Straightforward Orthodoxy from Bishop Bruskewitz

A Shepherd Speaks

by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz

(Ignatius Press, 1997, 421pp., $14.95)

One day in the spring of 1996 I received a call from a network TV magazine show. Would I be willing to be interviewed about the situation in Lincoln, Neb.? Specifically, would I say something in defense of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz?

Lincoln and its bishop were big news just then. Bishop Bruskewitz had announced that Catholics who belonged to specific organizations opposed to Church teaching (e.g., Planned Parenthood, Catholics for a Free Choice, Call to Action, traditionalist groups that repudiate Vatican Council II, the Masons) would be excommunicated if they remained members after a certain date. The aim was to bring them back to their senses and put an end to public scandal.

That touched off a furor. There had been isolated cases of bishops excommunicating people over the years, but nothing quite like this. Was Bishop Bruskewitz setting a trend? Would there be open rebellion? Would the heavens fall? Even network TVnews, habitually dismissive of religion, had awakened from its secularist slumber and become interested.

Yes, I told the producer at the other end of the line, I would do the show. I didn't feel it was my business to voice either approval or disapproval of what the bishop had done. But I had no problem saying he'd faced up to real problems in the Church—dissidence and disloyalty on the part of some of her nominal members—and acted reasonably.

A few days later a camera crew showed up and shot some footage at my office. And a few days after that, on a business trip to New York, the network put me up in a Manhattan hotel suite (Heaven only knows how much that cost!), and another crew plus the producer spent the better part of a morning shooting the actual interview there.

I thought it went pretty well. On the way out even the cameraman spontaneously remarked, “It's a relief to hear somebody talk sense for a change.”

The afternoon of the day when the program was to air, the producer phoned me again.

“We had to drop your interview at the last minute because of length,” she said. “No hard feelings?”

I shrugged it off and went home.

I almost never watch television, and I didn't watch this time. One of my kids did. I asked her later how it went.

“They talked to the bishop,” she reported, “and then they talked to a half-dozen people who said he was wrong.”

That's show biz.

Whatever this anecdote may or may not prove, it surely illustrates an obvious fact: Bishop Bruskewitz didn't get a whole lot of support from the secular side for what he did. But what about the Church? Some Catholics plainly were appalled by the events in Lincoln; others just as plainly delighted: “Why don't the other bishops do the same?” they demanded.

The answer to that is obvious. Some bishops think the bishop of Lincoln was off base—and some even said so publicly at the time, more or less. Others who in principle might perhaps be inclined to emulate Bishop Bruskewitz wouldn't dream of trying the same bold tactic. One reason is that they know all too well that their own priests would torpedo them if they did.

Consider a much larger midwestern diocese where a group of senior pastors recently sent their new archbishop a letter—in due course leaked to the press—instructing him in no uncertain terms to back off on the enforcement of liturgical rules they'd grown comfortable violating.

Thanks largely to the policies pursued over the years by its bishops, Lincoln in fact is one of the handful of dioceses in the United States where the diocesan clergy would back their bishop in doing what Bishop Bruskewitz did. And the bishop himself? He appears to be thriving these days, thank you, a hero with orthodox Catholics nationwide.

One indication of this celebrity is the book at hand, AShepherd Speaks. It appears to be a collection of columns presumably first published in the Lincoln diocesan newspaper. (But shame on Ignatius Press for requiring readers to figure that out for themselves. This is the kind of information a publisher might be expected to pass along.)

Grouped in five sections (Our Trinitarian Faith, The Church, The Liturgical Year, The Sacraments, Living the Christian Mystery), these short articles cover a wide gamut of Catholic doctrine and practice. They are clearly and simply written and present a resolutely—and refreshingly—orthodox point of view. The impression comes through strongly of a past-orally engaged bishop who loves the Church and her teaching and likes nothing better than telling his people about both.

One looks in vain here for an analysis of the events in Lincoln in the spring of 1996. But there is at least the hint of an explanation in a column entitled “Dare To Be Different” dated January of that year.

“Can a Catholic be an oxymoron?” Bishop Bruskewitz asks. (An oxymoron, he explains, is a contradiction in terms—a square circle or something like that.) He goes on:

“A Catholic who embraces the false beliefs and evil morals that seem to penetrate a large sector of our contemporary culture is, in a real sense, an oxymoron.

“Among oxymoronic Catholics would have to be included those who claim membership in intrinsically evil organizations, such as the Freemasons and their associated groups, Planned Parenthood, and so on. These people would also have to include those who associate with schismatic groups, such as the socalled Society of Saint Pius X.

“Other oxymorons would be cowardly politicians who might claim to be Catholics but yet vote for and foster baby-killing, under the euphemism of ‘prochoice,’ and perhaps even those Catholic citizens who vote for pro-abortion politicians.

“There are times and places when we must share in our common humanity the concerns and values of the world around us. There are other times when we must flee from them, oppose them with all our strength, and dare to be different.”

Not very sophisticated, you say? Certainly not. The bishop merely happens to be right.

Russell Shaw writes from Washington, D.C.