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Why the Defrocking of Fr. Roy Bourgeois Will Test the Spirituality and Sincerity of SOAW Protest


The power of a spiritually based demonstration is that it targets the precise center of injustice by revealing its moral illegitimacy. Once legitimacy collapses, injustice cannot persist. Compared to this, a purely political protest sounds shrill, self-righteous - and weak. It is full of rhetoric, denunciations, bravado, but it sounds empty, like no one really expects anything to change.

I do not mean to dismiss the importance of political protests. In 2002 and 2003, it was the world event when an estimated 36 million people around the world attended 3,000 protests against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. The New York Times rightly noted the awakening of public protest as a second superpower to challenge the United States. But it seems strange that such a wave of opposition should have had so little effect and then vanish as a unified movement.

For me, a purely political protest often seems to presuppose power is stronger than truth. A spiritually based protest trusts the truth is stronger - and lets the power collapse on its own, the way you can know that a sand castle will crumble when the sun finally has its way.

That's why the spiritual center of the SOAW protest is so vital, why a Washington, D.C. protest lacks the same power of witness and why efforts must be made to protect the spirituality of the SOAW. Two years ago, like many, I wanted to understand Fr. Roy's thinking about his involvement in women's ordination, when it threatened to separate him from the Catholic community that had provided him a home during his conversion.

So I joined the Maryknoll community meeting at the Convention Center during the SOAW 2008 protest. After a long, exhausting day of workshops, meetings and trainings, Fr. Roy was clearly with his close friends and associates. The gathering had a quiet, intimate quality, and he relaxed and shared his thoughts openly.

As he has said many times such, he explained that he had been moved by the honest, heart-felt confessions of women who believed God was calling them to serve as priests. They had confided in him their pain in a Church that had hardened its stand in rejecting women as priests.

After much soul-searching and discussion, he had come to the conclusion that he could not, in good conscience, fail to support these women. He felt his own integrity was at stake. How could he stand up in front of the U.S. military machine at the gates of Fort Benning when he was shirking stance on another issue of conscience?

As he has said so many times since, he said: "Silence is consent."

After listening to him at this meeting, I was deeply impressed by his spiritual integrity and honesty. It was obvious that Fr. Roy could no more ignore these interior promptings than he could ignore the same promptings that began the SOAW 20 years ago.

I remember thinking: "If he's right, Rome is in a heap of trouble."

If Fr. Roy is discerning his interior spiritual movements correctly, God's spirit is surfacing in these women's pain and testimonies. Fr. Roy is just confirming it and making it public. Against this, the leaders in Rome, including Pope John Paul II, have staked the authority of the Church.

It seems like another classic confrontation of the priestly and the prophetic, the centripetal forces that try to maintain unity and coherence and the centrifugal forces that would disrupt systems resting on the hollow foundation of injustice. It would be typical of God's surprising, gentle ways to gather at the social margins and build up into an overpowering force that would overturn long-established traditions and dogmas that looked like "they'd never change." After all, Vatican II swept away several centuries of encrustations that had dimmed the Church's spiritual authenticity.

Whatever happens with the issue of women's ordination and Fr. Roy's own post-Catholic life, I remain concerned for the spirituality of the SOAW protest. Over the past couple of years, there was talk of stopping the Fort Benning protest, focusing on Washington, D.C. After much discussion, the SOAW decided to keep the November protest but also emphasize the Washington, D.C. lobbying and protest in April.

In some ways, the SOAW does need to renew its direction since the murders that it is commemorating - the killing of the four churchwomen in 1980 and the Jesuits in 1989 - is two or three decades old. The Salvadoran and Guatemalan war atrocities are becoming history for students born after the peace accords in the early 1990s.

Recently, the SOAW has taken steps to branch out beyond the single focus on Fort Benning. It is developing a hemispheric coalition with anti-militarism groups in Central and Latin America. Last year, an SOAW delegation met with their counterparts in Venezuela for a week-long Encuentro to discuss plans for the movement's future.

These are important steps, and yet the deeper question for the coalition is this: What will maintain the SOAW's spiritual focus as it broadens into an anti-militarism movement and loses the official connection to the Catholic community? Is there a way to forge a hemispheric coalition of spiritual groups, faith-based churches, synagogues and spiritually secular people to maintain the core of values motivating the protest?

Or will this be considered romantic and unnecessary? Will the anti-militarism movement adopt purely political tactics?

Last year, the Jesuit organizers of the Ignatian Family Teach-In came up with all kinds of reasons to move their main social justice event to Washington, D.C. They adamantly insisted it had nothing to do with Fr. Roy's fall from official grace. It was more logical, more educational to expose the students to lobbying in Washington, D.C.

It is also a lot safer and more predictable. It reassures people, especially young students, with the comforting assumption that a new law or executive order will, if lobbied for properly, fix the situation. The problem is simply mechanical, not moral. There is nothing so shocking in Washington, D.C., that might stimulate a painful transformation like the one Fr. Roy underwent, and many experience at the gates of Fort Benning when they hear the names and see the pictures and look through the fence at the place that U.S. taxpayers support.

I wonder how the Jesuit high school teachers and professors who decided not to come to Fort Benning squared this about-face with their own conscience. Some of them knew personally the Salvadoran Jesuits, like Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, not to mention the tens of thousands of innocent campesinos caught in the crossfire of a U.S.-fueled civil war.

Are the deaths of these Jesuit martyrs and the innocent any meaningful now? Have the policies that led to their deaths been changed?

Of course not!

We see torture and late-night death-squads secretly adopted as U.S. military practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. How long before the next 9/11 and they come how to roost and target U.S. protesters and nonconformist professors?

Perhaps this is how the mainstream works. It always wants to appear to be "doing the right thing" - but when trouble arises, it always finds reasons to shift to the new, safer course. Perhaps those Catholic educators in the Jesuit high schools and colleges were simply swimming with the mainstream of the Church as long as it was fashionable. Perhaps the SOAW protest had devolved into spiritual tourism, like stopping at the Eiffel Tower in Paris to buy a keychain rather than climb it.

In the end, the defrocking of Fr. Roy might actually be a blessing in disguise. As Warren Buffett says about bear stock markets, you always get to find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out. Now we get to find out how Christian the Catholics really were who showed up at the SOAW protests for those years.