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The question in Lincoln

January 19, 2018

This is an odd one.

(Yes, a lot of my blogs could start that way. But this is an odd one, nonetheless.)

Back in 1996 then Bp. Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln levied an automatic interdict (which after one month automatically escalated into an excommunication) against a long list of suspected canonical offenders, including members of Nebraska “Call to Action”. His action struck me at the time as a mostly-rightly-intentioned (for who can doubt that Catholics belonging to, say, Planned Parenthood deserve excommunication?), but partly-wrongly-implemented (for how can pre-teen girls in a service club suffer excommunication for anything?), exercise in episcopal authority on behalf of Catholic truth. Reconstructing, however, the specifics of what happened to whom in that case, who defended the action (at what level and on what grounds), and who criticized it (with what degree of persuasiveness) is not an easy task and I will not attempt it here.

But now it seems that the current bishop of Lincoln, James Conley—a prelate with a reputation for doing things right—has “extended an offer to lift the excommunication of [Lincoln area CTA] members on an individual basis while leaving the decree in place against membership in the organization.”

This is where things start getting odd.

In an apparently leaked letter, Conley writes: “I have been clear from the beginning that no Catholic should become a member of Call to Action. I believe it poses a danger to the faith. However, I am willing to consider rescinding the excommunication in individual instances where members, currently not prepared to leave CTA, reaffirm their commitment to the full teachings of the Catholic Church.” Hmm.

Conley has apparently proposed that “those who wished to remain in the organization but have the excommunication rescinded would together, along with the bishop, profess the Nicene Creed and the Easter Vigil affirmation of faith.” Conley would accept that profession as “thereby affirming the Catholic faith as received by the Catholic Church and rejecting positions held by Call to Action that are contrary to received Catholic doctrine.” At the same time, however, “there was mutual understanding that no one would be required to reject certain [CTA] positions [contrary to Church doctrine].”  Hmmmm.

The inevitable conclusion to these premises is directly asserted: “Leaving the censure in place means that new members of Call to Action Nebraska will still be excommunicated upon joining. Conley [said] that in those cases, the person could meet with him and go through a similar process to the communal experience.”

As I said, odd.

Is it not the case that, assuming the Call to Action excommunications were actually incurred (a neuralgic question every time automatic sanctions are involved), that they were incurred precisely for membership in CTA? Now, remission of censures such as excommunication requires, not surprisingly, repenting of the delict [here, membership in CTA] and making some suitable reparation for the scandal caused by one’s membership (cc. 1347, 1358). So, how does retaining a penal law against membership in an organization, but remitting the penalties incurred thereunder despite not resigning membership, square with common sense?

While one ruminates on that one, let me observe that reciting the Nicene Creed does not really seem to address the serious doctrinal-disciplinary problems associated with CTA.

Consider: the Nicene Creed  is not a complete statement of all that Catholics must believe and hold precisely as Catholics. For example that Creed nowhere requires belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist or in the Assumption of our Lady, so a Catholic in heresy on those points could still recite the Creed with, if not a sincere heart, at least with a straight face. Similarly, the Creed does not require a Catholic to hold definitively that, say, the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women“, so a CTA member could well recite the Creed without running afoul of CTA’s call “to discard the medieval discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy and to open the priesthood to women”, even though such a stance places one in opposition to Catholic Church doctrine (cc. 750, 1371).

Perhaps if the Creed were supplemented by the three additional paragraphs* associated with the Profession of Faith and Canon 833, it would be more able to achieve the sign value that Conley seems to have in mind for it. But without those additional paragraphs? I don’t see it.

Of course the simplest thing to do here, canonically, would be to drop the automatic excommunication associated with CTA membership. There are precedents (happy or otherwise) for doing just that. For example, the excommunications levied since the end of the 19th century against divorced and remarried American Catholics were remitted en masse in 1977 even though most excommunicates had not repented of their civil marriages.** And when it was clear that the Index of Prohibited Books was no longer practicable, the severe sanctions levied by the 1917 Code in this area were abrogated and anyone laboring under penalties associated with those norms was rehabilitated.***

One can make the case that, today, membership in organizations, as a rule, does not carry the same personal and social connotations that organizational membership carried even a generation, let alone two or three generations, ago. At least, a bishop could, I think, reasonably reach that conclusion (okay, maybe not with regard to Planned Parenthood or Catholics for a Free Choice, but the general point stands).

But, here’s the problem: a bishop could also conclude that CTA membership indeed “poses a danger to the faith”, and that it should be punished, as Bruskewitz ruled and as Conley seems to agree, which of course makes it hard to sustain the idea that recitation of the Creed, as prayed by faithful practicing Catholics every Sunday at Mass, is a sufficient antidote to such serious dangers.

Like I said, this is an odd one. + + +

* With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

** Cong. for Bishops, private reply to NCCB petition of 4 May 1977 (22 oct 1977), CLD VIII: 1213-1214, lifting the automatic excommunication of those who, contrary to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) n. 124, attempted civil marriage after divorce.

*** Paul VI (reg. 1963-1978), m.p. Integrae servandae (7 dec 1965), AAS 57 (1965) 952-955, Eng. trans., (dispositive parts only) CLD VI: 358-359, renaming and redefining the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cong. for the Doctrine of the Faith, notif. Post litteras apostolicas (14 jun 1966), AAS 58 (1966) 455, Eng. trans., CLD VI: 814-815, confirming the revocation of the “Index of Forbidden Books”; and Cong. for the Doctrine of the Faith, decr. Post editam (15 nov 1966), AAS 58 (1966) 1186, Eng. trans., CLD VI: 817-818, abrogating 1917 CIC 1399 and 2318.

Post-script (a few hours later): A couple of readers have asked whether the “Easter affirmation” mentioned above might be that text used (as I recall) only for the reception into full communion of those already baptized, with the following wording: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Possibly so. It’s not clear from the above-linked article. In any case, while such wording would get one closer to the language I suggested from the three additional paragraph associated with the canonical profession of faith, it still seems limited to objects of belief and, to that extent, would not reach, adequately or otherwise, questions such as the ordination of women, not to mention other important issues addressed in the extra paragraphs. In any case, even this better language does not address the central problem, namely, that the law at issue here criminalizes membership in a group while the rehabilitation gesture, as envisioned, does not address that membership.

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