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Dueling Catholic conferences enliven Lincoln

NCR Staff
Lincoln, Neb.

Jim McShane, a member of Call to Action in this city, was reflective at the end of a conference marking the first anniversary of his excommunication by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz.

"It is Pentecost," he said, and the atmosphere at the Call to Action-Nebraska conference had been "wonderfully good-spirited. If it's true that God's ordinary way of working on people is through other people, then we have been well worked on."

About 200 sympathetic Catholics from 13 states had gathered May 16 and 17 in Lincoln in support of approximately 60 Catholics affected by the excommunication. The penalty was levied against Catholic members of several organizations, including Masonic groups, although its primary target was Catholics refusing to give up membership in the newly formed Call to Action-Nebraska. The penalty, which Bruskewitz said is self-imposed under canon law, applies only to people in the Lincoln diocese.

The same weekend, across town some 800 Catholics -- many of them responding to a push in local parishes -- rallied behind Bruskewitz at a two-day counter-conference, named Call to Holiness. Nine speakers promoted personal holiness, evangelism and strict obedience to the pope, while denouncing dissent, feminism, inclusive language, women priests and the role of conscience in seeking truth.

At Call to Action, those who fall under the excommunication penalty spoke of the pain, isolation and sense of injustice they'd experienced, not only in the past year, but during years of living in one of the nation's most conservative dioceses. Lincoln is one of two dioceses in the United States where girls are barred from being altar servers and eucharistic ministers and are discouraged from serving as readers at Mass.

McShane said the group would be deciding within the next couple of weeks whether to appeal to the Vatican to have the excommunication rescinded. So far, they have appealed, with no effect, they said, to Bruskewitz, and then to local clergy and laity and to U.S. Catholic bishops individually for support. McShane said the decision by Lincolnites to form a Call to Action chapter had been rooted in long-standing frustration. For at least 15 years, many had felt "as a matter of conscience" that the diocese was too narrow, particularly in the restrictions placed on women, he said. "Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz was not a new outrage, but the continuation of an old one."

Jim and Carol McShane and another couple, John and Jean Krejci, said their pain stemmed not only from being denied the church's sacraments -- and wondering whether they would be able to receive a Catholic burial, should any of them die before the situation is resolved -- but also from being shunned by neighbors, friends and fellow parishioners, people they have known for years.

"This is perhaps the most difficult part of the excommunication," Jim McShane said, "the isolation from those who ought to be our friends, our companions on the journey of faith." After the penalty was announced, he said "people turned their backs" when he walked onto the parking lot at St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Lincoln, where he'd been a member for 25 years.

At Call to Holiness, Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, publisher of Catholic magazines and founder of the St. Ignatius press in San Francisco, said people who find excommunication unduly harsh have a distorted view of what it means.

"Excommunication should be seen more as 'truth in packaging' " than as a "severe medieval" penalty, as it has been portrayed in some newspapers, he said. "I think excommunication is simply saying that you, by your practices and beliefs, are no longer part of the community. As Bishop Bruskewitz has said, Lutherans can go to heaven. They're just not part of the Catholic community."

Further, Fessio said, it's wrong to refer to Call to Action as the left of a spectrum and Call to Holiness as the right. "People here at Call to Holiness accept the teachings of the Catholic church and its tradition," he said. "I call that Catholic."

Call to Action, a 20-year-old reform-oriented organization that has grown both locally and nationally since Bruskewitz's action, officially supports optional celibacy for priests, ordaining women, consultation with the laity in developing teaching on human sexuality and broad diocesan input on selection of bishops. Robert Heineman, a member of the national staff, said local chapters are independent and are not required to take those positions.

Bruskewitz, the only bishop to take action against Call to Action members, has said membership in the organization is "always perilous to the Catholic faith and most often totally incompatible with the Catholic faith." That statement is broadly presumed to imply heresy. However, in late January, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who oversees church doctrine, said at a news conference that Catholics who reject certain teachings, including the church's ban on women priests, are "not necessarily heretics." Their perspective is "not grounds for excommunication" under church law, he said, although "they are making a serious error against the faith."

James A. Coriden of the Washington Theological Union, a canon lawyer, issued an opinion last year saying that Bruskewitz's premise is unproven and his action was unjust, unreasonable, unparalleled, arbitrary, overly broad and contrary to the spirit and letter of the church's Code of Canon Law.

As for Ratzinger's statement that to disagree with the church's teaching on women's ordination is "not heretical," Fessio said, "It's confusing to me. I don't think you can be Catholic and not accept this teaching."

