The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Why the whip?

The news that Pope John Paul evidently engaged in self-mortification — whipping himself as a form of penance — has sparked some curiosity about this ancient practice.

The BBC has some background:

Flagellation is the beating or whipping of the skin, most often on the back, and often drawing blood, as a bodily penance to show remorse for sin.

It was a widespread practice in some parts of the Catholic ministry up to the 1960s but is uncommon today, says Professor Michael Walsh, a Catholic historian.


Flagellation is acted out for symbolic purposes during penitential processions during Lent’s Holy Week in Mediterranean countries, he says, as a reminder that Jesus Christ was whipped before the Crucifixion.

But in some countries like the Philippines, this re-enactment of the suffering of Jesus Christ – called the Passion play – can take a more extreme form and can draw blood.

For others self-flagellation is a more private expression of faith.

It is thought to have come to prominence in Western Europe in medieval times around 600 to 800 AD as an extreme version of bodily penance, says Professor Lewis Ayres, a Catholic theologian at Durham University.

Early Christians believed that the notion of bodily penance allowed control of the body and emotions in order to focus more fully on worshipping God.


The practice continued in what Mr Ayres calls “the more conservative Catholic orders” well into the 20th Century and is still probably practised by a “tiny minority” today.

There’s more at the link. You can also find a more detailed analysis at the Catholic Encyclopedia (courtesy New Advent).

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posted November 24, 2009 at 8:56 am

Self-flagellation is an unimaginative spirituality, with more than a hint of obsession/compulsion/addiction hovering about it.
Life presents itself with any number of opportunities to practice self-denial. It’s curious that abuse of a body entrusted to one’s stewardship would somehow supercede actions that develop humility of mind and soul–aspects that we will take with us to eternal life.
“Early Christians believed that the notion of bodily penance allowed control of the body and emotions in order to focus more fully on worshipping God.”
Fasting. Prayer. Sacrificing time and material goods to serve others. There are a lot of small humble things one can do to encourage, influence, and lead others. Private whipping is just … weird.

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posted November 24, 2009 at 11:20 am

Self-flagellation, like other forms of penance and private prayer for that matter, are greatly conditioned by one’s culture and era. While once upon a time such acts of bodily infliction were greeted with awe and drew people to the Faith,I believe most people of our time and culture would have the opposite reaction. Bottom line: penance is a requirement of the Christian life but how it is engaged in and expressed varies.
Another thing to keep in mind, and I am a HUGE devotee of JPII, is that the saints are not infallible in their prayer, penance or writings (except in this case magisterial declarations excepted). I thik this is why the Church tells us to learn from the FAITH of the saints and not mimic their particular lifestyles (which, again, change and vary according to time and place).
On a side note but definitely related…I think this is why Opus Dei has gotten such bad press in our times. I am NOT a member (and not even a fan, but they are Church-approved so let those who are drawn to it go for it)but I have a relative and a couple of acquaintances who are members. Seems to me that OD’s tendency to retain a 1930’s Spanish spiritual outlook (which can include self-flagellation, a heavy emphasis on gender-separation, and a Spanish Civil War era attitude of secrecy for safety’s sake)proves the point of contemporary atittudes toward these things. This may also be why JPII was an OD promoter.

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jen ambrose

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:08 pm

I have friends that train for distance road races and marathons. They pound away, rain or shine, to improve their speed. They talk about the physical pains associated with their training, show off their black-and-blue toes as badges of honor. They willingly submit to pain to achieve their fitness goals.
My father recently had surgery on his knees. Several times a week he is at the rehab center putting himself through painful exercised to build the strength back in his legs.
I am a huge NFL fan. Any given Sunday I watch grown men withstand potentially crippling acts of violence for their own financial gain and my entertainment.
Society at large does not call any of these crazy. We even find some instances of these people working through what really amounts to self-inflicted pain admirable. We understand physical pain endured for physical goals.
We refuse to understand physical pain endured solely for spritual goals. We fail to see how suffering, even self-inflicted, can be redemptive.
If JPII did pursue mortification as a penitential act, he most likely did under some spiritual guidance, which one in OD would as well.
Oh, and I’m very not OD.

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posted November 24, 2009 at 1:17 pm

St John Neumann, the 4th bishop of Philadelphia, did the same thing. There’s a church at 5th & Girard in Philly that contains a memorial to him, including some of his personal belongings. Among them is a flagrum-like device labeled “Implement of Mortification.”

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posted November 24, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Some of the holiest people I know use the discipline. I don’t think it’s for everyone, and I don’t think it’s right to use it without the consent of one’s spiritual director. But, apart from these qualifications, what is the problem? The practice dates back over a millennium, and includes many very holy saints as devotees.
For the record, I am not fortunate enough to be a member of Opus Dei, though I have been helped by their spiritual guidance. Furthermore, I’m not an uneducated nutcase. I’m a professor at a major university. I think modern Americans need to avoid applying secular, protestantized standards to the analysis of spiritual practices that have aided the development of Saints for over one thousand years. There is no need to apologize for our late Pope’s behavior. The tradition he participated in is a deep part of the Catholic tradition, and if we deny that fact it is hard to make sense of the behavior of some of our greatest saints.

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J. V. Foti

posted November 24, 2009 at 2:54 pm

As I understand the canon law, one ‘may not raise a welp or may NOT draw blood’!

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Charles Cosimano

posted November 25, 2009 at 12:20 am

The real question, of course, was whether or not his safeword was in Latin or Polish.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 12:35 am

Another devotee of the discipline: Bishop Oscar Romero.
I remember when I was dating a lovely young lady in college, we visited, with her parents, St. Peter’s, the Dominican Church in downtown Memphis and the oldest in the River City. The associate priest, a good friend, showed us an example of a whip and said the priests and seminarians used to whip themselves whenever they had a lustful thought. I whispered in my girlfriend’s mother’s ear, “There’d be nothin’ left of me!”

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posted November 25, 2009 at 5:33 pm

What about Jesus – didn’t he take the ‘whipping’ for us? It is only through Jesus that we can come into a relationship with Christ.. not with our own works and our own ‘discipline’, but through Jesus..

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Ken Stoll

posted November 25, 2009 at 7:47 pm

it’s one thing to have people flog or persecute you because of your faith, it’s altogether a different thing to try and punish yourself for the sins that Jesus took upon himself in your place so you don’t have to (as if you could!). Your post reminds me of why a man like Martin Luther took the stand he did.

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Your Name

posted November 26, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Unfortunately there are still a minority of faithful (mostly religious in stricter orders) that follow this apparently erroneous practice. It is mostly due to historical pressures often gathered from exagerated hagiography coupled with a desire to increase in fervour. I wonder if it is more times than not a distraction to “the more important things” that Christ speaks of. Penance is an important aspect of our faith and should never be neglected, but should we make a distinction between passive mortification (such as fasting, abstinence, etc.) and direct imposition (such as whipping and inflicting on oneself or another bodily harm) so as to condemn the latter and afirm the former? With the theological focus having switched from “the evil flesh” to understanding the beauty and sanctity of the body, is it not now a good time to review some of these ancient tarnishes that still prevail?

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