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Vatican Threatens to Excommunicate Catholic Priest for Supporting Ordination of Women into Priesthood

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We speak with Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest. He took part in a ceremony this summer to ordain a member of the group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests. For the past two decades, he has organized the annual protest against the US Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Vatican has threatened to excommunicate well-known Catholic priest and longtime peace advocate Father Roy Bourgeois this Friday unless he recants his support for the ordination of women into the priesthood. The Maryknoll priest of thirty-six years has organized the annual protest against the US Army’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia for over two decades.

This August, he took part in a ceremony to ordain a member of the group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests. He was informed last month that he would face the harshest form of ecclesiastical punishment — excommunication — unless he recanted within thirty days.

Earlier this month, Father Bourgeois sent a letter to the Vatican saying there was no justification for excluding women as priests. He wrote, “Over the years I have met a number of women in our Church who, like me, feel called by God to the priesthood. You, our Church leaders at the Vatican, tell us that women cannot be ordained. With all due respect, I believe our Catholic Church’s teaching on this issue is wrong and does not stand up to scrutiny. After much prayer, reflection and discernment, it is my conscience that compels me to do the right thing. I cannot recant my belief and public statements that support the ordination of women in our Church.”

AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois joins us now by DN! video stream from Fort Benning, Georgia, one day before he faces excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Roy Bourgeois, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. I know you’re preparing for this mass protest outside what used to be called the School of the Americas, but let’s talk about what is also immediately at hand, this excommunication. Please explain.

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Yes. Let me put it this way, Amy. For eighteen years, I have been speaking out against the injustice of the School of the Americas, and for many years I’ve been speaking out against the injustice of the war in Iraq. As a Catholic priest for thirty-six years, in conscience, I cannot remain silent about injustice in my Church. I and many have come to the conclusion that the exclusion of women in the Catholic Church is a grave injustice, and I simply must — I cannot, in conscience, accept the Vatican’s demand that I recant my belief and my public statements in support of women’s ordination. This is simply wrong.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Father Bourgeois, the letter came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What is that organization within the Vatican?

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, you know, it’s the Church hierarchy in the Vatican that deals with Church teaching, Church doctrine. And they, of course — the Catholic Church has for years taught — for centuries, actually, now — that women cannot be priests. But to be very honest, you know, a growing number, the majority of the Catholics and so many priests and bishops now realize that this is not theologically sound. There is nothing in the Scriptures to justify this.

As Catholics, you know, we profess that the call, that invitation from God to priesthood, to the ministry of priesthood, comes from God. That call is very sacred. When I was in the military years ago as a young man, I felt God was calling me to the priesthood. I was in Vietnam at the time. And I entered the Maryknoll community. I was ordained in 1972 and assigned to work in Bolivia, later El Salvador. And during my thirty-six years of ministry, I met many priests who, like me, felt God was calling them to the priesthood. And I must say, I have come to the conclusion that to say to women that our call is valid, but yours is not, is simply a grave injustice. We are tampering with the sacred here.

AMY GOODMAN: In your letter, Father Roy Bourgeois, you write that having an all-male clergy implies that men are worthy to be Catholic priests, but women are not. You say, “According to USA Today, in the United States alone, nearly 5,000 Catholic priests have sexually abused more than 12,000 children.” What does that have to do with your support of women priests?

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, you know, it was very difficult for me to add that in my letter, but it must be said. You know, I’m sad to say that the Vatican, our Church leaders, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, took many years to respond to the crimes of thousands of priests who sexually abused over 12,000 children. That was first reported in 1988. It wasn’t until eleven or twelve years later that they began to intervene and investigate and really, you know, demand that priests step down from the priesthood.

You know, less than three months after I attended the ordination of a woman in Lexington, Kentucky, less than three months, I received a letter from the Vatican demanding that I recant within thirty days or I will be excommunicated. The severity, the swiftness of the Vatican’s letter, I think it calls into question, you know, just what’s going on here. What really is the problem? I do believe that I did not commit a crime. I am following my conscience. Women — you know, it’s amazing, the thousands of priests and the many bishops were aware of these crimes of their priests, they remained silent. These priests committing the crimes and the bishops who remained silent have not been excommunicated. Yet, the many women who have been ordained to the priesthood and the priests and bishops who support their ordination are excommunicated. I do believe that there is a problem here. This is also a grave injustice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Father Bourgeois, your order, the Maryknolls, like the Jesuits, are known as more independent orders within the Church. Have the higher echelons of your order attempted to intercede in one way or another in your defense on this?

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: I’ve been told — you know, I’ve been with the community for thirty-six years, and it’s our work overseas, especially in Latin America, and seeing firsthand the brutality of the military, you know, that leads us to say what we’re saying, to be critics of US foreign policy. Over the years, they have been very, very supportive, of course, of my work with the School of the Americas. And they, as a religious order, joined the thousands who are calling for the closing of this school — it should not exist — and will join their voices with the many coming here this weekend to call for the closing of this school of assassins. They did say to me they will do everything they can to keep me as a member of the community.

