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Thought control extends its reach in Lincoln


Recently I gave a lecture in Lincoln, Neb. Alert NCR readers will remember that Lincoln is the diocese where all members of Call to Action were declared excommunicated by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz in May of 1996. Although I have been a member of Call to Action since its beginning 25 years ago, I did not expect any particular difficulty. My speaking engagement was with the local Methodist college, Nebraska Wesleyan. I was speaking on the topic of my forthcoming book, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press, August 2000).

The term family was seen by many at the college as making this a ho-hum topic. In my lecture I planned to show that, far from blessing the “family values” type of family, Jesus appears distinctly hostile to the family. Recall his startling words in Luke 14:26-7: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” For most of Catholic history the choice of marriage was seen as distinctly second rate to that of celibacy. My book explores the ambiguity toward marriage and family in the Christian tradition.

However, shortly before my arrival in Lincoln, I was informed that the Catholic diocese had raised a great furor over my coming. An editorial in the diocesan paper declared that I was a “phony,” not a Catholic at all, certainly not a theologian and that I “advocated witchcraft!” The diocese coupled this protest with an assault on the college, declaring that Nebraska Wesleyan was guilty of “anti-Catholicism” for having invited me.

Mentioning a list of various other offenses against Catholics supposedly committed by the college, such as having condom machines on campus (untrue), the diocese threatened to advise the graduates of Catholic high schools not to go there and also to prevent education students from the college from having teaching internships in Catholic high schools. Spokespersons from one Catholic high school threatened to bring picketers to my lecture. In fact, no picketers showed up, but the result of the furor was that my lecture was packed with eager and interested listeners, contrary to the previous disinterest in the “family” topic.

In contrast to the vitriol pouring from the diocese, I was warmly welcomed by Call to Action Catholics of the area who invited me to a liturgy at the home of one of their members. This gathering gave me a glimpse of the situation of CTA Catholics in Lincoln since their excommunication four years ago. What has happened to them? Some I was told simply moved to Omaha, occasioning the running joke that excommunication was dissolved by crossing the Platte River. Others stopped going to church. Some attend a regular house liturgy put on by the Call to Action network in Lincoln. For a while they invited priests from outside to say Mass for them, but these priests received letters from the diocese threatening them with excommunication as well. Now they do eucharistic liturgies themselves. The one I attended was led by a woman religion professor.

A determined core group of CTA members tough it out in the parishes, continuing to go to Communion at Masses of friendlier priests. But the situation in all the parishes sounded distinctly unwelcoming for open-minded Catholics. One Catholic professor who came to teach at Wesleyan two years ago went to her local parish once. She was immediately told by the pastor that if her views on birth control were known, he would have to deny her Communion. She did not go back again. Others have been informed by priests verbally (and one by letter) not to come to Communion at their Mass.

Call to Action members told me that some older priests are quietly friendly, but dare not speak out publicly in any way. CTA members that belonged to parish or diocesan committees were told to resign. Jean Krejci, one such member, was told to stop coming to the meetings of the Bishop’s Hispanic Advisory Committee, which she helped to found. The committee has lost any dynamism since that time. More ominous, the diocese seems to have become the refuge of younger right-wing priests who have made it their base.

Bruskewitz clearly wishes to extend his thought control not only to all Catholic institutions, but to the entire town. Nebraska Wesleyan and the University of Nebraska, as well as the local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal-Star, are kept under surveillance. Speakers or articles deemed questionable to the conservative Catholic party line are quickly protested. Newman Club activities at the universities are tightly controlled. Faculty and staff are told they are unwelcome at Newman Club Masses. The bishop plans his own seminary where he can produce priests to his liking.

One question that has continually come to me since this visit is “Is Lincoln, Neb., the future of American Catholicism?” Progressive American Catholics may scoff at such a question, choosing to regard Lincoln as a “freak” situation of a right-wing extremist bishop. But those who cherish an open church need to remember that the people control Catholic institutions control the future of the American Catholic church. Autonomous house churches are wonderful as support groups, particularly for older people whose Catholic identity is long since confirmed. But these informal groups will not deliver church membership in the next generation.

By and large, progressive Catholics are not very successful in getting their own children to become regular churchgoers. If we are interested in having the creativity of the Vatican II generation of progressive American Catholics carried on into the future, it is time to get concerned about younger Catholics, those born after Vatican II. And this means defending the base for progressive Catholicism in Catholic institutions: parishes, religious orders, high schools, and colleges and seminaries.

This will entail a degree of investment of time and effort in Catholic institutions that many progressive Catholics have spurned, preferring to create house churches or independent movements, such as Call to Action. This option for voluntary organizations is not to be dropped. These are the main bases of progressive Catholicism at the moment. But movements such as house churches should not be set against institutional church reform. Rather they should become a base for efforts to enter into such institutions and find ways to organize to defend the presence of progressive Catholicism in them. Otherwise I fear that Bruskewitz, and not Call to Action, will command the future of the American Catholic church.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000