Monday, July 28, 2014

Quote of the Day

Nothing seems to stop the force of compassion. In a world long drenched in inequity and soreness, it stays. It stays with a ferocious resiliency. Nothing is able to keep it down. There is no weariness or bloodshed or sorrow that can come close to destroy it. The reverse is true: the more ridiculous it is to show acts of compassion, the more it endures. It is abundantly wasteful, being thrown about sometimes in futile or harsh settings. It refuses to fade away even when brutality and greed get their way in the world. They have not and can not extinguish the force of compassion.

Another tenacious grace: hope. It is far more than wishing for better tomorrows. It is having gracious awareness of what is going on right now. It is seeing this life as a bewildering tapestry of miracles, and not doubting that this is the way it will continue. This sort of hope breeds patience. We do not expect a particular outcome. We find it more reasonable and easy to to know that whatever is ahead is completely unknown. But what is next will be sparkled with hints of the extraordinary gift just be a part of God’s fabric.

This sort of hope allows us greater permission to acknowledge when the present has darkness or awkwardness. Having this deep hope allows us to better settle into the messiness and frayed parts of our lives, remembering it has all, and will be all, weaved into a sacred journey. It does not remove from us any torment or confusion. It helps us know what to do: surrender the troubles of our lives to this God who seeks closeness.

– Pat Malone, SJ
Excerpted from Greg Kandra's article,
"R.I.P, Fr. Pat Malone"
July 24, 2014

Recommended Off-site Links:
Rev. Patrick Malone, Pastor Who Ministered to Ground Zero Workers, Dies at 55 – Alia Conley (World-Herald, July 22, 2014).
Firm: The Blogsite of Patrick Malone, SJ

Sunday, July 27, 2014

To Heal Church, Nienstedt Must Resign


By the Editorial Board of the Star Tribune

Note: This editorial was first published July 26 by the Star Tribune.

Signs abound that the leadership crisis sparked by priest abuse of children in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has come to a breaking point. Consider these developments just this month:

• A judge in St. Paul — a city whose history and culture are inseparable from the Roman Catholic Church — refused to set aside a lawsuit’s claim that the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona had created a public nuisance with their handling of abusive priests. District Judge John Van de North said he is seeking more information on that charge as he allowed a suit to go forward on claims of negligence.

• An affidavit by former archdiocesan canon law chancellor Jennifer Haselberger reported a “cavalier attitude about the safety of other people’s children” at the archdiocese’s top levels, leading to lax investigations and continued priestly service by suspected abusers. Haselberger resigned from her post in 2013 because, she said, she could no longer work for an organization that was not fully cooperating with an investigation of illegal activity within it.

• The archdiocese confirmed to the Star Tribune that Archbishop John Nienstedt is the subject of a months-long investigation of sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests and other men.

• Minnesota Public Radio aired an hourlong documentary, “Betrayed by Silence,” detailing how three St. Paul/Minneapolis archbishops — Nienstedt and his predecessors John R. Roach and Harry Flynn — ignored or downplayed evidence and, until this year, concealed the names of priests credibly accused of molesting children.

• An editorial in the New York Times said that if Pope Francis is serious about holding bishops accountable for the abuse scandal that has rocked the church, a “good place to start” would be St. Paul and Minneapolis, with the removal of Nienstedt.

Today, with sadness, this newspaper joins that call. For the sake of one of this state’s most valued institutions and the Minnesotans whose lives it touches, Nienstedt’s service at the archdiocese should end now.

It will take months, and maybe years, for legal and ecclesiastical proceedings to sort out the charges that have been leveled by Haselberger and others who’ve been wronged by the church and its leaders. Those cases should go forward with care and diligence. Minnesotans deserve assurance that in this state, justice is available even when “the least of these” fall prey to people entrusted with power.

