"Why shouldn't women be called to the Catholic priesthood?"
This is the question that Roy Bourgeois has been asking out loud since the RCWP ordination of his friend Janice Sevre-Duszynska, six years ago on August 8, 2008. It's the question that landed him in a boat-load of hot water with the Vatican who insisted that he recant his position. When he refused to, he was excommunicated despite decades of exemplary service in the Catholic Church.
RCWP stands for Roman Catholic Women Priests: a grassroots global movement that includes about 200 women priests, bishops and deacons. The Vatican says their ordinations aren't valid and they have no authority to lead; Canon Law 1024 clearly states that only baptized males can be priests.
It's been almost two years since Bourgeois' defrocking by Pope Benedict -- he likens this period of rejection and grieving to the aftermath of a difficult divorce. Like others who suffer because of a broken relationship, he's gradually healing from his painful experience.
In June 2014 a new RCWP parish sprang up in Toronto -- one of nine across Canada. This development, combined with the anniversary of the event that caused Bourgeois' life to spin out of control, make it an appropriate time to see how he's doing and hear his thoughts about the growing RCWP movement.
Q: You've described your excommunication as a "painful struggle." In hindsight, would you have handled things differently?
A: True, there have been many dark nights of the soul. Having said that, I wouldn't have changed my position. I have no regrets. Our conscience is very sacred; I was always taught that as a Catholic, and it's our lifeline to God. Even with all the pain, rejection, and loneliness, underneath there is peace in knowing you did the right thing. I followed my conscience. I followed God.
Q: Even after all this rejection, you're still convinced that you're on the right side of this issue?
A: Listen, the majority of Catholics in North America support the ordination of women and the issue is not going away. How can we say that women are not called? How can we say that when God says we are equal? Think of Galatians 3:28: There is neither male nor female, you are one in Christ Jesus. I keep coming back to the fact that this is a matter of conscience. I have to follow my conscience to be at peace.
Q: Is it possible that none of your fellow priests share your views on this issue?
A: This injustice toward women and God had become so clear to me and I used to go to my friends and say, "I think we have a problem." They'd say, "Roy, it's not about equality, it's about roles. We're not prejudiced, we just have different roles." And I would say, "Are you sure it's not about power? Or sexism?" This all reminded me of my growing up in the South during segregation when we would claim that it wasn't racism at work, but of course it was. But back to my fellow priests...the core of the problem of them not supporting me is that they don't want to lose their power, privileges, and good standing. Simple as that. Fear.
Q: This week marks the anniversary of the ordination of your friend Janice. Tell us about it.
A: That event was a big breakthrough. I didn't just attend, I gave the homily. Five women priests were ordained. I knew there would be consequences. We gave thanks to God for calling Janice and to Janice for accepting her call, especially at a time when so many of our churches were closing because of a lack of vocations. I really remember the joy there. It was so joyful.
Q: What do you make of the new RCWP community in Toronto?
A: The church hierarchy is not going to give up its power, so change has to come from the bottom up, in part from courageous women like these RCWPs in Toronto. It will come from people in the pews who support the ordination of women. This movement cannot be stopped. There were many who tried to stop the suffragette movement, including leaders in the Catholic Church. But they couldn't. Same thing goes for the civil rights movement. These movements were of God. They were rooted in justice, love, and equality.
Q: RCWPs are not even "real" priests; how can they make a difference?
A: I'm so inspired by them. They're on to something important -- they're talking about something so basic that we as Catholics profess but don't often live out. God created everyone of equal worth and dignity, but over time we came up with Church teachings that contradict that truth. These women are bringing us back to the idea that "God is love" and that we are all one: the basics of our faith.
Q: Most Christian denominations have made significant strides in women's leadership. For example, the Anglican Church recently allowed women to become bishops. Why is the RC Church so averse to change?
A: I've been a priest for 40 years and I can assure you that we're talking about a real old boys' club. When we enter the seminary, we start to be seduced into seeing women as not being able to do what we can do as men -- we don't even realize it's happening to us. It's very subtle, but over time we begin to relate somehow to women as lesser. Unfortunately, Catholic priests and bishops and cardinals...we're a large group of bullies. We cause suffering to people. We make life very difficult in support of Church teachings simply because we want to hold onto power. That's what bullies do: they hold onto their power. They don't want to be challenged.
Q: Are you optimistic about Canon Law 1024 being someday modified?
A: Yes. Something's got to give. The Church is in such a crisis, and part of the problem is that we are so rooted in sexism. We're dominated by a patriarchy that has lost its way. Any organization that has oppression built into it can only go on for so long.
Q: Is Pope Francis' more progressive tone a sign of encouragement to you?
A: People, especially young people, have become more educated; they're growing in consciousness. They are the key, not the Pope. Francis? He's going to die just like all of us. He's a man. Yes, he has a special charism and the Holy Spirit is at work through him, but he's not infallible. We are the Church. We need good people to stay in and push forward these ideals of justice, equality, and love.
Q: What would you say to liberal Catholics who are on the verge of giving up on organized religion?
A: I understand where they're coming from. It's easier to leave than it is to stay. But I'd say this: Please think about staying. We need you. Let's not allow these bullies to claim ownership of our Church. It's ours, not theirs.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm going keep fighting with these women. They give me a lot of hope.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article read that Janice Sevre-Duszynska was ordained in August 2002. The correct year is 2008.