Paths of Conscience

Since the day Martin Luther refused to recant his beliefs, declaring “Here I stand. I can do no other,” the unyielding integrity of the solitary hero of conscience has been an icon of the Western imagination. But conscience is a subtle power, and it sometimes also ties people of principle to the very communities against whom they protest. Socrates followed his daimon but also submitted to the verdict of Athens, the city that had given birth to his quest for virtue. The Second Vatican Council was made possible by the research of men like Yves Congar, O.P., Henri de Lubac, S.J., and John Courtney Murray, S.J., who had endured silencing by church authorities. The council was their vindication.

Conscience can adhere to just one goal, or it can sustain a vivifying tension between two or more commitments. It can stand defiantly alone, or it can show care for the humanity even of those in authority. For Mohandas Gandhi, for example, moral truth does not stand on one side of a contest but emerges from the encounter between protesters and those who oppose them. St. Thomas More teaches us that people of conscience can even strategize and scheme to meet the tensile demands of conscience.


In recent weeks the U.S. church has witnessed two controversies in which the conscience or professional integrity of an individual came into conflict with church authorities. In August 2008 the Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois concelebrated an ordination ceremony sponsored by Womenpriests, lending legitimacy to an event forbidden by the Vatican; and last February, without permission, he took part in a panel discussion on women’s ordination. This past month the superior general of Maryknoll instructed him to “publicly recant” his support for women’s ordination or be dismissed from Maryknoll and the priesthood.

In a letter to his superior, Father Bourgeois quoted from a commentary in 1968 by then Father Joseph Ratzinger on Vatican II’s statement on conscience: Even against ecclesiastical authority, conscience must be obeyed before all else. To force Father Bourgeois to recant would be to ask him to lie about his beliefs. He has chosen a path of authenticity.

Conscience, however, is not a machine that gives a robot orders. Conscience does not need to be unyielding. It can also be exercised with humility and flexibility. One wonders what Gandhi or St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day might have advised Father Bourgeois. Might they have urged him to continue his work against war and torture and leave women’s ordination to the Holy Spirit? Silencing a spokesman does not kill an idea. Church authorities, if they call for religious assent of the mind to the prohibition against ordaining women, must do a far better job of convincing the faithful that the exclusion of women from orders rests firmly on the church’s faith.

The second case concerns the accusation by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that in elaborating a contemporary doctrine of God in the book The Quest for the Living God, Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., of Fordham University put forward “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors.” According to the bishops, Sister Johnson employs “standards from outside the faith to criticize in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the Magisterium.” But in Sister Johnson’s words, the book presents “new insights about God arising from people living out their faith in different cultures around the world.”

The Catholic Theological Society of America has defended Sister Johnson. It contends that the bishops ignored procedures they had adopted in 1989 that require a conversation with the author as the first step in a doctrinal inquiry. In a world where bishops are needed more as teachers than as prosecutors, it would have been far wiser for those who first objected to the book to invite Sister Johnson to an afternoon dialogue before referring the book to the Committee on Doctrine and for the committee to have engaged the author before moving to a public critique of her book. For her part, Sister Johnson has sought to meet with the committee, issued just one brief press release and has otherwise kept a discreet silence. Uncompromising witness is not the only option for this woman of conscience.

Church and society would benefit from other witnesses of conscience appreciating the many ways by which they can testify to moral and intellectual truth. For its part, the church would profit from interiorizing the lesson of the council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” that “it is by personal assent that people must adhere to the truth they have discovered,” recalling that “Christ, who is our master and Lord, and at the same time is meek and humble of heart, acted patiently in attracting and inviting his disciples.”

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Charles Erlinger
7 years 9 months ago
I can't make the points that  you made as well as you did, but let me just add one thought.  Personally I find that I take arguments on one or the other side of an issue more seriously if they are supported by what seems, at least, to be a decent rationale.  The mere appealing to authority as the basis for a point of view is not very satisfying intellectually.  In fact, in my own long experience, I have observed that the appeal to authority as a last resort is actually an admission to a failure of leadership.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 9 months ago
Concerning Fr Bourgeois' decision to proceed with his own personal criteria to ordain his own personally qualified priests rather than the Church's, I credit him that, like most dissenters (formerly commonly labelled heretics?) before him, he had conviction in his position and as a result decided to withdraw from his position in the church. And I further surmise from the writings he quoted that Pope Benedict would understand, given his stated position, and sympathize with Fr. Bourgeois' decision. 
Concerning Sister Johnson's book, it seems that the bishops consider it to have elements of dissenting or perhaps theological speculations not in accord with mainstream Catholic beliefs/positions. If that is the case, I can understand why bishops might not want it used as a fundamantal instruction in the faith, but if it has merit, as many feel it does, I don't understand why it would be discouraged from usage for more advanced students as a text in the field of speculative, or perhaps even dissenting, theology. Given the controversy she must have anticipated for her topic, it probably would have been a conciliatory gesture to provide the bishops with an outline of her book prior to publication, yet as others have noted, that might not have provided the excellent PR subsequent events have which likely will provide a wider readership for her book than would otherwise have been the case.
Helen Deines
7 years 9 months ago

As a lay women, I am fascinated that my church will excommunicate a good priest who dissents from the magisterium, and chastise a woman religious thinker who consider ideas that are just a little to much "ouside the box." Yet the fellows in charge will not excommunicate the Brussels bishop who reframes his sexual abuse of small children as "intimacy."