At the Call to Action conference, Robert McClory of Chicago, a member of Call to Action's board, said that such a top-down, exclusive view of the church is "erroneous." McClory urged his listeners to refrain from yielding "the high ground" to conservatives. "Theologically, morally and pastorally we are on the high ground" he said."Why is it that no bishop has spoken out in support of Bishop Bruskewitz?" McClory asked. "I submit that none is likely to, because they understand theology. Narrow, exclusionary theology is not orthodoxy. It is heterodoxy."

The McShanes said that some members of Call to Action-Nebraska had withdrawn from the group after Bruskewitz's order and others have joined, so that the group now has 60 members -- 40 more than it had a year ago. Nationally, Call to Action has grown from 13,000 to 18,000 over the past year, according to Dan Daley, Call to Action codirector. Daley, who attended the conference in Lincoln, said, "As you can see, the ultimate weapon has been launched and the movement is alive and growing." However, Daley said, "the condemnation" of Call to Action had inhibited the organization's ability to "get out our positive message."

Call to Action leaders point out that, according to several national polls, a majority of American Catholics support the organization's agenda.

Carol McShane said she considered the Call to Holiness conference -- organized in response to the plans for a Call to Action meeting in Lincoln -- to be a positive sign. "Eight hundred of them over there are focused on 200 of us," she said. "They can feel our energy. I find that hopeful."

In Lincoln, some people who fall under the excommunication order do not receive Communion at Mass; others do, dismissing what they regard as an unjust penalty, and some said they worship outside the diocese. Jim McShane is opposed to ignoring the ban. "What is happening in Lincoln cries out for redress," he said. "If everyone in the Lincoln diocese who lives under the ban ignores it, we relieve responsible authority of the burden of restoring a just order."

Several speakers at the Call to Action meeting said dissent from certain "nonessential" church teachings is permissible according to church teaching. The conference was called "A Matter of Conscience."

John Krejci, conference organizer, said Lincoln is "a symbol for church renewal. Church renewal is inevitable," despite the "vilifying and demonizing" of reform-minded Catholics by conservatives in the church.

Participants in Call to Holiness said otherwise. Tim Brox, a 28-year-old convert to Catholicism and manager of Gloria Deo, a Catholic bookstore in Lincoln, said of Call to Action, "It is frustrating to me as a convert to see this attitude of 'faithful dissent.' The more divided we are, the less able we are to bring people to Jesus Christ." Brox, who converted from "lukewarm Methodism" four years ago was overseeing his store's booth at Call to Holiness.

"I have no doubt there was a lot of truth spoken at the other conference," he said. He noted that Fr. Michael McDonagh, a Call to Holiness speaker, "is fond of saying the trouble with rat poison is that it's 99 percent corn meal and 1 percent poison." McDonagh is founder of a religious community in Dallas, Marian Servants of the Holy Spirit, whose aim is to restore the rite of confession to its former "prominent place" in the life of the church.

At Call to Action, keynote speaker Edwina Gately asked, "How can anything be final, be finished, be definitive, when scientists tell us that 90 percent of the cosmos is a mystery?"

Gately told several stories to illustrate how her "pre-Vatican II" notion of God had grown "larger and larger" through a series of life experiences. "God calls us out of our boxes," she said. "We must stop confusing the church with God. The church is a fallible human instrument struggling to reflect the divine."

Ray McGovern of Washington, the father of five children, got the most enthusiastic response at the conference for his story about how he has supported women's ordination simply by standing during Sunday Masses, even when others sit. His quiet protest, sparked by an 8-year-old daughter's indignation on learning that women cannot be priests, caused rancorous divisions at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Washington, where he had been a longtime member.

Both conferences ended with Mass, although Call to Action leaders stressed that Mass was not part of the conference program. Their celebrant was Fr. Frank Cordaro, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese. Cordaro has served time in prison for his protests against nuclear weapons. "I'm a priest in good standing and they're Catholics in good standing," he said. Cordaro is unable to celebrate Mass in Omaha, Neb., however, since Archbishop Elden Curtiss stripped him of his priestly faculties there last June after the Omaha World Herald published Cordaro's letter to the editor. In it, he criticized Curtiss and Bruskewitz for refusing to take strong stands against the death penalty and nuclear weapons while denouncing "reform-minded Catholics."

At the Call to Action Mass, a prayer beginning "Our Mother Who Art in Heaven" was recited in addition to the traditional "Our Father," as was a "penitential prayer" written by Ray McGovern asking for forgiveness for the church's offenses against women.

The Call to Holiness Mass was celebrated by Bruskewitz, who expressed "profound gratitude" to organizers and speakers and for "the exceptionally kind words spoken of this diocese and its unworthy bishop." His homily on truth and freedom centered on the point that liberation comes in "doing what God wants" rather than being "slave to a thousand different pulls in this direction and that."

Parts of the Mass were chanted in Latin. No women participatedin ministries at the Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997