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Mortification in Roman Catholic teaching

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For an overview of corporal mortification in world religions, see Mortification of the flesh.
For the theological doctrine, see Mortification (theology).
For the Christian metal band, see Mortification (band). For the record label, see Mortification Records.

The Roman Catholic Church has often held Mortification of the flesh (literally, "putting the flesh to death"), as a worthy spiritual discipline.

Mortification in Catholic history

In the second millennium, St. Dominic Loricatus is said to have performed 'One Hundred Years Penance' by chanting 20 psalters accompanied by 300,000 lashes over six days.


St. Francis: he asked pardon from his Brother Ass (the way he referred to his body), for his severe penances.

Later, Saint Francis of Assisi, who is said to have received the stigmata, painful wounds like those of Jesus Christ, is said to have asked pardon to his body, whom he called Brother Ass , for the severe self-afflicted penances he has done: vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations and the use of a hairshirt.

Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena (died 1380), was a tertiary Dominican who lived at home rather than in a convent, and who practiced austerities which a prioress would probably not have permitted. She is notable for fasting and subsisting for long periods of time on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament. St. Catherine of Siena wore sackcloth and scourged herself three times daily in imitation of St. Dominic.

In the sixteenth century, Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, wore a hairshirt, deliberately mortifying his body. He also used the 'discipline.'

Saint Ignatius of Loyola while in Manresa in 1522 is known to have practiced severe mortifications. In the Litany prayers to Saint Ignatius he is praised as being “constant in the practice of corporal penance.” He wore a hair shirt and heavy iron chain, and was in the habit of wearing a cord tied below the knee.[1]

St. Teresa of Ávila, a Doctor of the Church, undertook severe mortification once it was suggested by friends that her supernatural ecstasies were of diabolical origin. She continued until Francis Borgia reassured her. She believed she was goaded by angels and had a passion to conform her life to the sufferings of Jesus, with a motto associated with her: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die."

Teresa of Avila dsc01644

St. Teresa of Ávila: her motto was "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die."

St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque (22 July 1647 October-17 October 1690), the promoter of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, practised in secret severe corporal mortification after her First Communion at the age of nine, until becoming paralyzed, which confined her to bed for four years. Having been cured of her paralysis by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, she changed her name to Marie (French: Mary) and vowed to devote her life to the service of Mary.

Blessed Junípero Serra (November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784) was a Franciscan friar who founded the mission chain in Alta California. A statue of Fr. Junipero Serra rests in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building, representing the state of California. He was known for his love for mortification, self-denial and absolute trust in God.

An outstanding saint in the nineteenth century is St. Jean Vianney who converted hundreds of people in laicist France. Pope John XXIII said of him: "You cannot begin to speak of St. John Mary Vianney without automatically calling to mind the picture of a priest who was outstanding in a unique way in voluntary affliction of his body; his only motives were the love of God and the desire for the salvation of the souls of his neighbors, and this led him to abstain almost completely from food and from sleep, to carry out the harshest kinds of penances, and to deny himself with great strength of soul...[T]his way of life is particularly successful in bringing many men who have been drawn away by the allurement of error and vice back to the path of good living."

During the later part of the nineteenth century, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, another Doctor of the Church, at three years of age was described by her mother: "Even Thérèse is anxious to practice mortification.” And Thérèse later wrote: "My God, I will not be a saint by halves. I am not afraid of suffering for Thee.” The "Little Flower", famous for her "little way" and love of God—fasted and used the 'discipline' vigorously, "scourging herself with all the strength and speed of which she was capable, smiling at the crucifix through the tears which bedewed her eyelashes," according to one of her biographers.

In the early twentieth century, The seers of Fatima said they were told by the angel: "In every way you can offer sacrifice to God in reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for sinners. In this way you will bring peace to our country, for I am its guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal. Above all, bear and accept with patience the sufferings God will send you." They reported that the idea of making sacrifices was repeated several times by the Virgin Mary. The children wore tight cords around their waist and abstained from drinking water on hot days.

Ignatius Loyola

St. Ignatius: he is praised in his Litany for being "constant in the practice of corporal penance."

The Virgin Mary reportedly told them that God was pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances.

At the latter half of the twentieth century, Saint Josemaría Escrivá practiced self-flagellation and used the cilice, a modern-day version of the hairshirt. Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a saint who received the stigmata wrote in one of his letters: "Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit... The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one's whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts." Like St. Josemaria, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa of Calcutta used the cilice and discipline regularly as means of doing penance.

Some branches of the Christian Church have also institutionalized the practice of self-inflicted penance and corporal mortification through their mandate on fasting and abstinence for specific days of the year. Christian communities in some parts of the world still practice processions of public flagellation during Lent and Holy Week.

20th-century Catholic documents

Recent theology affirms the practice of mortification. The catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (n. 2015).

"Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance." (CCC 1430) [1]

Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council taught in Paenitentiam Agere an encyclical he wrote on July 1, 1962:

But the faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith, and to make amends for their own and other people's sins... St. Augustine issued the same insistent warning: "It is not enough for a man to change his ways for the better and to give up the practice of evil, unless by painful penance, sorrowing humility, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and the giving of alms he makes amends to God for all that he has done wrong." ...But besides bearing in a Christian spirit the inescapable annoyances and sufferings of this life, the faithful ought also take the initiative in doing voluntary acts of penance and offering them to God.... Since, therefore, Christ has suffered in the flesh," it is only fitting that we be "armed with the same intent." It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God's grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?

Pope Paul VI also stated:

“The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification — far removed from any form of stoicism — does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which the Son of God deigned to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the 'liberation' of man.”

Pain, human nature, and Christ

Theologians also state that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, united himself as a person (through the hypostatic union) to everything human, including pain.


Venerable Matt Talbot (May 2, 1856 June-7 June 1925) was an Irish worker whose life would have gone unnoticed were it not for the cords and chains discovered on his body when he died.

Catholics believe that God, who in their view by his divine nature cannot change, has united with changing human nature, and therefore with human pain. The "I" of the Second Person suffers and feels pain. He is one with pain through Jesus Christ. Thus Christ's experience of pain (like all the human acts of Christ like sleeping, crying, speaking) whose subject is the divine Person is an infinite act. This is based on the classic dictum that the acts belong to the Person (actiones sunt suppositorum). It is the Person who acts: It is God who walks, God who talks, God who is killed, and God who is in pain. Thus a Christian who is united to Jesus Christ through pain is one with his infinite act of saving the world.

This also goes together with another dictum in theology: whatever is not united (to the Divine Person) is not saved. Thus, his intellect, his will, his feelings, are all united with the Person, and are all sanctified and redeemed, including pain. Pain is therefore a sanctified and redeeming human experience.

The salvific meaning of suffering

John Paul II wrote an entire apostolic letter on the topic of suffering, specifically the salvific meaning of suffering: Salvifici Doloris. It is considered a major contribution to the theology of pain and suffering.

He wrote this after suffering from a bullet wound due to the assassination attempt of Ali Agca. Six weeks after meeting his attacker, he wrote about suffering in Christianity.


Pope John Paul II: "Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption."

"Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily, and before his disciples he placed demands of a moral nature that can only be fulfilled on condition that they should "deny themselves". The way that leads to the Kingdom of heaven is "hard and narrow", and Christ contrasts it to the "wide and easy" way that "leads to destruction."

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but he states: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross.

Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. ...It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy."

Joy in suffering

Saint Paul speaks of joy in suffering in Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake". He had found a source of joy in overcoming the sense of the uselessness of suffering.

Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters.

He states that it is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.

The need for prudence

The Desert Fathers emphasize that mortification is a means, not an end. They generally recommended prudence when practicing mortification, with severe mortifications done only under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director. Consequently, practicing mortification for physical pleasure is seen as a sin. Likewise, mortification for reasons of scrupulosity (which is similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder) is considered very harmful: a contemporary example is fasting due to anorexia nervosa. Catholic moral theologians recommend that the scrupulous not practice mortification, avoid persons and materials of an ascetical nature, and receive frequent spiritual direction and psychological help. 1 Not all forms of self-mortification are approved of by the Catholic Church. Practices such as the nonlethal crucifixions performed on Good Friday in the Philippines are generally frowned upon by Catholic officials. Participants imitate various parts of the Passion of Christ, including his crucifixion. The spectacle draws a large amount of tourism every year.[2]

The teaching of Benedict XVI

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Benedict XVI told Peter Seewald in God and the world:

"When we know that the way of love — this exodus, this going out of oneself — is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish. Love itself is a passion, something we endure. In love I experience first a happiness, a general feeling of happiness. Yet, on the other hand, I am taken out of my comfortable tranquility and have to let myself be reshaped. If we say that suffering is the inner side of love, we then also understand by it is so important to learn how to suffer — and why, conversely, the avoidance of suffering renders someone unfit to cope with life."

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He also said in the Way of the Cross:

"In sinking to the depths he rose to the heights. Now he has radically fulfilled the commandment of love, he has completed the offering of himself, and in this way he is now the revelation of the true God, the God who is love. Now we know who God is. Now we know what true kingship is. Jesus prays Psalm 22, which begins with the words: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Ps 22:2). He takes to himself the whole suffering people of Israel, all of suffering humanity, the drama of God's darkness, and he makes God present in the very place where he seems definitively vanquished and absent. The Cross of Jesus is a cosmic event. The world is darkened, when the Son of God is given up to death. The earth trembles. And on the Cross, the Church of the Gentiles is born. The Roman centurion understands this, and acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God. From the Cross he triumphs ever anew."

Cardinal Ratzinger states that pain, the very product of evil and sin, is used by God to negate evil and sin. He states that by freely suffering the pains that went with his passion and death on the cross, the Jesus fully reveals his love, making up for Adam's and mankind's sin, and makes man grow into maturity.


  1. See his Autobiography, first chapter, for mention of the cord tied below the knee.

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