Writing in The Spectator, Tom Hodgkinson reviews John Cornwell’s history of the Roman Catholic ritual of confession. I haven’t read the book, and Cornwell can sometimes go too far in his criticism of the Catholic church, but this caught my eye:
I smirked — I occasionally snickered — at the madder facts of self-mortification, whereby in the Middle Ages the (frequently female) faithful might flaunt their holiness in acts of rank humility. Elizabeth of Hungary kissed the feet of lepers; Margaret Marie Alacoque ate vomit; Catherine of Genoa, it’s said, sucked the pus of a plague victim.
In all fairness, one ought to point out that for the first millennium and a half of Christianity one of the biggest jobs the bishops had was trying to rein in the extreme displays of self-mortification that people went in for as they were trying to prove their piety. So, while the three eccentrics listed above may eventually have been declared saints by the church in Rome, during their lifetimes they were all discouraged from their more disgusting pastimes by their religious superiors. Margaret Mary Alacoque, for example, had to spend an extra year as a novice before she was allowed to become a nun, since everyone in authority was pretty sure she was nuts.
And it wasn’t just individuals. Most of the big groups that were declared heretical before the Reformation were like the Donatists and Cathars and Albigensians, who practiced and preached more extreme disciplines of self-mortification than the authorities were willing to countenance. The hierarchies, whether Roman or Orthodox, were continually trying to rein in the wild excesses of folk devotion, and reformers attacked them as worldlings for doing so.
It may be hypocritical in a way for church leaders who claim to be doing exactly the same things as their predecessors did centuries ago to declare people saints whom those predecessors had regarded as a danger to themselves and a bad example for others, but then perhaps there is something to be said for hypocrisy. Christians can hardly praise hypocrisy, since so many of Jesus’ remarks in the Gospels denounce it and so much of the Christian tradition has picked up on these denunciations, but looking at Christianity from the outside perhaps we can see it as a good thing that churchmen can look at the excesses of the past and see in them a corrective for the opposite excesses of our own time.