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James Martin, S.J.April 08, 2011

For those who have been following the public conversation between Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the well-known peace activist and founder of the School of the Americas Watch, and the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, his religious congregation of many years, over his support of women's ordination, this letter, dated today, will undoubtedly mark the close of his life with Maryknoll.  

Assuredly it was a difficult discernment for all parties, and assuredly other notable Catholic priests (Thomas Merton, John Courtney Murray, S.J., Yves Congar, O.P. and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., among them) chose to trust that God would be at work through their vows and promises of obedience, and agreed to being silenced over certain matters.  In this case, Fr. Bourgeois decided that his conscience could not permit him to recant his former statements and actions.  It is the one of the most difficult of choices in the moral life: between what one sees as justice and what one sees as fidelity.  So while those in favor of women's ordination may have gained an ally, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers have lost a brother.  Only those who have never faced such a choice might thind that these are easy decisions.  

It was, in a sense, a collision between two absolutes: the absolute faithfulness required by one's lifelong promise or vow of obedience, and the absolute commitment to listen to one's informed conscience.  The first will be pointed to by those who feel that Maryknoll was in the right (or, more broadly, the church hierarchy) to insist on Fr. Bourgeois's obedience.  And by those who feel that Fr. Bourgeois should have been obedient.  That is, the priest and religious freely binds himself or herself to God through the vow of obedience to the community, and trusts that in the discernment of one's superiors, God's will is made manifest, even if at times it does not seem to make sense.  As Thomas Merton wrote when he was silenced, "This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love of God, who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend."  

Those who will favor Fr. Bourgeois's decision will likely point to the absolute primacy of an informed conscience, traditionally the highest authority in a person's moral life.  As the Second Vatican Council said, ""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."

We pray for both Roy Bourgeois, who followed his conscience, and the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, who followed theirs.

Rev. Edward Dougherty, M.M., Superior General 
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers 
P.O. Box 303 Maryknoll, NY 10545

April 8, 2011

Dear Father Dougherty and General Council,

Maryknoll has been my community, my family, for 44 years, so it is with great sadness that I received your letter of March 18, 2011 stating I must recant my belief and public statements that support the ordination of women, or I will be dismissed from Maryknoll.

When I was a young man in the military, I felt God was calling me to be a priest. I later entered Maryknoll and was ordained. I am grateful for finding the happiness, meaning and hope I was seeking in life.

For the past 20 years I have been speaking out and organizing against the injustice of the School of the Americas and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Over these years I discovered an injustice much closer to home – an injustice in my Church.

Devout women in our Church believe God is calling them to be priests, but they are rejected because the Church teaches that only baptized men can become priests. As a Catholic priest for 38 years, I believe our Church’s teaching that excludes women from the priesthood defies both faith and reason and cannot stand up to scrutiny for the following reasons:

(1) As Catholics, we believe that we were created in the image and likeness of God and that men and women are equal before God. Excluding women from the priesthood implies that men are superior to women.

(2) Catholic priests say that the call to be a priest is a gift and comes fromGod. How can we, as men, say: "Our call from God is authentic, but your call, as women, is not"? Who are we to reject God’s call of women to the priesthood? 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.

(3) We are told that women cannot be priests because Jesus chose only men as apostles. As we know, Jesus did not ordain anyone. Jesus also chose a woman, Mary Magdalene, to be the first witness to His resurrection, which is at the core of our faith. Mary Magdalene became known as "the apostle to the apostles."

(4) A 1976 report by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Vatican’s top Scripture scholars, concluded that there is no valid case to be made against the ordination of women from the Scriptures. In the Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian and other Christian churches, God’s call of women to the priesthood is affirmed and women are ordained. Why not in the Catholic church?

(5) The Holy Scriptures remind us in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither male nor female. In Christ Jesus you are one." Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World states: "Every type of discrimination … based on sex. .. is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent."

After much reflection and many conversations with fellow priests and women, I believe sexism is at the root of excluding women from the priesthood. Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God. Sexism is about power. In the culture of clericalism many Catholic priests see the ordination of women as a threat to their power.

Our Church is in a crisis today because of the sexual abuse scandal and the closing of hundreds of churches because of a shortage of priests. When I entered Maryknoll we had over 300 seminarians. Today we have ten. For years we have been praying for more vocations to the priesthood. Our prayers have been answered. God is sending us women priests. Half the population are women. If we are to have a vibrant and healthy Church, we need the wisdom, experience and voices of women in the priesthood.

