When the Rev. Roy Bourgeois received word from his Maryknoll superiors that the Vatican had excommunicated him, they told him there was “no discussion, no recourse, no appeal.”
The finality of that decision does not sit well with the longtime activist Catholic priest.
“Right now, what we feel is there’s always an appeal,” Bourgeois said in a recent interview.
He has been working with the Rev. Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer, in preparing a defense to the Vatican’s decision to dismiss him after 41 years in the priesthood.
Doyle, who has a doctorate in Canon Law and five master’s degrees, is a familiar figure in the media for his advocacy for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
In an email, Doyle said he cannot reveal his strategy for a Canon Law appeal, but he did not hesitate to offer sharp comments about how the Vatican handled Bourgeois’ case.
“It was unChristian, hypocritical, a travesty of the concept of justice in any legal system but especially Canon Law,” Doyle said. “The hypocrisy is vivid: Bishops, archbishops and cardinals hide priests who have violated children then lie when they are discovered. A number of bishops themselves have violated children. NONE of them have ever been called to account or subjected to any form of Vatican investigation.
“Then Roy, a humble, kind and truly dedicated priest, is persecuted because he advocated study of the women's ordination issue and answered to the demands of his own conscience.”
Bourgeois, 74, said he had received warning letters from the Vatican’s office for orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and from Maryknoll headquarters demanding that he recant his support for women’s ordination.
That was impossible, in Bourgeois' view.
“I could never, ever recant, no matter the consequences,” he said. “That would be such a violation of my conscience.”
Recanting his belief that women should be ordained “would be comparable to going back and saying that our segregated schools were correct,” Bourgeois said. “It would be like saying the abolition of slavery was a mistake, or the right of women to vote was a mistake.”
He and Doyle met with Maryknoll leaders, including the superior general, the Rev. Edward Dougherty, at the order’s headquarters near Ossining, N.Y., last May.
“We talked mainly about the primacy of conscience. You follow the creed, our conscience is sacred and we cannot be told to do something against our conscience,” Bourgeois said. “And we also talked about how any member of Maryknolls or any other religious order, persons of faith, should not be threatened with excommunication for their beliefs – that we have a right to thoughtfully discuss controversial issues without being threatened.”
After the two-hour session, Bourgeois said he felt cautiously optimistic.
“I called my family and told my friends there’s a glimmer of hope. … I was still a priest, still a member of the Maryknolls, and in a few months we would meet again and continue this discussion. Wow, I felt hopeful, really for the first time in a few years.”
Then on Nov. 19, after an annual protest at Fort Benning, Ga., against military involvement in Latin America that Bourgeois organizes every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, he said he received a call from Maryknoll headquarters.
“I was, how shall we say, shocked, because I was in such a good mood … I told them about the great gathering we had [at Fort Benning], and then he says, ‘I have to tell you this, the Vatican has written to us and informed us that you have been dismissed from the priesthood and from the Maryknolls.’ And I mean, I have to sit down. It was like a hand grenade going off. I was just shocked.”
He went off by himself for two hours to ponder the news, he said, and when he returned he was besieged by the media.
“Maryknoll sent out a press release after I got off the phone. It was a very cold, mean-spirited letter talking about disobedience, and they made clear that I was kicked out of the priesthood and the Maryknolls, referring to me now as ‘Mr.’ It was a sleepless night. I was in pain. I was just hurting,” he said.
He asked his order for a copy of the Vatican’s letter and eventually received one -- in Latin, a language he does not know.
“I’m sure the Maryknoll Council received the letter in Latin and had to rely on a translater,” Bourgeois said. “I was wondering why they didn’t send me a Latin copy and also a translation in English. … They wanted me to sign the letter and send it back. I had to laugh. No way am I going to sign something I couldn’t understand.”
It took him a week to get it translated, he said. And then he chose not to sign it.
“I couldn’t believe it. There was no reference at all to women’s ordination. Wasn’t even mentioned. The two pages were all punishment, two pages of my committing a ‘grave crime.’ It was made very clear that this was from Pope Benedict [XVI],” Bourgeois said.
“Those two pages were just filled with the crime and the punishment, but no mention of the charge.”
Bourgeois is familiar with legal processes, having been sentenced to prison for his protests against the U.S. military’s involvement in Latin America. He explains in length his journey to the priesthood and to civil disobedience in his new booklet, “My Journey from Silence to Solidarity.”
“I’ve been in front of judges for civil disobedience. Whenever we go to trial they read the charges. … In this case there’s no charge, no trial, no hearing, no appeal. Just the sentence. I just find it so hard to understand,” he said.
Bourgeois said he told the Vatican in a letter that “you can dismiss me, but you cannot dismiss the issue of gender equality in the church. This issue is not going away. It is rooted in God, in equality and in justice and it will not go away."
He remains adamant that women's ordination is inevitable.
“The women’s suffrage movement could not go away. The issue of slavery would not go away. There were many who tried to stop it. This is a movement that is unstoppable," Bourgeois said. "My only regret is that it took me so long to see this issue of male power and domination in our church, and that it took me so long to break my silence.”