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[UPDATED] Women of a lesser God 

UPDATE, Tuesday, November 27, 10 a.m.:
We learned this morning that the Rev. Roy Bourgeois has been excommunicated by the Vatican and dismissed from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers for his support for the ordination of women. He had been a member of the Maryknoll community for 45 years. We have a call into Bourgeois for reaction.

He is in Rochester today for a 7 p.m. showing of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican,” at the Cinema Theater. Bourgeois is featured in the film, which examines women in the priesthood.


To say that the Rev. Roy Bourgeois is a thorn in the Vatican's side is probably an understatement.

Bourgeois is a Roman Catholic priest with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, an order known for its missionary work in some of the most troubled parts of the world.

Bourgeois has a long history of social activism. But it is his support for the ordination of woman, in particular, that could get him excommunicated from the church. For priests, excommunication means they can no longer receive the sacraments, such as Holy Communion. And they can't administer the sacraments or other duties of a priest.

Elderly priests who are excommunicated can also suffer financially, since they can be barred from receiving a pension.

Bourgeois will be in Rochester on Tuesday, November 27, for a showing of the documentary film by Jules Hart, "Pink Smoke Over the Vatican." The showing is at 7 p.m. at the Cinema Theatre, 957 South Clinton Avenue. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance at Spiritus Christi, or $12 at the door. The controversial award-winning film explores the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement, an international effort that prepares and supports women called to the priesthood.

Bourgeois, who is featured in the documentary, will join panelists, the Rev. Mary Ramerman, a founding member of Spiritus Christi, and the Rev. Jean Marie Marchant, who is also featured in the documentary, for a discussion after the film. Both women, though not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, are ordained priests. The discussion will be moderated by Lynne Starpoli Boucher, director for the Center for Spirituality at Nazareth College.

After spending several years in Bolivia working with the poor, Bourgeois was arrested and deported in the 1970's after being accused of attempting to overthrow that country's dictator, General Hugo Banzer.

He became an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Latin America following the rape and murder of four American nuns by a Salvadoran death squad. He protested the activities of the School of the Americas after some of its military graduates were accused of committing human rights violations in Latin American countries. He's the founder of SOA Watch, an anti-war and social justice movement, and he's spent several years in federal prisons as a result of his many protests.

In addition to receiving the Purple Heart following a tour in Vietnam, Bourgeois received the Gandhi Peace Award and the Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award, and he was nominated in 2009 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a recent telephone interview from his home in Columbus, Georgia, Bourgeois said the Catholic Church is in crisis. The Vatican's stance on women's ordination is discrimination, he said, and its recent crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is "arrogant." The Vatican was critical of the LCWR for not being more outspoken against issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bourgeois said the Catholic Church needs to change to remain relevant. He's saddened that more Catholics are not speaking out on behalf of women who are called to the priesthood, but he said he's confident change will come eventually.

The following is an edited version of the discussion with Bourgeois.

CITY: You strongly support allowing women to become priests. Did you think this way when you joined the priesthood? Or did you arrive at the idea later in life?

Bourgeois: Growing up as a traditional Catholic in Louisiana, I never questioned our church's teachings. But then I joined the military after college during the days of the Vietnam War. And that experience in Vietnam really was a turning point in my journey. Death and suffering was close to me, and my faith became more important.

I felt this call to the priesthood, but I didn't know what to do with that feeling. So I talked to an Army chaplain and I asked him to help me discern what I should do. He told me about the Maryknoll order. And within a year, it became very clear that I wanted to pursue my calling.

So I went about my work in Bolivia, the US, and elsewhere. And for many years, I never questioned the teachings about women priests. But through my work, I was speaking out against what was happening in the School of the Americas, basically going to hundreds of Catholic churches, colleges, and peace groups about this injustice involving the SOA and US foreign policy in Latin America. And I started meeting these devout Catholic women who shared [with him] their call to the priesthood.

My first response was, "That's our tradition [to exclude women]."

I look back on that, and I am embarrassed. But in the seminary, we never once questioned why women couldn't be priests. It was our church's teaching that only baptized males could be priests. And that was it.

And here's what it came down to: I started thinking about that word "tradition." And as I started listening to these women, I remembered my childhood. I went to 12 years of segregated school. In our little Catholic church, the last five pews were for our black members, and for some reason I saw a connection. It was racism, and I didn't question it.

I kept meeting these women, and I started staying awake at night thinking about this connection.

My own evolution isn't based on complicated theological theory. It comes down to two simple questions: First, don't we as Catholics profess that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God created us, men and women, of equal worth and dignity?