Apparently, in the 21st century Roman Catholic Church, what one thinks is far more important than what one does. Not very different from the days of the Reformation, is it?

And how does this square with the words of our friend and brother, Jesus?

Anne Chapman
7 years 9 months ago
The editors seem almost to be of two minds regarding Fr. Roy Bourgeois' refusal to recant his beliefs.  They acknowledge that in calling him to recant what he believes, the church's authorities are asking him to lie, and note that he has chosen "authenticity."  On the other hand, the editors seem to compare Fr. Bourgeois's situation with those who have been "silenced" at times by the church, and imply that maybe he should simply "be quiet" about the subject of women's ordination while continuing to work for other causes.  But  of course the situation faced by those who were silenced by the church (Congar, Murray etc.) is not the same as that faced by Fr. Bourgeois who is not being asked not to publish or speak of his beliefs publicly, but asked to recant - to lie about what he believes.

The difference is clear, as his choice. He has chosen not to lie.

Are some in the clergy made uncomfortable by his choice for honesty and integrity over going along with the church authorities?  There are many, many clergy who agree with Fr. Bourgeois, and will say so privately, but fear to say so publicly.  Perhaps some fear, but try to deny, that they lack his moral integrity and courage, and would like very much for him to "go along," so that they aren't forced to come face to face with their own consciences and their own lack of moral courage. Some prefer to rationalize - "Conscience does not have to be unyielding....Silencing a spokesman does not kill an idea."  Some in the church may be hoping that Fr. Bourgeois will let them off the hook - that he will "go along" even when going along means lying about what he believes to be truth, in order to spare them from having to look too closely into their own consciences, and to ask themselves what they would do in the same situation - would they recant to save their own skins - or would they also refuse to lie?

Nicholas Clifford
7 years 9 months ago
It's comforting to know that the USCCB keeps its eye on the really important ball, and is courageously pointing out what they see as dangers to the faith in the cases of Bourgeois and Johnson.
What, however, are they going to do about the much, much greater danger to the faith that lurks not 150 miles north of Washington? Nothing at all, apparently, and chairman Dolan could not even bring himself to whisper the dreaded word "Philadelphia" (ssshhh!) in his recent statement on the subject. I wonder whether he is enough of a Greek scholar to understand what the word means, and how seriously it has been undermined by the hierarchy.
In the meantime, I will, as a good Catholic, treat the conclusions of the bishops with all the respect that they deserve - no less, and no more.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 9 months ago
Anne, I think your response fails to communicate fully the situation the article describes. Fr Bourgeois, in his priestly participation in what amounted to an "ordination" without the support or approval of his church, established his own personal priesthood in place of that of the church he represented. He felt he could not in good conscience support the church's authority in this instance and chose to leave. And I think the quote he gave from Pope Benedict, wherein the pope ultimately affirmed the informed conscience of the individual, was exactly what he did follow, and that therefore Benedict would fully understand the integrity of his decision to leave. Likewise there have been in the past a number of priests and other members of the church who denied the Eucharist. They also chose not to lie and left the church; I certainly don't hold that against them, nor the church for its doctrine on the Eucharist. I suppose there may be priests who don't believe in good conscience in the Divine Presence; I would agree that if that is their final disposition it would better serve their integrity to resign. Yet there is a difference between one who doubts and one who preaches from the pulpit; likewise there is a difference between one who understandably wishes to expand the priesthood and so advocates and one who takes it upon himself to ordain his own personal priesthood. At that point he became not so much an advocate for a different position regarding ordination in the church as one establishing his own church.
7 years 9 months ago
I think the analogy of belief in Divine presence to the women's ordination question limps quite s bit. (Maximal magisterialism for many?)
I think I agree with those who criticize fF. Borgeois for probably hurting the issue he stands for within the context of the way today's church operates.
I also think though it's true tha many are afraid to speak up in agreement with him because of the repressive atmosphere on manyi ssues in today's Church.
And that repressive atmosphere will also hurt the credibility that the Church policy makers seem to want to desire but manage poorly.
sheila dierks
7 years 9 months ago
Your editorial is nicely titled Paths of Conscious.  A multiplicity of them are open to us, as they are to Roy Bourgeois and Elizabeth Johnson, both of whom are saints of church and society, much as that term was understood in the Apostolic time.