But the continued presence of the embattled Nienstedt in the chancery increases the likelihood that those matters will impede the work of the church in the larger community. Deservedly or not, Nienstedt has become the face of a coverup that has put children in harm’s way. His credibility is in tatters. The archdiocese needs a different leader — a reformer — to have a reasonable chance of restoring its damaged reputation and sustaining its service to the community.

We’ve been hesitant to make this call until now for two reasons. We consider it presumptuous for a secular news organization to advise a church about internal matters. And just two years ago, the Star Tribune Editorial Board and Nienstedt openly quarreled about the ballot question that would have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage in this state. Although that disagreement is unrelated to today’s call for Nienstedt to depart, we know some readers will question our motivation.

A larger concern now overrides those considerations, however. The Catholic name attaches not only to churches, but to schools, colleges, hospitals, homeless shelters, congregate dining, care for the elderly and a host of other good works that serve more than Catholics. The damage that brand name is suffering in Minnesota has become severe enough to put public support — and, crucially, donor support — of all things Catholic at risk. The abuse scandal has become more than an internal problem.

Catholic organizations, including the annual fund drive formerly known as the Archbishop’s Appeal, have gone to considerable lengths since the scandal broke to distance themselves from the chancery, both legally and in public perception. The distraction from core mission that those efforts represent is regrettable. The likelihood that they will also be insufficient if Nienstedt remains is growing, and worrisome. Minnesota needs the work that those church-affiliated entities do.

This state also has benefited since its founding from the calls for compassion, social justice and civic harmony that have emanated from this archdiocese. The moral authority that those calls once carried is now badly eroded, and Nienstedt is in no position to restore it.

Neither does the chancery incumbent stand much chance of rallying support for new practices and attitudes that might prevent future scandals. The church is paying a high price for its misdeeds and misjudgment. But it is also being presented with a rare opportunity to bring in a new order of transparency and accountability, provided a leader emerges who can rally the faithful behind a reform agenda.

We’ve heard from prominent Minnesota Catholics who have made quiet but urgent pleas to the Vatican for Nienstedt’s replacement. Those pleas deserve heed. But we also hope Nienstedt takes to heart the example of Pope Benedict. Eighteen months ago, Benedict concluded that he was not up to the task of meeting the church’s leadership needs, and broke with 600 years of tradition to resign from office. His decision was not a display of weakness, but of love for his church. Nienstedt’s resignation would show the same.

See also the previous PCV posts:
Archbishop Niestedt Needs to Go. Now
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, "Regime Change is Not Enough"
Healing Can’t Start Until the Knife is Removed from the Wound

Related Off-site Links:
Roman Catholicism's Fundamental Problem: The Cultic Priesthood and Its "Diseased System" of Clericalism – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, July 23, 2014).
Jennifer Haselberger Was Ignored, Bullied Before Blowing Whistle on Archdiocese, Records Show – Jesse Marx (City Pages, July 15, 2014).
MN Archdiocese Wanted to Label Marriage Equality-Supporting Priest ‘Disabled’ – Andy Birkey (, July 22, 2014).
Betrayed by Silence: How Three Archbishops Hid the Truth – Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio, July 14, 2014).
Has Archbishop Nienstedt's "Shadow" Finally Caught Up With Him? – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, July 1, 2014).

Image: Michael Bayly.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Embracing Ambiguous Parables: Looking for Insight on Justice and Change in the Church

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following is the text of a reflection delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 19-20, 2014.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Some days it’s hard to motivate myself to go to church. I’m not talking about a lack of gumption to get out of bed, but rather about being shocked by news stories so bad that you’re embarrassed to self identify as a Catholic. This was one of those weeks for me. Listening to MPR’s investigative journalism series about the clergy sexual abuse cover up in the Twin Cities Catholic Church, and learning of a new lawsuit against the Archdiocese, made me simultaneously grateful for good journalists and aghast at how wayward an institution representing the teachings of Jesus had become.

