Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saints or pain-freaks?


Lately, a great deal of controversy has occurred over the information that has come about concerning Venerable Pope John Paul II's penitential practices and self-mortification. The usual suspects have been mocking this; for example, see two pathetic anti-Catholic examples (one / two). Be forewarned that the second has an absurd, offensive sadomasochistic theme. Elsewhere, the same person claims that the martyrdom of St. Sebastian as depicted in Catholic art "betrays the homoerotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent in major streams of Catholic piety".

Mortification has a long history of use in the Catholic Church, as most people are aware. But is there any biblical justification for such a thing? The answer (as usual) is yes. The most obvious parallel is the common biblical motif of sackcloth

Ezra 9:3-5 (RSV): When I heard this, I rent my garments and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. [4] Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered round me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. [5] And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God,

Jeremiah 41:5 eighty men arrived from Shechem and Shiloh and Sama'ria, with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing cereal offerings and incense to present at the temple of the LORD.

1 Corinthians 9:27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

[cf. NIV, Beck: "beat"; NEB: "bruise"; Williams: "beating and bruising"; Barclay: "batter"; NASB: "buffet"; NRSV: "punish"; NKJV: "discipline"; Wuest: "I beat my body black and blue and make it my abject slave"; Amplified: "I buffet my body -- handle it roughly, discipline it by hardships -- and subdue it"; Goodspeed: "I beat and bruise my body and make it my slave"; Moffatt: "I maul and master my body"]

The Apostle Paul and Ezra were clearly major deranged masochists, just like Venerable John Paul II.

How scandalous (!) that a pope would actually follow biblical models, while Protestants mock same . . . Truth is always stranger than fiction.

It takes a while to untie this tangled knot of errors:

i) One of the standing ironies of Armstrong’s apologetic method is the way he quotes Scripture to “prove” Catholicism. Needless to say, this methodology is self-refuting inasmuch as it presupposes the perspicuity of Scripture.

ii) Dave fails to draw some rudimentary distinctions between what the Bible describes, prescribes, proscribes, and permits.

iii) Apropos (ii), much of Scripture consists of historical narratives. OT history was set in the ANE. As such, the Bible frequently describes ANE customs.

Take the use of sackcloth. This isn’t distinctive to Israel. It was also employed by Israel’s pagan neighbors (e.g. Isa 15:3; Jer 49:3; Ezk 27:31; Jonah 3:5).

As such, there’s nothing inherently holy, much less prescriptive, about the use of sackcloth. At best, this is adiaphorous.

iv) Likewise, as Scripture points, fasting and ritual mourning (i.e. sackcloth) could easily degenerate into mock piety and dead formalism (Isa 58:3-7).

What the hypocrites in Isa 58 fails to appreciate–which God, through the prophet, explains–is that such rituals are, at best, symbolic tokens of what ought to be the corresponding attitude or action. As such, these rituals are nothing in themselves. Rather, they are merely emblematic signs which point to something else. That’s what matters.

v) Given Armstrong’s failure to distinguish between Biblical descriptions and Biblical prescriptions, we should conclude from 2 Kgs 6:30-32 that premeditated murder is sanctified by the preparatory use of sackcloth.

vi) Mourners often engage in irrational or self-destructive behavior. Likewise, supplicants, if left to their own devices, frequently take their “devotions” to harmful extremes.

That’s why the law of Moses expressly and repeatedly forbad self-mutilation and other forms of self-injury or disfigurement (Lev 19:27-28; 21:5; Deut 14:1).

Not surprisingly, grief-stricken Jews sometimes forgot these prohibitions. In the heat of the moment they reverted to the social customs of the day.

But because the Roman Church flagrantly disregards the teaching of Scripture, it ends up codifying pagan perversions. In Catholic spirituality, piety and immorality become indistinguishable.

vii) As for 1 Cor 9:27, this is figurative language. As the Catholic Bible scholar Joseph Fitzmyer explains:

“Despite the images that the two verbs convey, Paul is employing contemporary vivid athletic images that express the self-restraint and discipline necessary to achieve a goal, and these he applies to his apostolic task (See Papathomas, ‘Das agonistische Motiv,’ 240-41, who shows that Paul’s use of such terminology conforms well with the athletic contests of his day and the motivation that inspired them)…Cf. his use of athletic imagery and the goal of life in Phil 3:12-16,” 1 Corinthians (Yale 2008), 374.

In other words, Paul is using sports’ metaphors to illustrate the walk of faith. This has nothing to do with literal self-flagellation or other forms of physical self-mortification.

viii) In addition, Catholic “self-mortification” is grounded in the traditional Catholic misinterpretation of Col 1:24. (For a corrective, see Moo’s recent commentary.)

