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Fr. Roy Bourgeois (far left) participates in the August 2008 "ordination" ceremony of Janice Sevre-Duszynska (far right) at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Ky. (Photo via bridgetmarys.blogspot.com)

The Rebel Feminist Priest

The Vatican has nearly kicked Roy Bourgeois out of the priesthood for supporting women’s ordination.

BY George Fish

Bourgeois has repeatedly charged the Church with sexism for refusing to recognize women's ordination.

The Vatican’s outrage at American priest Roy Bourgeois for publicly supporting the ordination of women to the priesthood has nearly reached its final stage: removal from the priesthood (“laicization”) by the Vatican and expulsion from the Catholic missionary order Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, which ordained him 39 years ago.

Official condemnation of Bourgeois–triggered by his participation in the August 2008 ordination service of Rev. Janice Sevre-Duszynska–escalated on March 29, 2011, when the priest received a letter (the First Canonical Warning) from the Superior General of the Maryknoll order demanding that he publicly recant his support for female ordination or be removed from the priesthood. Since Bourgeois refused to do so, the Second Canonical Warning, or final notice of pending removal from the Maryknoll Order, was issued on July 27, 2011.

Both letters went out over the signatures of Edward M. Dougherty, superior general of the 100-year-old Catholic order, and Maryknoll’s Secretary General, Edward J. McGovern. The first letter noted that consultations had taken place between the Maryknoll Order and the Vatican, and that Bourgeois had been notified over two years ago after Sevre-Duszynska, a member of the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests, became the 35th woman to be ordained under its auspices.

Although Bourgeois is considered excommunicated latae senteniae, i.e., upon commission of the deed, for participating in the ordination ceremony of Sevre- Duszynska, the Vatican did not move to formally excommunicate him and the matter remained in limbo from late 2008 on. But things escalated this year after Bourgeois spoke in February on a panel at Barnard College in conjunction with the showing of the award-winning documentary on women’s ordination, Pink Smoke over the Vatican.

Bourgeois has repeatedly charged the Church with sexism for refusing to recognize women’s ordination to the priesthood, which he considers a “call from God.” In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination forbidden by the tradition and teaching of the Catholic Church, and proclaimed that “there will be no more discussion.” The Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI have declared it “infallible,” i.e., the unalterable word of God.

The Second Canonical Warning, written in terse legalese, cited several provisions of Catholic canon law that Bourgeois had deliberately violated by his active and public support for women’s ordination. Bourgeois is specifically charged with several counts of deliberate disobedience to his superiors both in Maryknoll and in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Second Canonical Warning specifically states, “The [impending] dismissal is based on your defiant stance as a Catholic priest who publicly rejects the Magisterium of the Church on the matter of priestly ordination.” It also stated, “Your participation in the event in support of women priests at Barnard College…presents a clear act of disobedience of the explicit instructions of your Superiors and the warnings of the Holy See.”

The First Canonical Warning informed Bourgeois that he had 15 days to publicly recant his support for women’s ordination or he would be laicized–i.e., stripped of all his priestly powers and entitlements, including his pension as a Maryknoll priest for 39 years. (A Maryknoll spokesman said in August, however, that Bourgeois would not lose his pension.)

Bourgeois answered Maryknoll’s first letter on April 8, 2011, and the second letter on August 8, 2011. In both, he reiterated his support for women’s ordination; his belief that since God made men and women equal in worth and dignity; and that the church was being arrogant and sexist.

In his April letter, he stated in regard to the shortage of priests in the Church and the sexual abuse scandal, “For years we have been praying for more vocations to the priesthood. Our prayers have been answered. God is sending us women priests. Half the population are women. If we are to have a vibrant and healthy Church, we need the wisdom, experiences and voices of women in the priesthood.”

The Catholic priesthood, Bourgeois says, is an “old boys’ club” that wishes to hold onto its power, privileges and prerogatives. He believes that had there been women priests, the priest-pedophilia scandal would not have erupted because such predatory deeds would not have been tolerated.

Priest of the Americas

Regardless of whether he is laicized, Bourgeois will continue to act as head of SOA Watch, the group he helped found in 1990 that aims to close the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga. (In 2001, the school, located at Ft. Benning, Ga., was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.) It has been infamous for training Latin American military officers; many of its graduates have been involved in military coups and dictatorships.

Bourgeois helped found SOA Watch after six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador in 1989. Those responsible were trained at the SOA, a U.S. Congressional Task Force reported. He has served nearly five years in prison for nonviolent protest.

“Fr. Roy is the founder of School of the Americas Watch and he will be a part of the movement … even if Maryknoll is going to follow through with this,” Henrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, told the National Catholic Reporter on March 29, 2011. SOA Watch takes no stance on political or religious issues, and confines itself to demanding the closing of SOA/WHITSEC and supporting human rights in Latin America.

Maryknoll, a longtime financial supporter of SOA Watch, suspended its $17,000 grant to SOA Watch in 2010. After being assured that SOA Watch does not advocate for women’s ordination, the organization restored the annual grant. Financial support for SOA will continue even if Bourgeois is laicized, according to Mike Virgintino, director of publicity and marketing for the Maryknoll Order.

Virgintino says that Maryknoll has received many messages in support of Bourgeois, but also many in support for Maryknoll’s position. He notes that Bourgeois has visited Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, N.Y., several times, even as recently as the summer of 2011, and met there with Dougherty, McGovern and fellow priests.

As of August 11, 200 Catholic priests have signed the Clergy for Conscience petition supporting Bourgeois, according to the liberal Catholic organization Call To Action.

Unrepentant, and ready to appeal

As for next steps, Maryknoll will review Roy Bourgeois’ letter in response to the Second Canonical Letter, and then act. That could mean removing Bourgeois from Maryknoll and/or forwarding a request for his laicization to the Vatican. But Bourgeois has the right to appeal any decisions handed down, and has retained counsel well-versed in Catholic canon law for this. (A member of this team, Fr. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer well known as an expert witness on behalf of those suing the Church in clergy sex abuse cases, is already drafting Bourgeois’ defense before the Vatican.)

Bourgeois’ only regret is that he didn’t speak out earlier. He recalled his days as a youth in Louisiana, attending a segregated public school and a segregated Catholic parish, where the Catholic schools were segregated as well. It was not until he went to Vietnam as a starry-eyed patriotic youth and saw injustice there that he became awakened. Upon returning from duty (for which he received a Purple Heart), he began his studies to become a Maryknoll priest. While serving as a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia and in El Salvador, he says, “the poor became my teachers.”

Bourgeois sees the fight for woman’s ordination as a necessary extension of the social justice calling he received 45 years ago when he entered the Maryknoll seminary. “Silence is the voice of consent,” he says.

George Fish, a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, has written for Dialogue & Initiative, Monthly Review, Political Affairs, Against the Current and Socialism and Democracy.

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