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In the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., the idea that the church should change is greeted with dismay. ‘‘There’s a vibrancy to the church here,’’ the Rev. David J. Davis said. At left, Davis (left) and Gladys and Adolph Nemec went for breakfast after Mass in Prague, Neb.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., the idea that the church should change is greeted with dismay. ‘‘There’s a vibrancy to the church here,’’ the Rev. David J. Davis said. At left, Davis (left) and Gladys and Adolph Nemec went for breakfast after Mass in Prague, Neb. (Globe Staff Photos / Dina Rudick)

In Neb., heartland of orthodoxy

Conservatism rules Lincoln Catholics

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Many liberal Catholics hope the new pope will make changes in the centuries-old teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to fit the modern world, but not the faithful here in one of the most conservative dioceses in the country.

''The church shouldn't adapt to society changing; the church should stay as a rock," said Richard Danek, 51, a real estate appraiser who lives near Lincoln, an hour's drive southwest of Omaha. ''If the church adapts, then at what point do we stop adapting?"

''The Catholic Church is conservative. That's it. Period," said Katie Reese, 47, a mother of four who waited for her children outside a parochial school last week.

Nationally, Danek and Reese would find agreement among orthodox Catholics, whose voices are relatively muted compared with the calls for change from the church's liberal wing. But in the sprawling Diocese of Lincoln, there is not much competition from the proponents of change.

''When one thinks of orthodox, the first place you think of is Nebraska," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an antidefamation organization based in New York.

Led by a bishop who has ordered excommunication for members of a dozen groups, from Planned Parenthood to the Freemasons, that he considers a threat to church traditions, most of the 89,000 Catholics in the Lincoln diocese oppose the ordination of women, marriage for priests, euthanasia, the death penalty, stem-cell research, and abortion.

''The church is eternal, and it has given us these teachings for 2,000 years," said Sandra Danek, a former Southern Baptist who converted to Catholicism after she married Richard. ''It's the teachings from Christ himself."

To leaders of the Vatican hierarchy, who regard many of the US faithful as ''cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose doctrine, the diocese is a humming model of pulpit-to-pew conformity.

Such lock-step orthodoxy is not the norm in the United States. Polls suggest most American Catholics disagree with the Vatican on several core issues. In a World Values Survey conducted between 1999 and 2001 for international researchers based in Sweden, 37 percent of American Catholics agreed with the church that abortion was ''never justifiable," compared with 46 percent of Catholics worldwide. In that survey, 20 percent of American Catholics said homosexuality was never justified, compared with 51 percent worldwide.

In the Lincoln diocese, the idea that the church should change is greeted with head-shaking dismay. ''I don't know how some people can call themselves Catholics," said the diocesan secretary, Carolyn Whitney, 37, referring to those of the faith who support abortion rights. Such criticism also extends to elected Catholic officials who do not follow church teachings on ''life issues," such as abortion.

''There was no doubt in our minds that we could only vote for George Bush," Sandra Danek said. ''Life is the issue. For those of us who are Catholic, we were greatly offended by John Kerry," who declared during the campaign that he was personally opposed to abortion but respected a woman's right to have one.

''That's really kind of a cop-out," said the Rev. David J. Davis, a diocesan priest. ''If you're for something or against something, be for it or against it."

As Davis spoke, after Mass at a rural church 50 miles north of Lincoln, six parishioners nodded their approval. ''The people should change rather than the church," said Adolph Nemec, 82. ''It's sort of a 'me' or 'I want' society."

''Some people call us old-fashioned," Davis added, ''but there's a vibrancy to the church here. It's alive. It's vital."

Parishioners and clergy routinely credit Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who was appointed in 1992, for the robust health of the diocese, which officials said has 70 percent attendance at Sunday Mass as well as high enrollment in its seminary. ''I think we're very blessed here to have Bishop Bruskewitz," Whitney said.

But a small minority of Catholics here assail the bishop as an overly rigid leader who leaves no room for discussion, much less the possibility of change.

''My problem is we're only allowed, literally, one perspective," said Patty Hawk, president of Call to Action Nebraska, a group of Catholics that seeks to engage church leaders in discussion about women in the priesthood, sexuality, and the social conditions that lead to abortion. But when Call to Action formed nine years ago, Bruskewitz threatened members with excommunication, which would deny them Communion.

In 1996, Bruskewitz forbade Catholics in the diocese from joining Call to Action and 11 other organizations.

''Membership in these organizations or groups is always perilous to the Catholic faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic faith," Bruskewitz wrote in an order. The bishop gave members a month to leave the groups and seek reconciliation.

Hawk said that Bruskewitz, to her knowledge, has denied Communion to only one parishioner, a former priest who had joined Call to Action. ''As far as we're concerned, the [threat of] excommunication is him just trying to bully us," Hawk said. ''This is a horrible embarrassment to this diocese."

Bruskewitz refused last year to comply with an order by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to compile an audit of sexual-abuse complaints against the diocese. Lincoln was the only one of 195 dioceses in the country to refuse. The diocese complied with the first audit in 2003, said William A. Gavin, whose auditing company conducted the national survey.

Bruskewitz did not respond to an interview request. But Davis, the diocesan priest, said the act was intended to protect priests from what Bruskewitz believed was a rush to judgment in the sex-abuse scandal.

''The bishop has tons and tons and tons of courage," Davis said.

Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he believes that orthodoxy is gaining strength among American Catholics because of the ''moral clarity" preached by Pope John Paul II.

The voice of Catholic conservatives often is overlooked in the United States, Donohue said, because the church's liberals dominate Catholic universities and receive more publicity.

Terry St. Hilaire, 34, said the orthodoxy in Lincoln is the reason he moved to the city from Washington state with his wife, four children, and mother-in-law. The teachings in Lincoln are simple and direct, St. Hilaire said, and their uncompromising interpretation is comforting to him. ''We had a lot of difficulty in other places where we lived," St. Hilaire said. ''We knew they weren't the true teachings of the church."

As an example, he cited a midnight Mass in northwestern Washington state at which a priest preached that all people -- ''black and white, male and female, straight and gay" -- were welcome in the church. ''There was no mention of sin," St. Hilaire said of traditional church teaching on homosexuality. ''We don't want our children exposed to this."

Whitney, the diocesan secretary, said she hopes the next pope will follow the course set by John Paul II.

''He stressed the value of human life, and he had such a great connection with youth, the future of the church," Whitney said.

''I'd like to see him named John Paul III," she said with a smile. ''That would be a good example."

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