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Catholics of Lincoln deserve better than this

Catholics of Lincoln deserve better than this

The diocese of Lincoln, Neb., is a tranquil, rural place where one might expect nature, grace and contemporary life to get along in harmony under the leadership of a wise and kindly shepherd. But Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is something else.

Bruskewitz burst on the national scene some years ago by threatening to excommunicate a wide selection of his flock, from those who might be Freemasons to those who might be in the Hemlock Society. A dozen groups in all met with his disfavor, but the prime object of his ire was Call to Action Nebraska whose members he automatically excommunicated unless they jumped ship at once.

As the bishop’s luck would have it, though, this is not the 17th century. When the local Call to Action members politely but firmly refused to disband on command, Bruskewitz, having used up his ultimate weapon of excommunication, went into an impotent rage and rampage nothing short of a scandal.

His diocesan newspaper is called the Southern Nebraska Register. In the Catholic world the bishop is usually publisher, and what appears is neither more nor less than what the publisher wishes.

Consider, then, the editorial of the April 14 issue, which begins: “In a failed attempt to infect decent people with their ideological pathologies, the anti-Catholic sect Call to Action has recently reached into a theological sewer and brought to Nebraska Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, an apostle of sexual perversion.”

A reality check: These words are written by a Catholic bishop or one of his surrogates (nowhere would an editor’s head roll faster for misrepresenting the publisher’s wishes than in Lincoln) in the name of Christianity, which is all about the healing and renewal Christ came to bestow.

Another reality check. Gramick has devoted her religious life to the service of the church, especially gays and lesbians but others as well. She has endured years of harassment by the Vatican, not to mention right-wing zealots here at home, yet remained obedient to Rome and is in good standing in the church.

Another reality check: Call to Action, with more than 20,000 members nationally, is not a gang of outlaws; it’s not even under investigation by Rome. Its members include many priests and several bishops -- it seems appropriate to mention these specifically lest the laity lack sufficient spiritual heft in Lincoln.

Now go back and reread the venom of that first sentence of Bruskewitz’s editorial.

At the time of the excommunication rampage, Bruskewitz, instead of reaching for the gravity and charity one expects from a bishop, chose instead a more feisty, at times jocular path, bamboozling interlocutors with a combination of cleverness and defiance that obviously plays well in ultraright circles. For the record, NCR opened its pages to Bruskewitz at the time and gave him two pages to explain the unseemly path he had taken, a path down which no other members of the U.S. hierarchy followed him.

It might be salutary to take the haughty road and write Bruskewitz off as a rustic buffoon, except for two things.

In the first place there is the intensity of his spleen, the sheer lack of civility and decency, not to mention charity, in the vitriol coming from the Lincoln chancery. In a 1997 column called “Ask the Register,” written by an anonymous priest, Patty Crowley, 84 at the time, cofounder with her late husband of the Christian Family Movement and, in the 1960s, the first woman ever to serve on a papal commission, was the subject of a question. The Register answered: “Crowley is a very old degenerate who roams about promoting sexual immorality. Nobody pays much attention to what she says, except perhaps some depraved members of the Call-to-Action sect. Her views deserve no consideration whatsoever.”

In a Feb. 25 attack on feminist theologian (and NCR columnist) Rosemary Ruether, a Register editorial opined: “She is no Catholic, and it approaches the absurd to call her squalid teachings ‘theology.’ ” And on the same occasion: “Even the most ignorant of anti-Catholic bigots must recognize that Ruether is not a Catholic.” One instance follows another of this revolting, if not actionable, public hatred. Fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus had a point: “No wild beasts are as hostile to humans as Christians are to one another.”

The second reason Bruskewitz cannot be written off as a buffoon is that two priests from his diocese were recently made bishops. True, two swallows do not make a summer, and these may be admirable candidates, but every church-watcher knows that such elevations to the episcopate mean movers and shakers in Rome are listening to and favorably disposed to the local prelate back home. An American sister reported being at a papal audience at which Bruskewicz was mentioned, and John Paul allegedly responded with “couraggio, couraggio,” in effect, right on, Bishop! This is heady stuff drifting back to Lincoln.

But Bruskewitz’s Vatican backing is more than that twinkle in the pope’s eye. The continued intemperance of this man, and his public fulminations against anyone who does not share his mean-spirited views, at a time when so many theologians have had to go underground with their thoughts for fear of retribution, is a bitter commentary on an aging Roman curia whose members struggle frantically to settle old scores, consolidate positions and promote friends before this ailing pope dies. It would not be the first time in history that power brokers within the church, for their various ends, let the mantle of approval fall on the oddest of shoulders.

Wrote Bruskewitz or his surrogates in that April 14 Register editorial: “Sr. Gramick is a sorry and tragic figure who needs prayers and pity for her sordid mind.”

It is time someone said to Bruskewitz, as Army Counsel Joseph Welsh once and famously said to red-baiting demagogue Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no shame?”

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000