I write as a Catholic woman who has been invited to the ordained priesthood since childhood, and found that sixty years of urging by the Spirit, along with a graduate degree in theology and a long-term community discernment, was enough to finally bring me to ordination in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.

I welcome Fr Bourgeois' bold Spirited defense of the possibility of call for women.  His courage has cost him greatly and yet those of us who know we are called to priesthood see in his bravery a sign of God-present, voiced by one who did not need to take this step. You encourage him to "stay safe" with issues like torture and war. "Safe" because many people think torture and war are evil.  It is always safer to get on a bandwagon that is well peopled with those who will pat you on the back when you climb aboard. But who is willing to be early in championing a cause of justice, who will join the beleaguered communities who have no clergy and are desperate for Eucharist?
Those who wait until justice is safe, are running behind the bandwagon, shouting "As we have always said..." Moral cowardice is a religious passtime in the Catholic Church at this moment.
 I wonder where the American Church, and indeed, western Catholicism would be if your fine, but increasingly cautious, magazine, were to have been bold champions of women's ordination for the last two decades?

7 years 9 months ago

Conscience is the fingerprint of the soul. It is the unique identifying mark telling who we are and belonging entirely to its owner.  But unlike a natural fingerprint with which we are born, the soul-fingerprint of conscience must be cultivated and grow.

Its growth may be true, or false. Conscience true, or false, becomes the only conscience we have and so whether true, or false, we are obliged to follow it, until such time we discover that our conscience is erroneous at which point it must be brought into conformity with truth. Conscience may also at times be doubtful, in which case it may not be followed until the doubts is resolved.

This is fundamental stuff, so Roy Bourgeois certainly knew it. Surely he must have had doubts about his conscience dictates regarding the ordination of women, based at least, on the longstanding and constant teaching of the Church to which he had vowed sacramental obedience. I wish Roy had remained in the Church as priest, humbly working within the system, focusing on the discovery of truth whatever it is. I think Francis of Assisi would have done it that way.

It’s not that I am irrevocably against women as priests. My doubt is rooted particularly in the teaching of soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II, that the Church feels it doesn’t have the mandate from Christ to ordain women. If true that teaching sounds sensible to me, a teaching which John Paul called “definitive.” However, if it ever comes to light that the Church does have the authority of Christ to ordain women, I would shout from the cupola of St. Peter’s, “Let’s do it!”

In a previous posting on an earlier date I pointed out that as far back as 494 Pope St. Gelasius I, stopped the practice of ordaining women which had sprung up in the Church in Southern Sicily. The Fourth Century Laodicean Council, Canon XI also forbade the practice. During WW II women ordained by a Bishop in an underground Church in Eastern Europe, if memory serves me well, were declared invalid by Pope Pius XII.

In conclusion let me offer the following which may, or may not, apply to the question of women as priests. In “Jesus Of Nazareth” Pope Benedict XVI points out that the Hebrew word “talia” means both “lamb” and “boy” or “servant.”  This brings to mind the Lord Jesus as “Lamb of God” and “Suffering Servant.” who sacrificially takes away the sins of the world on Calvary’s altar. But what about “talia” within that frame meaning “boy” as well? Does the translation show an intrinsic connection to masculinity relative to the sacrificial Lamb of God being of the male gender, meaning that by Divine intent the one replicating the Bloody Sacrifice of the Lamb in the Sacrifice of the Mass must be male, thereby justifying an all male priesthood? That’s one for the theologians regarding which obviously I do not qualify.

Interestingly, St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, desired to be a priest. The desire to be a priest by anyone, including women, is in itself a holy and wholesome aspiration, But one shouldn’t have to abandon the Church or the priesthood to support that fact.

Regarding Sister Johnson - that's another story and I think she's right!

