The Eye of the Tiger:
An interview with Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz
Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska
From Inside the Vatican, December 1997
By John Mallon
By John Mallon
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, was a relatively unknown Midwestern American bishop until March 22, 1996, when he announced that members of the dissident Catholic group Call to Action, as well as some other groups at variance with the Church, would incur latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication if they did not sever ties with those groups. There immediately followed an uproar of support for Bishop Bruskewitz from Catholics long frustrated by the tolerance and even support of these groups by Catholic officials. This interview took place October 25, 1997 at the annual Women for Faith and Family conference in St. Louis, where Bishop Bruskewitz gave the keynote address and received the Faith and Family Award from that group.
About two hours before this interview, a woman attending the conference took the microphone during a question and answer session and issued a dramatic plea to Bishop Bruskewitz to address the U.S. bishops on the problem she shared with many other faithful Catholics in being thwarted in her apostolate by dissenting diocesan officials because of her orthodoxy. Her impassioned request drew applause from those gathered including Bishop Bruskewitz. Bishop Bruskewitz discussed this problem and other points with us in the following interview.
John Mallon: Bishop Bruskewitz, recently we've been sensing a kind of impatience on the part of the Catholic faithful in the United States. Many feel we are in the midst of a doctrinal crisis in this country, and the impatience is with the bishops' meetings where issues like inclusive language are continually brought up—which polls have shown significant numbers of Catholic don't want—while many of the faithful are fighting real battles over doctrine in their dioceses. Could you address this problem?
Bishop Bruskewitz: I wish I could address the problem effectively and make a change in the way the situation is being handled. I think the perception is accurate on the part of the laypeople who are upset and they deserve, perhaps, to be upset. On the other hand, unfortunately, the determination of what goes on the agenda of the bishops' meeting isn't given very often to the individual bishops. It's left to some inner group that seems to drive the agenda, and unfortunately, things that I believe, and some other bishops believe, are important and relevant are excluded from the agenda—not even included. They are not given that necessary kind of consideration. I agree with you that there seems to be a type of ideological propensity that places things that I don't consider that important high on the agenda, while other things that I consider to be extremely important get no consideration whatever, and that's regrettable. I have no idea how to change that. Perhaps in God's good time there will be a sufficient number of bishops to protest about it and bring up more accurately and correctly what should be on the agenda.
Bishop, you and I just heard from a woman who made a very impassioned plea directed to you asking you to address the U.S. bishops about a problem she and many other Catholics are having. Her situation is that she is pursuing a noble apostolate, trying to promote the faith in her diocese. She is very faithful to the Church and the Magisterium, yet she feels blocked by the middle-management bureaucracy in her diocese—which she claims includes members of Call to Action—including the chancellor of the diocese, a nun whom she claims is a member of Call to Action. How do you comment on that?
I would say first of all that her frustration excites a great deal of sympathy from me. I feel the pain and the anguish she is experiencing very profoundly. At the same time I think it's important to remember that all of us are doing God's work, and that ultimately what we are doing is being done not so much by us but by God Himself. Therefore we must leave a certain amount in God's hands, especially when we're confronted with folly and malice on the part of bureaucrats or others who are semi- or non-Catholics.
The example of a bishop I know serves in this case. He spent a lot of time in a concentration camp in the north of Vietnam after the country fell to the Communists. He was particularly frustrated because the pains of cold, hunger, and great deprivation he had to suffer were nothing compared to the pain of not being able to do his duty as a bishop, to shepherd and minister to his flock. But he said that as he lived there for ten years, he began to recognize more and more that it was when Christ was most helpless on the cross that He accomplished the most. Sometimes, by our perseverance, by our conviction, by our dedication to truth we might be doing far more than we might suspect, even though, in our perspective, it seems we're not accomplishing a great deal. We may be planting seeds for a great resurgence and a renaissance that will sparkle in the future.
At the same time we should oppose with whatever energies we have these middle-management bureaucrats. I must say that there is no way that I, as the Bishop of Lincoln, can interfere in the affairs of another diocese, and somehow cut through a bureaucratic maze and the folly and malice that has impeded this lady from carrying out the great work she wants to accomplish. I would just urge her to persevere in the great principle that water dripping on granite eventually makes a hole, and if we keep at it we are following what Jesus taught us in the parable of the importuning lady and the unjust judge.
I think that lady represents and speaks for a great many Catholics. Almost overnight in March of 1996—not to embarrass you—you became America's favorite bishop to a great many people who have been struggling for orthodoxy. Could you tell us what has happened in the year and a half since you announced that those involved in various groups and activities in your diocese—for example, Call to Action—would come under automatic excommunication if they continued those associations? What has happened since then in Lincoln?
In Lincoln, as well as throughout the United States, I have been overwhelmed by the very positive reaction I have received. I received tens of thousands of letters and petitions and signatures, all very favorable to what was done. I also received countless gifts and a large number of contributions to our diocese as a result. The number of negatives I received was very minimal—fewer than 300 negative letters, and many of them were letters of kooks and cranks and the kind that you discard in any event. So I was a bit taken aback and surprised. I evidently touched a button here that I didn't even know existed, and I am very happy to have served some purpose in that regard. I certainly was not and am not looking for notoriety or fame for anything for anything that I've done in the Diocese of Lincoln, but I'm in agreement with you that evidently there is a vast reservoir of frustration that has been tapped into by this action, and certainly it has aroused a spontaneous upsurge of unexpected and perhaps undeserved praise and fame.
To change the subject a bit, we know you are a theologian. What theologians do you think the Church needs most to listen to at this crucial juncture in our history, during what we are going through at this time?
