National Catholic Register


Background on Fr. Bourgeois' Dismissal from Religious Life (and the Clerical State)

BY Jimmy Akin

| Posted 8/10/11 at 5:00 PM


Unless something unexpected occurs, Fr. Roy Bourgeois (pictured) is scheduled to be expelled from his order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, on August 12th. The reasons for this expulsion are set out in a canonical warning (pdf) sent to him by his religious superior, Fr. Edward Dougherty, who warned him that unless he responded appropriately,

I will proceed with dismissal by submitting evidence of your contumacy as a priest who publicly rejects the teaching of the Holy Father (C. 1371), also a priest who acted illegitimately in “communicátio in sacris ”—such as participation in an invalid ordination ceremony of a woman (C. 1384). “Concelebrating” Mass with women analogous to simulation of the Eucharist (C. 1379), giving scandal to the Christian faithful in a serious matter over a two-year period (C.1399) and Disobedience to the instructions and warnings of your legitimate Superiors and the Apostoiic See (C. 601; Mk Const. 40). The dismissal will be submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for confirmation with a request for laicization.

The Reasons for the Dismissal:

In Accordance with Canon 696:1

1 For obstinate disobedience of your legitimate superiors in violation of Canon Law and your Oath to the society and the magisterium
Church in a grave matter.

2. Grave scandal given to the people of God, the Church, especially in the United States, and many of the Maryknoll Priests and Brothers.

3. Diffusion of teachings opposed to the definitive teaching of John Paul II and the Magisterium of the Church. (Cf. C. 1024; Ordinatio Sacerdotalis N.4 1994, AA887 -1995-,1 114).

If the facts are as Dougherty’s warning indicates, the case for dismissal seems to be on solid ground. Canon 969.1 provides that:

A member can also be dismissed for other causes provided that they are grave, external, imputable, and juridically proven such as: habitual neglect of the obligations of consecrated life; repeated violations of the sacred bonds; stubborn disobedience to the legitimate prescripts of superiors in a grave matter; grave scandal arising from the culpable behavior of the member; stubborn upholding or diffusion of doctrines condemned by the magisterium of the Church; public adherence to ideologies infected by materialism or atheism; the illegitimate absence mentioned in can. 665, §2, lasting six months; other causes of similar gravity which the proper law of the institute may determine.

Bourgeois has indicated that he does not intend to comply with the canonical warnings he has been issued, and so unless something changes we may expect the requests for his dismissal from his order and for his laicization to be submitted to the Holy See and, in all likelihood, granted.

There is a good bit that can be said about this story, but let’s focus here on the key issue, which is often misrepresented or misunderstood. The key issue driving Fr. Bourgeois’ various actions (giving a homily at an attempted female ordination, attempting concelebration with women, etc.) is his rejection of the Church’s teaching regarding who can be ordained.

So what is that teaching?

Here is the Church’s ordinary magisterial teaching as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1577 Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus 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. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. 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.

1578 No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift.

Here the Catechism makes several points that Fr. Bourgeois apparently rejects. The first and most obvious is that only a baptized man (the Catechism uses the Latin word vir which specifies a person of the male gender, as opposed to the term homo, which indicates a person of either gender [note well: This is not the same as the Greek word homo, which means “same,” from which we get the word “homosexuality”]) can be ordained.

The Catechism then offers a summary argument for why this is the case. The argument could be put in somewhat more formal form as follows:

1. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles.
2. The apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.
3. Line 2 shows awareness on the part of the apostles that the Lord Jesus’ choice was binding on them, as well.
4. The ministry of the twelve is in some way perpetuated throughout the whole of Christian history by the college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood.
5. Consequently, the Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself.
6. Consequently, the ordination of women is not possible.

Bourgeois presumably does not object to line 1, given the contents of the New Testament. Whether he accepts line 2 is less clear, for there are some who argue (on spurious grounds) that there were women functioning as apostles in the first century. Bourgeois presumably rejects something in this argument, though, since he disagrees with line 6.

On what grounds does he do so? He appears to have several arguments, some of which have appeared in recent press accounts. For example, the National Catholic Reporter (not the Register) states:

In the letter to his superiors, Bourgeois cites five reasons why he thinks the exclusion of women from the priesthood “defies both faith and reason and cannot stand up to scrutiny.”

I have not been able to obtain a copy of the letter, bur according to the Reporter:

Among them are a 1976 report by the Pontifical Biblical Commission—which, he says, concluded there was “no valid case” against the ordination of women in scripture—and the fact that he believes the call to be a priest comes only from God.

Let’s look at both of these arguments.

Regarding the argument-from-vocation, Bourgeois states:

“I believe our Creator who is the Source of life and called forth the sun and stars is certainly capable of calling women to be priests,” he writes.

