NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Father Roy Bourgeois has spent the better part of his 76 years like a polemical Don Quixote, tilting against the powerful windmills of his time: the US military, Latin American dictatorships, the State Department, federal courts — and now the Vatican.
Bourgeois is the founder of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), whose annual demonstration began Friday outside Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga. and runs through the weekend.
It’s expected to draw thousands of protesters who advocate closing the US military training facility where tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers have learned “counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics” since the school opened in Panama in 1946 (it moved to Fort Benning in 1984).
Bourgeois, who lives just off the base in the town of Columbus, has spent several stretches in prison for his protests over the years. In a weird swing of life’s pendulum, the church that gave him harbor through decades of civil disobedience has now turned against him.
“I never liked bullies — in high school, Latin America or the Catholic Church,” says Bourgeois. “They cause suffering to others. If I left the church I’d be allowing these bullies to do what they do.”
The Vatican excommunicated Bourgeois two years ago for his public support of women priests, the issue that raced his blood on a recent sun-dappled morning at the rectory of a friend in New Orleans.
“This is heresy at its worst — that a woman cannot become a priest, that God cannot possibly choose one,” Bourgeois told me.
Bourgeois was in town to speak at Call to Action, a Catholic reform group which arranged his talk at Tulane University, to avoid any potential problem with the archdiocese, rather than meeting at a Catholic college or parish.
“Think about it: this all-powerful God, the creator who gave us the cosmos, this all powerful and loving God behind the sun and the stars and the bayous that I was weaned on, this God who rose from the dead” — he paused for a beat — “cannot empower women as priests.”
Bourgeois was excommunicated in 2012 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and dismissed by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers after 45 years, for participating in the 2008 ordination of Roman Catholic womanpriest Janice Sevre-Dusyznska because of her gender.
Sevre-Dusynska is an ally of Bourgeois’ SOAW, which is holding its 25th anniversary event this weekend outside Fort Benning. The Latin American military officers who have trained there have since been linked to death squads and crimes against humanity in El Salvador, Chile, Bolivia, Columbia and other countries.
The betrayal Bourgeois feels from is never far from his reflections.
Excommunication has cast him into a strange internal exile, a priest denied his priestly status, a public speaker on peace issues long welcomed at Catholic venues who now faces ostracism as a critic of the church.
For a man with a sunny personality, a darker, mordant wit salts his comments, as he zeroes in on the Vatican prohibition of women priests.
“This stupidity is from little men with little brains, little heart and little faith,” he says in the sweetened cadences of his south Louisiana upbringing, contrasting with the rock hard message.
“They see women as less than they are,” says Bourgeois. “This is sexism. This is heresy, heresy.”
Bourgeois has a habit of repeating certain words at the end of a sentence, as if to reiterate that something is more awful than he first thought.
Public opinion is on his side. A 2013 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 70 percent of American Catholics support women in the clergy.
“Nothing in scripture says we have to exclude women from being ordained,” Bourgeois says. “The church teachings defy logic. They defy reason. They defy faith.”
As many scholars have observed, Pope John Paul II’s decree in 1994 forbidding ordination to women had little scriptural support for his position.
“I think the reason John Paul said we can’t talk about it is because if we really discuss this issue, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” says Bourgeois.
“Scripture doesn’t prohibit it. He just said it can’t be done.” A pause. “Thanks for sharing.”
But papal fiat has long reach, as Francis indicated in his 2013 airplane press conference from Brazil to Rome, saying that the issue of women priests had been decided.
Bourgeois sees a link to Vatican teaching on homosexuality, a position he summarizes as saying “the inclination which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most homosexuals a trial.” His words mingle Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1986 letter to the world’s bishops on homosexuality with lines from the Catholic catechism on the “trial.”
“This is the core of heresy,” continues Bourgeois, speaking more freely than when he was officially a priest. “I understand why so many women, gays and young people leave the church. Gay priests know the rejection and shame.”
Heresy, in church parlance, is like a matador’s red flag. Referring again to the Vatican he says: “They are saying very clearly that God made a mistake. These people God created, gays, are disordered…That is the core of the heresy. And most people know better.”
Bourgeois makes recurrent references to his hometown, Lutcher, describing a near-idyllic childhood, yet admitting that he never challenged racial segregation in school and church. “It was the way people thought, and my head hadn’t turned around yet.”
The high school football player graduated in 1956 and went to University of Southwestern Louisiana in nearby Lafayette, studying geology with visions of making money in the oil industry. First, though, he joined the Navy in a burst of patriotism.
He served in Vietnam, earned a Purple Heart for valor and became a hometown hero.
In Vietnam, a Canadian priest running an orphanage for children showed him a different way of living and thinking about morality. Bourgeois could not get injustice out of his system.
Once home, he shocked his parents, three siblings and the girl he was engaged to marry by packing off to seminary; he became a Maryknoll missionary.
Bolivia in 1972 was his first posting as a priest. Immersed in the lives of the poor, he lasted five years before being arrested, beaten and deported by the regime of Hugo Banzer Suarez. Later, he would learn that Banzer graduated from the School of the Americas in 1958.
In his lecture travels, Father Roy, as people call him, often stays with families.
The adult children, he finds, “don’t go to church. For them, the big issues are that women are not equal, and the church’s treatment of gays in general. The image they have of God, the divine, is that God is love. They’re not into doctrine. People have not lost faith in God, but in the patriarchy, the hierarchy, the image of God they present.”
A moment passes, he glances at the pastoral yard outside.
“I have a better chance of winning the Louisiana state lottery than being reinstated in the priesthood.”
