We have some new evidence of how he understood it:
Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, even on vacation, and slept on the floor as acts of penitence and to bring him closer to, according to a new book by the Polish prelate spearheading his sainthood case...
"It's an instrument of Christian perfection," Oder said, responding to questions about how such a practice could be condoned considering Catholic teaching holds that the human body is a gift from God.
"As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself. In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to ," the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer.
A reader notes:
So the practice both disrespects the body as a gift from God, but is also, according to the higher-ups, part of the asceticism of Christian perfection.
Let's bracket for a moment whether or not this can be worked out within a revealed theology. The question is whether it can be worked out in a natural theology and, more specifically, in a natural morality such as the the "new natural law", which purports to show that practical reason is capable of arriving at certain conclusions about human behavior irrespective of religious beliefs.
As you know in the NNL, as promulgated by, for example, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert George, there are "basic goods" that cannot be attacked for the sake of other goods, among those basic goods we find "life"--and it would seem that whipping oneself is tantamount to attacking one's own life, which includes, as I understand it, one's bodily integrity. But even if that could be accommodated, there is a more pressing problem: a constant theme in NNL is that one cannot use one's own body as a mere instrument in order to create a subjective experience in a way that "disintegrates" the unity of body and self.
So, for example, masturbation is the illicit use of one's body as a mere instrument for a subjective experience that is not unitive of the body and self. (The same applies to homosexual acts, mutatis mutandis.) Eating is morally acceptable because the act of eating is actually (in reality) conducive to body wholeness regardless of one's subjective intentions, but gluttonous eating would not be alright because it violates the body's good for the sake of pleasure.
It doesn't matter whether we find these arguments convincing or not (but by the way, I think that if they are right, they prove too much: they cannot defend natural family planning because it separates intentions from acts, but that's another email): what matters now is that our former pontiff, on this account, would seem to be using his body in a way that disintegrates his person: he inflicted pain on his physical body for the sake of another end, namely, a subjective experience of being reminded of Christ's suffering. The other big issue is that John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, basically endorsed the basic goods theory of the NNL! On his own account, it would seem that he's violating the general Catholic moral principle that one cannot do an evil (based on its proximate end) in order to promote a good, however good that ultimate end is.
It seems to me, unless I'm missing something, that something has to give: either the NNL is wrong, or JPII (along with many in our pantheon of saints) committed a moral crime. I just wonder, if I've represented the NNL's position accurately, which horn of this dilemma they'll choose. Or, they'll just ignore this problem completely.
And I write this not as someone who hates the Church: I love the Church and I'm trying to find a way to allow for fallibility and forgiveness to enter into this crucible of certainty and hostility toward the marginalized and the outsiders that now seems to dominate discourse among the self-identified orthodox. Nor do I disagree with all the things the NNLs believe (I'm pro-life, e.g.) or think that JPII was an awful pontiff (though I do have some disagreements, obviously). But at some point, it would be dishonest for me to ignore what strikes me as very tortured (no pun intended) arguments and sheer advocacy for conclusions already desired.
I have every respect for the practice of self-mortification and self-denial. I believe that certain acts which may be harmful for the body - long periods of fasting and even self-mortification practices like the cilice - can be transformed into spiritual ends. They can evoke a reminder of our mortal selves, a way to chip away at the encroachment of pride or self-obsession, a means to emulate the suffering of Jesus. Jesus' experience of profound pain is one way he embraced his humanity and through such pain, we also can come closer to Jesus and God. Done wrong or obsessively, self-mortification can become a kind of neurosis or even fetish. But I see the last Pope's embrace of these things as affecting signs of his deep and genuine closeness to God.
But my reader is also onto something. Such acts do separate out the natural bodily integrity George et al. defend as something amenable to any non-believer's reason. So why is self-abuse inherently wrong when it is done by hand and yet saintly when it is done by whip?
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