Dying To Oneself.

Dying To Oneself. April 9, 2023

We are at war with ourselves. Within every person, a conflict exists between the spirit and the body. From a Catholic perspective, the outcome of that conflict is essential to the salvation of the soul.

In this paper, I will discuss an essential weapon in the conflict between body and soul; mortification. I will begin by discussing the need for mortification and how it is depicted in the Bible. Lastly, I will examine the various types of mortification common in the Catholic tradition. Finally, I will explore examples of mortification described in the Bible.

What Is Mortification, And Why Is It Needed?

The English rendition of mortification comes from a combination of two Latin words that refer to putting something to death. From this, Catholicism applies the concept to the body. That is, mortification involves putting the body to death. Within a religious sense of the word, mortification is not to be understood literally, of course. 

To properly understand what mortification is and why it is necessary, we must travel back to the time before the Fall of Man. During this time, known as original justice, human beings lived properly ordered lives. By properly ordered, I mean to convey the structure that God intended. This structure or order meant that the body – understood as the animal instincts and baser proclivities – was subservient to reason, which is a power of the soul. Thus, the body was subjected to the soul, and the soul was subjected to God.

This order that God intended was destroyed by original sin. No longer were the passions and baser instincts subordinated to reason. Worse still, those baser instincts and passions distort and disturb the soul, causing the individual to be predisposed to sin. This predisposition or propensity, known as concupiscence, manifests itself as an intense desire, a tendency, or attraction, usually arising from lust or sensual desires. So it is that Saint Paul writes, “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17).

Any biblical perspective of human history must recognize this internal civil war and mankind’s efforts to regain the proper order of body and soul, to once more subjugate the flesh to the spirit.

Biblical And Traditional Basis For Mortification 

What Catholicism refers to as mortification is generally referred to as asceticism in the Jewish tradition. While very similar, asceticism often involves eschewing material and sensual pleasures so as to obtain spiritual purity. 

Catholicism asserts that the purpose of mortification is to “Train the soul to virtuous and holy living.” By mortifying the body, Catholics seek to reestablish the proper order of soul and body. 

For this reason, Saint Paul often drew a dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. He writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Now, it must be that Paul is not referring to physical death, for that is common to all living things. Rather, Saint Paul is addressing the spiritual death of one who is separated from God. 

The concept of putting the flesh to death can appear extreme or esoterical. What does it mean to put one’s flesh to death? Again, Saint Paul explains what mortification entails by suggesting traits or characteristics common to those living according to the flesh. Disordered desires such as sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness are aspects of the body that are to be “put to death.” 

If, then, mortification is intended to train the soul in virtue and to effectuate a holy way of life, are there different forms of mortification that can be utilized to that end?

Types Of Mortifications In Catholicism

At its heart, mortification is self-denial. This self-denial can take on several forms.

As indicated earlier, mortification or asceticism is a well-known practice in Judaism. In the Old Testament, mortification often manifests itself as fasting, and examples of this range from Moses (Exodus 34:28) to Esther (Esther 4:16). Fasting remains an essential component of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. 

Catholicism, too, utilizes fasting as a form of mortification. Saint Augustine observed that fasting “Cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.”

A more severe and, therefore, less utilized form of mortification involves self-flagellation. This type of mortification can involve the use of what is called a discipline. A discipline is a small whip one uses to “punish the flesh.” While the Catholic Church does not sanction this type of mortification, it is thought Pope John Paul II engaged in self-flagellation. 

Additional forms of mortification can include sleeping on the floor or, as in the case of Thomas More, wearing a hair shirt. For Catholics worldwide, self-denial often takes place during the season of Lent. It can involve periods of fasting, refraining from some pleasurable activity, or even waking up earlier to pray. In this sense, mortification takes on the added quality of penance.


The various practices that encompass mortification – from fasting to self-flagellation – are a part of the spiritual life of several traditions.

From the Catholic point of view, mortification is not masochistic, nor is it an end to itself. Rather, mortification is the practice of self-denial that is meant to bring the body into proper order with the soul so that the soul may be in the right relationship with God. As Catholics, we are followers of the One who told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

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