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 of Bishops, heartily approved the Inquisitional action of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who excommunicated every single local member of the country's largest and most progressive church reform group, Call to Action.
Bruskewitz originally excommunicated local CTA members in 1996 (no one said the Vatican works fast), when the Lincoln CTA chapter was formed. Ironically, CTA was founded in 1976 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic 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 clerical celibacy, ordaining women, greater lay power in church affairs, and lifting the illogical and indefensible ban on birth control.
Bruskewitz declared membership in CTA (as well as in such other organizations as Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice) as "always perilous to...and totally incompatible with the Catholic faith." He gave members one week to renounce their membership or be "automatically excommunicated." Lincoln CTA appealed that decision. In his letter of response, Cardinal Re confirmed that membership in or support of CTA was "irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith," and declared that Bruskewitz's decision to issue a blanket excommunication was "properly taken."
It's an astonishing development. First, this is a mass excommunication. It flies in the face of a tradition of such actions being seen as drastic and taken only on an individual level, though the Church's record in that regard (excommunicating people who later are made saints) is pretty abyssal.
Second, it demonizes some of the world's most articulate, progressive Catholic spiritual leaders who are involved with Call to Action. They include people like Sister Jeannine Gramick, who built a pioneering ministry to gays and lesbians despite Vatican orders to silence her and ban her work; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an outspoken advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors; and Sister Joan Chittister, a giant among Church reformers, who the Vatican failed to silence on the subject of women's ordination when her entire Benedictine order rose up in her defense.
This excommunication order also attests to the fact that Bruskewitz is a unchecked despot, clerically speaking. In fact, Bruskewitz is the only diocesan bishop who has self-righteously repudiated the legitimacy of the U.S. Bishops' Charter on the Protection of Children and Young People by steadfastly refusing to allow an audit of clergy sex abuse of children in his diocese. In addition, Bruskewitz is the only bishop in the U.S. that forbids altar girls.
Which brings me to my last point. Banishing from the church family the whole membership of organizations like Call to Action in fact banishes the strongest advocates for change in the Church: women. As I illustrate in my book Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, many progressive Catholic organizations were founded by women, are led by women, and have large female constituencies.
At this year's national CTA conference, on the occasion of the organization's 30th anniversary, Sister Joan Chittister was the keynote speaker. Taking God's instructions to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Ezechiel, and the women and the people of Jerusalem to "rise up," she demands the same of her audience. "Speak up, speak out, speak on," she urges, for peace, justice, the poor, ecumenism, and women's rights--in the church and in the world.
Clearly, her charge to Catholic reformers to press on promises to become increasingly difficult and dangerous in the months ahead. But that's not dissuading CTA Lincoln; they've appealed their excommunication again, to the Vatican's highest court.
For more, see www.cta-usa.org/justchurch/lincoln/action