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Catholicism’s rhetoric of suffering

I’ve been thinking about Catholicism’s celebration of suffering. Despite the strange and disturbing nature of this perspective, it is rarely discussed or questioned. This is unfortunate. A celebration of suffering lies at the heart of, and, in the minds of many Catholics, justifies emotionally abusive childhood religious indoctrination, and acknowledging and questioning this rhetoric of suffering is, I’d argue, one way to assist in removing the taboo that often prevents open discussion of the negative after-effects of Catholic childhood religious indoctrination. I’ll offer a few brief thoughts here and I encourage you to offer your own, in the comments section or elsewhere.

At the heart of Catholicism lies a rhetoric of and celebration of suffering. The Catholic Church asserts that suffering (of all sorts) is inherently good. This assertion, I’d argue, lies at the core of all of the emotional, physical, economic, and socio-cultural damage that the leadership and Catholic Church has inflicted on countless individuals and groups throughout history (childhood religious indoctrination being just one example). The argument plays out something like this:

1) God chose to take on the human form of Jesus,

2) Jesus was aware that suffering, pain, and crucifixion were his destiny,

3) Jesus did not complain about the suffering he endured; in fact, he welcomed it, as he knew his death would atone for the “original sin” that Adam brought about in the Garden of Eden and would “save” the souls of all sinners from an eternity spent in Hell, as long as the sinners accepted the divinity of Jesus. As the official Catechism of the Catholic Church says (bracketed words are mine):

“For as by one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s [Jesus’s] obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

4) As Catholics, we (I use “we” here because I was a Catholic until I was 16 year old) are forever indebted to Jesus and should always do our best to emulate him. This includes, but is not limited to, never complaining about suffering and even taking pleasure in it.

5) And here’s where this argument gets truly dangerous: because we, as Catholics, are called to tolerate and even delight in our suffering, we are thus justified in expecting, or even demanding, that others (including children who have no choice in the matter) do the same, because it is in their best interest. Think of Mother Teresa’s overt fetishization of suffering, or of her horrifying claim that

“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”


On a more personal level, this also translates into the Catholic practice of doing penance for our perceived faults, guilt, and sins. This practice is, of course, learnt in childhood, and, in many instances, unquestioningly passed down to future generations. But I’ve previously written at length about that topic, and want to stay focused here on the Catholic rhetoric of suffering, which is the root cause of and justification of both childhood indoctrination, and of so much of the extensive damage that the Catholic Church has inflicted, and continues to inflict, upon the world.

Suffering isn’t something to be celebrated, cherished, worn as a badge of honor, or inflicted upon others. Understanding and acknowledging the Church’s rhetoric of suffering and openly discussing its perniciousness is one way we can combat the pervasive stigma that prevents much-needed discussions of the negative after-effects of Catholic childhood religious indoctrination.

  1. RDW #

    For a lot of people, religion is sort of like a crutch : a crutch that they proceed to beat people over the head with, in a sub-conscious(?) attempt to make other people as emotionally crippled as they are. There’s no room for change or progressive thought. They constantly dwell on the past. They make no attempt to step into a healthier future. In regard to suffering : That which does not kill you, does NOT make you stronger. It, in all likelihood, will only leave you bitter, twisted, and almost certainly weaker. I’ve always found the story of the crucifixion to be very sad. It’s as if very few people really get the point of it, if there is a point to it. Although many people who consider themselves to be Christians are good, gentle, honorable people, so many others view the story as an opportunity to run amok in the world : to be other than good, gentle and honorable. They have a free ticket, by their estimation, because Jesus will forgive them. Jesus died “For” them. That just doesn’t … make good sense. If they want to honor Jesus, the man, they should live an honorable life. And they should quit being cruel, condescending, closed-minded, and deluded.

    April 14, 2013
  2. Giancarlo Fruzzetti #


    Correct to criticize this aspect, which is a central tenet of Christianity itself, not just Catholicism. Christianity is rubbish. Want a religion? If you must, I tell people Buddhism with its concept of “love thyself, love all humanity, love all living things”, try that one. “Right Livelihood” is a concept far in advance of any of the theological spew of Christianity (or Judaism or Islam for that matter), though of course I’m sure few Buddhists attain it. The 3 major Occidental “religions” are garbage. Personally I can do without any of it, but I guess if I finally had to choose something it would be Buddhism. By the way, can I be your FB friend? I enjoy your religious discourses and would like to comment :)

    April 14, 2013
  3. Matt #


    I am not sure that this characterization of the Catholic view of suffering is entirely accurate. I do not think that the Catholic considers suffering as inherently good. Rather, it is thought that some greater good can come out of the suffering.