Rather than theologians, who, of course, have a duty to speculate, to think, to labor at a certain kind of intellectual science, I would urge people in the Church to listen to those who are charged with guarding and caring for the flock of Christ—in particular the Successor of Peter. Certainly the Holy Father's writings are of such a nature that their theological depth is unquestioned. If one dedicates oneself with energy and attention, for example, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to the great encyclicals of the Pope, to his regular discourses, homilies, audience catechesis and the like, one will not go astray.
Theology in itself is open to far more variance and might lead inexperienced people, or people who are perhaps easily influenced, in a wrong direction. Whereas by adhering to those who occupy the places that the Holy Spirit has assigned them as the shepherds of God's flock, they will very unlikely go astray. This applies in the most special way to the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Successor of Saint Peter, to the Bishop of Rome.
Speaking of scholarship, there is a subject which I thought might be somewhat esoteric, but which I recently encountered in the concerns of some women who were very upset by a priest teaching that the words of Jesus were put in His mouth by later writers. I explained to them that this was simply a theory and that Marcan primacy, and that line of thinking is only a theory and there is strong evidence towards the more traditional Matthean primacy. It was surprising that these kinds of scholarship issues are coming home to roost on the parish level.
Yes. I think it's amazing how the people who are trying to be up to date are frequently out of date. It reminds me of Chesterton's famous saying that those who strive to be modern are condemned to be perpetually out of date. The fact is that theories of New Testament dating have been emerging over these last hundred years like mushrooms and most of them are just that: they are theories, and oftentimes theories founded on air. The latest scholarship seems to show that there was a Matthean primacy, and this was particularly in view of the Carsten Thiede finding in regard to the Magdalene College papyruses which seem to indicate that Matthew's Gospel, in Greek at least, was in existence around the year 50, and if it had a previous existence, as it appears to have had, in Hebrew and Aramaic, then it must have been a very early Gospel, and possibly a Gospel that was written by one of the eyewitnesses to Jesus Himself.
As far as the Marcan Gospel goes, that too has been put back a considerable amount of time by the José O'Callaghan finding of the little fragment in Cave 7 of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran area that seems to indicate a piece of the Gospel of Mark in that place which would place the Gospel of Mark very early, since the Dead Sea Scrolls at Cave 7 were sealed up. The tenth legion of the Romans conquered that area of Qumran in the year 68 A.D., and so it would indicate that the Gospel of Mark also was far earlier than might be supposed. An Anglican bishop by the name of John Robinson, who, surprisingly, had previously been a skeptic and an unbeliever, wrote a book in 1976 trying to show from internal evidence that the New Testament must be dated far earlier than the Scripture people in the last century have been attempting to date it.
Part of the problem, of course, derives from the German Protestant Scripture scholarship dating from maybe 100-125 years ago, which for purposes of their construct require that the New Testament be dated as late as possible. I think recent scientific evidence, however, gives a strong indication to the contrary, although I must confess that I see many Scripture scholars vehemently opposed to the consideration that this evidence should receive.
There is a delightful little story in your new book, A Shepherd Speaks (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997) called "The Bishop's Mail" which describes the kind of mail a bishop receives and how a bishop is likely to respond to it. In view of that, how would you advise lay people in communicating their concerns diplomatically and charitably to their bishops, especially those laypeople experiencing the frustration we've already discussed?
I would certainly always advise an attitude of charity and courtesy. You'll never accomplish anything by generating heat rather than light. I would say be careful of being patronizing or condescending, but at the same time be forthright and clear. Threats are never worthwhile. They don't accomplish anything at all. Certainly, even if one is ultimately going to write to higher authorities, to the Holy See, for example, about a particular situation, it will only excite a bishop's animosity to include this in a letter, for example, "If you don't act now I'm going to tell the Pope on you..." or something like that. That is not going to accomplish the purpose at all.
I think also that even the little indication of a carbon copy, "cc" on the bottom of the page to the Pope and to Cardinal Ratzinger and so on, does excite the anger of bishops when they feel that you're not looking to deal with them, but rather you're writing to them only as a vehicle or an instrument to accomplish a purpose in a different forum. So I don't think that's the way to go. I think courtesy, persistence and perseverance certainly are important, and also to not be discouraged, but keep at it as the Lord tells us in the parable I mentioned before of the importuning lady and the unjust judge. Sometimes by persistence and perseverance, as well as prayer, we can perhaps accomplish more than we might suspect.
It's always good also to make sure letters are not all inclusive. Sometimes we receive a letter that deals with 35 different items! Each item should be dealt with in a separate letter. It's also a good idea to make sure that we don't go to the barricades over commas. Sometimes people can get very excited about matters that in themselves are relatively trivial, and if we expend all our energy and the good will that we might have on trivial matters, then when more serious matters come up we are less likely to do anything about them. I would also say that we have to make sure that our requests and demands are reasonable. Sometimes people make incredibly unreasonable demands on bishops, such as "a bishop should be here or do this" or "priests should be here or do that." The demands made have to be within reason and possible. It would be a mistake to try to insist that bishops or priests do things which would obviously be beyond their capacity to do. This can also lead people to think that the letter writer is less than fully coherent.
Could you cite some bright spots in the Church these days, reason for hope that you see?
Oh, I see a great deal of reason for hope. I see for example in our own Diocese of Lincoln a great increase in vocations for priesthood and religious life, and perseverance in those vocations. I see young, happy clergy. I'm also very happy to note that in other parts of the world there are many bright spots. I was talking just last week to an archbishop from Brazil who was explaining to me the great resurgence in vocations in that country. I also happened to be talking to some bishops from Germany who were very excited about the lay apostolate that is taking root in certain parts of the Rhineland in Germany. So I think there are bright spots in many places. I don't think the Lord will let His Church to go without some of these joyful consolations. Even though occasionally it gets very dark we must remember that it's always the darkest just before the dawn.
© 1997, 2007 by John Mallon