Roman Catholic Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., acted decisively when he learned a group with views he considers antithetical to Catholicism planned to start a chapter in his area this spring.
He announced that Catholics in his diocese were forbidden to be members of Call to Action or 11 other groups whose views he called "perilous" to and "incompatible" with the Catholic faith. Lincoln Catholics who persisted in participating in the groups after May 15 were "ipso facto" - by that very fact - excommunicated.The troublesome groups: Planned Parenthood; Society of Saint Pius X; Lefebvre Group; Hemlock Society; Call to Action; Call to Action Nebraska; Saint Michael the Archangel Chapel; Freemasons; Job's Daughters; DeMolay; Eastern Star; Rainbow Girls; and Catholics for a Free Choice.
While canon law forbids Catholics from belonging to organizations that hurt their faith, the bishop's blanket denouncement was unique because of its focus on groups rather than individuals.
A couple of U.S. Catholic bishops publicly characterized their colleague's actions as harsh. Most kept silent, and none followed his example.
While Bishop Bruskewitz acted within his rights as an ecclesiastical leader, "it's a fairly drastic move," said Deacon Owen F. Cummings of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
"The interesting thing from my perspective, making a comment as a theologian, is he did not excommunicate persons who are named," Deacon Cummings said. "He excommunicated groups, saying that to affiliate with a body . . . was to put yourself outside the pale of the Catholic Church."
In so doing, Bishop Bruskewitz is "inviting a person to see whether the excommunication pertains to them. The last court of appeal in the Catholic Church is the individual conscience of the member," Deacon Cummings said.
Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, inappropriate activities of members would be handled on an individual basis by local church leaders - either a ward bishop or stake president, both of whom supervise geographical areas.
"If a local leader felt a member was doing something attacking the church, that would certainly be grounds for discussing that with them," said Don LeFevre, LDS Church spokesman. "Those issues are handled locally and each individual situation is handled separately."
There have been broad statements, however, about appropriate public conduct for LDS Church members.
"There is a general policy that support for apostate groups is grounds for (a person to be) invited to come in and discuss the circumstances with local church leaders," LeFevre said. "They alone would decide if there is to be discipline, from probation to disfellowship to excommunication."
The church's First Presidency in 1992 issued a statement counseling members to not openly debate questions regarding church doctrine, policies and procedures. Though not mentioned in the statement, it came shortly after a Sunstone Symposium in which the church's Strengthening Church Members Committee was criticized.
The Episcopal Church also handles disciplinary action on an individual basis, said Stewart Hanson, chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
"Church canon is very express in making sure there can't be an excommunication or interdiction without a clear standard of due process having been met," Hanson said. "I've never heard of it being anything other than an individual, case-by-case issue with due process being followed."
Which is not to say the Episcopal Church is immune to controversial instances of ecclesiastical leaders exercising their authority.
On May 15 - the same day Bishop Bruskewitz's excommunication edict took effect - an Episcopal Church court dismissed a charge of heresy against Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining an openly gay man to the priesthood in 1990. The court, comprised of eight bishops, found that the Episcopal Church has no "core doctrine" prohibiting ordination of homosexuals.
The 10 Episcopal bishops who leveled the heresy charge against Bishop Righter called the ruling "deeply flawed and erroneous" and left open whether they'll appeal the decision.