Fr. Roy Bourgeois has many titles: Nobel Peace Prize winner, purple heart recipient, former missionary, member of the Maryknoll Fathers for 44 years, and ordained priest for 38 years. He has long been associated with social justice and helping the oppressed and marginalized. He was a peace activist during the Vietnam War and founded the School of Americas Watch. He is found often marching and protesting in front of the School of Americas (now WHINSEC ), a terror training camp at Ft. Benning where soldiers are trained in devices of torture. This is where soldiers that were members of the death squads that existed in Latin America, especially in El Salvadorwere trained. This is also where the soldiers who killed the Jesuits, their maid, and her child as well as Monsignor Romero were trained.
Fr. Roy is and continues to be an important activist for peace and justice and a champion for the poor. At the risk of being defrocked, Fr. Roy is also an advocate on behalf of another oppressed group – women in the Catholic Church. Fr. Roy, through his actions, is now among the group of the oppressed and stands in punishment of a crime considered “delicta gravioria” by the Vatican. The brevity of his crime defined as “delicta gravioria” is shared with other offenders such as John Geoghan, John Birmingham, Paul Desilets, Robert V. Gale, and others found guilty of pedophilia in the Sex Abuse Scandal that rocked the United States. However Fr. Roy’s crime is not pedophilia; it is the public support of ordaining women.
The Vatican issued a canonical warning to Fr. Roy for his “crime” in record time; a mere three months after Fr. Roy participated in a women’s ordination ceremony. In Nihil Obstat, the author pointed out that there has not been a single instance where a priest was publicly excommunicated for sexual abuse or rape of a minor and posed the question: Is it more of a grave action to lay hands to ordain a woman or lay hands on a minor? Though this statement may seem harsh, the Vatican’s actions are no less harsh in their actions against Fr. Roy and their categorization of ordaining women within the same grouping as pedophilia, abuse of the mentally ill, and pornography.
The Vatican has also taken the position that Fr. Roy’s actions caused a latae sententiae excommunication by acting, participating, and supporting issues forbidden by the church. Excommunication, the most severe sentence handed down by the Church, denies the participation in the Sacraments of the Church. Excommunication and the withholding of Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, was a tool used in the Middle Ages to control or coerce a King and his vassal into obeying the demands of the Church. This abuse of authority did not fade in light of the Reformation. The threats and mandates made against Fr. Roy to coerce obedience and publicly confirm the party line is evidence that the abuse of power still remains a problem; not just with the Vatican, but also with some Bishops. Examples exist where this method of coercion has caused former supporters of female ordination, even those ordained, to publicly recant their support. In fact, Fr. Roy can remain a priest and avoid excommunication and laicization if he obeys the Vatican’s demand to recant or lie to the public.
In April of this year, the threat of a second canonical warning was made. However Fr. Roy continued to stand firm in his position and refused to compromise his conscience by obeying the Vatican’s edict to recant. He asserted and continues to assert his obligation to follow his conscience; to do otherwise would violate divine law as well as church teaching. This statement is absolutely correct. Though it is not greatly publicized, following one’s conscience can trump church teaching. To do so has to be done through theological reflection; a thoughtful examination and reflection on church teaching, scripture, context, and your conscience.
Following one’s conscience is vital and integrated into many aspects of church teaching and Scripture. Teachings found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 6: Mortal Conscience, and Canon Law, Canon 748 support Fr. Roy’s assertion that he cannot be coerced to divert from his conscience. In the article, “Conscience vs. Canon Law,” James Martin, S.J., writer of America magazine identified two documents from the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humane and Gaudium et Spes, that necessitates adherence to one’s conscience. Dignitatis Humane states that a person cannot be obligated to act against his/her conscience nor should he/she be restrained from acting in accordance with their conscience, especially in religious matters. Gaudium et Spes addresses the sanctity of a person’s conscience. In Scripture, this appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The obvious beginning point is the Ten Commandments that forbid giving false testimony (Exodus 20:16; 23:1,7) and bearing false witness (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). Ephesians 4:25 reminds us that we are all members of one body and should speak peacefully putting falsehood off. Colossians 3:9-10 tells us not to lie to each other, that our new selves are renewed in knowledge in the image of the creator.
In essence following one’s conscience and lying are addressed at length in Church teaching as well as in Scripture. In the face of persecution and hypocrisy, Fr. Roy followed the example of Jesus by standing against the institutional coercions and threats. As Jesus was ostracized and ridiculed for his stance and denouncement of institutional abuse, Fr. Roy is also being ostracized by his peers, his Maryknoll brothers with whom he ministered with for the last 44 years. Forcing a person to lie can only be viewed as an act to falsifying support or manipulating one’s agenda; giving an illusion of unity, and forcing blind obedience to policies that are clearly antiquated and baseless, especially when the church cites tradition as their only authority.
August 8th, in the New York Times, the second canonical warning was formally issued and Fr. Roy was dismissed by the Maryknoll order. The reason given for his dismissal was his continued defiant stance that incited an illicit and grave scandal for the Church caused by his refusal to publicly recant his support of female ordination. Now even as his case goes to Rome for formal laicization proceedings, Michelle Somerville points out that even if Fr. Roy is defrocked, he will be no less a priest. A collar does not make a priest; acts and works do. He will certainly continue to adhere to his baptismal call to ministry and continue to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. However Fr. Roy, even without his title, abides by his baptismal call more clearly then some who wear a collar and blindly adhere to church teaching just “because the church says so.” To follow and preach on an item that is contrary to your conscience ‘because the church says so” does not make a faithful follower; it makes a hypocrite.
Consider supporting Fr. Roy by signing the petition to Maryknoll brothers. Fr. Roy has not wavered in his support for a woman’s right to be ordained, let’s return the favor and show our gratitude and support.