It is with this frustration and malaise that I approached this week’s Gospel reading which, perhaps serendipitously, had something to say about good versus bad, justice versus injustice. In this Gospel (Matthew 13: 24-43) we hear three parables, followed by a troublesome explanation. While I’ll come back to the explanation, the first parable portrays a farmer who instructs his workers to wait on removing weeds from his wheat field until harvest time (the weeds having been sown by an enemy). The second and third parables then describe heaven using two different metaphors: heaven is like the small mustard seed that grows into a bush; and heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into flour making the batch of dough rise.

As a college professor, I’ve always admired Jesus’ abilities as a teacher. While many teachers are loath to admit this, students actually forget the vast majority of what we impart to them. For example, while I think it’s pretty darn cool that the Tropic of Capricorn may be found at 23 ½ degrees south latitude, and that this is the southernmost point of direct solar radiation, these factoids almost instantly vanish from my students’ minds after the midterm exam. However, what many good teachers learn over time is that stories stick in students’ minds much longer than factoids. Indeed, students may forget the textbook explanation of the Tropic Capricorn – but still recall my story of being busted for speeding by the police in Botswana as I raced over the Tropic of Capricorn in 2012 – excitedly telling my son that we were crossing this line on, of all days, March 21 – the vernal equinox.

Clearly Jesus knew the power of stories as an effective way to convey understanding. Much of what we know he actually said has been passed down to us in the context of these stories (or versions of these stories), which still resonate some 2000 years later. Jesus also liked to work in metaphors. The Bible, reflecting the largely rural livelihoods of the time it was written, is rife with agricultural and pastoral metaphors and stories. The nice thing about a metaphorical story is that not only is there a greater chance that it will be remembered, but it often allows you to convey a certain amount or nuance or even contradiction.

The challenge for us in our contemporary American setting is that the majority of us have little or no connection to agriculture. Therefore the nuance and contradiction embedded in these stories and metaphors may be lost on us – or worse yet – reinterpreted to a different end.

Take the first parable about the farmer who instructs his workers to wait on removing weeds from his wheat field until harvest time (the weeds having been sown by an enemy). This is interesting on a couple of different fronts. The first is that letting weeds mature alongside your wheat crop is bad agricultural advice because weeds compete with your crop, resulting in a poor harvest. While the folly of such advice might not jump out at us now, it likely would have been apparent to Jesus’ largely agrarian audience – and a very strong signal that this story was indeed a metaphor for something else. The metaphorical meaning, many believe, is a warning to not rush to pass judgment, to not be too hasty to identify and pull weeds - or to sort out the bad from the good.

Now why might Jesus urge such caution? It could be that we just don’t know enough to adequately differentiate between the weeds and the wheat, between the bad and the good. For example, I distinctly recall as a young Peace Corps volunteer going out to work in the farm fields of my host family in Mali, West Africa. The task was to weed a millet field early in the growing season. The challenge for me was that the young millet plants and the weeds were virtually indistinguishable. As such, with all the good intention of helping my host family, I set about pulling up their prized millet plants which would grow into a staple food crop. Fortunately my family quickly noticed the unfolding destruction and, ever so graciously, suggested that I might take a break.

The other reason for caution and restraint in rushing to judgment is that weeds, like bad or even evil behavior, can be subjectively classified as such. Take the common dandelion. Americans spend millions annually to expunge this so-called weed from their lawns. In contrast, my depression era grandmother used to eat dandelion greens as a staple in her summer diet. In fact, dandelions have been gathered as food for millennia, and were cultivated for consumption in some areas of Eurasia. Furthermore, dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. The point is that dandelions are nutritious food in some contexts, and weeds (or something to be expunged) in another. Dare I suggest that our distinctions between right and wrong can sometimes be similarly subjective. For example, mixed race and same-sex relationships were long viewed as illegal, wrong, and punishable in our country. This only began to change after a protracted civil rights struggle – and such relationships are still seen as a problem in many areas of the US and the world. As such, given the somewhat subjective nature of classifying good and bad, caution and restraint in rushing to judgment is sound advice.