As Catholics, we believe in the primacy and sacredness of conscience. Our conscience is sacred because it gives us a sense of right and wrong and urges us to do the right thing. Conscience is what compelled Franz Jagerstatter, a humble Austrian farmer, husband and father of four young children, to refuse to join Hitler’s army, which led to his execution. Conscience is what compelled Rosa Parks to say she could no longer sit in the back of the bus. Conscience is what compels women in our Church to say they cannot be silent and deny their call from God to the priesthood. And it is my conscience that compels me to say publicly that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is a grave injustice against women, against our Church and against our God who calls both men and women to the priesthood.

In his 1968 commentary on the Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes, Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said: "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."

What you are requiring of me is not possible without betraying my conscience. In essence, you are telling me to lie and say I do not believe that God calls both men and women to the priesthood. This I cannot do, therefore I will not recant.

Like the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the right of women to vote, the ordination of women is inevitable because it is rooted in justice. Wherever there is an injustice, silence is the voice of consent. I respectfully ask that my fellow priests, bishops, Church leaders in the Vatican and Catholics in the pews speak out and affirm God’s call of women to the priesthood.

Your Brother in Christ,

Roy Bourgeois, M.M.  
P.O. Box 3330

Columbus, GA 31903

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11 years 5 months ago
While David Nickel may be right that Frather Bourgeois"s approach may be counterproductive to his cause, I think Father Martin is right that the decision here was difficult to a degree far greater than some posters would make it  as an easy act of obedience or setting oneself up as pope.
Those approaches do litle justice(or charity) to the man and to an issue still burning for many people.
11 years 5 months ago
I think Roy Bourgeois' decision is not only an act of supreme courage, but also an act of supreme selflessness. He is giving up something, his membership in the Maryknoll community, that I am sure means a great deal to him. This has been his family for 44 years. It is not unlike Dorothy Day's decision to end her relationship with Forster Batterham because she chose to become a Catholic. He is doing it not for his own personal gain but in an effort to seek justice for others, and I pray that God will richly reward him for this selfless act. I also pray that I may live to see the day when discrimination against women is finally ended in the Catholic Church. How can we as a church preach justice for women in countries around the world where women still lack basic human rights, when as an institution we still hold up a patriarchal model that treats women as inferior? As long as women are barred from ordination, the Church is complicit in the oppression of women by misogynistic governments, societies and institutions all over the world.
Anne Chapman
11 years 5 months ago
"Silence implies consent."  That is the heart of the matter.  Some feel that obedience to God and fidelity to God sometimes means going against the orders of men.
Vince Killoran
11 years 5 months ago
A powerful letter from Fr. Bourgeois. Thank you Fr. Martin for introducing it in such a thoughtful way.

I hope that Roy Bourgeois has many more years of service to the Church in whatever capacity.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 5 months ago
I find some hope in a world where we each can respectfully follow our conscience even though we disagree.
david power
11 years 5 months ago
I feel that God is calling me to be the Bishop of Rome but the hierarchy is having none of it.What should I do?I am torn.
Jason Sharbaugh
11 years 5 months ago
For a well-developed conscience on the matter of Ordination (conscience meaning ''with knowledge'') one can review the Church's teaching in The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church by Sister Sara Butler.
11 years 5 months ago
I find it amazing that theologians rarely submit their theories to an open debate with fellow Theologians. The little claim that male priesthood = male superiority is one little gem that's absurd. Especially from a scriptural point of view. In Genesis, when did humanity fall? When Eve ate the forbidden fruit? No. When Adam ate it.

Later whom do we see offering up the first accepted holocaust? Abel. Then Noah. Then Melchezedek. And while the whole world had long before accepted priestesses as perfectly normal, Moses chose only men to serve as Levites. And finally, in the fullness of time, the Logos took flesh and entered our nature as a man who - in St Paul's writing was taking the place of Adam as the sacrifice to save the woman, and the church as his bride.

Throughout all of the scripture therefore, sin and the expiation thereof is laid at the feet of...MEN. Does this make us superior? hell no. It makes us responsible. Only a complete fool thinks "priesthood" is power. You want power, look at Mother Theresa. Quick, without google, ask yourself who Mother Theresa's Bishop was. Who was the Cardinal primate of India from 1956 to her death? Don't know? neither do most people. But they loved Mother. If that's not power, if that's not moral authority, what is? Something tells me most theologians have never taken philosophy - like rhetoric or logic 101 seriously. Marshal an argument for some novel theory and....what, just dump it as though there's no possible alternative view point? It would be funny if the results in broken vocations and lost faith wasn't so tragic.
11 years 5 months ago
Obedience to your personal opinion or political ideology is not the same thing as obedience to God and his order of creation.