7 years 9 months ago
There are many issues facing the Church at present that diplomatically necessitate silence: the canonization proceedings regarding Pius IX, for instance.  There are others that deserve fruitful, honest eximination, as the teaching regarding the Real Presence, in which the belief is not undermined but rather enriched through careful investigation.  The current position of the Vatican on the ordination of women, on the other hand, cannot be a subject of either silence or discussion.  The specious quality of that position is evidenced in then Cardinal Ratzinger's clarification of John Paul II's statement to the effect that Mary "'received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them" (n. 3).'  Diversity of mission in no way compromises equality of personal dignity"  []. The reality of "non-admission" is not a matter of "diversity of mission," but rather of exclusion from any calling to authority within the Church; it is discrimination, and protesting discriminatory practice is not simply a matter of conscience, but rather a matter of duty.
William Wilson
7 years 9 months ago
I am half way through Dr. Johnson's book. Your comments provoke a couple of thoughts: 1. Why do you call her sister? She is a Doctor of Theology. I think referring to her as a sister, her personal vocation, rather than as a theologian, her profession, is a denigration of her professional status. 2. The reason Wuerl and his minions sactioned her is that, if one accepts the trajectory of her theology, the male caste system and absolutism that have characterized the Catholic church since at least the time of Constantine, collapses. No wonder Wuerl feels threatened!
As regards Fr. Bourgeois, I was impressed that Maryknoll's Orbis Books is cited numerous times in Dr. Johnson's book. Orbis has long been a powerful voice of speaking the truth to power in developing new theological horizons in support of women, the poor and the oppressed. I find it ironic that Maryknoll speaks the truth to secular power where freedom of speech and intellectual autonomy are guaranteed, but collapses when the time comes to support Bourgeois and speak the truth to Rome's ecclesiastical power, where this is no intellectual autonomy or freedom of speech.  Is Ed Dougherty afraid that Rome will shut down Maryknoll if the order take a courageous stance vis-a-vis the repression within the Church?
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years 9 months ago
"In a letter to his superior, Father Bourgeois quoted from a commentary in 1968 by then Father Joseph Ratzinger on Vatican II’s statement on conscience: Even against ecclesiastical authority, conscience must be obeyed before all else."
Father Bourgeois has a very subjective view on conscience and should have perused  the following address by Cardinal Ratzinger in which he explores in depth the need for an 'informed conscience' 

CONSCIENCE AND TRUTH Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops February 1991 Dallas, Texas

 It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity. No door or window would lead from the subject into the broader world of being and human solidarity. Whoever thinks this through will come to the realization that no real freedom exists then and that the supposed pronouncements of conscience are but the reflection of social circumstances. This should necessarily lead to the conclusion that placing freedom in opposition to authority overlooks something. There must be something deeper, if freedom and, therefore, human existence are to have meaning...
One must read the entire address to find some of the consequences of following one's own uniformed or subjectibve conscience.
john fitzmorris
7 years 9 months ago
I cannot add a thing to what has been said in the previous comments. It is proof for me at least that the Spirit is breathing its live-gidting spirit in the faithful. The shepherds should take note.
7 years 9 months ago

Re Bruce Snowden's comment: " as far back as 494 Pope St. Gelasius I, stopped the practice of ordaining women which had sprung up in the Church in Southern Sicily. The Fourth Century Laodicean Council, Canon XI also forbade the practice. During WW II women ordained by a Bishop in an underground Church in Eastern Europe, if memory serves me well, were declared invalid by Pope Pius XII." 

Here are some pertinent points:

1.  Czech woman priest Ludmila Javarova never received a reply to her letter informing John Paul II of her ordination. She and fellow members of the underground Koinotes community that she served as vicar,  were recently honored in Vienna with  the Herbert-Haag-Foundation Award for Freedom in the Church,

2. Pope Gelasius in all likelihood stopped a practice that had been going on for centuries. It hadn’t just “sprung up.”  The earliest record of church men forbidding women’s ordination is in the early third century when Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition ruled that Roman widows could not be ordained. Church historians tell us that Hippolytus was likely out of communion with Pope Callistus at the time, and wrote this treatise for his breakaway community. 

This  fact was conveniently overlooked some 70 years later in the east when the Didascalia Apostolorum also forbad the ordination of widows, using the Apostolic Tradition as its guide.  Any time there is a proscription, one can be quite certain the practice was prevalent, or why the need for a rule to prevent it? 

The Apostolic Tradition never took hold in Rome, probably because of the influential status of wealthy Roman widows whom Callistus supported when they chose to marry a Christian man who was below their social status.  (One of three things Hippolytus opposed Callistus about) Interestingly, a fresco dating to Hippolytus' time, in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, shows women participating in and presiding at a Eucharistic meal as these were understood at the time. (the catacombs themselves being the gift of a wealthy Roman woman)

3. Re. Synod of Laodicea;  Take a look at Colossians 4:15  “Give greetings to the sisters and brothers in Laodicea and to Nympha and to the church in her house”  Is it too difficult to imagine that Laodicea had a long tradition of women leading house churches and officiating at the altars dating back to the time of Nympha? Epigraphical and archaeological scholars believe this council ruling gives evidence that:

a. orthodox women were leading Christian communities in the mainstream church
b. they were denied leadership because of their gender, not because of their beliefs.

All of which is to provide some historical background as we continue the sad institutional suppression of women’s leadership in the church even to the present day.

