Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb. is in talks with local members of the dissenting Catholic group Call to Action to lift a two-decade-old excommunication if they sincerely profess the Catholic faith.

“Bishop Conley is not trying to be soft on dissent with in the Church,” clarified Father Nicholas Kipper, a spokesperson for the Lincoln diocese.

He noted that the bishop “has serious reservations against positions held by Call to Action nationally that would be in contradiction to the teachings of the Church.” However, some members may disagree with the national group on these issues, and may be in adherence with Church teaching.

“What [some of the members] wanted to do was to be in union once again with the Catholic Church,”  Fr. Kipper told CNA. “Bishop Conley, of course, wants this as well. His goal as a bishop is to bring people to the Church, thus bringing them to union with Christ.”

Call to Action took inspiration from a 1976 conference that was an initiative of the U.S. bishops. The group was eventually taken over by leaders with more extreme views who fought against Church doctrine. The national organization has backed dissenting theologians and often rejects Church teaching on women’s ordination and sexual morality, among other topics.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, Conley’s immediate predecessor, placed an interdict on members of the national Call to Action group and the local Nebraska chapter in an April 15, 1996 announcement. Excommunication took effect for those who persisted in membership one month later.

Several other groups fell under the excommunication: members of the pro-abortion rights groups Planned Parenthood and Catholics for Choice; Masonic groups and their affiliates; the pro-euthanasia group the Hemlock Society, now known as Compassion & Choices; members of the Society of St. Pius X and its local affiliate, Saint Michael the Archangel Chapel.

“Membership in these organizations or groups is always perilous to the Catholic Faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic Faith,” Bishop Bruskewitz’s message said.

Call to Action members appealed the Lincoln diocese excommunications, but the diocese was upheld in 2006 with a ruling from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops.

For several years, the Lincoln diocese has been in discussions with some local members of Call to Action about the possibility to returning to full union with the Church. To Fr. Kipper’s knowledge, Call to Action is the only group among those affected by the 1996 excommunication that has come forward.

Fr. Kippur stressed the importance of Catholic teaching.

“As the Church has taught, forever, and reminded in the Second Vatican Council that in matters of faith and morals the bishops speak on behalf of Christ, and the faithful are to accept and adhere to that teaching,” he said. “That remains the case.”

At the same time, the bishop wants to discuss the possibility of rescinding the excommunication “for members who are maybe not prepared to leave Call to Action, but do sincerely hold the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Fr. Kippur said. “That would mean professing the faith in the form of the Nicene Creed and professing all that the Church teaches and believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

He said that Bishop Conley and the diocese will have dialogue with any member of Call to Action Nebraska who would want to be in full union with the Church, not just the five members mentioned in press reports.

“This is a delicate and sensitive matter that we hope will unfold organically,” Fr. Kipper said.

J.D. Flynn, editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, previously served as special assistant to Bishop Conley and director of communications for the Lincoln diocese. Flynn has recused himself from coverage of this story to avoid a conflict-of-interest. He was not involved in the assigning, reporting, editing or oversight of this story.

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