Imagine this conversation at the altar rail: Are you now or have you ever been a member of Call to Action? If the answer is yes, and you live in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, there will be no Communion for you. Nor will you be able to participate in a Catholic baptism or even have a Catholic burial.
As a Christmas gift to Lincoln's progressive Church reformers,Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican Congregation ofBishops, heartily approved the Inquisitional action of Bishop FabianBruskewitz, who excommunicated every single local member of thecountry's largest and most progressive church reform group, Call toAction.
Bruskewitz originally excommunicated local CTA members in 1996 (noone said the Vatican works fast), when the Lincoln CTA chapter wasformed. Ironically, CTA was founded in 1976 by the U.S. Conference ofCatholic Bishops to increase lay participation in church affairs.Independent of the church today, CTA supports a broad range of issues,many favored by the majority of U.S. Catholics, like ending clericalcelibacy, ordaining women, greater lay power in church affairs, andlifting the illogical and indefensible ban on birth control.
Bruskewitz declared membership in CTA (as well as in such otherorganizations as Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice) as"always perilous to...and totally incompatible with the Catholicfaith." He gave members one week to renounce their membership or be"automatically excommunicated." Lincoln CTA appealed that decision. Inhis letter of response, Cardinal Re confirmed that membership in orsupport of CTA was "irreconcilable with a coherent living of theCatholic faith," and declared that Bruskewitz's decision to issue ablanket excommunication was "properly taken."
It's an astonishing development. First, this is a massexcommunication. It flies in the face of a tradition of such actionsbeing seen as drastic and taken only on an individual level, though theChurch's record in that regard (excommunicating people who later aremade saints) is pretty abyssal.
Second, it demonizes some of the world's most articulate,progressive Catholic spiritual leaders who are involved with Call toAction. They include people like Sister Jeannine Gramick, who built apioneering ministry to gays and lesbians despite Vatican orders tosilence her and ban her work; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an outspokenadvocate for clergy sex abuse survivors; and Sister Joan Chittister, agiant among Church reformers, who the Vatican failed to silence on thesubject of women's ordination when her entire Benedictine order rose upin her defense.
This excommunication order also attests to the fact that Bruskewitzis a unchecked despot, clerically speaking. In fact, Bruskewitz is theonly diocesan bishop who has self-righteously repudiated the legitimacyof the U.S. Bishops' Charter on the Protection of Children and YoungPeople by steadfastly refusing to allow an audit of clergy sex abuse ofchildren in his diocese. In addition, Bruskewitz is the only bishop inthe U.S. that forbids altar girls.
Which brings me to my last point. Banishing from the church familythe whole membership of organizations like Call to Action in factbanishes the strongest advocates for change in the Church: women. As Iillustrate in my book Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading theFight to Change the Church, many progressive Catholic organizationswere founded by women, are led by women, and have large femaleconstituencies.
At this year's national CTA conference, on the occasion of theorganization's 30th anniversary, Sister Joan Chittister was the keynotespeaker. Taking God's instructions to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Ezechiel,and the women and the people of Jerusalem to "rise up," she demands thesame of her audience. "Speak up, speak out, speak on," she urges, forpeace, justice, the poor, ecumenism, and women's rights--in the churchand in the world.
Clearly, her charge to Catholic reformers to press on promises tobecome increasingly difficult and dangerous in the months ahead. Butthat's not dissuading CTA Lincoln; they've appealed theirexcommunication again, to the Vatican's highest court.
For more, see www.cta-usa.org/justchurch/lincoln/action
for a listing of alternate locations.