The story of the ongoing excommunication of members of Call to Action in the Lincoln, Neb., diocese was told recently in Rachel Pokora's new book, Crisis of Catholic Authority. But the story would not be complete without highlighting the insistent "no" to that excommunication from university James McShane. No one was more deeply hurt by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz's action in 1996, and no one did more to fight it, those who knew the man agreed. McShane did not live to see the resolution he so wanted. He died July 5, 2013, from complications of heart surgery in Minnesota at the age of 74.
It should be noted that during this battle, no other U.S. bishop followed Bruskewitz's lead, nor did any other U.S. bishop take issue in public with the bishop's stand. So the excommunication remains in effect to this day. Bruskewitz retired in 2012, and his successor, Bishop James Conley, has maintained the penalty.
McShane did not waver during some 17 years of correspondence, meetings and phone calls with church leaders, experts in canon law and informed laity all over the United States. He dealt with U.S. bishops and corresponded over many years with several congregations at the Vatican, all the way up to the Apostolic Signatura. Some letters were lost; others moved at glacial speed through the bureaucracy. When replies did come, the message was often ambiguous or dismissive.
Well into the midst of his battle, McShane wrote: "It is awful to live one's spiritual life in an arena of tidy, and often impenetrable, even misrepresented technicalities. But since we seem to live in such a world, we had best learn how to master its byways lest we be run over by those who would abuse them."
McShane had a large personality and enjoyed sparring with friends and associates. "He didn't care what others thought of him," according to his obituary in the Lincoln Journal Star. "He was funny, annoying and irreplaceable."
"I think being a Catholic was part of his personal identity," Pokora said. "He therefore deeply resented Bishop Bruskewitz's declaration that membership in the organization Call to Action was intrinsically incompatible with Catholic identity and felt compelled to seek a reversal of that decision."
Although he had no special education in theology, McShane was well versed in Catholic history. "Had I not known about ... the capacity of mother church to survive the instrumentalities of its own authorities, I'd have been much more seriously tempted to turn it all over," he wrote.
He was also suited for the task because of his career path. As an English professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, he was often at odds with administrative decisions, serving on the Rights and Responsibilities Committee and defending faculty members facing grievances. He was the "university's conscience," said his friend, Jerry Petr, a retired economics professor at the university. McShane served two terms on the university faculty senate, which honored him with the James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award in 1983.
McShane is survived by his wife of 50 years, Carol, and seven children. A requiem Mass was celebrated for him in Minneapolis immediately after his death, and the disposition of his remains has not been made public. Had his family sought a Mass and burial for him in Lincoln, permission would undoubtedly have not been granted.