Can You Be a Christo-Pagan in Prison?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 29, 2008 — 9 Comments

In the wake of a lawsuit, the Washington Department of Corrections has altered its policy regarding a prisoner’s adherence to multiple faiths. Under the old rules, an inmate had to get written permission from each faith before being able to claim dual adherence. Now, those barriers have been removed, and any inmate may simply declare their involvement in multiple religions.

“It used to be difficult for state prison inmates to belong to multiple faiths. The offender had to have written permission from each religion saying it was OK to be a member of both simultaneously … That changed Dec. 12, when the Corrections Department started allowing inmates to simply profess to belong to multiple religions simultaneously. The change was part of a settlement of an inmate’s lawsuit. The inmate had contended the state was violating federal law by prohibiting him from worshiping as both a Native American practitioner and as a Seventh-day Adventist. The department eventually relented, gave the inmate $1,500 and changed its policy. Not long after, Suss said, an inmate at McNeil Island decided to become both Catholic and Asatru, a movement harkening back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe and Scandinavia.”

The article interviews a Catholic prison chaplain who is taking a leave of absence due to this new development, and may not return because his traditionalist stance on faith makes dual-adherence a logical impossibility.

“Common sense says you cannot be a pagan Christian,” he said. “As a state chaplain, I must endorse state policy. I have to be willing to endorse this inmate’s freedom to be both religions at the same time, but my own convictions being a Catholic priest don’t allow for a Catholic to be a pagan at the same time.”

Before we go deeper into the priest’s problems, we need to take a moment to discuss the question of “Christo-Pagans” (Pagans who adhere to some form of Christian belief). Most Pagans don’t claim to have the “only” or “one true” way of relating to the divine. In theory, there is nothing preventing a Pagan from practicing within multiple faiths (though wild eclecticism is frowned on in some quarters), the problem arises when one of the claimed faiths has an exclusionary view of truth and conception of the divine (many forms of Christianity, for example). This can create hostility and criticism from both sides when it happens.

Outside of a prison environment, these dual-practitioners usually settle into a comfortable compromise of their own that rarely confronts the traditionalists within exclusionary faiths (or other Pagans). Often these dual (or multiple) faith adherents gravitate towards the more “liberal” manifestations of the traditional monotheisms, or simply create their own private or group practice. As a result you can find Quaker Pagans, Jewitchery, Morwics, and a wide variety of Christopagans (not to mention syncretic faiths like Santeria and Voodoo).

Inside of prison, where just about every activity is regimented and overseen, true religious freedom has been harder to come by, sometimes due to security concerns, but often due to rigid and often discriminatory views of how faith should be handled. But since 2000, when the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed, inmates have been winning wider freedoms, including the right to belong to more than one faith. A prospect that stymies some officials in Washinton.

“State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, heard of Suss’ situation and is adding language to an existing prisons bill aimed at protecting the jobs of chaplains whose duties come into conflict with their faith … ‘I don’t know how somebody can be a pagan and a Catholic,’ Carrell said. ‘That’s like being partly pregnant.'”

But this new freedom to engage in a multiple faiths is hardly a major burden on traditionalists. No Catholic, for example, will be forced to give communion to someone he feels has transgressed against the faith. In fact, the only real complaint comes down to buying religious supplies.

“If I stayed, the individual who identified himself as Asatru/Catholic could come in for religious items and if I refused, he could sue me,” Suss said. “And the department would not defend me because I refused to endorse state policy.”

When it was pointed out that a different clerk could sell the items, the disgruntled Catholic chaplain then displayed how out of touch he truly was with the modern world.

“Why should we allow them to be in prison what they can’t be on the street?”

Of course “on the street” people are free to believe (or disbelieve) whatever they want. Their religious and spiritual options are virtually limitless. They engage in several religious traditions with little to no negative repercussion. Perhaps it is time for Father Tom Suss to retire, after all, Pagans outnumber Catholics in Washington prisons (they are, in fact, second only to Protestants), and I haven’t heard of any official Pagan chaplains being hired to service that population. Perhaps lawmakers in Washington should deal with that issue before arguing over whether Christo-Pagans can truly exist.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • steward

    The list people can choose from is interesting – there are quite a few Christian selections, but Pagan – a polyglot definition if there ever was one – is a single selection. Now Protestantism tends to have the same basic rites across all denominations; Pagan sects differ. I think one thing that WA state should do is ask what kind of Pagan so they can better classify needs; I also suspect that many that claim Paganism see it as a form of Atheism in which you can force “The Man” to hand over some goodies. Want more goodies than the guy in the next cell? Claim additional religions!

