Pope John Paul II set up a mechanism that might have gotten around the supposition that Popes cannot resign, as Time explains:

According to the book, John Paul on Feb. 15, 1989 signed a document clearing the way for him to step down if necessary. Five years later, suffering from a growing number of ailments, including the lingering effects of a 1981 assassination attempt, the Pope updated details of the procedure “in the case of infirmity which is presumed incurable, long-lasting and which impedes me from sufficiently carrying out the functions of my apostolic ministry.” He also charged his then doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now known as Pope Benedict XVI — to investigate the implications for the church of having a living “Pope Emeritus” while his successor tried to establish his reign. The vexed question of papal resignation has become increasingly important as a result of modern medicine’s ability to potentially extend a Pontiff’s life long past his ability to effectively run a 1 billion-strong global church.

As it turned out, in spite of his many medical issues, John Paul II ended up never taking advantage of this resignation option.

Ultimately, the late Pope is on track to be beatified later this year, and sometime in the next few years, canonized. I’m not sure how this book makes any kind of compelling case for that, in spite of its title.

Photo credit: Todd Ehlers.

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