And second, we all say from the pope on down that the call to be a priest is a gift that comes from God. And that was my experience in the middle of war-torn Vietnam. I somehow felt that I was being called to do this. And as a male, I could. But these women could not, even though the call they were experiencing was the same as mine.

And the question I will bring to Rochester is the same question I ask wherever I speak, and that is, "Who are we as men to say that our call from God is authentic, but your call as women is not?"

I began to see with real clarity how our church's teaching is rooted in sexism. And for me, sexism, like racism and homophobia, is a sin. No matter how hard we may try to justify it, discrimination against others, whether it's because of race, gender, or sexual orientation, is not of God. These teachings are of men.

So you see the exclusion of women as discrimination, and like all forms of discrimination, an abuse of power?

We say that we were created in the likeness of God, but the problem I see in the church, and this is not recent, is that we have created God in our image. And this all-powerful God who we profess to love becomes a little God, who somehow does not see everyone of equal worth and value.

Somehow this God prefers white men and straight men. And somehow women and others don't quite equal us who are white priests, bishops, and cardinals. It's been reversed, and really God is there to carry out our beliefs.

I saw this exclusion of women to the priesthood as a grave injustice against women, but also a grave injustice to the church and, of course, our all-loving God.

Then I had to ask, "What do I do?" And what I came to is this: Silence is the voice of complicity. And I've been calling on my fellow priests and Catholics to break their silence.

What helped me was that I began to see how I had become a member of a very privileged group, all male, mostly white. It's a very powerful culture. And what I have learned in this struggle for gender equality is that we can't talk about sexism, racism, or homophobia without addressing the issue of power. And in the church there are men who are very powerful figures in this clerical culture, and we've become addicted to power. The church that we live in and advocate is not really the model that Jesus talked about.

So I can't be silent no matter the consequences.

Should priests, men and women, be allowed to marry?

Definitely. Even within my own Maryknoll community, we've had hundreds of our members who have left, a number of them very good friends, because they couldn't marry.

My friend Paul, while in Bolivia, fell in love with a Bolivian woman. He made a decision to pursue this love and marry, and he was forced out of Maryknoll and out of the priesthood.

Marriage, too, has become a form of sexism; women have become the enemy. And we've lost some of our best missionaries and priests. We're only punishing ourselves.

Should women be allowed to become bishops, cardinals, and popes, too?

Yes. I don't see anything wrong with that at all.

Two nuns of the four who were raped and killed in El Salvador were [my] friends. And I thought if any of these courageous women who are true martyrs for the faith, who went to El Salvador knowing how dangerous it is, felt the call to the priesthood, they would have been rejected.

I think about how incredible that is. And I think of all the men who don't compare to the compassion and witness that they gave to helping the poor, but could be priests simply because they are males.

Jesus is often portrayed as the original activist. Should priests be activists for social justice? Or should they be conformists and purveyors of the church doctrine, which some would argue is what keeps the faith alive?

It's not about being an activist or a conformist. The answer to that question really involves conscience. Even as a young child, the priest would come in for an hour a week in our little segregated school and talk about the primacy of conscience. Our conscience is our lifeline to God; it urges us to discern and do the right thing.

When we see something that's wrong, the question is: What do we do? Saint Paul said faith without action is dead.

A priest said to me, "Roy, I support the ordination of women, but I can't go public." I said, "My friend, your silence means nothing. You've blessed the injustice."

About Jesus being an activist: He spoke the truth. He lived the life that love is supposed to be about: compassion, service to the poor, justice, and humility. You know that saying, "If you want to be first with God, then get in the back of the line."

Humility in our society is getting lost. I don't think we're called to be activists. I think all we're called to do is be men and women of integrity and to identify ourselves. If we believe, as many of my fellow priests and Catholics say, that women should be ordained, come out.

Many Catholic churches and schools have closed in this region and across the country over the last 30 years. Is there less interest in the Catholic Church in the US? And if so, is it because of the church's position on issues like ordaining women and contraception?

Without a doubt. I hear this everywhere I go.

Catholics come up to me and say they have children who have gone to Catholic schools and sometimes colleges. And [the children] come home and say, "Mom, dad, how can you stay with the church? They are so anti-women and so anti-gay."

You see, young people today are so much more educated, and they are less willing to accept teachings without questioning.

Does this also explain the shortage of priests?

My own sister, a traditional Catholic, said this doesn't make sense. In New Orleans, they closed 30 churches last year, not because of the hurricane, but because they don't have enough priests.

Next year at Maryknoll, we're calling an emergency meeting. We're gathering our members from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the US at great expense, but we have to do it because we are in a crisis. And our order is not alone.

The sex scandals have shaken our church right to the foundation. But the crisis we're in is not about the scandals alone. We've long had a drop in vocation to the priesthood.

