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

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

by David Sylvester

If you are following the news, you might know that sometime this week, Fr. Roy Bourgeois is going to be expelled from the Maryknoll order after more than 40 years as one of its leading members. Later, the Vatican is undoubtedly going to defrock - the word is "laicize" -- him as a Catholic priest.

Father Roy Bourgeois. Flickrcc/peaceworker46

This rupture comes two years after Fr. Roy participated in an unapproved ordination of a Catholic woman as a priest. At the time, he was excommunicated as a Catholic but not expelled. Since then, some kind of unacknowledged truce seemed to prevail between Fr. Roy and the Maryknolls, even though I know Fr. Roy sent a letter last year to other Maryknoll priests asking them to come forward publicly and support the ordination of women.

Two weeks ago, it all came to a head quite suddenly. The Maryknoll superior general ordered him to recant his position or Maryknoll would expel him and ask Rome to defrock him. Jamie L. Mason, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and a member of Women's Conference on Ordination, thinks she knows what happened that broke the apparent calm:

Things proceeded rather quietly until this past February, when he participated in a panel discussion at the New York premiere of the documentary Pink Smoke over the Vatican. The film chronicles the struggle for women's ordination in the Catholic Church, and features extensive clips of an interview with Bourgeois. The post-film program, apparently, was the last straw for the Vatican and the Maryknolls, who claimed that by participating in this conversation, Bourgeois had disobeyed the explicit instructions of his superiors.

In response to the threatened expulsion, Fr. Roy held a public vigil last Friday outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and read his letter to Fr. Edward Dougherty, Maryknoll superior general, in which he refused to recant.

Among Fr. Roy's comments:

After much reflection and many conversations with fellow priests and women, I believe sexism is at the root of excluding women from the priesthood. Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God. Sexism is about power. In the culture of clericalism many Catholic priests see the ordination of women as a threat to their power.

U.K. protest for Catholic women as priests. Flickrcc/walhalla

Much can be said about this, most obviously in its implications for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. Some compare Fr. Roy's situation with that of Sister Joan Chittister in 2001. Then, the Vatican asked her superior to prevent her from speaking at a women's ordination conference in Ireland, but her superior, and all the Benedictine sisters in her convent, refused, citing their vows of obedience to the Spirit and to consensus. The Vatican relented.

On Fr. Roy's behalf, the Women's Ordination Conference is circulating a petition to support Fr. Roy which, if so moved, you can sign here. Other groups, such as Roman Catholic Womenpriests, are also calling for help to support him.

It may appear less obvious, or at least less urgent, but Fr. Roy's ejection from the Catholic Church is going to raise serious challenges for School of Americas' Watch, the organization that grew out of his first protests against the notorious U.S. terror-training center at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. Since it started with Fr. Roy and a handful of friends some 20 years ago, the SOAW protest has grown into the largest, most sustained anti-militarism movement in the U.S. Even more important that its size, the SOAW has revealed the power of a spiritually based political movement.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois leads SOAW protest, 2011. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez
Starting this November, Fr. Roy's disconnection from the official Catholic Church is going to test the spiritual strength of the SOAW movement and the sincerity of those thousands who have shown up year after year. We'll find out how many were demonstrating a genuine revulsion against the U.S. Army's strategy of murder and terror in Central and Latin America or whether the protest had devolved into fashionable spiritual tourism. We'll also see whether the protest can maintain its spiritual strength without the support of the mainstream Catholic community. For the moment, the SOAW is maintaining that one issue has nothing to do with the other. In fact, last week, while he was preparing his response to the Maryknoll superior general, Fr. Roy was also fasting outside the White House and participating with other faith-based anti-militarism groups in panel discussions during the SOAW's April Days of Action. On Sunday, he was among 27 others who were arrested in front of the White House while calling for President Obama to sign an executive order to close the SOA. However, it has been obvious that the loss of official Catholic support has hurt the SOAW protest, at least for now. Last year, his Maryknoll order cut off $17,000 in funds for the SOAW protest, although private contributions made up the difference. The annual Ignatian Family Teach-In, which drew thousands of Jesuit high school and college students to Fort Benning, was moved to Washington, D.C., last year. I estimated no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people showed up, a fraction of the numbers of just a couple of years before. Still, even though it was smaller in size, the protest lacked none of its emotional and spiritual power. As some of the readers of this blog may already know, the SOAW had its beginnings in 1983, when Fr. Roy organized a spectacular feat with two friends to get the attention of the notorious SOA. They sneaked onto the base at night, climbed a 100-foot pine tree and blasted the tape of the last homily by Salvadoran Archbishop Monsignor Romero from a boom box aimed at the barracks where 500 Salvadoran troops were sleeping. They heard Romero crying out once more:
No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. There is still time for you to obey your own conscience, even in the face of a sinful command to kill. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God and of the dignity of each human being, cannot remain silent in the presence of such abominations. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you: Stop the repression!"
At the time, the SOA had just been forced out of Panama and had moved to Fort Benning where it could continue to teach its "counter-insurgency" tactics to the military forces from the southern Hemisphere. Fr. Roy had known personally two of the four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980 by such U.S.-trained soldiers. During the 1970s, he had seen first-hand the results of U.S. support for brutal military dictatorships while working with the poor in Bolivia. In 1989, Fr. Roy and two other activists launched the first of what became the SOA-Watch protests by entering Fort Benning and spilling blood at the SOA's front steps. It was on the first anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by an elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran battalion at the leading Jesuit university in San Salvador. Fr. Roy then rented an apartment outside the gates of Fort Benning to keep the annual protests going. At its height, it drew 15,000 to this rural Georgia town, swamping the local hotels and restaurants. As anyone who has been there knows, the Columbus Convention Center usually looks like an old-fashioned student Teach-In. Its meeting rooms are jammed with all types of workshops on social justice issues ranging from the atrocities in Columbia to corporate depredations. This history is worth recalling because it shows how much the SOAW drew its energy on Fr. Roy's personal dynamism and commitment. The story that is less well known is how his dynamism grew out of a long and painful conversion from a pro-war hawk who volunteered to serve in Vietnam to a priest who organized aid for war-maimed orphans and clinics for the poor in the altiplano of Bolivia. His conversion is worth reviewing, because it shows the complex, but vital, relationship between Fr. Roy's interior journey as he moved between two dominant social worlds, that of his southern upbringing and family and that of the Catholic Church and the Maryknolls. It is difficult to imagine how he could have endured a long and painful transformation without the catalyst of the Maryknolls and its Catholic values, because he began his adult life as a gung-ho Navy recruit who had volunteered for Vietnam. In their biography of Fr. Roy, Disturbing the Peace,authors James Hodge and Linda Cooper describe how he endured the dreaded POW training in San Diego:

