Fr. Roy Bourgeois Faces ‘Laicization’: Hero or Heretic?

Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the longtime peace activist and founder of the School of Americas Watch, has received a letter from his Maryknoll order that he has 15 days to publically recant his support for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church or he will be kicked out of the Maryknoll family and stripped of his priestly functions.

He’ll be defrocked, unfrocked, or laicized, depending on your denomination. The Catholic church and his order will no longer recognize his right to exercise the functions of the ordained ministry.

The National Catholic Reporter tells the story:

The letter, which is dated March 18, is signed by Maryknoll Fr. Edward Dougherty, the order’s superior general, and warns Bourgeois that his dismissal will also be forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith “with a request for laicization.”

NCR received the letter in a fax from Bourgeois this morning. Bourgeois, who attended and preached a homily at the ordination of Roman Catholic Womanpriest Janice Sevre-Duszunska in August, 2008, was notified by the same congregation shortly after that event that he had incurred a Latae Senteniae, or automatic, excommunication for his participation. Dougherty’s letter references that event and says Bourgeois’ continued support of women’s ordination since — specifically mentioning his Feb. 12 participation as a panel speaker at a showing of the film Pink Smoke Over the Vatican — has been “in disobedience to the explicit instructions of your Superiors.”

If Bourgeois does not respond with 15 days, the letter says he will be given a second warning, after which Dougherty will dismiss him for “publicly reject[ing] the teaching of the Holy Father.”

In the Catholic Church, a priest, deacon, or bishop may be dismissed from the clerical state as a penalty for certain grave offenses, or by a papal decree granted for grave reasons. This may be because of a serious criminal conviction or heresy. A Catholic priest may also voluntarily request to be laicized for any personal reason. Voluntary requests are by far the most common means of laicization, and the most common reason is to marry. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI put an end to speedily granting laicization requests by priests or their bishops. John Paul ruled, soon after becoming pope, that no priest under forty could be granted an administrative laicization.

Part of the irony – or hypocrisy – in the case of Fr. Roy is that he is being defrocked for standing up for his conscience while hundreds of other priests were not defrocked when they were convicted of criminal action. I guess this indicates which kind of “sin” the Vatican feels better equipped to deal with: criminal behavior can be corrected from within but freedom of conscience is resistant to hierarchical pressure. Well, ever has it been thus.

When Fr. Roy was ordained, a phrase was sung over him: “You are a priest forever, like Melchizedek of old.” And when he was baptized – like all Catholics – he was anointed with oil as a sign that he was consecrated to God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and joined to Jesus in this threefold mission as priest, prophet, and king.

While the Vatican may view the laicization of Fr. Roy as a punishment, many of us “laity” out here view it as a gift. Now Fr. Roy can move into the fullness of ministry in the Catholic church as represented by the people of God, rather than the inwardly focused bastion of clericalism the Vatican wants to defend.

So, as the story of Fr. Roy’s laicization unfolds, let us all welcome him home as a hero. As the Catholic community of Christ let us anoint Fr. Roy with the words of Pope Paul VI: “The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to His name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.”

4 thoughts on “Fr. Roy Bourgeois Faces ‘Laicization’: Hero or Heretic?”

  1. I am a divorced RC woman who once considered obtaining an annulment. In light of the vatican’s actions involving Fr. Bourgeois, Bishop William Morris and others that have been silenced or censured, I refuse to submit to their hypocrisy. I will donate to Catholic organizations that support the poor and vulnerable, but will never so much as drop a penny in another collection basket unless change truly begins to take place. It is time we stand up and are heard. Thank you for your very thoughtful words.

  2. I have followed Fr. Bourgeois’s career with interest and pride: A Catholic priest pursuing peace and justice at the expense of his personal career and comfort. I have found that there are fewer and fewer reasons for being proud of my Catholicism, and more and more reasons to reject the whole Catholic experience. I taught high school theology for 27 years; I managed to defend the church through 2002; I applauded the writing of the Charter; I told my students I believed the church was responding and was owning up to its mistakes; I helped draft the Safe Environment materials for my diocese; I accepted a role on two advisory boards, one diocesan, one religious. As a victim myself, perhaps I was naïve in hoping the bishops were truly listening, and that they now understood the evil of their policies of denial, obfuscation, priest transfers. But I did hope. That is until Cardinal George was found to have ignored his own Charter and his own advisory board, resulting in more children being raped by the priest he protected.

    So, I agree, it seems that the Vatican can only recognize “evil” in certain forms: the pursuit of justice for child abuse victims, the acceptance of the rights of women to respond to the Holy Spirit, the rights of the gay and lesbian community to take vows of love and life-long commitment, the rights of a diocesan priest to commit to both the church and to a woman as his partner in a holy life of service. These are all viewed as evil. But the rape and molestation of children is callously ignored, the criminal behavior of priests recklessly overlooked.

    I am left seeking out those Catholics whom the church has censured, excommunicated, silenced or ignored for it is these men and women who are my saints. It is these men and women who give me hope that the truth and light of Catholicism can survive the blindness and corruption that infests its very body. God Bless you Fr. Bourgeois, Hans Kung, Edwina Gateley, Future Church, Call to Action, and the Women’s Ordination Conference.

  3. An outstanding analysis. Not a screed! Not a canonization! Just a sound exposition of some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the sad situation involving Father Roy and the Vatican.

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