While we need to be cautious and careful about passing judgment, does this mean there is no room for distinguishing between good and bad, or for calling out injustice when we see it? The problematic explanation at the end of the gospel offers one possible answer to this question. It suggests that “the evildoers [will be thrown] into the fiery furnace, where they will weep and gnash their teeth… [and] the just will shine like the sun in the realm of God.” In other words, it suggests (in a way) that we put up with the current injustice with the comfort of knowing that justice will be rendered in the afterlife. Now, I’ll be honest, I flagged this explanation as problematic because I don’t really care for the fire and brimstone language. I see the advice as a palliative for the masses (urging people to put up with bad situations), and most biblical scholars agree that this passage was added at a later date and does not reflect something Jesus actually said.

I suggest that the answer to our question, about whether or not there is room for calling out injustice in the present, might lie in the second and third parables. Again, these parables liken heaven to: a mustard seed that grows into a bush; or a person kneading yeast into flour, allowing for all of the dough to rise. In both these parables I see a ‘justice trickling-up’ philosophy. Good starts in small and humble places and then grows, slowly at first, gaining momentum with time. We needn’t wait for justice until the afterlife. We, the people, the church, working proactively, can make good things happen and triumph over injustice. In other words, our actions for justice matter. We need to be active not passive.

Now before you feel too good about my interpretation, I want to be clear that some ambiguity and tension lurks in these parables as I read them. On the one hand, Jesus is cautioning us to not rush to judgment, to be careful about categorizing good and evil. On the other hand, he tells us that justice and hope rise from below, that we can build heaven on earth, and that we must address injustice in this world. Be cautious, careful and fair, but not to the point of inaction.

Coming back to where I started, the news this week about the Archdiocese was very painful for me to hear. However I take heart in the fact that the church is us, not the Archdiocese. What I believe this crisis makes clear is that governance in the institution popularly known as the Roman Catholic Church really has to change if it is to continue serving and representing the people, the real church. While clergy sexual misconduct appears to be the problem, underlying this are deeper issues of transparency, open governance, and equal participation by all. We, of course, need to be careful, cautious and fair in addressing the injustice and crimes highlighted in this institutional crisis (all humans are fallible and deserve forgiveness). Real change implies that the hierarchy of power within the institution may and ought to shift radically as a result of this crisis. We should not be afraid of this change. We’ve been slowly working the dough for a long time and, to borrow from Terry Dosh, now it is time for the bread to rise.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Catholic Case Against Religious Exemptions

By Francis DeBernardo

Note: This op-ed was first published July 21, 2014 by The Advocate.

In post-Hobby Lobby America, the question of whether religious exemptions should be included in laws prohibiting employment discrimination of LGBT people has increased in complexity. It used to be that religious leaders and lawmakers could strike a comfortable balance of protecting faith groups’ rights to self-determination and LGBT people’s rights to equal opportunity. But the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision disturbed that balance, and now the Employment Non-Discrimination Act may be gutted by including overly broad religious exemptions. President Obama’s expected executive order today barring anti-LGBT employment discrimination by federal contractors reportedly will not include these exemptions.

Because the Hobby Lobby decision broadened the scope of what kind of entities can claim religious exemptions, several national organizations working for LGBT equality now fear that such provisions in ENDA will render the proposed law’s protections meaningless. As a result, they have withdrawn support for the bill. Similarly, the Supreme Court case seems to have emboldened some conservative religious leaders to lobby Obama to include strong exemption language in his upcoming executive order.

While the Hobby Lobby case focused on insurance coverage for contraceptives, a number of commentators have noted that the decision may easily be applied to religious objections to LGBT issues. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “If a private company can take its own religious beliefs and say you can't have access to certain health care, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to an interpretation that a private company could have religious beliefs that LGBT people are not equal or somehow go against their beliefs and therefore fire them.” And Equally Blessed, the Catholic LGBT equality coalition, detailed some of the potential disasters that can spring from this case: “This ruling might open the door for corporations not to provide benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, or not to cover appropriate health care services for transgender employees.”