Kate Meghan
7 years 9 months ago
I agree with many of the other posters.  It is so sad for the Church to come down so hard on people like Fr. Bourgeois and Dr. Johnson for following the Spirit and their own consciouses.  Meanwhile, priests who abuse children are kept in the church and supported.  I just read last week of an NY Jesuit who received a Jesuit funeral and burial despite being removed from ministry nearly 10 years ago.  Where are the priorities in the Church?  It is so sad!
deborah rose-milavec
7 years 9 months ago

I take issue with the editors' bias - that Fr. Roy Bourgeois might have received advice from spiritual giants to remain silent on one issue while advising him to continue to speak out on others (more important - less controversial with hierarchal authorities?).  It reflects the views of the writers rather than some rigid, robot exercise of conscience by Fr. Roy.  One thing Fr. Roy shares with those giants is courage, a virtue in short supply these days on too many fronts in Church leadership.   In the initial stages of the  US Bishops' attack Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's critically important work, she has the support of her community and her institution.  Thus her response is fitting for the moment, although as things evolve, we may see Sr. Johnson take up a different strategy.    In these matters of faith, conscience and strategy, I would have preferred that the editors reflect directly on their own views of the issues rather than casting them through two very important and future-oriented leaders who are under attack. 

7 years 9 months ago
You quote “Christ, who is our master and Lord, and at the same time is meek and humble of heart, acted patiently in attracting and inviting his disciples.”

But it was his uncompromising integrity that led him to the cross....and that was ultimately vindicated by the resurrection. 
Aaron Milavec
7 years 9 months ago

Dear Jesuit Supporters of Fr. Roy Bourgeois,

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome (abbreviation: CDF) has been entrusted with responsibility for clarifying disputed matters of belief in the Catholic Church. The CDF has consistently opposed women’s ordination. Moreover, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who headed the CDF for two decades is now currently Pope Benedict XVI.

The CDF's scriptural arguments have been formally expressed in two key documents: On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, known by its Latin title as Inter Insigniores (15 October 1976) and a companion text, the Commentary  on Inter Insigniores (27 January 1977) which treats the arguments of  Inter Insigniores within an ecumenical backdrop.

Roughly four out of five Catholic theologians who have published their evaluations of these documents have found the CDF reports to be seriously flawed both in their methodology and in their use of Scriptures.

So what should normally happen in a situation like this? The CDF documents should be evaluated and revised by a credible international group of Catholic theologians. Honest evaluation and polite criticism should circulate on all sides among bishops, pastors, and theologians. Feedback loops should be set up. Conferences should be held offering persons on all sides the possibilities to present scriptural, theological, and pastoral arguments on all aspects of the issue.

But no, Cardinal Ratzinger did not want this issue to be decided on the basis of open deliberation and informed inquiry. Accordingly, when he realized that the 1976 document was not succeeding in convincing anywhere near a majority of pastors and theologians, he and those around him resorted to raw power. So, currently, appointments to every vacant Episcopal chair and to most theological chairs as well turn upon this litmus-test issue (National Catholic Reporter  5/29/09 p.19-20). Meanwhile, Vatican supporters everywhere feel compelled to put pressure on all Catholics to either sing the Vatican tune or to remain silent. Even most lay persons working in church-related ministries are forced to do the same or to pay the consequences—to lose one’s ministry and one's livelihood.

The current Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) investigation of the Religious Orders of Women in the United States has made it plain that the impossibility of ordaining women is the touchstone issue of “orthodoxy” and that the Vatican appointed interrogators were required to discover all deviations from the spirit and the letter of the CDF’s position set out in Inter Insigniores - On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (National Catholic Reporter 5/1/09 p.10 & 8/21/09 p.8). 

One U.S. bishop told me privately that the bishops themselves are divided on this issue (as would be expected) and that the loyal episcopal opposition is waiting for the moment when open discussion on this issue could be strategic and timely.  The Civil Rights Movement, it must be remembered, began when key pastors in the Black churches of Montgomery decided to champion the cause of one woman, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat in the bus to a White man. 

In truth, it would just take only twenty Jesuits or thirty members of the Maryknoll Order to come forward and to speak their truth against the injustice of using the ordination issue as the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy AND THIS TYRANNY WOULD STOP IN ITS TRACKS.  Such loyal whistle blowers may not even need to directly challenge the 1976 Vatican position itself.  They would need only to demand an implementation of the official Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law:

In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, the Christian faithful have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church. They also have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence towards their pastors. (canon 212, § 3).

As for the conduct of the Vatican in this matter, one would do well to remember the cautionary words of Harry S. Truman: 

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.

Some might think that a Vatican tyranny cloaked in the garb of Jesus can hardly be a tyranny after all.  The truth, however, is just the opposite.  The Vatican’s insistence that they are merely implementing the sovereign will of our Savior in this matter fundamentally distorts the person, the teaching, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, the tyranny of the CDF in manipulating the drafting of Inter Insigniores followed by the calculated steps of Cardinal Ratzinger to impose it upon the entire Church without any process of open deliberation and responsible consultation is nothing short of a total disregard for the ecclesiology affirmed by Vatican II. 

Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century woman who would eventually be declared a Saint and Doctor of the Church, was known for her efforts to deal with recalcitrant authorities inside and outside the Church.  Thus, she becomes a model for leadership and women’s empowerment in our current situation.  Famously, she advised the timid and the oppressed, “Cry out as if you had a million voices.  It is silence that kills the world.”
7 years 9 months ago

To Christine Schenk  Post # 15- Your Post dealing with mine,#9, provided some additives to my understanding,for which I thank you.  But probabilities and presumptions laced throughout your Post unsteadied its overall clarity and left me less than totally  convinced. However points clearly factual were helpful. I don’t feel the need to specify, as a reading of your Post by anyone should bring to light what I mean.

Through Faith we understand that Baptism configures the Church (us) to Christ and Christ is first and foremost Priestly. To the best of my understanding the Church has consistently taught that its indivisible  priestly function  is paradoxically  divisibly shared with the Baptized, in authoritative ways given by Christ, maybe linked to the Lord’s words, “He who hears you hears me?” The Church has the authority to make rules morally binding, evn when not specifically in scripture - Tradition counts.

One might say in a very broad and non-literal way, that  the laity including women of course,  share priesthood in its “simplex form” while the Ordained share  priesthood  in its “full facultied” way. A priest ordained in the Simplex Mode is one who functions as a priest in every way except in the hearing of sacramental confessions, lacking the “faculty” namely, permission from the Bishop to do so. But in case of necessity a simplex priest may validly hear confession  because he is Ordained. Laity are  very broadly and very non-lterally like a simplex priest because their priestly character is restricted.

Years ago as a youth, I  served the Masses of a priest ordained in the Simplex Mode, now a candidate for Beatification, named Fr. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap. He was never  a “full facultied” priest  and so never heard a sacramental confession although thousands flocked to him for spiritual help.  Just an interesting addition.

Until the Church declares women eligible for the “fully facultied” exercise of their priestly character,  I’ll do what St. Augustine recommended, “feel” with the Magesterial Church.

Franklin Tonini
7 years 9 months ago
A well reasoned and thoughtful editorial. Hopefully the Bishops will read and reflect on it.
Adam Rasmussen
7 years 9 months ago
Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty is, in my opinion, not relevant here. Fr. Bourgeois should follow his conscience, of course (is anyone saying otherwise?). The problem is that there is an incompatibility between what he believes, presumably in good conscience, and his vocation as a Catholic priest. Likewise, with Sr. Johnson, the problem isn't that she needs to change her beliefs through some kind of violence of conscience (which isn't even possible). What we have is a declaration by ecclesiastical authority that her book contains some errors. That she has a good conscience has nothing to do with whether or not her book has errors in it.
Nelson Guirado
7 years 9 months ago
You can't really equate theological dissent with the abuse of office. The latter is a sin. The Church doesn't excommunicate sinners, but allows them to repent. Even if they should have and didn't, I don't see why that would prevent the Church from disciplining people teaching error. 

It's right to excommunicate people who persist in dissenting from Church teaching. Imagine a priest who doesn't believe in God. People might believe him because they feel the priest has the backing of the Church. Likewise, Fr. Bourgeois might lead people to believe that women can be priests. Should the Church allow somebody to teach such obvious errors? 
Marian O'Meara
7 years 8 months ago

The following is an excerpt taken from a letter written by Fr. Raphael Simon, OCSO, M.D. in March of 2006.  

On Conscience

 The Church indeed teaches that one must follow one’s conscience. But it also teaches that one must take pains to see that one’s conscience is rightly formed, that is, according to truth and justice.

 John Courtney Murray, whose opinion on this matter became the teaching of The Declaration on Religious Liberty of Vatican II,said that it is an egregious error to think conscience is the ultimate source of our actions. The ultimate source is truth. Conscience must be formed according to the truth to lead us rightly. Fr. Murray’s footnote to the text of Vatican II’s document on Religious Freedom states:

          "It is worth noting that the Declaration does not base the free exercise   of religion on ‘freedom of conscience.’ Nowhere [in the Declaration]  does the phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which this phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is a perilous     theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism—the notion that in the end it is my conscience, and not the objective truth, which determines what is right or wrong, true or false."[1]

One lapses into subjectivism when one thinks that the “interior light” he sees is necessarily God’s voice—this needs the discernment of spirits to distinguish what comes from the unconscious, from outside oneself—either from God or the devil, or what simply comes from reason.

[1] Abbott, Walter M., S.J., p. 679, note 5.

Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago

Truth - women are made in the image of God (Genesis). Justice - no person made in the image of God should be denied a sacrament simply due to physical characteristics - vocations are spiritual callings.  To deny a sacrament due to gender is injustice.

  The church has not always taught the Truth - but teaches the "truth" as the human men understood it at the time - so they taught as "truth" that the sun revolves around the earth, and tried Galileo for heresy because he disputed this "truth" - which turned out not to be true at all.  This is a famous example, but hardly the only example of church error throughout history - there are many -  and it demonstrates that injustice may be done because of the church's error.

  Fr. Bourgeois follows church teaching as summarized in the Catechism.

