Local event features a Catholic priest who fights for women’s right to be ordained
For more than four decades, Father Roy Bourgeois has been working on behalf of human rights and speaking out about injustice. In more recent years, much of that work has focused on the right of women to be ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church, a notion that goes against the institution’s teachings. That work led to his excommunication by the Vatican in 2012 after 45 years as a priest.
Bourgeois and the women he has united with—Roman Catholic women seeking to become priests—are featured in a 2011 documentary titled Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, created by Carmel-based filmmaker Jules Hart. Father Roy, as he’s colloquially known, will join Hart for a screening of the film and a discussion on Sunday, Feb. 2 in Santa Cruz. The screening comes just days before the first woman will be ordained as a priest in Santa Cruz County. Christine Fahrenbach is set to become ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests on Saturday, Feb. 8.
Pink Smoke looks at a number of women who have fought for the right to become ordained priests in a patriarchal church that has long prohibited it. Among those women is Victoria Rue of Watsonville, who was ordained as a priest on the East Coast in 2005.
Rue, who says she remembers wanting to be a priest even as a child, joined a convent in Los Gatos but left after a year and eventually cut ties with the Catholic Church. She later became involved with what’s known as liberation theology, which promotes community service and working on behalf of social justice as a form of worship. An out lesbian since 1973, she later studied feminist theology and that really rekindled her desire to be a priest, she says,
“It really turned my whole being around,” says Rue, a professor of comparative religious studies and women’s studies at San Jose State University.
For Bourgeois, it was his work on behalf of the poor in Latin America and on U.S. foreign policy in that region that led him to meet a number of devout Catholic women “who shared with me their calling to the priesthood,” he says. He himself felt the call to become a priest after serving in the Vietnam War, and he says he began to ask himself, “Well, why wouldn’t they [women] be priests? Aren’t we all created equal?”
The thought troubled him deeply.
“Catholic priests say the call [to be a priest] comes from God, and I began to ask ‘who are we as men to say our call from God is authentic and theirs isn’t?’” says Bourgeois, who currently lives outside of Atlanta.
Once he got started thinking about the sexism at the core of the church’s prohibition, he says he couldn’t keep quiet on the issue.
“What I learned years ago [is that] when there is injustice, silence is complicity,” says Bourgeois, who previously spent more than four years in federal prison for his role in nonviolent protests.
Things really came to a head when he went to Rome in 2008 to speak about his work protesting U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Afterward, while speaking on Vatican Radio, he stated that there would never be justice in the Catholic Church until women are treated as equals and can be ordained as priests. The statement prompted the station manager to immediately cut Father Roy off the air. Soon after, he first received his first warning from the Vatican. But in August of that year, he attended the ordination ceremony of Janice Sevre-Duszynska at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington, Ky.
“I knew I was going to be poking that beehive” by attending, he says.
He was soon threatened with excommunication and told he had 30 days to recant his position. What was more insulting, he says, was that he was told he was causing “grave scandal” with his statements—this coming at a time when the rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church was all over the news.
He drafted a response explaining that to recant would be to lie and betray his conscience. He also pointed out that for most Catholics, the sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up was far more of a scandal than the ordination of women. Incidentally, in 2010, the Vatican denied accusations that it viewed the ordination of women as priests and the sexual abuse of minors by clerics as equally criminal. A document released that year made sweeping revisions to its laws on sexual abuse but also codified the “attempted ordination of a woman” to the priesthood as one of the most serious crimes against Catholic Church law. The inclusion of both items within the same document caused a stir, and prompted Vatican officials to emphasize that they weren’t implying the two were of equal gravity.
In October 2012, Father Roy was officially excommunicated and removed from his order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. He told the Vatican “you can dismiss me, but [you] can’t dismiss the issue of gender equality.”
“It’s painful but I have no regrets about not recanting,” he says more than a year after his canonical dismissal. “It’s helped me realize that more than ever before, I want to keep speaking out.”
While the current Catholic Church leader, Pope Francis, has earned accolades from Catholics and non-Catholics alike for some of his seemingly more liberal statements on social issues, Father Roy isn’t holding his breath. Still, he says, he is holding onto some hope that the Church will eventually do something about its teachings, particularly when it comes to homosexuality. The current teachings on the topic are beyond cruel and offensive, he says.
“The teachings need to change to promote equality and women,” he says. “Without that, there is no justice, there is not equality.”
The screening of Pink Smoke Over the Vatican,followed by a discussion with Father Roy and filmmaker Jules Hart, takes place from 3-5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 2 at Peace United Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. For more information, visit pinksmokeoverthevatican.com and roybourgeoisjourney.org.