The recent revelation that Pope John Paul II used to whip himself has, to my surprise, not attracted much in the way of ridicule. This is, I think, a healthy sign about our pluralist, open society: We let people do pretty much whatever they like, so long as they’re not hurting anybody else — so who are we to criticize somebody for an unusual religious practice? But there is room for debate on the value of any such practice: How else can we determine whether we should emulate it? Martin Luther had an important insight on this, when he observed that a person would be better off trusting God to determine which particular crosses he should bear. In all human life there is suffering, and – in traditional Christian theology — a loving God will permit only such as will conduce to the eventual good of the believer. (Whether this is true is another question, but it’s close to what Abraham Lincoln was talking about when he quoted the adage that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”) In any case, how can the person in question possibly show greater wisdom than God in choosing particular sufferings for himself?
So I think this Methodist minister writing on Day 1 is generally right: “Such acts of penance are not healthy and wholesome and good for people.” But I say “generally,” not “entirely,” and a further sentence of his shows where, in my view, he goes wrong: “When we lift up unhealthy behavior as a sign of Christian maturity, we do a great disservice to people, especially to whatever impressionable children and youth might fall victim to the message that doing bodily harm to yourself somehow speeds you down the path of spiritual maturity” (emphasis mine). This gets it backward. A typical person who simply starts flogging himself is almost certain not to be on “the path to spiritual maturity”; more likely, such a person has serious emotional problems and should receive counseling from a minister or a mental-health professional. What we have in the case of John Paul II is the reverse: He was a man of great spiritual maturity, as virtually all observers would agree, and he had arrived at a point where he believed physical austerities would be a healthy part of his mystical practice. This is not uncommon in religions with a pronounced mystical tendency; one thinks of the Buddhist monks, for example. To summarize: John Paul II was indeed a holy man, but kids, don’t try this at home.