Vatican Backs ‘Call to Action’ Excommunications

(photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

LINCOLN, Neb.Rome has spoken. Will Call to Action members listen?

In a Nov. 24 letter to Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re confirmed the validity of Bishop Bruskewitz’s 1996 legislation that mandates excommunication for Catholics in his diocese who belong to the Call to Action organization.

“The judgment of the Holy See is that the activities of ‘Call to Action’ in the course of these years are in contrast with the Catholic faith due to views and positions held which are unacceptable from a doctrinal and disciplinary standpoint,” said Cardinal Re, who is prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. “Thus to be a member of this association or to support it is irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith.”

Speaking to the Register Dec. 11, Bishop Bruskewitz said one main objective of singling out Call to Action and the other groups was to call their members to repentance and to return to obedience to the Church.  

Another central objective, Bishop Bruskewitz said, was to ensure that “other people wouldn’t be lured by the incorrect or inaccurate advertisements of these groups.”

Said Bishop Bruskewitz, “These were groups that were, in some measure at least in this part of the world, subtly trying to lure Catholics into their web.”

Bishop Bruskewitz doesn’t anticipate that many Call to Action members will renounce their memberships because of Cardinal Re’s letter.

Said the bishop, “My impression is there is a general hatred of Catholic doctrine and Catholic discipline among large numbers of them.”

Call to Action was formed in 1978 in Chicago, with the aim of challenging the bishops’ authority and of overturning Church teachings in a variety of areas, including contraception, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

From its outset, the organization has served as a national forum for prominent Church dissenters such as Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng and American theologian Father Charles Curran. Both priests have been formally censured by the Vatican.

And while the secular media frequently seek out Call to Action leaders for comment, the group has never been able to attract broad support from everyday Catholics. According to Call to Action’s website, it currently has only 18,000 members, out of a total U.S. Catholic population of over 69 million.

When the organization announced in early 1996 that it planned to start a chapter in Nebraska, Bishop Bruskewitz responded decisively.

On March 19, 1996, he formally warned Call to Action members living in his diocese that they faced latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication if they retained their memberships after May 15 of that year.

Bishop Bruskewitz’s “extra-synodal legislation,” which was later confirmed by a diocesan synod, applies to members of Call to Action and Call to Action Nebraska. It also applies to members of 10 other groups: Planned Parenthood, Society of St. Pius X, Hemlock Society, St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls and Catholics for a Free Choice.

The Hemlock Society works to legalize physician-assisted suicide, and Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice both support legal abortion.

Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star and Rainbow Girls all are affiliated with the Masons. The Society of St. Pius X and St. Michael the Archangel Chapel both oppose certain reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“Membership in these organizations or groups is always perilous to the Catholic faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic faith,” said an announcement published March 22, 1996, in the diocesan Southern Nebraska Register newspaper.


Other dissenting organizations were quick to publicly oppose the Vatican. Voice of the Faithful repudiated the Church’s action on Dec. 12.

Cardinal Re’s Nov. 24 letter was written partly in response to a challenge to the 1996 diocesan legislation by Call to Action Nebraska member Jim McShane.

McShane, a retired professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska, wrote to Cardinal Re last February asking for an authoritative judgment on the matter.

Cardinal Re told Bishop Bruskewitz that he could inform McShane “that the Holy See considers that Your Excellency’s ruling in the case of ‘Call to Action Nebraska’ was properly taken within your competence as pastor of that diocese.”

After the Vatican letter was disclosed publicly in early December, McShane told the Register that he still rejects the validity of Bishop Bruskewitz’s 1996 legislation.

According to McShane, Cardinal Re’s letter appeared to be based on inaccurate, “third-hand” information about Call to Action’s objectives and beliefs.

“Am I expected to act on this?” McShane said, when asked if he would reconsider his Call to Action membership. “I don’t think so.”

McShane cited his experiences as a civil rights activist in the 1960s as justification for his continuing refusal to acknowledge Bishop Bruskewitz’s authority.

But Canon lawyer Pete Vere, author of Surprised By Canon Law: 150 Questions Laypeople Ask About Canon Law, said Call to Action is an unsuccessful attempt to promote the out-of-date perspectives that prevailed among 1960s-era social activists.

“It’s really a museum piece,” said Vere, 32. “It doesn’t speak to my generation of Catholics.”

From a canon law perspective, Vere said, Bishop Bruskewitz was always on solid ground. Cardinal Re’s letter simply confirmed that the 1996 legislation was a legitimate exercise of a diocesan bishop’s legislative authority.

Vere said the letter also upholds the accuracy of Bishop Bruskewitz’s conclusion that Call to Action membership is incompatible with authentic Catholicism, not only in the Diocese of Lincoln but in all Catholic dioceses everywhere.

Said Vere, “Morally, I don’t know how one could continue as a member of that organization and still maintain that one is a good Catholic.”


Still, the 1996 legislation has already had positive results in the Diocese of Lincoln.

“Some of the groups have simply folded their tents and gone away,” Bishop Bruskewitz said. “We’ve had some very wonderful conversions — people who had mistakenly thought they could belong to some Masonic organizations and still be Catholics left the Masonic organizations. Some people who had been associated with the priestly Society of St. Pius X, which is the schismatic group associated with Archbishop [Marcel] Lefebvre, have abandoned that and have returned to communion with the Church.”

Said Bishop Bruskewitz, “So there have been some salutary effects from the legislation that was enacted.”

Bishop Bruskewitz said that he did not take action against Call to Action and the other dissenting groups in hopes of influencing other bishops to follow his lead.

“I’ve received many words of encouragement and many promises of prayers and many words of gratitude from other bishops because of what I’ve done,” said Bishop Bruskewitz. “But I don’t intend to take care of anything except the Diocese of Lincoln, and I don’t intend to tell other bishops what to do or how to do it.”

(CNS contributed

to this report.)

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.