COLUMBUS, Ga. — Father Roy Bourgeois sat in his modest apartment on Tuesday, Aug. 16 with only seven hours left to say two words: I recant.
These words would free him of a looming dismissal from the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll). Father Bourgeois was ordered to recant his open campaign in favor of ordination of women as priests, a position in direct conflict with Church doctrine.
“Wednesday is the day,” Father Bourgeois said in a conversation with the Register on Aug. 16. “I poked the beehive of the patriarchy, and those bees got very upset with me. I am in very serious trouble. Yes, we have to obey our leaders. But above that is loyalty to conscience, and conscience is very important to God.”
Would he recant in the waning moments before the deadline, as pressure built on the heels of multiple sleepless nights? Not a chance, he said. He is a man who has never backed down from a fight. Not as a Marine in Vietnam, a revolutionary in Bolivia or a crusader against an Army center that trains Latin American cops, soldiers and civilians.
“As it gets closer, I realize that conscience has consequences,” Father Bourgeois said. “I am experiencing very deep sadness. I am hurt and disappointed. The coldness of the letter is very painful.”
The letter, titled “Second Canonical Warning,” was sent to Father Bourgeois on July 27. It warned him of dismissal, in the event he did not recant within 15 days of receiving the letter.
“The 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,” stated the letter, written by Maryknoll Father Edward Dougherty, superior general of the Maryknoll order, and Maryknoll Father Edward McGovern, secretary general of the order.
Father Bourgeois said the Maryknoll order has been his family since he joined the order before becoming a priest in 1972.
“When the final letter comes, telling me I’m no longer a member of the order, it is going to be really hard,” Father Bourgeois said. “I am preparing, but it’s like preparing for the death of a loved one. When the day finally comes, the reality sets in, and it is always worse than you anticipated.”
‘Grasping at Straws’
The letter cited a variety of passages from canon law, which disciplines Catholics who teach “a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff” and refuse to “retract” after a warning by the Apostolic See or by the ordinary.
Fathers Dougherty and McGovern stated in their second and final warning to Father Bourgeois that he already had been warned of his likely dismissal from the order. In a letter, dated Sept. 27, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notified him of his excommunication for participation in a women’s ordination ceremony in August of that year.
“You were warned at that time of possible dismissal if you continued your campaign in favor of women priests and failed to recant publicly your position on the matter,” the second letter stated.
In addition to refusing to recant, Father Bourgeois participated in an event in support of women priests at New York’s Barnard College on Feb. 12, 2011. He was warned again a month later, on March 18, 2011.
The most recent letter concluded with: “Again, please be advised of the seriousness of this matter.”
Father Bourgeois, 72, has been a priest for 39 years, saying his calling came while fighting for his life after a bomb blew up his Marine barracks in Vietnam, killing the man who slept in a room Father Bourgeois had only recently moved from.
He is an activist who has devoted much of his ministry to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly named School of the Americas. He has accumulated four years of incarceration for arrests and convictions associated with unlawful protests at the School of the Americas.
He said his fight for the ordination of women as priests is just another of his battles against what he calls injustices.
“God calls women to the priesthood,” Father Bourgeois explained. “How can we deny them the right to follow a calling from God just because they are women?”
The Church has consistently taught that the vocation of the priesthood is open to men only. Church fathers St. Irenaeus, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine all wrote that the ordination of women wasn’t possible.
In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II states 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.” He quotes Pope Paul VI, who said the Church “holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority, which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
Additionally, God does not call women to the priesthood, says Jimmy Akin, senior apologist for San Diego-based Catholic Answers. He explained that God loves men and women equally and gives both sexes the gifts of redemption and salvation.
“But he does distinguish between them because he made them men and women,” Akin said.
He said Jesus gave the Church a clear and infallible teaching that says women cannot be priests. His apostles were all men.
“Jesus chose Mary Magdelene as the first witness to the Resurrection, and she brought the information to men who were hiding in fear,” Father Bourgeois said. “So she was known in the early Church as the ‘apostle of apostles.’”
“Bourgeois is simply grasping at straws,” countered Akin, writing at NCRegister.com. Akin explained that Mary Magdalene was not “the first witness,” as Father Bourgeois claims, but was among the first witnesses. Whether Jesus “chose” her and others who witnessed the Resurrection is open to discussion.
“It has never been seriously entertained that Mary Magdalene was a literal apostle or an ordained priest,” Akin wrote. “Women today may serve such analogous roles without implying literal ordination or a right thereto.”
Though Father Bourgeois is indisputably in conflict with Church doctrine and authority, he and his position are not lacking support. A July 21 letter to Maryknoll superiors bears the signature of 157 priests who claim they are “in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church.” The letter asks the superiors to respect the right of Father Bourgeois “to speak from his conscience.”
Such public statements are not likely to change the stance of Father Bourgeois’ religious superiors. In their final warning letter, the superiors said Father Bourgeois has given “grave scandal” to the people of God, the Church and Maryknoll priests and brothers. Additionally, they say he has caused “diffusion of teachings opposed to the definitive teaching of John Paul II and the magisterium of the Church.”
Some of his most outspoken supporters don’t dispute that Father Bourgeois has disobeyed Church teachings. Instead, they question the teachings with emotional and practical concerns.
“For 77 years I have been a nun because they won’t let me be a priest,” said Sister Rose Margaret Noonan, 93, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. “I have said my whole life that women should be priests, but nobody listens to me.”
Father Bourgeois, she said, listened to her and fought for her cause.
“In every way he is a good priest and a wonderful person,” Sister Rose Margaret said. “I feel badly for him. But he has such a wonderful faith that I know he will get through this.”
If Father Bourgeois receives his official letter dismissing him from the Maryknoll order, his next challenge will involve fighting the Vatican’s plan to formally remove him from the priesthood, a process known as laicization. Father Bourgeois has retained Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, to represent him at the Vatican.
Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.