According to a new book, Pope John Paul II regularly whipped himself. At other times, and in spite of illness, he slept on a bare floor. This, apparently, makes him eligible for sainthood.
To the faithful, the self-flagellation and hardship, in emulation of Christ’s suffering, are heroic. But outside the warped logic of faith, is there any other context in which this kind of behaviour wouldn’t be regarded as unbalanced?
The details of the late Pope’s masochism come in a new book, Why He Is a Saint: the Real John Paul II. It’s by Vatican official Monsignor Slawomir Oder who will be in charge of the process that will probably end in John Paul II’s canonisation (so it’s probably not a very balanced view of the erstwhile Pontiff).
There could be no clearer illustration of how religious and real-world perspectives do not align.
To the faithful Roman Catholic, John Paul II’s actions demonstrate devotion and courage.
To the ordinary human being, such behaviour seems suspiciously deviant. Indulging in such masochism suggests mental disorder, perhaps with sexual overtones. Masochism, after all, frequently has sexual implications, and in a sect that imposes lifelong celibacy (in theory) on its priests, one might expect many different manifestations of aberrant psychosexual pathology.
Even without such dark overtones, this behaviour still seems odd. To deliberately hurt oneself in emulation of a character in a fictional story is hardly normal, is it? What would we make, for example, of a teenager who chose to live in a wardrobe to honour the story of Narnia? That’s right – we’d get them help. And that’s without them self-harming – a sure sign of psychological issues.
This wouldn’t be the first time that behaviour which would seem odd or unacceptable to society at large is excused by religious adherence. There is a broad spectrum ranging from violent jihad to the Church of England’s recent fight to protect its ‘right’ to discriminate against homosexuals. Right now, in Kansas, a man is claiming that his religious beliefs left him no choice but to murder a doctor.
It’s also worth remembering that, when he wasn’t enjoying a sound self-whipping, Pope John Paul II lived in an environment of fantastic wealth and privilege.
Still, the Roman Catholic church has elevated people to sainthood on any number of feeble premises. It’s a form of marketing. By making people saints, you’re saying, ‘See how our church contains so many good and righteous people’. It helps counter the bad press the church gets for its paedophile priests and its effective genocide-by-AIDS in Africa.
Most organised religions are fundamentally bizarre. They involve a wholesale acceptance of strange and improbable ideas. Most of the time, we let this slide, because many of these ideas have become entrenched as part of the whole patchwork that is our mythological and historical landscape.
But occasionally, something crops up that makes you step back and think, “wow, now that’s weird”. This is one of those occasions, and it’s the clearest sign you could ask for of the gulf between faith and the real world.