    Also, I do not think that the Catholic, when attempting to emulate Jesus, must take joy and pleasure in her suffering. Surely Jesus did not take pleasure in his suffering. He desired the Father’s will be done, and he asked for the ‘cup to be taken from him’ if possible. Never did he have some sort of masochistic desire for suffering.

    Surely the lot of humanity, as contingent and finite beings, entails some degree of pain, failure, and suffering. Catholics do not seek more suffering, but desire for God’s will to be done; and God desires some good to come from the evil if possible. But the good that comes from suffering is not the feeling of pleasure because one is suffering.

    I think that you are right to say that Catholics are called to tolerate their suffering. But what choice do any of us have? Surely the non-Catholic suffers as much as the Catholic, and surely the non-Catholic is as powerless to extricate themselves from their suffering (at times at least) as the Catholic. If this is the case, do we have a choice but to tolerate suffering? Suffering is an inescapable aspect of our existence, which sucks, but the Catholic prays that good may come from suffering.

    By the way, I find your blog by stumbling upon a post you wrote about Eliot’s Waste Land, and I enjoyed your post! I agree: I think that the beauty and strength of ‘April is the cruellest month’ has been partly lost because cliched.

    Any way, I hope that you have a great night!

    April 14, 2013
    • Padraig #

      There is a definite strain of Catholicism that seeks out suffering as a good in itself, to atone for sins and find a oneness with Jesus. There is also a belief that by suffering willingly, they can generate merits to atone for the sins of others — a complete heresy to any Protestant Christian. The Opus Dei cult within a cult wears objects designed to cause pain for this very purpose. The tradition of wearing hair shirts, fasting, kneeling on hard peas or other uncomfortable and painful objects, often forced on children by nuns who believed they were saving the children’s souls by inflicting such barbaric punishment, goes back centuries in the romish church.

      April 21, 2013
  4. Miranda, you’ve put your finger on something that has always bothered me about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It ties in with something else that came to my mind during the controversy over the Bush Administration’s use of torture in the so-called War on Terror: Christians seemed to be first among the cheerleaders for torture. In the midst of puzzling this out I realised something that should have been obvious: Christianity is *founded* on the celebration of a terrible, literally excruciating act of torture – a fact made gruesomely obvious by the presence of a suffering Christ on the Catholic crucifix.

    One thing that would be useful, though, is more references to actual examples of the celebration of suffering in Catholic rhetoric and, even better, official doctrine. You’ve got Mother T nailed, but some juicy examples from higher up the hierarchy would make the whole argument more persuasive.

    April 14, 2013
  5. Miranda,

    While I, as a practicing Catholic, will obviously have a slightly different tack on this than you, I think you are right to note that the glorification of suffering that sometimes appears in Catholic rhetoric can have dangerous consequences, particularly if it is used to silence others.

    However, I would agree with Matt’s comment above when he notes that we all do suffer and at some level we all have to cope with suffering. Obviously some suffering is unnecessary and avoidable and we should make every effort to eliminate it (insuring the safety and well-being of children absolutely falls under this!). However, all of our lives will have a certain degree of suffering and it seems to me like religious conceptions of suffering (Catholic or otherwise) can be one way in which people cope with this fact. For better or worse, I’ve always had a bit of a masochistic temperament (dating from long before my conversion to Catholicism), and my experience has been that Catholicism has provided me with a healthier paradigm for thinking about and dealing with suffering than a lot of other things in my life have. But, of course, that’s just my own personal experience.

    I’m also inclined to push against your claim that “Jesus did not complain about his suffering” (or that the Church holds this)—after all, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane sounds like a clear vocalization of suffering and a fear of/discontent with that suffering. Similarly, the dying exclamation of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” seems like something other than a simple passive acceptance of suffering.

    That being said, thanks for this thought-provoking and brave post.

    April 15, 2013
  6. Jason #

    Interesting post. :) This reminds of that self-flagellation scene from the Da Vinci Code film.
    I think the Zen Buddhists have a more enlightened perspective. Instead of fetishizing or celebrating it, they consider suffering to be a result of “attachments” to a place, thing, person, or identity – when we lose these things or they disappoint us, we “suffer” for it. But in contrast, to embrace suffering in an almost sado-masochistic sense — well, that’s disturbing. :(

    April 16, 2013
  7. Emery #

    This is great stuff. Thanks for posting.

    July 28, 2013

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