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Excommunications Are Not the Answer


Who Is Call to Action?
Call to Dialogue

If you were to do an Internet search on the words “Diocese of Lincoln” and “excommunications,” you would come up with about 700 different sites addressing this topic in some way, shape or form. Some sites favor the excommunications, others are outraged. Either way, there’s a lot of talking going on about this topic.

In case you haven’t had the opportunity to keep up with this brouhaha, here’s some background information. In 1996, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, issued a “statement of extrasynodal legislation” in the Southern Nebraska Register, the diocesan newspaper, stating that Catholics in the diocese belonging to one of 12 organizations who did not rescind their membership would face automatic excommunication within a month.

The organizations were Call to Action, Call to Action Nebraska, Planned Parenthood, Society of St. Pius X, Hemlock Society, St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls and Catholics for a Free Choice.

Members of many of the organizations did not respond to the bishop’s move, but members of Call to Action did, and they cried foul. They appealed to both Bishop Bruskewitz and the Vatican.


Who Is Call to Action?

The organization Call to Action came out of the 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, Michigan, which was put together by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in connection with the country’s bicentennial. The conference also came in response to Pope Paul VI’s call in 1971 for the laity of the Church to “take up as their own proper task the renewal of the temporal order.” He added, “It is to all Christians that we address a fresh and insistent call to action.”

Before the conference, however, the U.S. bishops conducted two years of hearings as part of a creative consultation process, a move that led many to believe that change was possible.

At the conclusion of the conference—which included more than 100 bishops—1,340 voting delegates voted that the Catholic Church should “reevaluate its positions on issues like celibacy for priests, the male-only clergy, homosexuality, birth control, and the involvement of every level of the Church in important decisions.”

Up went the red flag. Many bishops began distancing themselves from the group, and Call to Action emerged from the conference as a lay-run organization. And the discussion that was supposed to be fostered came to a screeching halt. Suddenly “Let’s talk” became “Let’s not.” Lines were drawn and communication broke down over the years into an “us versus them” mentality.

Fast-forward to November 2006. Cardinal Giovanni Baptista Re, head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, sent a letter to Bishop Bruskewitz, saying that his actions 10 years prior were “properly taken within your competence as pastor of that diocese.” The letter also noted, “The judgment of the Holy See is that the activities of Call to Action in the course of these years are in contrast with the Catholic faith due to views and positions held which are unacceptable from a doctrinal and disciplinary standpoint.”

No other organization cited in the original edict was addressed by Cardinal Re’s letter.

So while Bishop Bruskewitz’s actions may be within Church law, many have said that the message it gives and the spirit in which it was done is not. In fact, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “A legislator is not to threaten automatic penalties (latae sententiae) unless perhaps against certain particularly treacherous offenses which either can result in more serious scandal or cannot be effectively punished by means of inflicted penalties (ferendae sententiae).” Furthermore, a legislator “is not to establish censures, especially excommunication, except with the greatest moderation and only for more serious offenses” (#1318).

When Bishop Bruskewitz first issued his statement in 1996, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and other bishops questioned the move. And no other U.S. bishops have issued similar declarations regarding membership in these 12 organizations.

Call to Dialogue

As can be expected, the news 10 years ago and this past November were met with press releases and statements galore. But what was missing and continues to be missing is dialogue.

And threatening those who do want to engage in dialogue is hardly the way to start the conversation. Bishop Bruskewitz’s actions come off as the equivalent of a parental “Because I said so” to the “why’s?” and “why not’s?” of an adult laity.

We have just begun to emerge from a very painful time in our Church with the clergy sex-abuse crisis. Polls are showing that confidence in our bishops is growing and so are numbers for Mass attendance. This raises the question: Is this really the best time to be showing people the door? Maybe first we should seriously talk about areas of disagreement.

What we need is a greater spirit of dialogue in our Church. And that means some real, honest, open-minded and open-hearted dialogue—on all sides. No more threats, no more name-calling, no pushing our agendas. Let’s just talk and listen. In the process we might learn something or see things from a different perspective. It can’t hurt to talk. We are, after all, members of one Church.—S.H.B.

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