So, while corporations don’t pray, corporations are now given the same exemptions that used to be the privilege of legitimately established religious groups. This expansion of privilege is far beyond what has long been considered fair religious exemptions for institutions whose primary purpose is salvation, not profits.

As a practicing Catholic, I see that such an expansion cheapens the position of faith in society. Faith is about developing an intimate relationship with a personal God and reflecting that relationship in my attitudes and practices toward other people. Faith is about sacrificing some privileges because of wanting to live in accord with principles. Faith is not about having access to government contracts. Faith is not about forcing people to live by an employer’s personal beliefs, no matter how sincerely those beliefs may be held.

Hobby Lobby’s approach to religious exemptions diminishes the importance of persons and relationships in religion. Because the court favored institutions’ interests over individuals’ concerns, it has actually harmed religious faith. It provided power to institutions, but did not respect human consciences and souls, which are the mechanisms people use to apprehend God in the world and in their lives. As Justice Ginsburg stated in her dissenting opinion, "The exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities."

Political conservatives are not the only ones who have religion. So, it should be no surprise that one of the strongest groups asking that religious exemptions not be included in ENDA and the executive order are religious leaders themselves. In one letter sent to President Obama by 100 religious leaders, their request to exclude exemptions came from a religious belief in non-discrimination and human dignity. They stated: “Increasing the obstacles faced by those at the margins is precisely the opposite of what public service can and should do, and is precisely the opposite of the values we stand for as people of faith.”

Moreover, not all religious people feel that their faith is threatened by policies that promote LGBT equality and reproductive health for women. In fact, for many religious people, it is indeed their faith that motivates their advocacy for these principles. So, we are left with the question: Just whose religious liberty is being protected and whose is being infringed upon when we allow for broad exemptions?

For example, many Catholics oppose the bishops’ calls for religious exemptions because they uphold the lesser-known, but more central, Catholic principle that an individual must ultimately be ruled by one’s conscience, not by the dictates of doctrine or authorities. So most Catholic lay people respect lesbian and gay people’s dreams to be married and a transgender person’s decision to transition, and they oppose the interference of government or religious institutions to discriminate against what they see as personal and religiously-based decisions.

When we ask, what is a particular denomination’s view on hiring LGBT people, there is likely to be a variety of opinions, each based on principles of faith, about what is the just and moral thing to do in this situation. While Catholic bishops seem reluctant to hire LGBT people, over the past two years we’ve seen that Catholics in the pews support the employment of LGBT in Catholic institutions.

As the Catholics of the Equally Blessed coalition wrote to the Senate last year when ENDA was being debated: “… the bishops do not speak for the majority of your Catholic constituents, many of whom believe, as we do, that the religious exemptions in the current draft of the legislation are not too narrow, as the bishops contend, but far too broad…”

My Catholic faith teaches me that all people have human dignity, that all people are equal. The Catholic social justice tradition teaches me that the right to employment is a sacred and basic human right and should be respected by individuals and institutions such as government. My respect for religion teaches me to value the diversity of religious opinions, as well as the diversity of human beings. From these perspectives, both ENDA and the expected executive order are better served without any religious exemptions included.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, blogs at Bondings 2.0.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Archbishop Nienstedt Needs to Go. Now.

By Rubén Rosario

NOTE: This op-ed was first published July 20, 2014 by The Pioneer Press.

I picked up a summer must-read this past week. It has drama, conflict, intrigue and zips along at 107 pages.

No. It's not Invisible by James Patterson, though I really wish it were fiction. This read has a decidedly boring title: "Affidavit of Jennifer M. Haselberger."

It should be retitled "The Archdiocese That Forgot Christ," for this is really what it is: a scathing account of how top church officials from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis put kids and adults at risk.

It is the best argument yet, since the local clergy abuse and mismanagement scandal broke months ago, that Archbishop John Nienstedt should step down or if he refuses, be removed from his post.

I'm not saying this lightly.