But, clearly, none of the copy/paste catena of OT quotes that Dave has posted had in mind “filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”–even if, ad arguendo, we were to grant the Catholic appropriation of the Pauline text.

So his appeal to the OT is grossly anachronistic in light of the Catholic dogma which actually underwrites its masochistic brand of self-mortification.


  1. Ezekiel 4:1-8 "And you, O son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and portray upon it a city, even Jerusalem; [2] and put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it round about. [3] And take an iron plate, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. [4] "Then lie upon your left side, and I will lay the punishment of the house of Israel upon you; for the number of the days that you lie upon it, you shall bear their punishment. [5] For I assign to you a number of days, three hundred and ninety days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment; so long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. [6] And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah; forty days I assign you, a day for each year. [7] And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared; and you shall prophesy against the city. [8] And, behold, I will put cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege."

    Luke 2:36-37 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phan'u-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, [37] and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.

    Fasting is also obviously an example of bodily deprivation for a spiritual purpose. See: Ex 34:28 and Deut 9:9 (Moses went forty days without even water); 1 Sam 31:13 (seven days); 2 Sam 1:12; 1 Ki 19:8 (forty days); 1 Chron 10:12 (seven days); 2 Chron 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Neh 1:4; 9:1; Esther 4:3; 4:16 (three days without food and water); 9:31; Ps 69:10 ("humbled my soul with fasting"); Ps 109:24 ("My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt"); Jer 36:9; Dan 6:18; Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15; Zech 7:3, 5; 8:19; Matt 4:2 (Jesus' forty days of fasting in the wilderness); Matt 6:16-18; 9:14-15 (cf. Mk 2:18-20; Lk 5:33-35; 18:12); Lk 7:33 (cf. Matt 11:18; Lk 1:15); Acts 13:2-3; 14:23.

  2. i) Ezk 4:1-8 has nothing to do with sanctification. Moreover, fasting is hardly interchangeable with self-mutilation.

    ii) You also disregard the specific rationale for "self-mortification" in Catholic theology, viz. "heroic," meritorious, supererogatory suffering.

    That's not something you can get from any of your OT spooftexts–not matter how many you copy/paste.

    So, as usual, you engage in a bait-and-switch.

    iii) In the meantime, you also disregard all of the specific arguments in my post. Not that you're ever capable of interacting with somebody's arguments at a serious level.

  3. What, exactly, is the purpose of Roman Catholic self-flagellation? Is it meant as a substitute for God's punishment for sin? You punish yourself, so God doesn't have to?

  4. I have come to mind a couple of verses that point me in the right direction, not towards such pain-freak self indulgences:

    Rom 15:15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God
    Rom 15:16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
    Rom 15:17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.
    Rom 15:18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience--by word and deed,


    2Co 10:4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
    2Co 10:5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
    2Co 10:6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

    What doesn't make any sense to me is this, and especially after these revelations of Pope John Paul 2 and Mother Theresa's penitential practices and self-mortification, how do we find our way here that way?:::>

    Mat 5:48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    God has already declared us unrighteous and in ourself unfit for perfection through any religious practice of works righteousness.

    Oh, I think I get it, for the lucky few, you have to rise to the top and become a Cardinal, get voted Pope by the majority vote of your peers, then after a ceremony you are declared infallible then you live a secretly life of self-flagellation.

    But those who have received the gift of Eternal Life, we get to live the rest of our lives by the Faith once delivered to the Saints!

    Jesus did say:
    Mat 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
    Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
    Mat 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

  5. So, as usual, you engage in a bait-and-switch. . . . you also disregard all of the specific arguments in my post. Not that you're ever capable of interacting with somebody's arguments at a serious level.

    Right. Dream on. Dreams and fantasies and myths are about all you have left in your arsenal. The provisions are gettin' mighty thin.

    I wrote in my paper:

    Hays and his buddies tried to make the argument that the custom of wearing sackcloth was simply a Semitic custom of those times (using the merely "anthropological" approach that liberals are notorious for), or that it was for mourning only, and in no sense prescribed by God. . . . .

    How odd, then, that the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God (as prophets are wont to do), recommends ("prescribes"?) the wearing of sackcloth (Is 32:11). The prophet Jeremiah does the same (Jer 4:8; 6:26). Ahab's use of sackcloth, fasting, etc., is seen by God Himself as evidence of his humility before God (1 Ki 21:27-29), as is the similar behavior of the Ninevites, when they repented (Jonah 3:5-10). Isaiah reports (Is 22:12) that God Himself prescribed sackcloth and other similar customs: "In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called to . . . baldness and girding with sackcloth."