The ultimate test, the one that reduced some to nearly catatonic states, was known as the "black box." Each recruit was nailed into the smallest one he could be squeezed into. Usually, it was only a matter of minutes before the recruit spilled his guts. Not long after Bourgeois was nailed in, he found it hard to breathe... Soon his arms and legs were going numb, and he started reciting "Our Fathers' over and over. After what seemed like an eternity, the box was torn open and he was yanked out by the hair... He felt disoriented yet triumphant, knowing they hadn't broken him.(pg. 12)
Once in Vietnam, however, he was shaken when a close friend was killed in an ambush. He also began to spend time at an orphanage operated by a kindly French priest and the reality of the war began to challenge his Navy indoctrination.
Many of the children were missing limbs; scores had bloated stomachs or infected sores... Some had been abandoned by desperate mothers. The lucky ones had no scars and all their limbs. But many were amputees or had been deformed by shrapnel or napalm... One orphan asked him why the United States was doing all this. Bourgeois didn't have an answer. (Disturbing the Peace, pg 13-14.)

As Fr. Roy began to look for people who shared a similar sense of compassion, he learned of the Maryknolls. They were known as the "Marines of the Church" because they worked with the poorest of the poor in countries that most missionaries would not enter. He astonished his former fiancée, his family, his former football coach and his friends in Louisiana when he entered the Maryknoll order in 1966. His brother maintained it was more likely that he'd become president than his brother Roy would become a priest.

In the Maryknoll seminary, Fr. Roy retained his southern upbringing and Navy beliefs. He was outraged when Fr. Daniel Berrigan came to speak at his Maryknoll seminary. In Fr. Roy's opinion, Berrigan was a traitor, and attending Berrigan's lecture would be "a betrayal of all those guys who had lost their lives making the world safe for the peaceniks." (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 19)

Fr. Roy went to the seminary's rector and demanded that Berrigan's invitation be withdrawn. "The rector listened patiently, acknowledged the seminarian's feelings and assured him that he would not be required to attend the lecture." (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 19.) Fr. Roy boycotted Berrigan's lecture.

Like many in the process of conversions, Fr. Roy struggled through an emotional and intellectual limbo. "His ideological props had been kicked out from under him, and he hadn't yet constructed another core system of beliefs. While he ceased making even the weakest justifications for the war, he stopped short of condemning it." (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 27.) But six years later, he was a different man. In 1972, Fr. Roy was called before the seminary's rector for a different reason. The rector wanted him to explain why he had just been arrested in Washington, D.C. during a protest against the continued U.S. bombing of Vietnam.