'Silence is the voice of complicity'
Bourgeois was catalyzed to spearhead School of the Americans Watch several months after the 1989 murders of six Jesuits, a housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. By the mid-90s, Congressional liberals and a UN committee were demanding documents from the Pentagon, putting pressure on the Clinton Administration to close SOA which had flourished in the Reagan-Bush years.
Catholic colleges and universities were as central to Bourgeois’ life in those years of organizing against SOA as the venues he found with CTA, reform groups, the network of friends in Maryknoll, other religious orders and parishes whose pastors supported his politics.
“I’m persona non grata at most Catholic universities now,” he says. “At some of the bolder ones – Santa Clara, Regis University in Denver – I’ve spent a couple of days. I’ve had luncheons with faculty who were very supportive.”
“Something alarming I see is this whole issue of fear. Fear, that is the core of the crisis in the church. The church is about love. Love has been replaced by fear. At Boston College we had to go off-campus for a meeting with faculty. They were afraid of being able to talk about women’s ordination. By participating in a discussion they thought they might be fired if they didn’t have tenure.”
Father Louis Arceneaux, a Vincentian priest who hosted Bourgeois in his New Orleans rectory, said that he admired him “for standing up to the convictions of his well-formed conscience. Roy has become a dear friend and I will continue to support him and help him in any way I can, whether we agree on specific actions he or I take. He is a fellow south Louisianan so we have a kinship on many levels. I was happy to be with him when he buried his dear father in Lutcher, La. I wish more people would be as courageous as he is. I wish I were more courageous.”
Even the most ambivalent observers of Bourgeois’s career would acknowledge his courage in going to prison for the SOAW protests, getting out and continuing in the cause. The Catholic Left is still with him, but the issues that drive him most forcefully now are also, in a sense, a form of baggage.
“I’m so disappointed with so many with so many priests who are afraid and can’t speak up on women’s ordination,” he says. “[Bishop] Tom Gumbleton said, ‘Roy, they’re going to come at you hard — they’ve got to set an example.’ “
After Bourgeois’ participation in the ordination liturgy for a woman, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith prefect, Cardinal William Levada, wrote him on Oct. 21, 2008, to say he was “causing grave scandal” and ordered him to recant his position in 30 days or face automatic excommunication — that is, formal expulsion from the church.
On Nov. 7, 2008, Bourgeois wrote Levada, standing his ground, citing a 1976 Pontifical Biblical Commission study which “concluded that there is no justification in the Bible for excluding women from the priesthood.”
“Silence is the voice of complicity,” Bourgeois wrote.
Bourgeois’ letter to Levada continued:
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated
because of his defense of the oppressed. He said, “Let those who
have a voice, speak out for the voiceless.”
Our loving God has given us a voice. Let us speak clearly and boldly
and walk in solidarity, as Jesus would, with the women in our
Church who are being called by God to the priesthood.
After mailing the letter, Bourgeois drove seven hours from his apartment near Fort Benning down to Lutcher. His parents, two sisters, a brother and their families have given Bourgeois emotional support for decades. His mother died in 2005; his father Roy Sr. was 95 and lived in the house where the siblings grew up.
The family had evolved in their views, aligning themselves with Roy as he changed, no easy thing to do.
Bourgeois’ refusal to obey Levada drew a new line in the sand.
“I didn’t sleep that night,” he recalls of the visit home to Lutcher. “Daddy was still very alert. I gave them copies of the letter to read. I went out on the front porch and waited for them to read.”
When he went back in the house the old man was crying, but rose to hug him and said, “Roy is doing the right thing and I support him.”
It took four years for the answer to come from Rome.
Roy Sr. passed away shortly before the decision.
“Cardinal Levada was pressing [Maryknoll superiors] to dismiss me, but they didn’t have the votes in the community,” he says.
Then Bourgeois was briefly detained by Italian police in a 2011 protest vigil at St. Peter’s Square in support of the Women’s Ordination Movement.
Demonstrations are a commonplace at the Vatican on all kinds of issues, and are closely monitored by Italian police. It is unclear whether the protest had any impact on the doctrinal office, where Levada was in his final year as prefect.
Four months after the protest, however, the new CDF prefect, German Cardinal Ludwig Müller issued the excommunication and simultaneously laicized, or defrocked him.
A press release by Maryknoll a month later made pointed reference to “Mr. Bourgeois,” thanking him for his years of service, pledging to “assist Mr. Bourgeois in his transition.”
Ironically, just as the Maryknolls bowed to Vatican pressure, Bourgeois’s long struggle to hold the Pentagon accountable for the SOA was bearing some fruit. The governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia have ceased sending troops for training sessions there.
As Bourgeois continues his travels and public speaking, a bittersweet realization shadows him.
By making Bourgeois a pariah, the Vatican has sent a signal to others, he believes.
“For priests, it means going home to talk with their family after being kicked out and having nowhere to go,” he says. “When you see an injustice, we want to speak out. Priests tell me they support me but not in public.”
Bourgeois thinks back to a period he spent in solitary confinement at a federal prison in Indiana in 1985, convicted for trespassing at Fort Benning in 1983, climbing a tree and playing a speech by the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero on a boom box near the dorm of Salvadoran troops.
Alone in his cell, doing push-ups and jogging in place, he fell into a routine, imagining “that this was something like the desert fathers, very self-regimented. The first couple of weeks I thought, wow, this is great.”
But then he started missing friends, and dealing with depression and sadness. As he was working through the depression, the system transferred him to a prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He met many Latino prisoners. They considered him a political prisoner and rallied around him as a priest.
He spent a year and a half as an unofficial chaplain, “helping inmates who had left the church and wanted to talk to God,” he recalls.
The prison he now inhabits has no bars, and travels with him.
GroundTruth contributor Jason Berry is the author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.