The Rebel Feminist Priest

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

George Fish August 16, 2011

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

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.

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

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 272011

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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