Again, we are known for our work in peace and justice for the — you know, walking in solidarity with the victims of violence and injustice. And what they and so many of us see, of course — and we join our voices with the women of the Catholic Church, who are oppressed, who are being treated unjustly. We join our voices with the women, who are saying, “We want to be treated with equality.” Our god, we believe, has created men and women of equal stature and dignity. And again, there is no reason why women cannot be full members of the community and ordained as Catholic priests.

Any institution, organization that’s controlled where the power is in the hands of any particular group, whether they be men or women, is not healthy. Our Church, the Catholic Church, is going through a real crisis. There are thousands of churches that are being shut down because there is a lack of priests. The sexual abuse crisis has really rocked the Church to its roots. I am convinced, of course, that if we had women priests and women bishops, that sexual abuse and the silence during those years would not have been possible. Women simply would not have been silent. I’m also convinced, if we had women priests and women bishops, there would not be such silence about this war in Iraq. I’m convinced, too, that there would be, if we had women priests and women bishops, they would have called for the closing of this School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. We need women priests in our Church for it to be healthy, for it to be complete.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois, why do you think the Church hierarchy is coming after you now? You’ve held these beliefs for a long time.

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, Amy, I have poked as many — a number of beehives in my life. This is the biggest beehive I have ever poked. I’ve poked the beehive of the patriarchy. I think I and others, priests and women and bishops — I’m not alone in this — who call for the ordination of women, I think what we’re threatening at its very core is the power, is power, privilege. I mean, let’s face it, this is an all-boys’ club. And we are card — I and many others are card-carrying members. Again, in conscience, I felt I had to break my silence. I’ve broken that silence many times over the years, and I’m calling on my fellow priests and Catholics and Church leaders to break their silence.

But what we have here, at its very core, is the sin of sexism. And like racism, no matter how hard we try to justify it or bring in, you know, God to bless discrimination, in the end it is always immoral.

But again, at its very core, we’re dealing with power, those in power who have had that power and control for centuries, who simply don’t want to give it up. But I have to say, they must give it up. They will be, in a way, forced to give it up. There are many similarities about, you know, what’s going on in Latin America. We’ve learned that all of these repressive militaries that have held onto their power for so long were not going to give up that power and the abuse of their power through the goodness of their heart. And I’m sad to say that the patriarchy of faith communities, like the Catholic Church and other faith traditions, they will have to give up their power because of the grassroots movement from the bottom up organizing, like in Latin America, so many saying, “Basta! We will simply not allow you to repress us as you have been doing for so long.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Father Bourgeois, if the Church does move forward with this excommunication, what is the — is there an appeals process that you can follow through to be heard on this issue, or is that the end of it?

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, needless to say, I will not be silent. I will be going to Rome. A number of fellow priests have already asked me, said they would like to join me, along with a bishop friend. We will be going to Rome to appeal this. I would want to have, and I think I have a right to — and it’s reasonable to request, after thirty-six years as a priest, a short meeting with Pope Benedict and other leaders in the Church to appeal my case, to simply appeal to them personally and say what I said in my letter to them that this cannot be justified.

And so, let me say, I feel very, very much at peace with my decision. My biggest concern, when I got that letter from Rome, I must say I was nauseous. I knew it could be possible, but I thought it was remote. Excommunication is very serious in the Catholic Church. My biggest concern was my family, a close-knit family in Louisiana, Catholic. My father, ninety-five years old, a devout Catholic, goes to church every day. And after mailing that letter, putting a lot of time in my response, I drove to Louisiana and met with my brother, two sisters and my father and gave them the letter. And I really was concerned about how they would take this. My brother said that I would be breaking my father’s heart, and that hurt me.

But at that meeting — we all had the family meeting — my father first spoke, and he simply said, “Look” — he said to my siblings, my brother and sisters, his children — he said, “Look, God brought Roy back from the war in Vietnam. God took care of Roy in his mission work in Bolivia and El Salvador and brought him home safely. And God is going to take care of Roy now. He’s doing the right thing, and I support him.” When he said that, I wept. I was so at peace. I was so joyful. And to see now my brother and sisters join my dad in supporting what I’m doing, it takes a great burden off of me, it makes the struggle a lot easier. And there is nothing — let me just say that there’s nothing that the Vatican can do to me to take away that inner peace and serenity that I feel now. I know there are some rough times ahead, but like in our SOA Watch movement, we will move ahead with hope, with hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois, we have to break in one minute. We’re going to be looking at the President-elect’s administration, the people he’s surrounding himself by. Do you have hope that School of the Americas — well, it’s called WHINSEC now, but for a long time called School of the Americas — that you’ve been calling for the closure of because of its training Latin American officers who have gone home to commit egregious human rights abuses — do you have hope it will close under an Obama administration?

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: You bet. I must say, this is, right now, with our new president and changes in Congress, this school, Amy, is on life support. We’re predicting that this is going to be the last year of this school of assassins. That school should not exist. It has caused so much suffering and death to others in Latin America. And it’s possible that we, this — you know, we’re going to meet here to say no, not in our name should this school exist. And hopefully, next November at this time, we will gather here for a huge celebration, because this school, hopefully, under our new president and members of Congress, this school will be closed.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois, we thank you very much for joining us. He is sitting in his home, a small house just outside the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, where thousands are now descending from around the country for the annual protest of the School of the Americas. He heads up SOA Watch, School of Americas Watch.

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