He is, as Haselberger told me, "my archbishop." But he needs to go for the good of the church and the good people in it. Now.

A turning point for me, as it was for Haselberger, who served as chancellor for canonical affairs from 2008 to April 2013, were statements Nienstedt made after he celebrated Mass at a church in Edina last December. This was two months after Haselberger, reportedly rebuffed at every attempt to expose alleged cover-ups or mishandling of abusive and misbehaving priests, contacted Minnesota Public Radio and publicly bared the goings-on.

Nienstedt told reporters that he believed the issue of clergy abuse had been taken care of by the time he became archbishop in 2008 and that he was surprised when the news stories broke. Given that he had indeed reviewed recent clergy abuse files and that a priest was convicted the summer before of abusing two children, Haselberger almost fell out of her chair.

"To see an archbishop, who had recently celebrated Mass and was still vested and holding his crosier, lie to the faithful in such a boldfaced manner was heartbreaking to me," Haselberger wrote in the affidavit, which is part of a clergy abuse civil case filed by St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson on behalf of a former child abuse victim.

"When he said those things, he knew he was lying," Haselberger told me last week. "And he knew that I knew that he was lying. And anybody who was associated with this work and knew him, knew he was lying. That to me is what is so hard about it."

Recent shenanigans

Haselberger's affidavit paints a disturbing picture of church officials acting more like a cabal of corporate schemers or a power-driven political administration run amok than like shepherds of the state's largest Roman Catholic diocese.

Haselberger details how archdiocese officials gave special payments to abusive priests, allowed others to continue in public ministry and failed to notify authorities of abuse allegations in violation of a 2002 churchwide policy.

In the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, Haselberger warned Nienstedt and others of his sexual proclivities and habit of trying to pick up men. Not only were her concerns ignored, Wehmeyer was promoted to pastor of a church on St. Paul's East Side before his conviction for molesting two boys in his parish.

These were not allegations decades old. They were recent. There's the tale of former Vicar General Peter Laird's attempt to declare disabled Father Mike Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis because of his criticisms of Nienstedt in the debate over the proposed marriage amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. Laird resigned soon after Haselberger's concerns were made public.

"You can quote me that I find him unabled," Tegeder said Friday of Nienstedt.

Haselberger also takes aim at Laird's longtime predecessor, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who served as the archdiocese's point person for handling clergy abuse allegations. McDonough, according to Haselberger, took a softer approach on abusive priests and essentially gave lip service to abuse victims. She recalls in astonishment the day he asked to see a document of dismissal, which is essentially a letter formally kicking a cleric out of the priesthood, because he had never seen one.

Nienstedt apparently has an ornery side to him, warning folks not to bother him and sending critical emails to church subordinates that one described as "nastygrams," according to the affidavit.

Haselberger recounts how Laird basically ignored her concerns and refused to read documents about a priest, removed from ministry just this year, who had a sexual attraction to young boys.

"I literally followed Father Laird out of the building one evening with those highlighted documents in my hands, saying that if he didn't have time to read the whole documents, he could at least read the highlighted remarks. He refused," Haselberger wrote.

Laird's reaction, Haselberger noted, was just one example of a "cavalier attitude toward the safety of children."

Cavalier? More like shameful.

A difficult choice

It wasn't easy for Haselberger to turn whistleblower. She's nobody's fool and a woman of faith. She knows of many others within the church who knew what she knew but did not come forward for fear of reprisals.

"I hated that," she said.

She desired and trusted the church hierarchy to do right by children and vulnerable adults. She tried all internal channels to set things right. When those were rebuffed, her conscience ordered her to go outside the wire.

It's interesting how she was characterized by church officials as a "disgruntled employee" after the first stories were published. I would have been disgruntled as well, given what she put up with. That was before thousands of internal church documents, including many ordered released by a judge in a civil suit, corroborated her account of events. This week, this is what church officials said about the affidavit: "Her experience highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children."

