Sunday, July 10, 2005

Corporal Punishment in the Rule

"As often as boys and the young, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, are guilty of miseeds, they should be subjected to severe fasts or checked with sharp strokes so that they may be healed." RB 30

When the verses dealing with corporal punishment are read, the typical reaction, even within monastic communities, is a embarrassed snicker. Strokes of the lash or rod have been effectively ruled out of what is considered appropriate disciplinary behavior, in favor or more abstract or spiritual types of punishment. While I do not advocate a return to corporal punishment, we do well not to pass over these difficult chapters too quickly.

Various modern thinkers, represented particularly by Michel Foucault, have argued that the move from corporal punishment in medieval times to techniques of imprisonment or other losses of rights or freedoms is not necessarily a step forward in humanitarian terms. We do well to ponder their arguments when we reflect on the horrendous numbers of men incarcerated in our country, particularly when minorities are over-represented.

More germane to the thoughts of modern monks is Benedict's qualifier, "those who cannot understand the seriousness of excommunication." We live in an era when religious no longer are terribly stigmatized by leaving a community. We might all fall into this category! But more to the point: the nature of sin is such that it tends to paralyze our minds, to make us irrational. Sometimes no amount of persuasion can convince someone to overthrow sin in his life. It may take some other measure. Buddhist gurus will often use physical pain to jolt their novices into enlightenment, when they realize that the student's mind is frozen into an unhealthy single track.

Finally, we do well to remember that all of us are given the opportunity to 'offer up' physical pain as reparation for sins. Catholicism has traditionally insisted on mortification of the body, not in order to make us feel ashamed or to engender hatred of the body, but to discipline the body in such a way as to free the mind to be its master. Rightly does Benedict conclude that corporal punishment is actually meant to be a means of healing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the Benedictines and other religious orders are a bit more particular about who the admit and when they admit them. Nobody (except possibly the Legionnaires) admits teenagers, for example. The need for corporal punishment would seem to be non-existent as a result.

On the other hand, there are some religious recalcitrants who have achieved such public notoriety that one wonders whether perhaps a kick in the pants somewhere along the line might not have been in order ;-)


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