Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll Priest from Lutcher, La., is likely to be excommunicated in the coming days after choosing to be a “concelebrant” and homilist at an attempted “ordination” of a woman to the priesthood.

A Vietnam war veteran and well-known peace activist, Father Bourgeois took part in the Aug. 9 ceremony, which saw Janice Sevre-Duszynska “ordained” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Ky.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent the activist priest a letter Oct. 21 stating that he had 30 days to recant his “belief and public statements that support the ordination of women in our Church, or [he] will be excommunicated.” The Vatican stepped in after the priest publicly rejected efforts by his superiors to return him to fidelity with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

In an interview with the Register Dec. 1, Father Bourgeois, who has for many years campaigned for the ordination of women, was unrepentant.

“I just feel very strongly about this issue,” he said. “I am following my God in my conscience, and I am very much at peace with what I am doing.”

He said he has yet to hear back from the Vatican.

The Church views such actions as a very grave matter.

“We must be clear about the seriousness of this,” said a Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He has used his priesthood to participate in an illegal and illicit action, which is a gross abuse of the priesthood and his position.”

He added: “Scripture is very clear: If you lead others astray, you will be forced out of communion.”

Father Bourgeois is likely to be excommunicated latae sententiae (automatically), by force of the law itself, when Church law is contravened.

Canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law states that only baptized males are valid candidates to ordination. No. 1577 of the Catechism explains why.

“The Lord Jesus,” it reads, “chose men (viri) to form the college of the Twelve Apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.” It adds that the college of bishops makes the twelve apostles an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return and that the Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. “For this reason the ordination of women is not possible,” it says.

Pope John Paul II essentially put an end to further doubts about the matter in 1994, when he published his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), reaffirming that the Church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” This judgment, he added, “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Father Bourgeois defended his position in a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated Nov. 7. He argued that women who feel called to the priesthood have a right to follow their consciences, some Scripture scholars say there is no biblical justification for excluding women from the priesthood, and the Church is guilty of sexism, which is causing a shortage of priests that women’s ordination could rectify.

Ordained in 1972, Father Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch, an organization which aims to draw attention to any injustices committed by the United States. He likewise sees this issue as one of injustice within the Church by a male hierarchy that is “abusing its power."

“Having an all-male clergy implies that men are worthy to be Catholic priests, but women are not,” he wrote in his letter to the Vatican.

However, there are many serious flaws in Father Bourgeois’ reasoning.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Diocese of San Diego said Dec. 2 that Father Bourgeois’ views are “indicative” of the “serious education” needed on the meaning of conscience.

“One cannot have a properly formed conscience if one is in direct contradiction to the established and defined teaching of the Church,” he said, adding that the teaching on a male priesthood is a settled matter.

Bishop Cordileone, who is a former official of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, said what is at fault here is a tendency to see the Church as a secular institution.

“[Campaigners for women’s ordination] look at all these other institutions, women climbing the ladder, getting positions of authority and power, and they feel it’s being denied them in the Church,” he explained. “But the Church isn’t a secular institution; it is the body of Christ. The Church is here to help us work out our salvation and get to where we want to be: in heaven.”

He added that seeing the Church through today’s secular values leads to a false understanding of humankind.

“A sound theology has to be based on a sound anthropology,” he said. “We’ve lost sight that women and men are unique. Women should not have to assert their equality and dignity by trying to be like men, at least in roles traditional to men. Society should affirm what is unique in them as women.”

The bishop said it is understandable why people are confused about this “because there are so many different ideas about gender roles.”

With regard to excommunication, Father Bourgeois believes it is unjust that he should be punished in such a way. However, excommunication is not meant to be permanent. It is dependent on the person’s repentance; it is a medicinal penalty that looks to the healing, conversion and rehabilitation of the person.

Bishop Cordileone rejected Fr. Bourgeois’ accusation that the Church is a sexist organisation as a “selective reading of history,” and said the Church has venerated women as saints and martyrs, and championed the cause of women throughout history.

He also dismissed the idea that women priests would solve the vocations crisis.

“If marriages are healthy then families are healthy,” he said, “and we’ll have lots of healthy vocations.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.