Wanted: "No-nonsense kind of guy"

Nienstedt, now the subject of an internal church probe into allegations he may have had inappropriate relationships with seminarians and others, did put in place a task force on church policies and hired a law firm to review all clergy abuse files. Frankly, he should have done that before Haselberger was forced to go public. That's what leaders do.

If he were the CEO of a corporation, he would have been canned already, sent off with a golden parachute. But he is an archbishop in a top-down, male-dominated religious hierarchy that rarely polices itself on anything and is acutely hostile to a probing secular world and any attempts at outside scrutiny. We'll see what he does, though the church problems are endemic and entrenched.

"There are plenty of good priests out there, but they have been drinking the Kool-Aid for so long that they do not even know it," Haselberger said.

I asked Haselberger who or what kind of archbishop she would like to see take over. She would not speculate on names. ""I would say a no-nonsense kind of guy with more or less a pastor's heart."

That sounds good to me.

Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or Follow him at

Related Off-site Links:
Jennifer Haselberger Was Ignored, Bullied Before Blowing Whistle on Archdiocese, Records Show – Jesse Marx (City Pages, July 15, 2014).
MN Archdiocese Wanted to Label Marriage Equality-Supporting Priest ‘Disabled’ – Andy Birkey (, July 22, 2014).
Betrayed by Silence: How Three Archbishops Hid the Truth – Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio, July 14, 2014).
Has Archbishop Nienstedt's "Shadow" Finally Caught Up With Him? – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, July 1, 2014).

See also the previous PCV post:
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, "Regime Change is Not Enough"

Monday, July 21, 2014

"A Kind of Ecclesiastical Horror Story"

By Robert McClory

Note: The following review by Robert McClory of Rachel Pokora's book Crisis of Catholic Authority: Faith and Power in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska was first published July 15, 2014 by The National Catholic Reporter.

Crisis of Catholic Authority is a kind of ecclesiastical horror story. It relates what can happen when an autocratic hierarch chooses to exercise his supreme, punitive power over some of his subjects. No one on this earth will restrain him, neither the priests of his diocese, nor his fellow bishops in the U.S., nor the high authorities in Rome, not even the pope himself. And like some ancient gothic curse, this awesome penalty has acquired a life of its own, continuing in full force for 18 years, outliving the resignation of the bishop who pronounced it, still in effect to this day and into the foreseeable future.

The bishop is Fabian Bruskewitz, who ruled the diocese of Lincoln, Neb., from 1992 to 2012. Those immediately affected by excommunication in 1996 were some 45 members of the Nebraska chapter of the Call to Action organization who happened to live in the Lincoln diocese. They were given one month to resign from the accursed group, at which time the penalty would automatically go into effect. Also presumably affected were any other Call to Action members who would move to Lincoln in the future without renouncing their membership.

It should be noted that no other U.S. bishop has followed Bruskewitz's lead in all these years, though the bishop himself has become a kind of folk hero to supporters of Mother Angelica's EWTN television station and other far-right conservative Catholic organizations.

Author Rachel Pokora narrates the story clearly, without rancor or bitterness. She is a professor of communications at Nebraska Wesleyan University who moved to Lincoln after Bruskewitz struck. She chose to join CTA's Nebraska chapter after experiencing the rigidity and extreme conservatism that marked parish life in the diocese, and she later served for several years as the chapter's president.

"Within a month in Lincoln, I had attended three different churches," she recalls. "Mass felt lifeless to me. I was struck by the authoritarian attitudes conveyed in the homilies. I lost track of how many times I felt angry during Mass and how many times I held back tears."

Pokora goes to some lengths (almost half the book) to supply the back-story to this tale of frustration, sorrow and fortitude. Bruskewitz's predecessor, Glennon Flavin, himself a hard-nosed conservative, was appointed to Lincoln in 1967, less than two years after the Second Vatican Council ended. He showed no enthusiasm for the changes that came from the council and a deep abhorrence for dissent of any kind. Flavin would reportedly not talk to inquirers in person or on the phone, would not respond to mail and would not cooperate with the press.

