A history of Catholic slaps, punches, and all-out brawls
A Pillar reading (and watching) list
If you watched the Oscars last night, you probably saw the moment when actor Will Smith climbed up on stage and slapped host Chris Rock across the face.
The slap came after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, who has shaved her head after hair loss from an autoimmune disorder.
Even if you weren’t watching the award show, chances are you’ve heard about the moment. It drew a lot of attention in the news and on social media, prompting debates about whether Smith was justified and whether the moment was staged or authentic.
At The Pillar, we got to thinking about famous slaps in Church history.
After all, it’s hard to get through more than 2000 years of history without a memorable smack or two. So we present to you a handful of notable slaps, punches, and fistfights throughout the history of the Church:
St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, takes a swing at Arius the heretic
Among the most famous ‘Catholic slaps’ is probably the tale of St. Nicholas striking the heretic Arius during the Council of Nicea.
As the story goes, the council fathers were debating the nature of Christ. Arius argued that Christ was fully human, but not God. At one point, jolly ol’ St. Nicholas grew so angry at Arius’ obstinacy that he socked him right in the face.
While the story is a popular one, it’s likely not true, as the first accounts of the incident did not surface until more than 1000 years later.
Still, the tale has enduring appeal - who doesn’t love the image of Santa Claus throwing fists to defend the divinity of Baby Jesus?
The ‘confirmation slap’
Probably less known by many Catholics is that the Rite of Confirmation traditionally included the bishop delivering a light slap on the cheek to the newly confirmed Catholics.
The confirmation slap recalled the apostles’ laying on of hands, and was a reminder to the newly confirmed that they were expected to suffer for the faith.
While not an official part of the rite, the symbolic gesture - which was often more of a gentle tap - persisted in tradition until the Second Vatican Council, after which the rite was revised and mention of the slap was removed.
The papal slap: Pope Boniface and Cardinal Colonna
After Boniface VIII was elected pope in 1394, he found himself engaged in a dispute between four brothers from the powerful Colonna family, one of whom was a Roman cardinal.
The brothers were fighting over some family property after Cardinal Giacomo Colonna disinherited his siblings.
But when they appealed to the pope, Boniface ordered the cardinal to return some property to his brothers, and to turn over several towns outside Rome, including the town of Palestrina, to the control of the papal household.
Cardinal Colonna refused, and Boniface removed him from the College of Cardinals. The cardinal accused Pope Boniface of being invalidly elected. Soon the whole thing became a fight between papal knights and the Colonna’s private family battalion.
Things escalated in 1303, when the pope and the King of France were fighting over Church and state taxes in France, and control over the Church’s bishops in the country. Eventually the French King Phillip sent an army to attack Pope Boniface. Cardinal Colonna, sensing an opportunity, jumped into the fray on the side of the French king.
As Colonna and the French army demanded that Boniface abdicate the papacy, Cardinal Colonna slapped the 73-year-old pope across the face.
After the slap, Boniface was taken into captivity for three days before his army secured his release.
The pope did not abdicate, but Boniface did die of a fever one month after the slap heard round the Church, on Oct. 11, 1303.
The Notre Dame-Miami brawl of 1988
Our Lady’s University was host to a fistfight ahead of a memorable football game between the Fighting Irish and the Miami Hurricanes in October 1988. Both teams were undefeated heading into the highly anticipated game, but things got heated even before the coin toss.
The Indy Star explains:
There’s only one way in and one way out of the field at Notre Dame Stadium (it’s currently under renovation). While the Irish were still going through pregame warmups, 'Canes players decided they would run through their lines instead of around, as visiting teams typically do, to go back through the tunnel to the locker room.
The result was some two dozen players exchanging blows in the entrance to the tunnel, an exciting start to a thrilling game, which Notre Dame won by one point.
The time a bishop was punched during Mass
In January 2019, auxiliary Bishop Manuel Cruz of Newark was punched while celebrating Mass at the local cathedral.
Video footage shows a man coming up into the sanctuary during Mass, and punching Cruz in the face before being restrained by a security guard.
The bishop sustained non-serious injuries, according to local news reports. A 48-year-old man who reportedly had a history of mental illness was arrested in connection with the incident, and was later charged with aggravated assault.
Melee at the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth, has seen its fair share of fighting over the years. The church’s ownership is shared among the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches.
This arrangement has at times been less than peaceful. In December 2011, Greek and Armenian monks were cleaning the church when a dispute broke out about whether each group was encroaching on the other’s space. The argument turned physical, and brooms went flying. Security forces had to break up the tussle.
Two stout monks
There’s a popular - although apocryphal - legend that the Rule of St. Benedict contains a passage on welcoming guest monks which says if a visitor is “gossipy and contumacious,” he should be instructed to leave, and if he does not, “let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.”
One imagines the explanation was a somewhat rowdy affair.
Interestingly, Article 70 of the Rule of St. Benedict does warn against striking another monk at will. The statement seems to apply to punishment, but it's reasonable to assume Benedict was also trying to avoid monastic fistfights — and perhaps that they'd already taken place.
The archduke and the pope’s heckler
In 1988, Pope John Paul II delivered a speech before the European Parliament.
Ian Paisley, then-head of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, stood up and interrupted the pope, yelling “I denounce you as the Antichrist” and holding up a poster labeling the pope as the antichrist. Other members of the legislative body threw papers at Paisley and grabbed his poster.
Paisley eventually had to be forcibly tossed out of the chamber, with Archduke Otto von Habsburg, a devout Catholic, reportedly punching Paisley in the face and helping to remove him from the room.
Editors’ note: This report was updated, after we heard about some particularly interesting slaps not originally included.