In late July, the American Catholic missionary order Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers revealed its decision to end longtime financial support for the anti-military group SOA Watch. Each year the organization hosts a vigil demanding the closing of the U.S. military’s School of the Americas (SOA), which for 64 years has trained Latin American military officers, many of whom have been linked to the murder and torture of dissidents. (In 2001, the school, located at Ft. Benning, Ga., was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.)
SOA Watch’s founder and head is 72-year-old Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest. In 1990, following the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by graduates of the SOA in November 1989, Bourgeois and a small group of supporters founded SOA Watch. Bourgeois has also been an outspoken advocate for the ordination of women into the Catholic priesthood. Because of his participation in the ordination of a woman as a priest in 2008, he is considered automatically excommunicated by the Vatican, which demanded, in an October 2008 letter to Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, N.Y., that he recant his support of women’s ordination. However, Bourgeois considers the denial of priestly ordination of women part of the “sin of sexism” by the Catholic Church, and openly defied the Vatican.
In a terse e‑mail sent to the press July 22, the Maryknoll Order said in part: “Given Father Bourgeois’ central role as the founder and public face of the SOA Watch, Society leadership has determined that it cannot continue its financial support of that organization without giving the impression that it also supports the actions of its leader concerning the issue of women’s ordination.” Thus, it denied a 2010 general-use grant of $17,000 to SOA Watch, a group it has supported since the 1990s. Megan Sweas, writing in U.S. Catholic, remarked that the Maryknoll Order “seems to give the impression that women’s ordination is worse than torture.”
Michael Baney, development coordinator of SOA Watch, noted that the Maryknoll Order had been SOA Watch’s biggest financial backer, and the denial of the grant “put an enormous hole” in the organization’s $360,000 budget. However, he says an SOA Watch emergency appeal to the group’s supporters has since generated a “huge response.”
Although considered excommunicated from the Catholic Church, Bourgeois still remains a Maryknoll priest. The Vatican has not acted to make his excommunication official, even though it threatened to do so in 2008.
When the Vatican released its new, more stringent guidelines on handling priest pedophilia on July 15, it linked together as “more grave delicts” possession of child pornography, sexual abuse of the mentally disabled and support for the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. (According to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in May 2010, 59 percent of U.S. Catholics favor women’s ordination, while only 33 percent oppose it.)
“I’ve never seen such fear in the Catholic Church on this issue [of female ordination],” says Bourgeois. He says many priests have told him that they favor women’s ordination, but if they speak out they will be kicked out of their priestly orders and denied pensions. Bourgeois says that retired Detroit auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who himself crossed swords with the Vatican for his support of gay rights, warned him that the Holy See would punish him for speaking out against church doctrine. Bourgeois, however, believes the church will eventually be forced to change, and calls on his fellow priests to openly defy the Vatican. “This movement for gender equality in the church is unstoppable,” he says.