By ROY BOURGEOIS
AFTER serving as a Roman Catholic priest for 40 years, I was expelled from the priesthood last November because of my public support for the ordination of women.
Catholic priests say that the call to be a priest comes from God. As a young priest, I began to ask myself and my fellow priests: “Who are we, as men, to say that our call from God is authentic, but God’s call to women is not?” Isn’t our all-powerful God, who created the cosmos, capable of empowering a woman to be a priest?
Let’s face it. The problem is not with God, but with an all-male clerical culture that views women as lesser than men. Though I am not optimistic, I pray that the newly elected Pope Francis will rethink this antiquated and unholy doctrine.
I am 74 years old. I first felt God calling me to be a priest when I was serving in the Navy in Vietnam. I was accepted into the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in New York and was ordained in 1972. After working with the poor of Bolivia for five years, I returned to the United States. In my years of ministry, I met many devout Catholic women who told me about their calling to the priesthood.
Their eagerness to serve God began to keep me awake at night. As Catholics, we are taught that men and women are created equal: “There is neither male nor female. In Christ you are one” (Galatians 3:28).
While Christ did not ordain any priests himself, as the Catholic scholar Garry Wills has pointed out in a controversial new book, the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, stressed that the all-male priesthood is “our tradition” and that men and women are equal, but have different roles.
Their reasons for barring women from ordination bring back memories of my childhood in Louisiana. For 12 years I attended segregated schools and worshiped in a Catholic church that reserved the last five pews for blacks. We justified our prejudice by saying this was “our tradition” and that we were “separate but equal.” During all those years, I cannot remember one white person — not a teacher, parent, priest or student (myself included) — who dared to say, “There is a problem here, and it’s called racism.”
Where there is injustice, silence is complicity. What I have witnessed is a grave injustice against women, my church and our God, who called both men and women to be priests. I could not be silent. Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against others, in the end, it is not the way of a loving God who created everyone of equal worth and dignity.
In sermons and talks, starting in the last decade, I called for the ordination of women. I even participated in the ordination of one. This poked the beehive of church patriarchy. In the fall of 2008, I received a letter from the Vatican stating that I was “causing grave scandal” in the Church and that I had 30 days to recant my public support for the ordination of women or I would be excommunicated.
Last month, in announcing his resignation, Pope Benedict said he made his decision after examining his conscience before God. In a similar fashion, in November 2008, I wrote the Vatican saying that human conscience is sacred because it always urges us to do what is right and what is just. And after examining my conscience before God, I could not repudiate my beliefs.
Four years went by, and I did not get a response from the Vatican. Though I had formally been excommunicated, I remained a priest with my Maryknoll Order and went about my ministry calling for gender equality in the Catholic Church. But last November, I received a telephone call from Maryknoll headquarters informing me that they had received an official letter from the Vatican. The letter said that I had been expelled from the priesthood and the Maryknoll community.
This phone call was one of the most difficult and painful moments of my life. But I have come to realize that what I have gone through is but a glimpse of what women in the church and in society have experienced for centuries.
A New York Times/CBS poll this month reported that 70 percent of Catholics in the United States believed that Pope Francis should allow women to be priests. In the midst of my sorrow and sadness, I am filled with hope, because I know that one day women in my church will be ordained — just as those segregated schools and churches in Louisiana are now integrated.
I have but one simple request for our new pope. I respectfully ask that he announce to the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world: “For many years we have been praying for God to send us more vocations to the priesthood. Our prayers have been answered. Our loving God, who created us equal, is calling women to be priests in our Church. Let us welcome them and give thanks to God.”
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