One of my favourite books while studying English literature at Auckland University was ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’, a quirky work of fiction by 18th century writer Lawrence Sterne. Generally regarded as a novel for want of a more appropriate category, the book doesn’t have much of a plot. We learn the circumstances surrounding young Tristram’s conception and the inauspicious christening where he was misnamed. Apart from that we learn more about the idiosyncrasies of the baby’s father Walter and Uncle Toby than those of Tristram himself.
An episode that stuck in my mind was where the doctor attending Tristram’s birth suffers a small accident and begins to curse the servant whose negligence led to his discomfort. Walter Shandy offers to assist him by supplying Dr Slop with what he claims is the most comprehensive and effective curse of all time, provided the doctor will read the entire text – which he agrees to do. It turns out that the document he is obliged to read is the text of a Roman Catholic service of excommunication attributed to a certain 9th century Bishop Enulphus. Sterne prints the document in full in the original Latin version with accompanying English translation, which together take up all 14 pages of Chapter 11, Volume 3. Check it out online – you may find a use for it yourself one day.
with his document of excommunication
Well, Lawrence Sterne, back there around 1760, was ever so politely poking fun at the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church for its archaic, anachronistic practices. 250 years on it seems little has changed. Last month news media informed the world that a 60 year-old Australian priest had received a New Year present from Pope Francis and his Doctrinal Congregation in the form of a lengthy document, written in Latin, informing him that he had been excommunicated.
looking distinctly unimpressed
Maybe it’s something a new Pope has to do early in his term of office, to stamp his authority on the world of Roman Catholicism. This was Pope Francis’s first such act, and it was done, apparently, because the gentleman concerned, Greg Reynolds, an ordained priest, had been publicly advocating the ordination of women to the priesthood, and celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion without proper authority. According to an official RC source, Reynolds had resigned his position as parish priest and had his priestly faculties removed, but continued to celebrate the Eucharist and expound his unorthodox views, leaving the Holy Father with no alternative but the ultimate sanction – excommunication.
You can see his point. Rules are rules, and if you want to be a member of my club you have to toe the line. When William Webb Ellis, in the Year of Our Lord 1823, grasped a football in his arms and ran with it, he is said to have initiated the game of rugby football. Whatever game he was actually playing at the time (and there seems to be some uncertainty about this), that specific action was evidently frowned upon. The implication, at least in rugby circles, is that, if you want to be a man, run with the ball in hand, jump on opponents and be jumped on, you’d better join a rugby club and leave soccer to the girls.
So with Mr Reynolds. He may be perfectly justified in his belief that gay couples should be entitled to get married, and that women have as much right as men to serve as priests – but RC doctrine decrees otherwise. Pope Francis would probably have left Reynolds alone if he had been an ordinary parishioner keeping his unorthodox views to himself or sharing them with close friends in a Fitzroy pub. It’s a bit unreasonable on his part, it seems to me, to expect church authorities to tolerate his preaching those views from the pulpit.
Still, the whole business aroused my interest, and I did a little reading round the subject. It seems Aussie Greg has joined a rather elite band of 105 souls excommunicated by the Catholic Churchduring its two thousand year history. Admittedly twenty-six of those have been added to the list in the last 114 years, so some might argue that its value has been somewhat eroded over time. On the other hand, church authorities don’t have the same powers of persuasion they once enjoyed, foot-roasting and burning-at-the-stake having become less acceptable in recent years.
Even so, I can’t help feeling, were I in Greg Reynold’s shoes, rather than being miffed at my fate, I would feel a certain pride in having been elevated to such august company, since it implies that the Pope and his inner circle are taking my views seriously and even feeling threatened by them. I won’t try your patience by itemizing the entire list of 105, but let’s just take a random sample. Father Greg Reynolds, a humble (ex-) parish priest from Melbourne, Australia, can now claim comradeship with two kings of France and one king of Scotland (Robert the Bruce). Several monarchs of England made the cut, including, as we know, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The list also includes five Holy Roman Emperors (one of whom apparently made it twice), one Byzantine Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 CE. Demonstrating the Church’s even-handedness with respect to women, French heroine Joan of Arc was excommunicated andburnt in 1431 – though later forgiven and even canonized. In 1577 an entire monastery of Carmelite nuns suffered the punishment, although it was revoked the following year – suggesting that even celibate Holy Fathers have a soft spot for the ladies. According to Wikipedia, Fidel Castro himself was excommunicated in 1962 – but even the US government didn’t manage to have him burnt.
One thing that struck me, as I perused the list, was that there seems to have been a diminishing of social status among recipients of the honour since the glorious days of the Middle Ages, when most seem to have been kings and emperors, or at least bishops and other members of the European aristocracy. Not to detract from Greg’s achievement, but it doesn’t really bear comparison with William I of Sicily who, in the 12th century, attracted the ire of Pope Adrian IV by waging war against the papal states and raiding pilgrims on their way to the tombs of the apostles.
I can’t help feeling there seems to be a tendency these days for Papal authorities in the Vatican to direct their awful power on more humble adherents to the faith, at the risk of demeaning their own majesty and credibility. It may be true that God in Heaven is convinced that abortion, family planning, gay relationships and women priests are abominations – but how can you really know? At the very least, you might think that a more enlightened approach by the Pope and his Holy Cardinals to such matters would endear them to the world community of Roman Catholics, and lure some of those lapsed bums back to the seats of parish churches and monumental urban cathedrals.
In 2009, Margaret McBride, administrator at St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Centre in Phoenix, Arizona, authorised an abortion for a 27-year-old woman pregnant with her fifth child and suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Her doctors believed that her chances of dying if the pregnancy continued were close to 100%. McBride was excommunicated – though subsequently reinstated after a public outcry.
A group of Canadian Catholics calling themselves the Community of the Lady of All Nations was excommunicated en masse in 2007. Apparently they believe that their founder, 92-year-old Marie Paule Griguere is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. The Church begged to differ on the grounds that: A, reincarnation does not exist, and B, ‘Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven by God, and therefore Mary’s soul is not separate from her body, so that if she were to appear, it would have to be as herself, not a reincarnation.’
Well, what can you say to that? Medieval Christian scholars are said to have debated how many angels could dance, or at least sit, on the head (or point) of a pin (or needle). That may or may not be true, but it is certainly true that arguments over the physical, spiritual and or metaphysical nature of Jesus Christ, as well as the question of whether the bread and wine in the sacrament of Communion actually became His flesh and blood, led to excommunications, major divisions in the Church, horrific violence against individuals, and even catastrophic wars.
If you are of the Roman Catholic persuasion, you may like to consider that any of the following can get you automatically excommunicated:
- Procuring of abortion
- Apostasy: The total rejection of the Christian faith.
- Heresy: The obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth, which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith – such as rejection of contraception, gay marriage and the ordination of women as priests.
- Schism: The rejection of the authority and jurisdiction of the pope as head of the Church.
- Desecration of sacred species (Holy Communion).
- Physical attack on the pope.
- Sacramental absolution of an accomplice in sin against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments – against murder and bearing false witness, which you might think leaves Tony Blah’s local confessor in a difficult position.
- Unauthorized episcopal (bishop) consecration.
- Direct violation of confessional seal by confessor.
The following offenses warrant excommunication as a result of a judgment from a church authority:
- Pretended celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Mass) or conferral of sacramental absolution by one not a priest.
- Violation of confessional seal by interpreter and others.
Well, you may think you’re on safe ground with most of those, and anyway, what the Holy Father doesn’t find out won’t worry him unduly. On the other hand, you might want to drop Greg Reynolds down there in Melbourne a note offering a little encouragement and support.