I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silent.
– Timothy 1, 2:12-13
If the patriarchy that dominates the church is not dismantled and women are not treated as equals, the church will continue to diminish and, eventually, die.
– Roy Bourgeois
Discussed in this essay:
Male Supremacy in the Catholic Church: An Insider’s View, Roy Bourgeois, 102 pages, 2022.
Roy Bourgeois is a hero of mine. I don’t care if Pope Benedict kicked him out of the priesthood because he attended the ordination of a woman; he’s still the same spiritual moral leader I’ve come to respect. The Catholic Church and its gilded titles and vestments from Rome in conjunction with the stench of grand corruption soiled the institution in my mind a long time ago.
But that means nothing when it comes to the character of individuals in the church and doing the morally right thing.
[ Top L&R: Roy Bourgeois speaks at the Fort Benning gate before a banner honoring Rufino Amaya, a survivor of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. Bourgeois at the gate between, left, Jesuit Priest Jon Sobrino and Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton. Sobrino is a founder of the Jesuit University of Central America where Jesuit priests were notoriously murdered by Salvadoran soldiers trained at the School of the Americas. Sobrino was in Spain at the time of the killings, or he would have been with them. Above middle, a weeping woman and others at the gate into Fort Benning. At bottom, the Veterans For Peace contingent marches to the gate for the annual vigil. All photos by John Grant. ]
I was raised an atheist in a conservative family. The only religious training I ever got was when my parents decided it was prudent to send their middle son to Sunday school in the basement of a Presbyterian Church. We lived in a nice white colonial house in the suburban NYC bedroom community of Pearl River, New York; my father was a physiologist who worked in research at a pharmaceutical firm in town, and he wanted to move up in the firm. I figure they sent me to Sunday School so the family would better fit in with the community.
All I recall from those Sunday mornings in the basement of a Presbyterian Church is stories and pictures of Jesus Christ as a tall, gentle and kind man in robes and sandals. What I took away from this brief episode was the idea that this man stuck up for the powerless, and in the end, he was killed on Good Friday for his efforts. The idea that he was the son of God who died for my sins or that I could somehow be reborn if I gave my life over to his spiritual ghost never got any traction in my mind.
I became a journalist and a self-taught photographer, and in the early 1980s I began making trips to Central America to see for myself what my government was doing, post-Vietnam, investing money and weaponry opposing local revolutionary armies. There was the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, and in Nicaragua it was the Sandinista government that had overthrown the ruthless dictator Anastasio Somoza Jr, whose father FDR had famously characterized this way: “Anastasio Somoza is a bastard. But he’s our bastard.” His son was worse.
During my trips to Central America I ran into liberation theology and the idea of Jesus Christ as a compassionate revolutionary figure; this resonated with the Jesus I’d met in my brief stint in Sunday School. The conservative Roman Catholic Church in Latin America was notoriously on the side of the powerful. In tiny, densely-populated El Salvador, the mythic fourteen families ruled, which meant the wealthy owned the military, which was at their service. A ruling family often assigned one of its sons to be a priest, while others were sent to the military, into business or to law school. I learned that the history of El Salvador is very brutal and the United States has consistently supported the brutality. Historically, the ruling families forced native peasants with Mayan roots off the good land so the rich could grow crops like coffee for export. Violence was institutionalized to keep the peasants in line.
By 1932 the peasantry was fed up with the oppression and began to make their feelings known. This led to what is known historically as La Matanza, or the massacre, in which some 30,000 peasants were slaughtered in a matter of days. Peasants were hunted down and killed based on their indigenous costumes, and to this day, unlike in neighboring Guatemala, Salvadorans do not wear Mayan clothing. Forty years after La Matanza, in the late 1970s, the cycle of oppression had, again, reached a boiling point. But Salvadorans had learned from the massacre of 40 years earlier, as they’d learned from wars like Vietnam. This time, they employed guerrilla tactics and created the FMLN.
It was in this context that I got to know Roy Bourgeois, a wounded Navy Vietnam veteran who’d become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, in the progressive Maryknoll Order.
“I happened to be born a white male in a small Cajun town along the Mississippi River in Louisiana,” Bourgeois writes. “The majority of the people in town were hard-working, traditional Catholics.” He attended segregated schools. He played football and was awarded a trophy for being “the most gritty” player. He joined the Navy, planning afterwards to take up geology and work in the oil fields.
Vietnam was “a turning point,” he writes. “In our ignorance, we went to Vietnam believing that we were liberators. We later learned that the Vietnamese people saw us as invaders.” The officers’ quarters where he lived was attacked, and he was wounded, though not severely enough to be sent home. He volunteered to work at an orphanage run by a priest known as Father Oliver, until his superior officers told him he was spending too much time at the orphanage. He had considered the military as a career, but a talk with a chaplain nixed that with a suggestion he contact the Maryknoll Missionary Order in Ossining, New York. He spent six years in seminary, and in May 1972 he was ordained.