    Likewise, Jeremiah has God proclaiming, "Gird yourselves with sackcloth" (Jer 49:3). The prophet Joel brings the following "word of the LORD" (Joel 1:1): "Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth . . . Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests" (Joel 1:8, 13). The prophet Amos quotes God in the same vein: "I will bring sackcloth upon all loins" (Amos 8:10). This all sounds awful prescriptive to me (not just permissive).

    Likewise, it is God (not mere Babylonian or Assyrian or Persian custom) Who commands the prophet Ezekiel to lay on his left side for 390 days, so as to "bear" the "punishment" of Israel (Ezek 4:4-5), and then on his right side for another 40 days, to "bear the punishment" of Judah (Ezek 4:6). Then God (masochist and "pain-freak" that He is) tells him: "I will put cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other" (Ezek 4:8). I guess that God needs to attend the Steve Hays School of Elementary Spirituality to get up to speed and learn that all these terrible things aren't necessary at all.

    Even much later, at the outset of the New Covenant, our Lord casually refers to sackcloth in association with repentance, with no hint of condemnation (Matt 11:21; Lk 10:13). Jesus knew the Old Testament well. He knew that the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel had all prescribed and condoned the practice, as had God Himself, as reported by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos. Any Jew worth his salt knew this. It is only anti-Catholic Bible students today who can't see the obvious.

    John the Baptist continues wearing a hair shirt, in the tradition of the prophets (Matt 3:4; Mk 1:6).

    Finally, St. John reports in inspired Scripture that God says in a period near the end of the age: "I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth" (Rev 11:3). How utterly strange that God would again prescribe an ancient custom several thousand years after it began. Could it be that (as usual) the anti-Catholics just don't get it? That certainly could be the case!

    It's gettin' awful near to the time where my comments will have to start being deleted because I am talking about "myself" too much again (the "reason" our host gave for his last round of deleting and censorship of opposing positions). Can't be too careful! ROFLOL

  6. Dave

    without equivocation, answer this simple question:

    Do you believe the Pope is right now infallible?


    “Hays and his buddies tried to make the argument that the custom of wearing sackcloth was simply a Semitic custom of those times (using the merely ‘anthropological’ approach that liberals are notorious for).”

    i) So when I cited Isa 15:3, Jer 49:3, Ezk 27:31 and Jonah 3:5 to document my point, this must mean that Armstrong classifies Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jonah as “notorious liberals” who employ a merely “anthropological” approach to sackcloth.

    ii) Notice another one of Armstrong’s diversionary tactics. He doesn’t present counterarguments to my specific arguments. Rather, he simply throws a lot of stuff additional at the reader–to deflect attention away from his inability to present a direct refutation. Armstrong’s snow job.

    iii) As I’ve pointed out before, Armstrong’s method of prooftexting takes for granted the perspicuity of Scripture. So he slits his own throat.

    iv) His appeal to Ezk 4:4-6 is predictably incompetent. Ezekiel was a “sign-prophet.” This pericope describes one of his “sign-acts.” It’s symbolic. If Ezekiel’s actions were literally expiatory, then he would have successfully averted the siege and sack of Jerusalem. But that didn’t happen.

    Rather, his actions symbolize the cumulative guilt of Israel.

  8. Not only that, but saying that John the Baptist wore a hair shirt in the the Roman Catholic sense of mortification simply because his outfit was made out of camel hair is out-loud laughable. Did his camel hair attire cause him suffering? Did it cause him to suffer for the purpose of sanctification? Where is this justified by the text?

    Or better yet, where has the Magisterium provided an infallible interpretation for this use of the text?

  9. "Moreover, fasting is hardly interchangeable with self-mutilation."

    Can you expand upon this? The physical effects of fasting are for the most part reversible (if fasting is done in a responsible and safe manner). Self-mutilation could span a broad range of activities and degrees - if such activities did not result in permanent or long-lasting injury or disability and so were reversible as with fasting and were with done with the same intent/spirit as fasting periods, would that be more acceptable or no?

    Or do you think fasting by itself is sufficient for any and all physical mortification believers should undergo and so view any further physical discipline of the body as unnecessarily burdensome?

  10. I don't think it's odd to deny oneself if we abstain from food or alcohol which can be a form of "discomfort" in a way because our cravings are left unsatisfied. This is indeed a form of "mortification".

    However, whipping oneself doesn't really alleviate any of the carnal impulses, does it? If anything, it feeds and satisfies a need for physical stimulation (much like the S&M fanatics).

    Good intentions, wrong execution.

  11. Its like the days of the "The Black Death". The people would walk up the roads trying to re-represent the crucifixion, by scourging themselves and carrying crosses as if they were atoning for their own punishment.