As the philosopher Charles Taylor said: we find "unity through complementarity, not through forced identity." 

Men and women each have equal but different (i.e., complementary) roles to play in life and in the Church and it is too bad that this brother could not see past his ideology to the bigger picture.  
Crystal Watson
11 years 5 months ago
Thanks for posting the letter.  Fr. Bourgeois is doing something brave and se;fless and I admire him for that.  His order and the church are losing a great priest.  I wish his order had been more courageous and let him stay despite his beliefs.  There are others in orders who have similar beliefs - William Barry SJ, for instance,  has written in Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer  that he believes women are authenically called by God to be priests,  and Robert Egan SJ has written an article on the subject - Why Not? Scripture, History & Women’s Ordination  ...  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_7_135/ai_n29481721/   -  and both are still Jesuits.  It seems like the church is making an example of Fr. Bourgeois.
11 years 5 months ago
How is the Church "complicit" for the mistreatment of women by all non-Catholic governments, societies and cultures? When was the last time Catholic or secular feminists even raised their voices in protest against these governments, societies and cultures in the same heat and anger they've reserved for Catholic men lay and clergy?

You think the world is full of brutal savage men because the Church doesn't let women serve as priestesses? The Muslims brutalise women because Catholics won't ordain them? Asian and Indian cultures mistreated women and girls millennia before Christianity and to this day use them as things....and it's OUR fault? Feminists like to pride themselves on their erudition and brilliance but this theory of Patriarchy being the Church's fault is amazingly stupid. Who do you think keeps you western women from being raped and enslaved along with your sisters in the rest of the world? Men. Christian or Catholic westernized men. You're welcome.

And in all those societies that had women priestesses (and temple prostitutes) where was the matriarchy and harmony among sexes? Egypt, Cannan, Persian, Greco-Roman, Celtic, India, Asian, and Native American peoples who had priestesses still had wicked men who mistreated women, children and the elderly. So the presupposition that women priests will make the world better simply has zero sociological and historical legs to stand on. Like Marxism, it's entirely ahistorical pie in the sky "imagine".

Furthermore, If we're so mean, us patriarchical Catholic gentlemen and clergy, why pray tell did we welcome the concept of autonomous women religious communities almost from the beginning? If we thought women were inferior to men, why would we hold them on the same level as sinners or saints?

There IS a sexual difference and hence there ARE unique roles and responsibilties between the sexes - but equality of dignity is never the same thing as identical roles or responsibilities. Not in society and not in the Church. If the Logos had become incarnate as a woman and if Adam had eaten the fruit first, then you'd have a leg to stand on and a reason to step onto the altar for sacrifice in expiation for womankinds sin. But since it was Adam's fall, Not Eve's, and since the Word became a Man to make up for Adam's fall..... priesthood is male. and not because it's "power" but because it's responsibility.

But go ahead, if God is a Female spirit and women priests are her will for humanity and matriarchy is the solution to sin and depraved men ruling the world, have at it! How wonderfully booming are the Anglicans and others who have a female clergy? How full are their churches, seminaries and missions? Have you made the savages beyond Western Civilization and Catholicism drop their brutal patriarchy yet? And if not, and it's because Catholic Men still - despite it all - are somehow in your way.... doesn't this mean we're superior to even the will of the Goddess?
David Nickol
11 years 5 months ago
The name of Roy Bourgeois, I predict, is not going to go down in history with the names of Thomas Merton, John Courtney Murray, S.J., Yves Congar, O.P. and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. I see very little parallel between him and a German who chose execution rather than service in Hitler's army or between him and Rosa Parks.

I fully expect for the Catholic Church to ordain women some day, although not for a long, long time. But I don't think it will be because of open defiance of people like Bourgeois. It will be the passage of time, and the work of insiders following the models of people like John Courtney Murray and Bernard Haring.

