WASHINGTON — Time ticks away for Father Roy Bourgeois.
He’s the high-profile Maryknoll priest who took part in a women’s ordination ceremony in August 2008.
Despite a canonical warning from his order soon after the ceremony, which was sponsored by Roman Catholic Womenpriests in Lexington, Ky., the priest refused to recant and was automatically excommunicated three months later.
“Sufficient time has now passed for you to consider the gravity of the matter,” the canonical warning said. “You are hereby asked one final time by the superior general and his council to publicly recant and accept the teaching of the Church on this serious matter concerning priestly ordination and the explicit teaching of the Church.”
Now, because he refuses to renounce his support for allowing women to become priests, he might lose his membership in the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and in the priesthood itself.
“I cannot do it,” said Father Bourgeois, 72. “Rome wants two words from me to make this go away: ‘I recant.’ Those words I cannot say. They are asking me to lie, by saying that I think God does not call women to the priesthood. I believe in my heart that he does.”
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says Father Bourgeois’ stance on women’s ordination has caused scandal by countering Church doctrine.
Excommunication does not automatically laicize a priest, nor does it remove him from association with an order. That’s the next step, which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked Maryknoll to take.
Maryknoll is a 100-year-old missionary order of 360 priests, two bishops, 49 brothers and 11 seminarians based in Ossining, N.Y.
“He remains a priest, even after excommunication,” said Jimmy Akin, senior apologist for Catholic Answers, a San Diego-based apologetics organization, and a Register blogger. “Excommunication is a Church penalty that plays a medicinal role. It says a Catholic has said or done something seriously wrong and needs to repent.” During excommunication, a priest may not celebrate or receive the sacraments.
A laicized priest remains ordained, Akin said, as ordination is an indelible mark on a man’s soul. A laicized priest may no longer function as a priest in the Church apart from certain extraordinary exceptions, such as hearing the confession of a dying person.
In March, the superior general of the Maryknoll order warned Father Bourgeois that he will proceed under canon law to seek the priest’s removal from the order and request that he be laicized unless he recants his belief that women should be ordained as priests.
Father Edward Dougherty, superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, outlined the steps the order would follow under the direction of Vatican officials in a canonical warning sent to Father Bourgeois dated March 18.
The document gave Father Bourgeois 15 days after receiving the warning to respond. Father Bourgeois told Catholic News Service he received the correspondence March 29 and that he has until April 13 to respond.
Seeks Audience With Pope
In an interview with the Register, Father Bourgeois said he wants to plead his case directly to Pope Benedict XVI, and he said he would be honored by a five-minute audience in which he would try to convince the Pope to reject his laicization. He would also like to meet with Cardinal William Levada, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“The Pope is pastoral, and I hope he will meet with Father Bourgeois and hear him,” said Lil Corrigan, an 88-year-old Catholic who says she is a close and longtime friend of Father Bourgeois. “It upsets me so much that a man who has done so much good has been accused of giving scandal.”
As laicization looms, Father Bourgeois is on a liquid-only fast in Washington, D.C., trying to get President Barack Obama to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, also known as the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army school at Fort Benning, Ga., that trains Latin American soldiers. He was a founder of School of the Americas Watch and alleges the school produces out graduates who commit human-rights atrocities, including the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. He has spent four years behind bars for arrests and convictions associated with unlawful protests at the School of the Americas.
“He has done many good works, and we all like him and consider him a brother,” said Maryknoll spokesman Mike Virgintino. “Some of his brothers may silently agree with him, believing that women are called by God to the priesthood. I think most would rather he just come to terms with the Church in order to stop this from happening.”
Called in Vietnam
Father Bourgeois has been a member of the Maryknoll Fathers for 44 years and a priest for 38. He is known as a peace activist, who first contemplated the priesthood after suffering a near-fatal injury as a Marine on the battlefield in Vietnam.
“I had been a Sunday-only Catholic,” Father Bourgeois said. “Then I was called to the priesthood and found the joy I had been seeking in life. It was a calling from God, and I know women who have experienced that calling. I know the Church’s teaching, but I cannot say I believe God doesn’t call women to the same vocation that has brought me such joy and happiness.”
Mike Virgintino told CNS March 30 that Father Dougherty’s action was taken at the direction of Vatican officials. He said the order has tried repeatedly since 2008 to seek reconciliation between Father Bourgeois and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles affairs related to Church teaching, without success.
Virgintino said the order has been buying time since the excommunication, hoping and praying that Father Bourgeois might recant.
In the canonical warning, Father Dougherty told Father Bourgeois that if he did not comply with the order to recant his belief, a second canonical warning would be issued. If Father Bourgeois continues to fail to comply with the order, Father Dougherty said he will “proceed with dismissal” from the congregation and include a request for laicization for the priest.
Father Bourgeois gets emotional when explaining that he will let his brothers down after the second 15-day warning expires.
“It’s like asking me to recant my position on the School of the Americas,” Father Bourgeois said. “It’s central to who I am and what I stand for. It is what I believe. Why the harshness? Why the severity? This order has been my family, my community, for 44 years.”
Father Bourgeois said the hardest part of his dilemma involves the sadness of his relatives.
“My father is 98, and he reads The Times-Picayune (the New Orleans newspaper) every day, page by page, so he has read all about this,” Father Bourgeois said. “My sister has been trying to prepare him for what’s about to happen. He has been sobbing and crying. When we join the priesthood, we bring our families with us.”
Support From His Order
In a story reported by Religion News Service, Father Bourgeois said he would live under a bridge and eat at soup kitchens before recanting his conviction about women priests.
“The point was: I would rather live with the peace of being true and honest to my convictions than live in some comfortable place, with good food, in return for recanting what I believe,” Father Bourgeois said. “I want to sleep at night.”
Virgintino said there is little chance Father Bourgeois will live under a bridge, even if he does not recant. He will no longer be a member of Maryknoll, but the order has begun discussions about supporting him financially as a laicized priest.
“If he needs assistance, I have been told by the general council that he will receive spiritual and financial support,” Virgintino said. “We are Christians, and he will still be our brother.”
Akin said the Church is not asking Father Bourgeois to lie about his beliefs, and it is not being too harsh.
“The Church is asking him to re-evaluate his view of the Church’s teaching on women priests, which was given to the Church by Christ and is infallible,” Akin said. “The Vatican is asking him to genuinely embrace the Church’s position. If he cannot, or does not, wholeheartedly accept the Church’s teaching, then he should not pretend he is a Catholic priest. While God loves men and women equally, there are gender differences. For whatever reason, God has chosen the role of priest only for men. Christ chose all of his ministers to be men, even though his mother would have been an ideal priest.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.
Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.