What is the worst offense that a religious person can commit? Murder? Rape? Grand theft auto? Nope. According to Catholic Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, the worst thing a Catholic can do is attend a worship service led by a woman.
As Caryn Riswold wrote two weeks ago, Bishop Paprocki has threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who attends a worship service of the Holy Family Inclusive Catholic Community, led by Rev. Mary Keldermans. She was recently ordained as part of the international Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement. One does not have to participate actively in this heretical worship to incur this extreme penalty: attendance alone is sufficient.
The Catholic Church does not automatically excommunicate murderers or rapists or other criminals. That punishment, the worst which the Church can impose, means the offender is excluded from the religious community and may not take communion. It is reserved for the worst offenders – those who pray the wrong way.
Organized and institutional religions all regard praying the wrong way as a capital offense. Deadly religious wars within a faith have a long history. The efforts of a few Christians, like Martin Luther, to reform some of the beliefs and practices of the organized Church in Europe in the 16th century touched off centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants.
The schism within the Russian Orthodox Church a bit later developed out of an argument about the proper way to make the sign of the cross, among other similar questions about daily ritual practice. The result was centuries of persecution and exile for those so-called Old Believers, who refused to change their ways.
Jews have done the same thing, although with less violence. Some German Jews tried to bring changes to worship practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as translating prayers from Hebrew into German. That caused a split among European Jews into Orthodox and Reform wings. Orthodox Jews continue to control religious observance in Israel, and do not consider reform Jews to be sufficiently Jewish.
The deadly rampages of Muslims in Iraq against other Muslims who worship in a different way, Sunnis vs. Shiites, are making headlines again. Boko Haram terrorists are killing other Muslims in Nigeria.
Murderous hatred between different religions is even greater. Across the world and across the centuries, Christians have killed Jews and Muslims, while Muslims and Hindus have fought in southern Asia. In and around Israel, being Muslim or Jewish is enough to condemn a person to death by the other side. Radical Muslims have declared holy war, jihad, against Westerners.
So Bishop Paprocki is following a long tradition. His anger has been provoked by a very modern issue which divides religious traditionalists of many faiths from reformers – the role of women. When the world’s major religions were institutionalized, human societies subordinated women and excluded them from all leadership positions. Theories and practices were developed to justify women’s unequal place, such as that women represented sexual temptation or that menstruation made them unclean or that they were biologically and intellectually inferior. Over the past two centuries, these social assumptions have been demonstrated to be unscientific and illogical. As our social and political organizations have slowly and certainly reluctantly adapted to this revolution in gender understanding, so have some religious organizations. In many faiths, women now play roles once reserved exclusively for men. The theological dogmas which seemed unchangeable have changed.
Catholicism has changed, too. Until the Holocaust, Catholic dogma considered Jews as Christ-killers, although most Catholics were able to treat Jews as fellow humans, rather than religious scapegoats. Since the Holocaust, Catholic teachings about Jews have changed. That will happen about women, too, perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually. Reform will be fought by extreme traditionalists, who will use all the weapons at their disposal, including excommunication.
So go ahead – kill your neighbor. You may have to pay an earthly penalty, but eternal salvation can still be achieved. But don’t walk into the wrong church, especially if you see a woman in the pulpit. Then the wrath of the organized church or mosque or temple will be visited upon you.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 29, 2014