May Priests Whip Themselves?
In Leviticus 21:5-6 rules are set out for the priests: they may not wear tonsures or gash their bodies. Is this not a direct instruction for priests, bishops and popes not to flagellate themselves to undue mortification? Why do some well-known Catholic leaders use this outlawed method of disciplining themselves? BDF
The instructions for priests in Leviticus 21 were to keep them away from worldly and pagan practices. They were to be holy in all they did because their lives belonged to the service of the all-holy God of Israel.
Tonsures or any fashionable style like that were considered worldly and therefore taboo. However, it was the custom of pagan priests to gash themselves because they thought that adding their own blood to the blood of the sacrificial animals might attract their gods’ attention more readily.
There’s a very good example of this in 1 Kings 18:20-40. Elijah taunts the prophets of the god Baal, challenging them to ask their god to set fire to a slaughtered bull. He says he will ask his God to do the same with his own slaughtered bull. They all agree that the god who answers with fire from heaven is God indeed.
Performing a hobbling dance, the prophets call on Baal all day long, but no fire descends from heaven. So they shouted louder and gashed themselves, as their custom was, with swords and spears until the blood flowed down them. This is the kind of pagan superstition that Leviticus forbids for the priests under the Law of Moses.
Needless to say, the true God of Israel triumphs. Elijah ensures that the altar and its victim are thoroughly drenched in water and then calls on God. Immediately, the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. No amount of gashing of bodies could have effected this dramatic result.
The instructions in Leviticus were for the priests of that time only. They apply nowhere else in history, and certainly not to the clergy of New Testament times.
You have probably watched television footage of the fanatical exhibitionists in the Philippines who have themselves crucified and flagellated during Holy Week. The Church condemns this show of penance as an inappropriate way to atone for one’s sins, especially so publicly. There are no popes, bishops or priests caught up in this practice.
It is hardly likely that Catholic leaders, let alone popes, would gash themselves as a means of self-discipline, because the Church regards this as a sin of self-mutilation, though some may practise milder, acceptable forms of mortification.