It may be terribly unfair of me to say this, and of course I could be very wrong, but there appears to me to be something self-indulgent in the direction Bourgeois has taken, even though I can only imagine he is paying a heavy price for it. I think he is basically right that the Church refuses to ordain women out of sexism, but I don't see how arranging his own martyrdom will help things any.
11 years 5 months ago
A courageous man.  In my search for a Catholic Church that I could be a part of, I was amazed at the many churches that have become independent Catholic churches.  There are three in the Lousiville, KY area alone.  These are filled with people like  Father Bourgeois who finally had to leave the Roman church and follow their conscious.  I have finally found a faith community in one of these congregations and am thankful everyday.  I hope Father Bourgeois also finds a faith community that he can serve and live in.  We need more leaders like this.  Hopefully things will change one day.
Juan Lino
11 years 5 months ago
I can't really explain it but all of a sudden I have a strong desire to see a famous James Dean movie - strange.
11 years 5 months ago
I wish that the Maryknoll order had been as courageous as the Sisters of Loretto.  When Sr. Jeanne Gramick was expelled from her order because of her work with gays and lesbians, the Loretto sisters invited her in to their community. 
Tania Santander Atauchi
11 years 5 months ago
Bourgeois' points of argument trigger the following questions.
Point 1.  Question: Is priesthood a position of superiority?  Does that mean that priests (including women, if they are allowed to be ordained) are superior to other human beings who are not/do not seek to be priests?
Poitn 2. Question: If priesthood is a vocation (God's call), who are human beings to challenge the implications of that call? 
Point 3. Question: If Jesus did not ordain anyone?  Why are people claiming the right to ordination?
Point 4. Question: Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian and other Christian churches are ordaining women.  Then, women and womanists have a choice, the choice to join them (Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian and other Christian churches).
Point 5. Question: If Jesus' words ''there is neither male nor female.  In Jesus Christ you are one'' is used to support claims of women ordinatiion.  Then, something is wrong.  It is time to undust the old and new catechisms. 
Kay Satterfield
11 years 5 months ago
I may be wrong about this but Fr. Roy Bourgeois situation is different those mentioned who were silenced like Thomas Merton in the fact that Bourgeois was not just being silenced but asked to recant something he said.  His refusal to recant is what is leading to his dismissal.  He meant what he said.  How can he recant it in good conscious.  However, if he was just outspoken about the issue I don't think it would have gone this far.  He chose to be present at a ceremony where women were ordained as priests in the Roman rite?   I assume that R.C. priests are warned not to attend things like that. His letter seems sincere and I think he makes some good points. I hope they are 'attended' to.  He has really put himself out on a limb.
Chris Sullivan
11 years 5 months ago
Thank you Fr Martin for a sensitive and thoughtful article on balancing the demands of conscience and religious authority in difficult cases like this.

Thank you Fr Roy Bourgeois for your many years of faithful service in Bolivia, for human rights and against torture training at the US Army School of the America, and for your continued stand for justice.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

There are some battles a man cannot win, at least today, but after Calvary comes the Resurrection.


God Bless
John Placette
11 years 5 months ago
In his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II addressed the ordination of men to the priesthood, but really did not address the permanent diaconate.

It would take a change in canon law, but could women be ordained to the the permanent diaconate?

Could the call of women be to the permanent diaconate in the church rather than to the priesthood outside the church?

Just something to ponder.

Juan Lino
11 years 5 months ago
I thought I’d share another point of view on this situation by posting what one wrote on another blog.  I especially encourage everyone to listen to the talk he mentions in his post: 
“I would like to give a little history of my struggles with the idea of “women priests”. After 25 years of Atheism I came back to the Catholic Church in 2005. I did not understand everything that the Church taught and was advised by a very devout Priest to study reliable Catholic books especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism and daily Mass helped tremendously and I grew in my love for the Church. However I could not find anything that, for me, would adequately explain the Churches teaching against women becoming Priests. Then in 2007 I came across Peter Kreeft’s talk Women and the Priesthood.(http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/09_priestesses.htm)
This 64 min talk answered all my questions and I recommend it to anyone still looking for answers. By the way Fr. Z, your blog was one of the key information sources in my coming back to the Church. I want to thank you and all the faithful Catholics who post on this blog for helping me in my return to the Catholic Church.
Halifax, NS, Canada
Kay Satterfield
11 years 5 months ago
Thanks for the links David (#21).  The America article is good. It seems obvious that the process would have to begin with ordaining women as deacons first.  The Vatican is not saying "NO!" as it does to the idea of ordaining women priests.  The author asked then Cardinal Ratzinger about ordaining women as deacons and he responded that "it was 'under study'.  However, that was 24 years ago.  The Church moves slow...
11 years 5 months ago
There is a reason that some religious orders do nothing but pray for priests twenty four hours a day . Pray, pray, pray for priests.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 5 months ago
I find myself wondering how much the power, prestige and privelege of the priesthood play into this question. 

Jesus did not ordain preists, but washed the feet of his disciples.  Sort of like a nurse's aide.  Interestingly, there is a great need for nurse's aides these days, but not many feel called.

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