This is a remarkably fatuous, grandstanding statement. Obviously God—being omnipotent—can do whatever he chooses, and if he were to choose to call women to the priesthood, he could and would do so. But asserting God’s capacity to do something does nothing to establish its reality. God could make pink unicorns with sparkly eyes and rainbow manes if he wanted, but we have no evidence that he has done so, at least on our planet (or elsewhere, for that matter). The question is not whether God is capable of calling women to be priests but whether he has done so. If the choice of Jesus in selecting his ministers is an indication (as the Church takes it to be) then the answer is that he chooses not to.

Elsewhere Bourgeois has amplified his vocation argument as follows:

“In my ministry over the years I have met many devout women in our church who believe God is calling them to be priests. Why wouldn’t they be called? God created men and women of equal dignity and, as we all know, the call to be a priest comes from God,” he wrote.

Here the argument takes a subjective turn, as Bourgeois appeals to the subjective perception of women he has met who believe that they have a vocation to the priesthood. But just because a person believes this does not mean that they do. Lots of people think they have vocations when, in fact, they do not. Consequently, as the second paragraph we quoted from the Catechism states:

Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders.

The subjective perception of a call is thus not an absolute but must be checked against other criteria, including the judgment of the Church and—obviously—whether the perception of a vocation conflicts with known doctrine.

Concerning the 1976 report from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Bourgeois is misrepresenting it. The document does not conclude that there is “no valid case” against the ordination of women in Scripture. That is neither a direct quotation from the document nor is it is a fair summary, as even the Reporter indicates in its own summary of what the document said:

The 1976 report, which was published in Catholic News Service’s Origins documentary service, concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence in the New Testament to “settle in a clear way and once and for all…the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.”

Actually, here is what the document said:

Is it possible that we will come to this even with the ministry of Eucharist and reconciliation which manifest eminently the service of the priesthood of Christ carried out by the leaders of the community?

It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.

However, some think that in the scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility, considering that the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation have a special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out by the New Testament.

Others, on the contrary, wonder if the Church hierarchy, entrusted with the sacramental economy, would be able to entrust the ministries of Eucharist and reconciliation to women in light of circumstances, without going against Christ’s original intentions.

Rather than saying that there is no valid case from Scripture (Bourgeois’ position), it articulated a mixed position, stating that “some think that in the scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility” while others disagree and the drafters of the document feel that the question is open (and difficult to close on scriptural grounds alone).

Now here’s what the Reporter (and apparently Bourgeois himself) didn’t say: The document has zero authority and does not represent the position of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Because it was never released. Instead, it’s a draft document that was leaked to the press, which is why they allude to Origins publishing it (you won’t find it on the PBC’s page on the Vatican web site or in collections of the commission’s official works). A leaked, unofficial draft document has no authority and it is misleading in the extreme to represent it in the way that Bourgeois and the Reporter apparently have. (In fact, according ot Origins, it wasn’t even leaked by anyone associated with the PBC but by some third party; see footnote 10 here).

Even if the document had been official, it would not itself be an expression of magisterial teaching. Since its reorganization by Paul VI, the PBC has not functioned as an organ of the magisterium but as an advisory body that operates under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and that prepares opinion papers for the CDF and the pope.

The Reporter then indicates that Bourgeois is undertaking some of the usual “Here I stand, I can do no other” posing:

When asked how he views his decision to continue his support for women’s ordination in light of his vow as a priest to support church teaching and obey his superiors, Bourgeois said that he felt that his “first allegiance was to God.”

“I’ve always felt that when you see an injustice, really it’s your conscience and faith in God calling you to address the issue and to break your silence. And when your superior tells you to be obedient, then you have to make a decision: Do I follow God or man? And there was no question I must go with my faith in God.”

Bourgeois also raised that issue of the primacy of conscience in his letter, citing a 1968 commentary by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Vatican II document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes.

“Over the pope ... there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority,” Bourgeois quotes from the future pope’s words.

As the days tick by until his likely laicization, Bourgeois said he hopes his situation might act as an example for others who are facing similar struggles with their conscience.

“The issue resolves around conscience, and really living out in our lives—all of us, all of us, my family, you, I, all of us—with what we believe. In our lives, in our journey of faith, we are going to come across situations like this—in our church, in our communities, in our families—and we have to make decisions rooted in our faith and our belief in a loving a just God,” said Bourgeois.

“And the decisions that we are going to make will not be easy. It’s going to upset others—our family, our friends. What’s important is to, in a loving way, follow our conscience, not get angry and simply embrace the consequences, the cross. This is what Jesus taught: embracing the cross.”

It is, of course, true that one must obey the certain judgments of one’s conscience, even if they contradict ecclesiastical authority. However, not everyone with a martyr complex is actually called to be a martyr. One can be certain in conscience and still be wrong. It’s especially easy when one displays the kind of shallow thinking reflected here. It may be a comfort to indulge in macho language about following Jesus and embracing the cross in the face of persecution, but the thing about going up against ecclesiastical authority is that you’d better be right—and you usually won’t be.

Especially not the doctrine you’re bucking is infallible—which this one is. But that’s a subject for another post.

In the meantime, what do you think?