In 1981, representatives from seven Lincoln parishes formed a group called Catholics for Active Liturgical Life (CALL) in response to Flavin's decision to allow only "instituted lectors and acolytes" (that is, men and boys only) to read the Scriptures and serve at the altar at Mass.

Flavin ignored the group for 12 years, as its members appealed to him, the diocesan priests and the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for some kind of resolution. Nothing came of it. In 1984, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, head of the bishops' arbitration committee, had attempted to help, only to tell CALL leaders after several months that Flavin "declined to participate in our conciliation process."

When Bruskewitz arrived, Lincoln Catholics found him very different from Flavin. He did not ignore the media, but he exhibited a biting, caustic tone more dismissive and accusatory than anything that that had come from his predecessor. At one point, Bruskewitz agreed to meet with CALL leaders, on the condition they read three far-right, inflammatory books ahead of time, including Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism. CALL members complied, but then Bruskewitz canceled the meeting. Nevertheless, he soon lifted the ban against women lectors.

With some satisfaction that a major goal had been achieved, CALL disbanded in 1993. Veteran members, along with like-minded Catholics from the Omaha, Neb., archdiocese later decided to join Call to Action, the largest Catholic reform organization in the U.S. Unlike CALL, CTA advocated major structural change, including participation of laity in the selection of bishops, and opening the priesthood to women and married men. Among CTA's members were several dozen priests and a few bishops.

In March 1996, the new organization, Call to Action Nebraska, informed the state's bishops of their existence. Bruskewitz's quick reply began, "A priest friend of mine who used to be a Protestant minister said that the difference between a dissenting Catholic and a Protestant is that the Protestant has integrity." He urged the writers to tell their followers that "membership constitutes a grave act of disrespect and disobedience to their lawful bishop."

Two days later came the climax – a surprise article in the Lincoln diocesan paper that announced, "Any Catholics in and of the diocese of Lincoln who attain or retain membership in any of the above listed organizations are, by that very fact, under interdict and are absolutely forbidden to receive Holy Communion." Should they continue "contumacious persistence" in such membership for one more month, they would be, by that very fact, excommunicated. Absolution from such sin was reserved to the bishop. Twelve organizations were listed, including Planned Parenthood, the Freemasons, Eastern Star and even the Rainbow Girls, but it was patently clear that Call to Action was the major target.

The story immediately went viral. Reporters from all over the U.S. homed in on Lincoln, revealing the alarm, anger and general confusion of the public. Pokora does a fine job of covering reactions from press, clergy and laity. Many observers thought this was an unfortunate gaffe that would be quickly settled, as cooler heads, especially among the bishop's episcopal colleagues, intervened. No such intervention was undertaken, and no bishop publicly reprimanded Bruskewitz for failure to present specific charges or give the accused an opportunity to reply.

Though some church authorities (including Fr. James Coriden, a noted canon law expert) declared the excommunication invalid on its face, the still embattled 50 or so members of CTA in Lincoln forged on in the name of justice. The leader, until his untimely death in 2013, was Jim McShane, a retired college professor with a heightened sensitivity to injustice. What he wanted was a hearing, a day in court. He did not get it.

Pokora recounts the details of appeals that were carefully prepared and sent between 1996 and 2007 – to Bruskewitz, then to a wide swath of experts, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura. Though Bruskewitz announced at one point that a Roman congregation had rejected CTA Nebraska's appeal, neither he nor anyone else would provide an official document asserting that as fact. And so the excommunication endures.

Clearly, the Nebraska story cries out for systemic change. As Patty Hawk, who joined the Nebraska chapter after the Bruskewitz edict and has since served as co-president of the national CTA board, observes in the book's pages, "It's not about making certain changes. ... It's about creating and evolving and nurturing a healthy church environment. We have to reform our way of thinking about the church, about community. We have to reform our way of thinking about hierarchy."

Robert McClory is professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University, and has contributed to NCR since 1974.