Every couple of weeks, someone asks me whatever became of Father Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest.
They usually want to know: “Was he excommunicated?”
The answer seems to be “not yet.” But when I spoke to Bourgeois this week, he compared the Catholic Church's unwillingness to ordain women as priests to the Iranian regime's authoritative approach to crowd control.
“We, as men, claim this divine right to interpret the will of God, and it’s similar to what the ayatollahs are saying,” he told me.
The Vatican, ummm, might not take kindly to the comparison.
You might remember hearing about Bourgeois. He’s the priest who’s been fighting for two decades to close a U.S. Army school at Fort Benning, Ga., that trains Latin American soldiers.
Bourgeois and others contend that the school has tutored many soldiers who have committed human rights abuses in their home countries. Every November, Bourgeois leads a vigil outside Fort Benning that attracts thousands who want to see the operation shut down.
But last year, Bourgeois got in trouble for promoting a very different cause. He took part in the priestly “ordination” of a woman – something that the Roman Catholic Church does not do, recognize or condone.
Bourgeois’ superiors at the Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, forced to act, concluded that he broke church law (something he surely already knew) and forwarded their findings to the Vatican. Sure enough, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed Bourgeois in a letter that he had 30 days – until last Nov. 21 – to recant his support for the ordination of women.
Or he would be excommunicated.
Bourgeois would not budge. In fact, he told me at the time: “My God, my conscience, are compelling me to say I cannot recant.”
So what’s happened? Oddly, it’s hard to say.
I talked to Bourgeois by phone the other day. He was near Fort Benning, where he lives. You see, it’s his full-time job, his ministry, to work to close the military school, with the full support of Maryknoll.
Bourgeois told me that he has not heard from the Vatican since the fall. Not a note, an e-mail, nothing. So he is continuing to celebrate Mass and baptize babies.
“I have not gotten anything saying I am defrocked,” he said. “I continue to be a Catholic priest in good standing.”
Hmmm. Two months ago, Maryknoll’s superior general, the Rev. Edward M. Dougherty, issued a statement saying that Bourgeois had been “automatically excommunicated” when he did not meet the Vatican’s deadline to recant.
I contacted Maryknoll this week, and they were taken aback that Bourgeois disagrees.
“We are surprised and are saddened that his actions may present an obstacle in the path toward his reconciliation with Church authorities,” a new statement said. “We are still hoping that he will reconsider his position and be reconciled with the Vatican, a hope that they also have expressed.”
Seeking clarification, I faxed a note to the Vatican press office. No response so far.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not touch this one.
In December, the Catholic News Agency, a church-affiliated organization, reported that a Vatican official promised that Bourgeois would be excommunicated after the Vatican responds to letters on the case.
Things move slowly in Rome, but Bourgeois’ priestly days appear to be numbered. If he is excommunicated, he cannot administer the sacraments as a priest or receive them.
He is actually more adamant than ever about the need to ordain women as priests.
“The exclusion of women is a grave injustice and a sin,” the 70-year-old priest told me. “This is a movement whose time has come. It’s not going away.”
A sin. Strong words from a guy walking an ecclesiastical plank.
Bourgeois thinks that time is on his side, not to mention Catholics in the pews. A poll done in March by LeMoyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, found that only 36 percent of Catholics say it is important for the priesthood to remain all-male.
That finding was consistent with other polls. And the anecdotal evidence – what I hear Catholics say on the subject – indicates a pretty common confusion about why Catholic women can’t wear clerical collars.
The Vatican, meanwhile, has been solidifying its position.
In 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that the Catholic Church is not authorized to ordain women. It cited church tradition, Jesus’ call of only male apostles, the practice of the apostles to ordain men, the symbolism of having male priests stand in for Christ, who was a man, and other factors.
In 1994, Pope John Paul II agreed, writing in a letter to his bishops: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”
Bourgeois dismisses those arguments, saying they are covers for an outdated sexism.
“The first person Jesus appeared to after the resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene,” he said. “She was given an important mission: to go the male apostles, who were hiding out. She became known as the apostle to the apostles. To say that only men were chosen is not accurate.”
This belief is what led Bourgeois to a Unitarian church in Lexington, Ky., last August to take part in the “ordination” – not recognized by his church, of course – of a friend named Janice Sevre-Duszynska.
Bourgeois was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1972.
His days as a priest in good standing appear to be running out.
- Gary Stern
Journal News columnist
August 8, 2009
Journal News columnist
August 8, 2009
For information about Thursday’s CCCR event with Fr. Roy Bourgeois, click here.