In the rector's office, Bourgeois started explaining that he was trying to act on his beliefs, trying to live out his faith. Then, he took the offensive, asking the rector why he, the leader of their community, had not joined them. The rector, Father Thomas Keefe, said nothing. But the next spring, Keefe, too, publicly joined the cause. (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 29.)
As you read his story, you can see how much pain he felt as he became alienated him from the worldview of his family and hometown. His parents struggled to understand how their son could change from being a high school football champion to the town's decorated Vietnam veteran, then a priest and later, after an arrest at the Pentagon, "behind bars like a common criminal." (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 9.) When he returned home after his time working with the poor during the dictatorship of the U.S.-supported Hugo Banzar in Bolivia, his alienation from the world he knew in Louisiana was unbearable.
His family knew something had happened to him, but they had no clue as to what it was or why he was so angry. He would rant about the United States supporting Hugo Banzar's repressive regime... Nor did they know anything about his detention and expulsion from Bolivia. So much of his inner turmoil remained a mystery to them. (Fr. Roy) felt just as alienated at the local parish church, which he found "so clerical, so formal. In Bolivia, the church was in the streets, where the people were." In the pulpit, he was hot under the collar; he wanted to speak about the realities of Bolivia... Needless to say, his message didn't sit well with many parishioners, who he said "wanted little spiritual lollipops." (Disturbing the Peace, pg. 53.)

During his 40 years, Fr. Roy has often tested the limits of the Maryknoll community, raising alarm over his various arrests at protests or his challenges to the conservative pro-military wing of the Catholic hierarchy. But Fr. Roy was articulating a core Catholic value of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted -- so that even some of those who questioned him became his allies.

Remembering the victims at gates of Fort Benning. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez

This articulation of values and tradition has given the SOAW its unique power. On Saturday evening, before the main march at the gates the next day, there has traditionally been a huge Mass attended by 2,000 to 3,000, mainly Jesuit high school and college students and their families and teachers. It has been part of an annual Ignatian Family Teach-In organized by an association of ex-Jesuits. For those who find it meaningful, the Mass plugs a person into a 220-volt source of energy. It gives an inner spiritual strengthening that is hard to describe.

I can only compare it to another protest years ago. If memory serves me right, sometime in 1990 or 1991, I attended a march protesting the first Gulf War at UC Santa Cruz. Before the students began a march into the city, UC professor Bettina Aptheker gave an introductory speech to the students gathered at an amphitheater surrounded by towering redwoods. At the end of her remarks, she told the students that they might be feeling frightened and timid. And she reassured them that this was normal.
"Look around us," she said. "Look at the power of these redwoods."
We looked up into these massive trees, soaring straight from the ground where we were standing up to form a canopy of dark green, branches and patches of sunlight far above our heads.
"Draw strength from their spirit," she said.
In their majesty, the trees seemed to radiate stillness and power. Then, she asked us to join hands with our neighbors and feel the same strength from our unity as a group. She urged us to remember that the strength of the trees, the strength of community would be with us as we marched, displacing our insecurities and idiosyncrasies. At the time, I remember thinking: "She doesn't know it, but she's following the pattern of the Mass!" In the same way, SOAW's Mass becomes that transformative moment that imbues the protest with a spirit that I do not find in purely political protests. The spiritually based protest is quieter, stronger, more uncompromising. It uses apparently theatrical symbols but makes no loud demands. In the case of the SOAW, coffins of the victims are carried by mourners dressed in black. Crosses, photos and mementos are placed in the Fort Benning gate. Then from the main stage before the gates, each name of the victims is sung out, one after another, for two hours. They are sung out loud and clear, with the tender beauty of elegy.
David Claros, age 10.
Mariana Sanchez, age 4.
Clicerio Diaz, age 3.

What greater miracle could there be!

When the Salvadoran soldiers were butchering these children and their families, the most anonymous of people in the smallest, most hidden villages of the countryside, could they ever imagine that the names of each person would be recovered as best as possible, remembered and then brought back to be spoken aloud at the very place where the soldiers were trained?
U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion of El Salvador

The Atlacatl Battalion -- El Salvador

This naming of names makes no overt demand for change. It simply confronts the human conscience with reality. Behind the Fort Benning gates, the soldiers and MPs mill about waiting to make arrests; along the roadway at the gates, a long line of Columbus and state police stand behind wooden sawhorses.

What's the impact of this heavy police presence? It only ensures that more of them must listen to the names. The MPs, the police, the soldiers are human beings; like the rest of us, they have to face their own conscience in those moments when they wake abruptly at 3 a.m., or look at themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning. For me, this naming of names is the only miracle I need to prove the existence of God. The blood of the innocents is crying out from the earth, and it will find a way to overturn the most arrogant and immovable structures of oppression. The SOAW protest is only one tiny pinprick of light in this process. No wonder both Jewish and Catholic spiritual tradition teach that despair is a sin.

The coffins of the dead delivered to the U.S. Army. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez

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.

Jesus had another name for those who put on the appearance of religiosity without the substance. He called it being a "play-actor," or in Greek, "hypocrite."

David A. Sylvester is a writer and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area with an interest in spiritual growth and social justice.

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