Catholics who belong to a group that was excommunicated from the Diocese of Lincoln more than two decades ago may soon be allowed to fully participate in services.
Then-Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz issued a blanket excommunication decree to all members of the group Call to Action in 1996, saying it was "perilous" to the Catholic faith. The national organization advocates for reform in the Catholic Church related to women's ordinations, LGBTQ rights and other issues.
"I thought it was astounding because it's a type of action made by a bishop that is just not done," said Rachel Pokora, a member of Nebraska Call To Action since 1997. Pokora heard about the excommunication order on national TV while she was a graduate student in Indiana interviewing for full-time jobs in Lincoln.
"It's very rare to excommunicate an entire group of people," she said.
For the past 22 years, Call to Action members have sought to have the excommunication overturned, including a failed appeal to the Vatican in 2006. Pokora said when she approached current Lincoln Bishop James Conley in 2013 to start a dialogue on the topic, her request was denied.
But now, after more than a year of talks, Conley is offering members in Nebraska a chance to lift the excommunication on an individual basis.
"Bishop Conley just desires all Catholics to be in union, so he wants to make that possible for as many people as possible," said Rev. Nicholas Kipper, spokesman for the Diocese of Lincoln. "That's really the goal of any bishop."
Conley, two diocesan officials and five women who are Call to Action members have been talking in private since September 2016, discussing the possibility of lifting the excommunication and changes the women would like to see within the diocese.
"Mostly what’s been happening is sharing our own Catholic journey: why we're Catholic and how we’re Catholic," said Patty Hawk, who has practiced in a neighboring diocese since the excommunication. "We've talked a lot about that pain that surrounded the excommunication and just tried to understand each other better."
Hawk grew up in the Diocese of Grand Island, in a church environment she remembers as very inclusive. There, she held many positions in the ministry.
But when she moved to Lincoln in 1985 and wanted to join the Diocese of Lincoln, she was offered two options for involvement: join the music ministry or the cleaning crew.
"It was a very odd shift for me," she said.
That's why she joined the local chapter of Call To Action, she said: "It was thoughtful and compassionate. It was more the kind of church I wanted to be a part of."
Conley still believes the organization poses a danger to the Catholic faith, according to an article in the National Catholic Reporter. And anyone who wants the excommunication lifted for themselves must engage in talks with the diocese. So far, only the five women have.
The bishop and diocese staff are still working out specifics, but if the excommunication is rescinded, members will not have to sever ties with Call To Action in order to accept communion and take part in other church sacraments.
Call To Action's national group praised the Nebraska members for their commitment to the church and said they were grateful Conley allowed them this opportunity, even if the blanket excommunication isn't lifted.
"This excommunication was an injustice that needs to be corrected immediately," said Christine Haider-Winnett, national communications manager for the group. "We support the Nebraska Call To Action members if they decide to go this route and have always supported the right of our members to follow their conscience."
Pokora said though the talks have been challenging at times, she is pleased with their direction and hopes they help end the members' censure by the church.
"It’s been a life-changing experience," she said. "We’ve all been changed at least a little from the process. I’m hoping that one thing we accomplish is a deeper understanding of where we’re all coming from."
The women feel overturning their excommunication will be a testament to how talking through difficult conversations can result in change.
"What it’s going to mean is that it's worth it to engage in difficult conversations that cross different views," Hawk said. "It matters. And it doesn’t just matter in this context, it could be a model for how we can talk across political and social divides in the world right now."