For the next phase of his life, the Maryknolls sent him to serve the poor in a slum outside of La Paz, Bolivia. “As in Vietnam,” he writes, “I was humbled by the people who had so little and suffered so much, yet held on to their hope for a better life.” At the time, the United States supported the government of General Hugo Banzer, who ran Bolivia with an iron caudillo fist.
“During my fourth year in Bolivia, it became clear I could not be a traditional Catholic priest,” he tells us. “I made a decision to break my silence and join the poor in their resistance against the violence and brutality of the military dictatorship.”
Because of his sympathies for the resistance, in his fifth year in Bolivia, Bourgeois was arrested and deported. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in El Salvador. Months later, four American church women were raped and killed by the Salvadoran military. Bourgeois personally knew two of the women. Of course, the United States remained rock-solid on the side of the military and its owners; at the time, Alexander Haig literally suggested at a news conference the nuns had opened fire on the soldiers. It was a New York Times article about 525 Salvadoran soldiers attending military training at Fort Benning that led Bourgeois to request of the Maryknolls that he be assigned to organize a protest against the training. This led to SOA-Watch and many years of annual demonstrations at Fort Benning.
In my travels in Central America in the 1980s and ’90s I met a number of priests, nuns, delegates of the word and other religious workers. I photographed Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the six Jesuit priests slaughtered by the Salvadoran army on the campus of the University of Central America. I was invited to a dinner of papusas and beer with two other gringos by Lutheran Archbishop Medardo Gomez who had, days earlier, been picked up by thugs who drove him around, insulting him and physically abusing him the whole time, until they booted him out of the car. He was sure they were going to kill him.
[ Top left, on a Saturday during an election, soon-to-be-murdered Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria speaks to a large crowd, along with, top right, Lutheran Archbishop Medardo Gomez. Bottom right, the next day in the same park, Roberto d’Aubisson, known as “blowtorch Bob” for his interrogation methods, speaks to a far right crowd. Bottom left, Argentine forensic anthropologists work among the decomposed bones in the basement of a chapel in El Mozote. The massacre there was done by a unit trained at the School of the Americas. ]
Archbishop Gomez’s message to his dinner guests has stuck with me for over 40 years. It’s why, I presume, he invited us blue-passported gringos to dinner. The purpose of his brief capture was to intimidate him into silence; the humiliation and death threats would make him want to hide, lest they come back and actually kill him, as assassins had done with Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero a few years earlier. Instead, Gomez was determined to do everything he could to raise his public image: he made as much noise as he could, and he told as many people as he could of his encounter, including a handful of sympathetic gringos. (At times during my political activist life, in much less dire situations, I’ve acted according to what I call The Bishop Gomez Rule.)
My favorite Roy Bourgeois story is when he and two comrades bought complete officers’ uniforms at one of the many Columbus, Georgia, military supply stores and drove onto Fort Benning. I believe Roy was posing as a colonel. They must have received salutes from the guards at the gate as they proceeded to the School of the Americas, where Salvadoran draftee soldiers were being trained. With a large boom box, they climbed a tree next to the barracks where the Salvadoran soldiers were being housed at night. They chained the boom box to the tree and turned it on full blast, playing the final speech of Archbishop Oscar Romero addressed specifically to Salvadoran soldiers. Here’s part of that speech:
“Each week I go about the country listening to the cries of the people, their pain from so much crime, and the ignominy of so much violence. . . . I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obligated to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. . . . In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
The next day, Romero was assassinated while giving mass in a small chapel, shown below with an inset of Romero’s bloody shirt after his assassination.
Bourgeois ended up with a notorious conservative judge and was given four years in prison for his truth-telling by boom box. His comrades were also jailed. Amongst the Veterans For Peace activists I work with, this creative act of civil-disobedience is legend. There was something brilliant and Christ-like about Bourgeois’ act in the face of certain vengeful reaction from powers-that-be in a southern Army town like Columbus, Georgia.
Prison only reinforced Bourgeois’ faith in the underdog. He’d come to live in a small apartment right next to the Fort Benning fence, right at the gate. In the ’90s the movement to close the SOA grew to an annual November vigil that, at its height, reached 20,000 people outside the main gate of Fort Benning. At first, the police were hostile, but over the years things became quite cordial. Protest turned out to be very good for local commerce, and eventually it became clear the people assembling at the gate were serious but not dangerous. I participated in the annual Columbus vigil over a dozen times. For me, Roy Bourgeois’ SOA Watch movement was the strongest and morally clearest public demonstration addressing the violence and hidden horrors of US/Central American involvement. The annual vigil was political, for sure, but it had an added edge for being spiritual at heart. Life matters. The gatherings were manifestations of the fundamental idea behind liberation theology: the preferential option for the poor. The demonstrations (manifestaciones in Spanish) were always done in a way that didn’t turn off cynical atheists like me. Atheists have human spiritual urges like anyone else; they just don’t subscribe to the existence of God or give much credence to organized religious institutions. An atheist accepts the idea that life is, and probably always will be, a great mystery, which firmly puts the onus for good or bad human relations in the court of human beings.
