In his 39 years as a Catholic priest, Father Roy Bourgeois has been used to speaking his conscience on issues of justice, most notably against repressive regimes in Latin America and the U.S. foreign policy that has supported them.
Bourgeois, who has been threatened by the Vatican with excommunication and now faces dismissal from his religious order for refusing to recant his views, will speak on sexism in the church this weekend in Milwaukee, at the annual gathering of the Catholic reform group Call to Action.
“This for me is rooted in justice. It is a matter of conscience,” said Bourgeois, who says he was persuaded by the many gifted and spiritual women he has met in his work as a peace activist.
“We profess that God created women and men of equal worth and dignity,” said Bourgeois, who likens the ban to the racism in the Deep South of his youth, where black Catholics sat in the last five pews of his church.
“As priests, we say we are called by God and only God. Who are we to say that our call is authentic, and God’s call of a woman is not?”
Bourgeois will speak, beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, as part of Call to Action’s annual conference, which is expected to draw more than 1,000 theologically liberal Catholics from around the country. The conference began Friday at the Frontier Airlines Center and includes sessions on the clergy sex-abuse scandal, immigration, liturgy, gay and lesbian inclusion, the role of women in the church and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bourgeois has spoken previously at Call to Action, but this is the first time he’s addressed women’s ordination.
A Vietnam veteran and Maryknoll Missionary, Bourgeois is best known as the oft-jailed founder of the School of the Americas Watch, a human rights group that advocates the closing of that training academy on the grounds of Fort Benning, Ga. Its annual prayer vigil outside the school – some of whose graduates have been linked to assassinations of Catholic priests, nuns and a bishop in Latin America – draws thousands.
Bourgeois began speaking in support of women’s ordination three years ago, and quickly drew the attention of the Vatican. The church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered him to recant his views in 2008 or risk excommunication after he delivered the homily at a woman’s ordination.
This year, he received a second “canonical warning” from the Maryknolls, saying he would be expelled from the order if he did not publicly recant. The move prompted more than 200 priests to sign an open letter supporting Bourgeois’ right to speak his conscience.
Catholic teaching holds that only men are called to the priesthood. Pope John Paul II reinforced that position in a 1994 apostolic letter, saying the church has no authority to ordain women.
Supporters of women’s ordination say women served as priests in the early church and that there is no theological basis for the ban.
The majority of U.S. Catholics say they would support women’s ordination – 62 percent, according to a new study by researchers at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America.
The women’s ordination movement has about 100 priests around the world and is growing, according to Alice Iaquinta, who was ordained by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2007. She celebrates services once a month at an old train depot in Wauwatosa, Wis.
Efforts to reach the Vatican and Maryknoll order on Thursday were not successful. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in an email reiterated John Paul II’s position, including his assertion that “the presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”
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