  • Brock_tn

    The problem here, which many Pagans seem to be carefully ignoring, is that Catholic doctrine currently teaches that one cannot be a Catholic-hyphen-anything. One is either entirely Catholic or one is not. A person who identifies as a Catholic-Pagan has at best fallen into serious error and may well have committed mortal sin.Whether or not the PAGAN community is accepting of such things is kind of irrelevant, since a Catholic priest is going to be obligated to teach the people he works with that they CANNOT be both Catholic and Pagan. And he would be entirely justified under canon law in witholding the Eucharist from prisoners who insist in remaining in error. A good many Protestant denominations have similar theological views. And this new ruling is going to put many prison chaplains in a difficult position because their own religious beliefs and/or denominational rules will require them to treat Chrsto-Pagans differently than other prisoners.It’s a major dilemma for these chaplains…

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “It’s a major dilemma for these chaplains…”True, it will be a dilemma for many prison chaplains, but it is a dilemma that was bound to happen. Once the lawmakers and courts decided that prisoners have the same basic religious freedoms as law-abiding citizens (barring serious security risks) it was only a matter of time before the issue of claimed dual (or multiple) adherence came around. Many of the problems we see here result from a prison system that wasn’t/isn’t ready for a post-RLUIPA world.

  • Al

    Suss! !@!#$@$I was the sponsor for the Wiccan group at McNeil Island for a while, having to take over from a friend who had been doing it for a couple of years when he got called up for Iraq.Suss was *hated* by the Wiccan and Asatru inmates (the latter were forced to meet for holy days with the former as Suss didn’t recognize their group). I was constantly getting reports of Suss’ snide comments about paganism from the inmates and covert (and sometimes) overt pressure on them from him. Now, inmates bitch a lot about things that are minor but it was pretty clear at the time that Suss took his role as a Catholic priest to be far more important than wearing the impartial “Prison Chaplain” hat.Everyone is better off with him and his ilk gone from prisons that have to serve people who aren’t simply Christian.

  • Anonymous

    Al,I’m not sure what you heard, you had a unique position knowing some inmates at McNeil – but my position was even more engaging because I was an inmate at McNeil for many years and Tom had no axe to grind with ANY religion, simply the people or persons professing it if they were obviously transparent.What you didn’t see were behind the walls when you left through that front gate. And what you couldn’t have known is how some inmates used their religion as a spring board for whatever means necessary to undermine the system. If it was getting around security to smuggle drugs, or gain benefits and privileges only those few in that faith had some of it was a very real scam.I personally knew several inmates who claimed Wiccan and Asatru but ALWAYS shifted when events like cinco-demayo came around just so they could go to those festivities. In short, their beliefs were commonly transparent and I honestly don’t think you have all the facts.

  • Anonymous

    I dont like christo pagans, they are repulsive. Theres a perfectly good reason for it. 1. the bible quote that so many choose to ignore “thou shall not suffer a witch to live”2. Maellus Maleficarum3. Christians are anti women, most Pagans are female4. christians are anti magic, or they believe that “only jesus can cast magic”5. Catholicism started this way. Ugh. I grew up catholic, I dont want to go back there.6. christo pagans are just out to convert Pagans (ive seen websites that have bible quote after bible quote)7. Christianity is monotheistic, Paganism is Polytheistic.8. Christians have done many many bad things, all christo pagans are doing is tainting Paganism. 9. Charles Manson is a christo pagan.10. Dare we forget the Wichtrials that were done by Christians?

  • D.X.

    (I know I’m way late to the party, but I had to comment on this.)

    1. the bible quote that so many choose to ignore “thou shall not suffer a witch to live”

    “Pagan” does not automatically mean “witch,” nor do all people who fall under the very broad category of “Pagan” practice witchcraft. Also–note the time period and location in which the statement was written. What the Jews in the time before Christ’s birth would have considered a witch and witchcraft would have been very different from modern practice and application. There are also those who believe “witch” to have been a mistranslation of “poisoner” in the original text.

