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.”

Pope Benedict: “Greatest Persecution of the Church is from Sin Within”

On the papal plane, Shepherd One, en route to Portugal to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen got an interesting response from the Pope on the issue of the “sin within the church.”

Benedict’s emphasis on the greatest challenge to the church being from within, rather than attacks from the outside, is different from what other church leaders have recently claimed, that the media, the Jews, or secularists were to blame for unjust criticism of the church. (Really? That old playbook?)

The Pope’s response in the interview with Allen is intriguing because Benedict aligns the suffering of the church as embodied in the suffering of the pope – “because the Pope stands for the church” – but then states clearly that the greatest challenge of the church is sin from within. This raises the final corollary question – does the Pope carry the sin of the church within himself? The question is, of course, both theological and personal.

That the whole conversation is couched in the mysticism of the appearances of Mary at Fatima in 1917 is also fascinating. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

John Allen: Now we look to Fatima, which will be the spiritual culmination of this trip. What meaning do the apparitions of Fatima have for us today? When you presented the Third Secret of Fatima in a press conference at the Vatican Press Office in June 2000, you were asked if the message of the secret could be extended beyond the assassination attempt against John Paul II to other sufferings of the popes. Could it also be extended to put the suffering of the church today in the context of that vision, including the sins of the sexual abuse of minors?

Pope Benedict XVI: First of all, I want to express my joy to go to Fatima, to pray before the Madonna of Fatima, and to experience the presence of the faith there, where from the little ones a new force of the faith was born. It’s not limited to the little ones, but has a message for the whole world and all epochs of history, it illuminates this history. As I said in the presentation, there is a supernatural impulse which doesn’t come simply from someone’s imagination but from the supernatural reality of the Virgin Mary. That impulse enters into a subject, and is expressed according to the possibilities of the subject, who is determined by his or her historic situation. The supernatural impulse is translated, so to speak, according to the subject’s possibilities for imagining it and expressing it. In this expression formed by the subject, there are always hidden possibilities to go beyond, to go deeper. Only with time can we see all the depth which was, so to speak, dressed in this vision, which was possible for the concrete person.

With regard to this great vision of the suffering of the popes, beyond the circumstances of John Paul II, other realities are indicated which over time will develop and become clear. Thus it’s true that beyond the moment indicated in the vision, one speaks about and sees the necessity of suffering by the church. It’s focused on the person of the pope, but the pope stands for the church, and therefore sufferings of the church are announced. The church will always be suffering in various ways, up to the end of the world. The important point is that the message of Fatima in its substance is not addressed to particular situations, but a fundamental response: permanent conversion, penance, prayer, and the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and charity. One sees there the true, fundamental response the church must give, which each of us individually must give, in this situation.

In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the pope or the church don’t come just from outside the church. The suffering of the church also comes from within the church, because sin exists in the church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way. The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the church. The church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. Forgiveness does not exclude justice. We have to re-learn the essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That’s how we respond, and we can be realistic in expecting that evil will always launch attacks from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil. The Madonna for us is the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.

Read the whole interview here.