  1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

  Fr. Bourgeois is not ignorant but thoroughly knowledgable about church teaching, as well as of Christ and the gospels (1791-1792). He has fully and properly "informed" his conscience based on the requirements. Yet his conscience still tells him that what the church teaches is NOT "truth" - and so, he "must obey the certain judgment of his conscience..."

  The teaching church moves towards the truth - always. But sometimes it takes long detours before finding it. And it too is obligated to fully inform itself as well - although it mostly fails to do this, it must "consult with the faithful on matters of doctrine" (John Cardinal Newman) and it must be self-reflective - always open to the Holy Spirit - in order to discover which "truths"  simply reflect the limitations and preconceived ideas and even prejudices of the human beings who struggle to define church teachings, and which are Truth - that comes from God and not from fallible human beings. Truth will always  be a good - injustice cannot be Truth because, by definition, injustice is not a good.

C Walter Mattingly
7 years 8 months ago
There is a distinction you are failing to make between dissent and rupture in the instance of Fr Bourgeois.  It is one thing to dissent in conscience from church teaching, including publicly, as Cardinal Newman did at one point concerning papal infallibility, for example, and as Fr Bourgeois did when he spoke in favor of women's ordination. It is quite another thing to establish your own priesthood by "ordaining" someone on your own authority. I, and many here, have sympathy with that point of view.
But when Fr Boureios went beyond public dissent on the issue and ordained his own preferences he began his own priesthood and, in effect, his own church. I for one can't imagine Cardinal Newman doing such a thing.
The issue with Fr Bourgeois is not primarily one of public dissent. It is rather one of rejecting the church in which he was a member in favor of the Church of Roy.
Paul Kelley
7 years 8 months ago
What a lot ofinteresting comments! I have copied them to read at greater leisure. As far as the article, my comment is How Jesuitical!
Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago

Fr. Bourgeois did not ordain anyone. He attended the ordination of a woman priest, and he gave the homily, but it was not he who ordained her.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 8 months ago
That's technically correct. By participating in the liturgy and thereby communicating his affirmation, he approved of the ordination, accomplishing much the same thing.
Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago
Walter, it appears that you agree that Fr. Bourgeois did NOT ordain anyone - this is not just a technicality but a matter of truth.The statement you made (shown below) is inaccurate and misleading, One may disagree with his dissent from this teaching, but that does not warrant misrepresenting the facts.

It is quite another thing to establish your own priesthood by "ordaining" someone on your own authority.,,,But when Fr Boureios went beyond public dissent on the issue and ordained his own preferences he began his own priesthood and, in effect, his own church.

He did no such thing.
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years 8 months ago
There seem to be many supporters of the "one must follow his/her own conscience" when it comes to Father Bourgeois but does this support for the superiority of one's own subjective conscience extend to Hitler, Stalin and Mao's mass killings and genocide as pointed out in the following abbreviated extract from a lecture:
CONSCIENCE AND TRUTH Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops February 1991 Dallas, Texas
"Objecting to this thesis, someone countered that if this were so then the Nazi SS would be justified and we should seek them in heaven since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience. Another responded they acted morally, subjectively speaking and should not doubt their eternal salvation. Since that conversation, I knew  a concept of conscience which leads to such conclusions must be false.  The elaboration of these insights forms the heart of this address. Gorres shows "Monsters, among other brutes, are the ones without guilt feelings. Perhaps Hitler did not have any, or Himmler, or Stalin. Maybe Mafia bosses do not have any guilt feelings either, or maybe their remains are just well hidden in the cellar. Even aborted guilt feelings ... All men need guilt feelings."
More recently Osama could carry out his deadly attacks on innocent people with absolute moral certainty that he was following the commands of his god, Allah, as transcribed by Mohammed in the Koran to conquer, convert, subject or kill the unbeliever. These teachings of Islam are ignored by politicians and religious leaders in their efforts to convince the public that Islam is a religion of peace. 
Greta Green
7 years 8 months ago
Settled matter.  The Church does not now or ever have the authority to allow women priests.  JPII and verified by the congregation of the faith as settled teaching.  We are called to accept this and those who do not want to have many choices such as Episcopalian. 

Why stay where your desire will never be fulfilled...It will never happen. 

Priest and Bishops should learn to follow Church teaching rather than live a life of dissent.  No women priests, marriage now and forever between one man and one woman, homosexual lifestyle gravely disordered and serious sin..

There is a religion waiting for those who want these things and nothing is locking you into this faith but your insistence it is your faith must conform to your will, not God's.  Pride is a very serious sin...Trust in God and in His Church built on the rock, peter, and continuing on the rock of Benedict XVI. 

