“All Catholics in and of the Diocese of Lincoln are forbidden to be members of the organizations and groups listed below ... and are absolutely forbidden to receive Holy Communion.” -- Southern Nebraska Register, March 22, 1996.
With that edict 25 years ago, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz attempted to excommunicate members of 12 organizations including Planned Parenthood, of which I served on the governing board of directors, both locally and nationally. As a lifelong Catholic who served eight years as an altar boy and attended a Catholic high school and university, I would be impacted.
What brought this to mind was the recent clash involving America’s Catholic bishops on the issue of banning Catholic President Joe Biden from communion because of his policy supporting abortion rights.
Back then, I went public with my outrage. “I challenge him to excommunicate me,” I told the press. “And yes, I think this edict is totally ridiculous.”
The bishop’s edict immediately made national headlines: “Excommunication Threat Stuns Catholics,” read the Washington Post. CBS Evening News sent a reporter to interview me in the State Capitol where I was a lobbyist. Dateline, the NBC News program, dispatched reporter John Hockenberry to talk to me and members of Call to Action, another of the banned groups, which had been advocating for liberal reforms in the church. National Public Radio and many radio stations from across the country called me.
The Washington Post sent reporter Paul Hendrickson who interviewed me in the Cornhusker Hotel bar and asked me to speak Latin to him. “What is Randall J. Moody’s crime,” he wrote, “his awful sin? Did he go haywire and ball-peen religious statues, curse the Holy Father in a public place, torch a cathedral? No, he belongs to Planned Parenthood.”
There was no confrontation at the altar when I took communion after the bishop’s deadline. He had decreed that a self-imposed excommunication would take effect. “I do not believe the bishop has the authority to issue a class-action excommunication,” I responded.
“Priests will not refuse communion to anyone who goes forward during Mass,” the bishop’s spokesman said. “If a parishioner is known to have belonged to one of the groups does take communion, ‘the assumption will be that the person has repented,’ and has dropped the affiliation.” Twenty-five years later I still “belong” to Planned Parenthood.
“Canon law experts differ on how far bishop can go,” read a headline in this newspaper. Catholic University’s Rev. Thomas Green opined to Journal Star reporter Bob Reeves that Bruskewitz was acting within “the bounds of canon law,” but it was an “unusual” act Daniel Maguire of Marquette University said, “Excommunication is an obsolete theological concept. The good news is that even if he tried ... his attempt would be invalid.”
Support for my position poured in from all over the country. I received 15 individual hand-written notes sent in a packet from San Francisco from Catholics for a Free Choice, one of the banned groups, along with stickers they were circulating saying, “Free the Lincoln 85,000,” the number of Catholics in the Lincoln Diocese.
“Please accept my advice, don’t waste a minute fighting Bruskewitz,” wrote one New York supporter, “just join the Lutherans, or the Episcopalians or the Methodists.” The ACLU from Vermont wrote, “the image of entire groups of people being excommunicated en masse underscores how ridiculous is he who speaks for God.” Another summed it up: “After all, things aren’t that bad. In times past people like ourselves were burned at the stake!”
President Biden no doubt will escape that fate.
Randy Moody, of Lincoln, is a retired lawyer and lobbyist and has been a Planned Parenthood volunteer for 35 years