On April 10, I wrote an open letter to Fr. Roy Bourgeois of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. This was in refutation of a letter Fr. Bourgeois had written to his superior general, Fr. Edward M. Dougherty, published openly on the Women’s Ordination Conference website.
To give a little more background: Fr. Bourgeois, an open supporter of women’s ordination, has been a thorn in Maryknoll’s paw for a couple of years. In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent Maryknoll a letter advising them that Fr. Bourgeois’ opposition had incurred excommunication latae sententiae (that is, by the fact of the delict’s commission, somewhat comparable to a mandatory sentence) reserved to the Holy See. Since then, Maryknoll has warned Fr. Bourgeois at least twice that his refusal to recant would lead to his dismissal from the order.
On July 27, 2011, Fr. Dougherty sent Fr. Bourgeois a second canonical warning: if the latter did not recant within fifteen days, the superior general would start the dismissal proceedings [H/T Deacon Greg Kandra]. And yesterday Fr. Bourgeois sent back his own letter indicating his final Non serviam:
What you are asking me to do in your letter 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.
As Fr. Dougherty reminded Fr. Bourgeois in his warning, Bl. John Paul II’s May 22, 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, definitively taught “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (OS 4). Moreover, in a responsum ad dubium dated October 28, 1995, the CDF confirmed that “the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith” (emphasis mine).
Although Jesus told St. Peter that whatever he bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven (cf. Mt 16:19), as I pointed out in discussing papal infallibility, the power of the keys is essentially conservative. The purpose of the Church is primarily to preserve, teach and promote Christ’s gospel message, not to change it every time the society surrounding it changes. Again, the integrity of the gospel message comes first.
For justification in his refusal to recant, Fr. Bourgeois wields the “primacy of conscience” sword: “As people of faith we believe in the primacy of conscience. Our conscience connects us to the Divine. Our conscience gives us a sense of right and wrong and urges us to do what is right, what is just.”
But as I’ve pointed out on at least three occasions, especially in my open letter, this is bad moral theology; the individual conscience isn’t guaranteed inerrancy. “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1792).
Pride is another such source of error.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan reminds us that those things which belongs to the deposit of the faith — dogmas, doctrines, matters of the Church’s fundamental structure — aren’t “policies” subject to change with a new administration. And, as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf argues, “a change in the Church’s teaching on the matter of ordination cannot be attained through the old means of ‘creeping incrementalism’ [i.e., slowly and quietly presenting “ordained” women at isolated churches in the hopes that Rome won’t notice until it’s too late]. This is a far different thing from, say, how liberals forced communion in the hand, or altar girls, or the near eradication of Latin liturgy for the Novus Ordo, etc.”
Once Rome has definitively spoken on a question, there really is no more “debate” — there’s only either assent or dissent. Roma locuta est; causa finita est.
At this point, if you can’t agree, then the intellectually honest thing to do if you’re a priest is to ask to be relieved of your vows … even to resign. For as long as you wear the Roman collar, you are under the obligation to represent the Church fully and completely in your person. Abraham Lincoln once told an audience of law school students, “If you find you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve at all costs to be honest without being a lawyer.”
Why didn’t Fr. Bourgeois resign? I don’t think it’s too cynical of me to suggest that Fr. Bourgeois wanted the cachet of martyrdom to the cause. We hold it to be both a religious and civic virtue to stand by your principles … as long as we can agree that they’re the correct principles. The line between being a hero and being a pig-headed fool is often drawn in chalk.
But in Fr. Bourgeois’ case, his dismissal would be a pseudo-martyrdom at best, inane posturing at worst. For he could practically walk into the Anglican/Episcopalian communion and find not only a church from which to continue his ministry but even have the option available to him of marriage … or even a domestic partnership. Whatever minor mortifications he would undergo would be more than made up by the media attention.
Certainly not as uncomfortable as crucifixion.
No, Fr. Bourgeois is no Thomas More. Rather, he’s more like Richard Rich. And I hope he enjoys Wales while it lasts.
Bourgeois has been dismissed from the Maryknoll Fathers, according to a press release issued November 19, 2012. Another priest is lost through his own stubborn pride. Please pray for his repentance.
 “Rome has spoken; the matter is at an end.” Supposedly based on St. Augustine’s line near the end of Sermons on the New Testament 81:10: “Two councils have already been sent on this matter to the Apostolic see [Rome]; and from there rescripts have already come. The matter is at an end; would that their error too would sometime come to an end!”