If they only had the faith of a mustard seed, and the humility to obey..
William Bagley
7 years 8 months ago
I have great regard for the Jesuits and lay people who publish America.   And I believe that their observations here are well intended.  But the recent action of the Vatican against Bishop Morris of Australia tells us more than we want to know.  For his simple call to engage in a conversation about priests who might be women and/or married, he has been deposed.  I am so sad.  We fritter our legacy every time a heavy hand silences conversation.  Would that they were as earnest in seeking an end to capital punishment, in feeding the poor, in guaranteeing support for 12 year old mothers... telling our young people that caring and honest debate is off bounds is sure to push them further and further away... 
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 8 months ago
Your point is well taken. I amend my statement to say Fr Bourgeois did not by his actions establish a priesthood outside the church he was sworn to serve; rather he participated in establishing a priesthood outside the church.
Let's see if we can agree on what Fr Bourgeois effected concerning the ordination we refer to.
"Father Bourgeois participated in the ordination of a priest outside of the church he was sworn to serve. By his participation he gave his approval and blessing to establishing a priesthood outside of that of the Catholic Church.  At that point he moved from a position of dissent with the church to an act of rupture with the church."
Is that a statement with which you would agree or disagree? And why?
Joseph Quigley
7 years 8 months ago
It amazes me that so much can be written about conscience as if it were a separate faculty of the mind.
Conscience is a process that starts with the mind/intellect making a judgment about the goodness or badness of an action and then weighing up whether the taking of the action has good or bad consequences and then, in some cases, whether  the not taking of the bad action would have worse consequences than taking it.
And finally there is the decision of the will to act or not act on that judgment.
Of course we can argue how much knowledge a person can reasonably be expected to have before he/she finally acts but I don't think it helps a person to be told by someone else, no matter how important or impressive that someone is,: "Do it because I say so". Or, " Do it, because I know better than you."
One of the really bad actions that permeates American society and its international relations is killing other people.
To kill another person is a bad thing - at least for the person being killed. And yet homicide is a daily occurrrence, so often claimed to be in self-defence.
And American military power is using all sorts of killing techniques to pursue US foreign policy - in the national interest.
I make no judgment whether or not these actions are taken in good conscience.
But I do feel uncomfortable when God is invoked to bless such enterprises.
7 years 8 months ago

Certainly, as you say, there are various "paths" of obeying one's conscience. Is the one chosen a matter of temperment or of vocation? Can the former be an indication of the latter; since as the psalmist wrote "truly (God)made my inmost being" and "knew my soul full well" from the start?In any case someone like Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who was willing to spend years in prison for opposing an unjust U.S. instition, is unlikely to do other than meet any challenge to conscience head on. I hpoe that both he and Sister Elizabeth Johnson will be encouraged by the fact that the innstitutional Church has more than once in its history, condemned,then rehabilitated,then in some instances cononized one of its most prophetic members. The hierarchy would do well to take seriously the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38)"Let them alone.If their purpose or activity is from men, it will destroy itself.On the otherhand if it is from God, you will not be able to destroy it."

Joseph Quigley
7 years 8 months ago
I wrote my comment (35) re- conscience on May 6 before the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALS never dreaming that the current US President, of all people, would say of the killing - Justice has been done.
It looks more like Revenge to me.
But then I was told as a student of Political Science at the height of the Cold War that when one crosses into the realm of Realpolitik the morality of ordinary everyday social interaction or intercourse no longer applies. Looks like my tutor was right.
7 years 8 months ago

I take AMERICA's editorial ("Paths of Conscience", May 2, 2011) as a cautionary warning against creeping infallibility. The 1994 Apostolic Letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," with John Paul II's declaration that 'the church cannot ordain women', and the 1998 papal decree "Ad Tuendam Fidem," that 'discussion of ordaining women can be punished under canon law' were more fitting subjects for deep and serious debate by competent theologians and bishops than arguments for forcing some (Maryknoll's Fr. Bourgeois, Toowoomba's Bishop Morris?) to resign.

Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
Fr. Larry:

I would add JP2's 1998 Motu Proprio that extended or imposed a new category of teaching called "definitive", explained as non-infallible but irreformable. It would be a very small step from this defintion to infallible.

Consider the implications that a category called "irreformable teachings" would have had on the current Catholic Church had it been applied in history. All of the following teachings were once the common opinion of theologians and Church Hierarchy but have since been obsolete and reformed: slavery, usury, the ends of marriage, capital punishment, sex during menapause as a mortal sin, sex during pregnancy as forbidden, sex had only one licit position. 

Now that we have this new category called "irreformable", how do we answer the fact that history has taught us that our "understanding of the truth" is progressive? Of course, this does not apply to the fundamentals of our faith, but to the many teachings that are complex, historically conditioned by culture and knowlege, and are controversial.

Is it reasonable to conclude that the Catholic conscience that disagrees with certain Church teachings is the victim of invincible ignorance, the enlightment religion, individualism and Rome proclaims? Or can Rome benefit from a re-thinking of its ecclesiastic structure and administration and the process of doctrine formation and reformation?


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