The Vatican has cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group representing many Catholic nuns in the US, for not speaking out against same-sex marriage, women's ordination, and abortion. What's the impact of efforts like that?

I think what happened to the nuns really clarifies the problem, in a sense. The problem is patriarchy and sexism, but it's been going on for 2,000 years. This is nothing new.

This has been covered in the Catholic press, but there's also an article, "The Sisters' Crusade," in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. And what you see in that article is the same as what I hear from my friends and in my travels: [the crackdown] was a turning point for nuns. It emboldened them.

First there was an investigation of the LCWR, an all-female organization, by a mostly male group from the Vatican. For three years [they] investigated the nuns.

They accused [the LCWR] of causing a scandal for the church. It was so offensive. It was so unjust and cruel, and what you saw was a lot of nuns for the first time break their silence. And many Catholics, too, didn't like what they saw happening to these women.

When our Maryknoll community meets, we'll be mostly older white men; our average is something like 75. And there's no hope for that kind of church. We're moving into a future that doesn't look like that, and some of us can't adjust.

You've been threatened with excommunication. Where does that stand?

I was notified by the Vatican three years ago. They said I had 30 days to recant my position in support of the ordination of women or I would be excommunicated automatically. I wrote back focusing on this issue of the sacredness of conscience and the problem of sexism that's rooted in this teaching.

I never got a response back until a few months ago. The Vatican instructed Maryknoll to kick me out if I didn't recant.

I've been in the community for 40 years, and it's not clear what my standing is with the Vatican. But Maryknoll has assured me that I am a member priest. And I go about my work in ministry as I've done before, and speaking as I will speak in Rochester in support of women's ordination.

I don't know what the future holds for me as a priest in the Catholic Church. But I do know that my conscience will not allow me to recant what I truly believe. I do know that trying to stop the ordination of women is like trying to stop the abolition of slavery or the women's suffrage movement. Many tried, but they failed.

I've been very disappointed at the silence of many of my fellow priests. I see how fear is dominating our church right now. They [priests] fear speaking out, fear excommunication, and fear losing the pension. And I'm very sad to see how our church is using that word "excommunication" as spiritual violence.

How did your experience with war prepare you to be a better priest?

I didn't know it at the time, but Vietnam was preparation for living out my faith, including confronting my church's teachings. I was wounded there, and I lost many friends there. But what I came to was sort of an ability to confront fear.

In Bolivia, it was very dangerous under dictatorship. Living there with the poor, where many were killed or imprisoned, the fears came again. I was arrested. Yes, I was afraid, but I didn't allow my fear to paralyze me. I learned and grew from it.

Given your experience working with the poor in Latin America, do you think the US's foreign policy during the last half of the 20th century has any relationship to the immigration problems we experience today?

Our foreign policy — the violence, the brutality of their military, which we've armed and trained at the SOA — has caused such suffering and death to the people in some of these countries. I mean, I too would want to flee. I would want to get out of there with or without my family. So many who have come here [and now have children born here] were forced to come here by our foreign policy.

We need to understand that if we lived under those conditions of extreme poverty, brutality, and fear, we would be fleeing.

Americans tend to say they are concerned about the poor, but we're conflicted about how to reduce poverty. What do Americans not understand about poverty?

Two weeks ago I gave a lecture about three hours from [Atlanta], and before I left, they took me to a work camp. There were about 100 field workers, mostly from Mexico on a three-month visa, living eight to 12 in a trailer. They were picking peppers, getting up very early in the morning and working until dusk, six days a week.

Many of us don't know what it means to work in the heat, hunched over in a field 12 hours a day, day after day earning very low wages. The challenge we face in America today is ignorance. Many of us don't know the plight of the poor. We usually don't meet them. And I think there is a connectedness to many of these issues, whether it's the conditions in Latin America, immigration, and even women's ordination. We don't take the time to meet and talk to people, and to know what it's like to be in their situation. If we did, I think many of us would be more understanding.

What is the future of the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI, who is quite conservative?

That's the big question. We don't know.

I thought a few years ago of resigning. But I'm in the camp that refuses to leave. We are the church. God speaks through all of us. And I hate to say this, but many of our leaders are bullies. And I never did like a bully, not in Latin America or in the Catholic Church. They are not the owners of the church. They've kind of hijacked the Gospel, and if we leave bullies to abuse their power, nothing will change.

I feel a lot of hope. I'm blessed because wherever I go, I find kindred spirits who refuse to allow these men at the Vatican who keep claiming as they did recently to the nuns that "We are your bosses, and only we can speak for God." I mean, what arrogance.

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