    2. Maellus Maleficarum

    It was written by a single man (or two, depending on whether you believe Kramer’s publisher had more than a token role in its creation) and relied heavily on a book that came before it (Formicarius, by Johannes Nider. Before the writing of Formicarius, people commonly believed magic was cast by educated men with complex rituals. This book is what introduced the idea of the uneducated female witch) Malleus Maleficarum was in an attempt to prove the existence of witchcraft and set up a system of identifying and convicting witches. Though it did spark many witch-hunts in Europe, it’s more of an example of the effects of propaganda than a testament to the overall behaviour of Christians at that time, let alone Christians today.

    And again, pagan =/= witch.

    3. Christians are anti women, most Pagans are female

    Both statements are gross generalizations. Not all Christians are anti-women, and there is a good number of male pagans out there.

    4. christians are anti magic, or they believe that “only jesus can cast magic”

    Actually, there are Christians who, though they don’t claim the label of “Christo-Pagan,” perform spells and rituals in the name of God and/or Christ as a pagan practitioner might do in the name(s) of his or her god(s) and/or goddess(es).

    That aside, how does simple belief that the one central to their own religion is the only one who can create miracles by virtue of his divinity repulsive?

    5. Catholicism started this way. Ugh. I grew up catholic, I dont want to go back there.

    Your preference is your preference, of course, but…Catholicism started out what way, exactly?

    6. christo pagans are just out to convert Pagans (ive seen websites that have bible quote after bible quote)

    Blanket generalization. Some might want to convert people to what they feel is right, but that doesn’t mean they ALL do. Just because someone claims to be Christo-pagan and has Bible verses on their site doesn’t mean they’re out to convert anyone, though. Sharing is not a conversion attempt.

    7. Christianity is monotheistic, Paganism is Polytheistic.

    That shows how the two can be at odds (though there are several pagan religions and it’s not impossible that there might be a monotheistic one in the mix), but taking two contradicting things doesn’t automatically make the one who’s trying it “repulsive.”

    Also, it’s not impossible for someone to be a pagan and not worship any pagan gods. There are non-religious witches who consider themselves pagan because they follow what is typically recognised as a pagan practice.

    8. Christians have done many many bad things, all christo pagans are doing is tainting Paganism.

    Yes, people have done bad things and spilled blood in the name of Christianity, and so have non-Christian people acting on behalf of their own gods. A Christian would have just as much right to say that Christo-Pagans taint Christianity. There are no “pure, innocent” religions.

    9. Charles Manson is a christo pagan.

    His religion had nothing to do with what he did. He did not act in the name of any religion, and during one of his prison stays before the murders, it was stated that “he never remain[ed] long enough with any given teachings to reap meaningful benefits.” Around that time, he was claiming to be a Scientologist, not a Christo-Pagan. He became a sort of God-figure to his family of followers and he encouraged that to manipulate them. He was a twisted man who used a twisted interpretation of Revelations and the Beatle’s song “Helter Skelter” (IIRC, his “family” even believed the BEATLES were the four Horsemen)as his philosophy. This speaks more about him than any religion he professed.

    10. Dare we forget the Wichtrials that were done by Christians?

    And again, a pagan is not always a witch. And the things that led up to the trials in Salem were a combination of political tension between the people of Salem Village and Salem Town, an unexplainable “illness” with no discernible cause and as such was blamed on bewitching, now thought to be ergot poisoning (a fungus that would have been able to thrive during the spring and summer prior to the craze that began in winter and could have easily contaminated the rye crop), and the afflicted being pressured to name their attackers.

    The girls who accused the first “witches” were basically on LSD from contaminated bread and at the time, the supernatural was as likely an explanation as the scientific. More likely, in fact, since they lacked any real diagnostic technology. From there, mass hysteria took over. In such a situation, people will be afraid and want answers. They want the control that’s been taken from them. If this had happened in a pagan society of the time, they wouldn’t have known what was happening any better than the Christian colonists did, and there’s nothing to say that those frightened, confused people wouldn’t have done something along the same lines in hopes of feeling in control again.

  • alvee

    Christianity is a pagan religion. It is rife with myths and rituals stolen from paganism. To see Christianity as anything other than pagan is simply ignorant. I suggest T.W.Doane's monumental work "Christian Myths and Parallel's in Other Religions."

  • alvee

    In fact Christianity is probably the oldest existing pagan religion in the West, since Wicca is a twentieth century invention. History books folks. Read some history books.