Wiccan chaplain generates heat, perhaps light will follow
Waupun prison chaplain deserves the right to prove she can fill her position
By John Huebscher
One benefit of controversy is that it attracts attention to often-neglected topics. Thus, prison chaplains are getting new attention following a decision by the Department of Corrections to hire a Wiccan, Jamyi Witch, as one of two chaplains assigned to the State Prison at Waupun.
The decision ignited criticism and humor.
Some want to remove the new chaplain. Others may exploit the furor to seek the termination of all prison chaplains as a violation of the Constitution.
Chaplains have long been part of institutions such as prisons and the military. In such highly structured environments individuals are removed from traditional social supports such as church friends and family. Thus courts have deemed it appropriate for the state to provide access to spiritual support for the people so affected.
When the State Prison was opened in the 1850s the nation's population was overwhelmingly Protestant, whose numbers far exceeded those of Catholics and Jews. In those days, a Protestant minister would have met the needs of most prisoners. Later, most institutions could accommodate nearly everyone with two chaplains: one a minister, the other a priest.
Times have changed. Wisconsin's prison population, like that of the nation at large, is more diverse. No one or two chaplains, what-ever their background, can effectively meet the religious or spiritual needs of all those confined in the states' prisons.
In response to these changes, prison administrators have redefined the chaplains role from one that was mostly ministerial to one that is more administrative. The pastor of souls has become a coordinator of services.
Yet, one is entitled to ask whether the administrative aspects of the position are over-emphasized, to the exclusion of more traditional skills. Thus the public is well served by legislators who want to examine the Department of Corrections' hiring criteria.
At first blush the selection of a Wiccan defies imagination. But would the warden of Waupun in 1855 been less stunned by the suggestion Roman Catholics would emerge as the nation's most numerous religious body and that first Jews and later Moslems would outnumber Episcopalians in the United States?
It may also be useful to recall that less than two years ago members of Congress and others questioned whether a Catholic priest who wore a Roman collar and had taken a vow of celibacy could function effectively as chaplain to the members of the House of Representatives.
Those who supported Fr. Tim O'Brien argued that the sole criterion for his appointment should be his capacity to minister to all members of the House without regard to their religious faith.
Unless she proves otherwise, Wisconsin's newest prison chaplain is entitled to a similar presumption that she will perform her duties with the same professionalism.
None of this is to suggest that Wiccan as a religion is the equal of Catholicism, or any other religious tradition. As Catholics, we should assess the beliefs of a Wiccan according to the tenets of the Magesterium. As citizens, we must judge the competence of Ms. Witch as a chaplain under the law.
It is also reasonable to ask whether the emphasis on the chaplain as an administrator or coordinator has served to devalue candidates with more developed theological and pastoral backgrounds.
So far, the Rev. Witch appointment has generated considerable heat. But if we recall some lessons of history -- and ask pertinent questions about today -- it might generate some light as well.
(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops. Its website is WisconsinCatholic.com.)