Roy Bourgeois Detained at the Vatican for the Crime of Primacy of Conscience

I've been writing about Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch, for some time now, so I was saddened to learn that the Nobel Prize-nominated Vietnam veteran turned Roman Catholic priest and human rights activist was detained by police in Rome as he arrived at the Vatican to deliver a petition signed by 15,000 Catholics in support of him and women's ordination.

The Vatican is in the process of defrocking and formally excommunicating Bourgeois for supporting and attending women's ordinations. In March of this year, Bourgeois was ordered by his superiors to recant his position under penalty of laicization, and he has refused.

Technically speaking, Bourgeois excommunicated himself the first time he attended a mass celebrated by a woman. Taking part in a mass celebrated by a woman is one of several means for do-it-yourself excommunication. Indeed, many a Catholic "self-excommunicates" without even knowing it.

Receiving Communion while sexually active outside of sacramental marriage, according to some, is self-excommunicating behavior. Using (so-called "artifical") contraception, engaging in heresy and being remarried after divorce can all lead to automatic self-excommunication -- especially if one receives the Sacrament of the Eucharist while engaging in such excommunication-worthy conduct.

If you are thinking that this means most Roman Catholics in the industrialized world are excommunicated, you are probably right. So, why does being excommunicated make so little difference to so many active Catholics?

One reason is that, for a price, the bishops look the other way when self-excommunicated Catholics are faithful to worship. Mass excommunication is not very good for the bottom line. The Vatican would prefer to see Catholics "resolve and sin no more," but the bishops will settle for full collection baskets. The many "come back home" campaigns designed to lure lapsed Catholics back into church are aimed at excommunicants -- those who left because breaking the rules left them feeling unwelcome.

Another reason the sting and stigma are now absent from excommunication is that Roman Catholics in the United States and Europe, being reasonably well educated, take "primacy of conscience" seriously. We learn as we study Catechism in preparation to receive First Holy Communion (generally at about age 7) that each Catholic is called to discern with the help of well-formed conscience.

Men enshrined canon law and doctrine, and men make mistakes. Vatican apologists and strict adherents will fulminate on and on about the first priest, Peter, receiving the keys to the church and such, but even if those who ignore the several weak links and breaks in the chain of apostolic succession generally concede that Peter himself was a bit of a hot-head, the great mistake-maker of the apostles. Primacy of conscience checks the mistakes of priests like Peter, helping to ensure that the failings of men (pontiffs included) do not come between believers and their God. When it comes to God's truths the buck stops with the individual Catholic whom the Holy Spirit guides and enlightens:

On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power...

(Dignitatis Humanae, 2)

Primacy of conscience is not, according to Catholic teaching, an imprecise catch-all term for all manners of religious dissent. Nor is it Vatican II-sanctioned variation on "If it feels good, do it." Primacy of conscience applies when mind and feeling well-saturated with the wisdom of the Word and Catholic teaching shape conscience and turn it in the direction of the God within: "The most secret core and sanctuary of the human person. There he/she is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his/her depths" (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

To put it in plain English, if having listened to the gospels, the bishops and God, a Roman Catholic concludes that obeying a man-made ecclesiastical law is immoral, he or she is obliged to refuse to obey it.

Father Bourgeois knows "breaking the silence" is not optional. It is an obligation:

"I've always felt that when you see an injustice, really it's your conscience and faith in God calling you to address the issue and to break your silence. And when your superior tells you to be obedient, then you have to make a decision: Do I follow God or man? And there was no question I must go with my faith in God. ...

Over the pope ... there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority," Bourgeois quotes from the future pope's words.

(National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2011)

Although most Roman Catholics anguish little, if at all, over being latae sententiae (automatic) excommunicated, I suspect the sting of the threat of laicization is not at all lost on Father Bourgeois. We hear so much about bad priests in the news, and not nearly enough about good ones. For an exemplary priest like Bourgeois, obedience is not a burden. Rather, more often, when submission is in keeping with the ministry of Christ, a good priest experiences it as a joyous gift.

The Superior of the Maryknoll order has accused Father Bourgeois of bringing "grave scandal upon the people of God." The Vatican has threatened to defrock him.
But if you listened to Bourgeois during the panel, the only scandal he seems to experience is his embarrassment over not speaking out sooner on the issue of women's ordination. "I just feel bad it took me so long," Bourgeois admitted sheepishly. (National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2011)

Bourgeois is not some frivolous cleric deciding to let a few girls into the He-man Woman Haters Club on a whim. It is clear he has long meditated the question of whether Jesus called women as priests. Bourgeois is expert on bullies. He has spent the last two decades waging war against despots and torturers. He has devoted his life to the pursuit of justice. He knows injustice when he sees it.

I can imagine that a Vatican so accustomed to a weaselly approach to defending itself against accusations must find Bourgeois's honesty unsettling. "Why doesn't he save himself?" Ratzinger et al may be thinking. Maybe Ratzinger is not thinking. The truth is the Vatican's tyranny may be better served by not defrocking Father Bourgeois. Either way it's bad news for the Vatican. If they let Bourgeois get away with his scandalous transgression, he gets away with his scandalous transgression. If they defrock him, they set him on a path to (official or unofficial) sainthood.

Bourgeois's critics like to focus on the notion that the Maryknoll priest seeks little more than celebrity -- think St. John of the Cross meets Kim Kardashian -- and it's easy to see why the bullies might, in their confusion, want to paint a Nobel Prize nominee Purple Heart as some kind of lens louse in search of his 15 minutes of fame. So estranged are the Vatican and its chauvinists from the kind of holy integrity this priest epitomizes, they don't know what to make of him.

Why even ask a man like Roy Bourgeois to recant? His entire existence has been consecrated to laying his life on the line for justice. Now his vocation is on the line. For an exemplary priest, his or her vocation is everything.

The pope can strip Bourgeois of his frock, but he won't have much lucky wresting his priesthood from him, and even his Hitler Youth experience does not leave Ratzinger tough enough to stuff the women's ordination genie back into the bottle.

Read more about Father Roy Bourgeois: