Roy Bourgeois, Conscience and Canon Law
Fr. Roy Bourgeois, MM, the Maryknoll priest who has been threatened with excommunication for his participation at an ordination rite for women, will travel to the Vatican to appeal his decision, AP is reporting, "with a contingent of fellow priests and a bishop." Despite earlier reports, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, SJ, the Vatican spokesman, said that he did not know of the existence of a letter to Lombardi detailing the sanction. Lombardi noted that the excommunication would be "automatic," in other words, a "latae sententiae" excommunication, effective when the offense is committed. (The person, in a sense, excommunicates himself or herself.)
The canon applied in this case has not been announced. It may be Canon 1364, which includes the "latae sententiae" excommunication: "§1 An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication, without prejudice to the provision of can. 194 §1, n. 2; a cleric, moreover, may be punished with the penalties mentioned in can. 1336 §1, nn. 1, 2 and 3. §2 If a longstanding contempt or the gravity of scandal calls for it, other penalties may be added, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state. "
Another canon that may apply is this 1365: "One who is guilty of prohibited participation in religious rites is to be punished with a just penalty." However, this only indicates a "just penalty." Excommunication, which forbids the reception of the sacraments (or, for the priest, their celebration) is the church’s ultimate penalty against its members.
Fr. Bourgeois, a dedicated apostle of social justice, and champion of the poor, has offered the church a valuable ministry in his tireless work against the School of the Americas. Ironically, within days of the announcement of the Vatican censure, news came that the case against the soldiers who murdered six Jesuits and their companions in El Salvador in 1989, might be brought before a court in Spain. (That court would try those accused of crimes against humanity.) Those soldiers were trained at the School of the Americas. In other words, the justice for which Fr. Bourgeois and his friends had fought seems within reach. The timing is notable.
Fr. Bourgeois was following his conscience, he said, in his participation at the ordination rite, though it was clearly against the church’s teaching on women’s ordination. In its document "Dignitatis Humanae," the Second Vatican Council wrote, "On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious." The Catechism of the Catholic church, quoting from Vatican II’s "Gaudium et Spes," notes, "Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (1795).
At the same time, Fr. Bourgeois must have known what the response from the church would entail: it is very clearly spelled out in canon law. (All priests by the way take courses in canon law as part of their training.) By participating in that rite--particularly in the laying on of hands, one of the main symbols of ordination in the Catholic church--that was contrary to church teaching about women’s ordination, Fr. Bourgeois must have known that his actions would have some serious consequences.
Fr. Bourgeois is impelled to follow his conscience; the Vatican is impelled to enforce canon law. The collision course was inevitable.
One reflection: The ordination rite in which Fr. Bourgeois participated occurred in August. That means that within three months, the excommunication had been communicated from the Vatican to Fr. Bourgeois. In the eyes of the Vatican, his actions represented a grave offense that required swift action and a severe penalty.
Would that the church had acted with equal swiftness against sexually abusive priests. Would that bishops who had moved abusive priests from parish to parish were met with the same severity of justice.
Were their offenses of lesser "gravity"? Did they cause lesser "scandal"?
James Martin, SJ