Bourgeois’ new book is both memoir and position-paper, and it makes the case well that the male dominated Roman Catholic Church is a corrupt system that spits out truth-tellers. The crime he was excommunicated for was attending the ordination ceremony of Janice Sevre-Duszynska in Lexington, Kentucky, in August 2008. It was under the auspices of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. The Vatican’s response has been to excommunicate any woman who has the audacity to see herself as a priest equal to a male priest.
“It is my belief ,” Bourgeois writes, “that we need the wisdom, experiences, compassion, and courage of women in the priesthood if our church is to be healthy and complete.”
For some time it’s been clear to me — a 75-year-old grumpy white male — one thing that’s lacking in our grotesquely militarized imperial society is a balance that respects feminine wisdom and the nurturing instincts of women, things that are too often seen as weaknesses. History shows too much hyper-masculinity or good ol’ boy exclusivity can lead to trouble. Bourgeois believes the claustrophobic, closed society of the Roman Catholic Church very much needs such balancing from women. Or, he says, the long-term survival of the church he’s invested so much of his adult life in is in question.
“There is something very liberating about confronting prejudice and seeking justice and equality,” Bourgeois writes. “The more I studied and reflected on the reasons used to exclude women from the priesthood, the more clearly I saw that this church teaching was not of God, but of an all-male clerical culture that views women as inherently inferior to men.”
In the politics of the moment, a great backlash has been mobilized, and woman are, indeed, a major target. After a long slog beginning in the mid-1970s, conservative Republican power has reached a zenith. Six of the nine current Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholics, five of them conservatives who clearly lied to the Senate that they saw Roe v. Wade as “established law.” Twenty-three percent of Americans are Catholic, while 66.6 percent of the Supreme Court is Catholic. With the ascendancy of three Trump-nominated Catholic justices, the Catholic Clarence Thomas appears to have come out of his silent shell with a vengeance. The man notorious for being the most conservative justice on the court who never asked questions took a leadership role in the recent Roe decision. He insinuated the same repressive logic could be applied to issues like homosexuality.
Justice Thomas has expressed his understanding of individual rights this way:
“They start with the rights of the individual, and where do those rights come from? They come from God; they’re transcendent. And you give up some of those rights in order to be governed.”
This statement suggests Thomas feels it’s the proper order of things that government should overrule “some” of the “transcendent rights” he says come from God. I assume life itself must be one of these transcendent rights Thomas says come from God. So, if I got it right, Thomas is suggesting, for good order, a government can demand citizens “give up” some of their transcendent rights from God. Is he really saying government can violate God’s sanctity of life if it’s deemed good for order? Not only is this statement confusing, it feels un-American to bring God into the equation at all.
A Cajun upbringing, Vietnam, the priesthood, then working with the poor and the oppressed in places like Bolivia and El Salvador, then, finally, excommunication — Roy Bourgeois’ life is deep and complicated. On one hand, he’s devoted much of his life to the Roman Catholic church and, no doubt, loves the institution and the many good people in it. Then, to be excommunicated by a right-wing pope who was once a member of the Hitler Youth movement and who’d run the vestiges of a Vatican office with roots in The Inquisition. He knows about the many Latin American priests who looked the other way while death squads left bodies in the streets. He’s aware that very few male priests have the courage to support him publicly in the need for reasonable church reforms in the areas of ordaining women, allowing priests to marry and accepting homosexuality as a fact of life. Ruling such a church from the Vatican has become very tricky, given the Catholic Church has become, in some quarters, a joke due to the sexual abuse of alter boys. Obviously, the bottom line in this struggle is entrenched power. Who has it and who doesn’t. Reform is one thing; giving up power is a whole other thing.
The current pope recently made a very public trip to Canada to apologize for historic abuses to Native American children in what can only be seen as a program of prison schools within a major historic genocide — or if it was your oxes being gored, a holocaust. Pope Francis’ past in Argentina is mixed when it comes to the Catholic Church aligning with power or with the oppressed. Still, the pope’s Canada visit addressed real history, and that’s a positive thing.
“There are days when I have difficulty finding hope in the struggle,” Bourgeois writes. Recently, he undertook a several-day silent vigil outside the Vatican embassy in Washington DC. “Being expelled from the priesthood for trying to reform the Catholic Church was very painful.”
“I had poked the beehive of patriarchy.”
Roy Bourgeois is the kind of man incapable of remaining silent. In his amazingly rich and eventful life, he has never taken the easy route. Life for him became an eternal struggle for justice; and like other committed spiritual leaders, he learned you take a risk of getting stung when you poke a beehive. Now, he faces the rest of his life as a spiritual, but secular, man. At the end of his little book, he reminds us of the truth all justice-seekers share:
“Where there is injustice, silence is consent.”
To learn more about Roy Bourgeois, here’s an excellent biography:
Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of Americas, James Hodge and Linda Cooper, Orbis Books, 2004.