The prayer vigil, as they called it, took place outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, with the city's rush-hour traffic rumbling by. Motorists honked in solidarity about once every five minutes. A flute piped, a woman beat a mournful drum.. What was it all about? The Vatican has ordered Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.S.N.D., and the Rev. Robert Nugent, S.D.S., the founders of New Ways Ministry, to cease their pastoral work among homosexuals. As Father Nugent and Sister Gramick see it, the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexual conduct is "intrinsically evil" alienates gays and may not reflect authentic Catholic doctrine. Father Nugent announced that he would obey the Vatican order, but Sister Gramick has announced that she has no intention of complying, at least with a recent clarification of the order that prohibits her from publicly criticizing the church's teachings on homosexuality. "I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression," she proudly retorted.

I asked one of the protest organizers if he thought the Catholic Church might decide to excommunicate Gramick. She is now in open revolt against Rome, after all. "It's considered to be an old-fashioned tool," the man replied. And he was surely right to be unconcerned. Excommunication is a rare event in today's Catholicism.

For example, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, ought to be a prime candidate for excommunication, but she has so far escaped all ecclesiastical penalties. Her organization did not take a stand on partial birth abortion, the subject of Wednesday's Supreme Court decision, but it has led a campaign over the last year opposing the Vatican's "permanent observer" status as a government entity at the United Nations. The Holy See cannot vote in the U.N.'s General Assembly, but it does have the right to vote in conferences, to speak, to lobby, and to negotiate with other nations. And in recent years, the Vatican, in cooperation with Muslim governments, has had some success in weakening feminist-supported U.N. resolutions intended to promote legal abortion around the world. Changing the Holy See's status would cripple these efforts. "The time has come to challenge the facade of the Vatican as a state," says Kissling, who derisively refers to Vatican City as "100 acres of office space and tourist attractions."

A vehement advocate of legal abortion, Kissling even managed an abortion clinic herself during the 1970s. One can't help wondering, therefore, Why was she not excommunicated long ago? Excommunication is called for, in her case, not because of personal wickedness (as far as I know!) but because the name of her organization misleads the world into thinking that the Catholic Church's position on abortion, whether pro or con, is not a matter of particular importance to the church.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, excommunication bars a person from receiving the sacraments unless on the point of death and from otherwise participating in the life of the church. It is the penalty for "certain particularly grave sins," including the procuring of an abortion, which entails automatic excommunication. But it may not be the gravity of the sin so much as the open defiance of the church's right to set its own rules that from time to time obliges the church hierarchy to excommunicate heretics--those who publicly and defiantly disagree with those rules. Those who publicly oppose the creedal and membership requirements of any organization can and must be removed if that organization is to retain its coherence and mission. The church excommunicated a Sri Lankan theologian, Father Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I., in 1997 for writings that expressed disbelief in such core Catholic doctrines as original sin and the uniqueness of Christ as redeemer. He was reinstated a year later after signing a profession of faith.

I have heard it said that excommunication would "only make martyrs" of people who are in many cases best ignored. For years, that seems to have been the church's attitude toward Kissling. Now that the campaign to oust the Holy See from the United Nations has gained momentum, however, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has finally condemned her organization, issuing a statement in May saying that Catholics for a Free Choice is not "an authentic Catholic voice."

So why not take the next step and excommunicate Kissling and those who belong to her organization? One bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebr., did exactly that four years ago, informing all Catholics in his diocese that he would excommunicate them if they did not sever ties with a number of groups espousing views hostile to Catholic teaching, including Catholics for a Free Choice. Bruskewitz got little support from his fellow bishops and the media. One of the groups on his list was Call to Action, an organization of progressive Catholics who believe that an individual's "conscience" trumps anything Rome might say. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago promptly declared that "members of liberal Catholic lay groups are safe from excommunication in Chicago." Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., announced that he himself was a member of Call to Action. Time magazine reported that Bishop Bruskewitz was the first American bishop to have ordered a mass excommunication in more than 30 years. Call to Action called the excommunication threat "the sort of bully boy tactic that makes the church incredible in the eyes of many reasonable people."

Actually, the action made the church far more credible. Bishop Bruskewitz's bold move made him unpopular with the press, but when I met him at a conference a year later, he told me he had received good support in Rome. Since then, two of Bruskewitz's priests have themselves been made bishops. His diocese is flourishing, with a huge increase in priestly vocations.

It's worth noting that no matter how much they criticize the Vatican, both Catholics for a Free Choice and the allies of Sister Gramick put a high value on their good standing in the church as the loyal opposition working for change from within. At the prayer vigil in Washington, Gramick's supporters referred to themselves as "faithful Catholics who love the church." (This, despite the fact that they ridiculed the Vatican hierarchy as "men in dresses" who feel "threatened" by homosexuals.) On a 1994 television show, Kissling insisted, "No Church official has ever said that I should be excommunicated or that I am not a Catholic."

Well, it's time one of them did. And what is needed now is not the automatic excommunication that Bishop Bruskewitz threatened, but a public severing of specific individuals' ties with the church that will set an example to others. The news media will no doubt respond unfavorably, but any religious organization that allows its agenda to be set for it by the forces of aggressive secularism is in serious trouble. There comes a time when you have to stop thinking about what others will say about you and do what is right.

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