Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Struggle for Peace and Justice

A Story of Conscience and Its Consequences

Brian Green

As part of the Markkula Center's yearlong series of talks on conscience, Roy Bourgeois, laicized Maryknoll Catholic priest and founder of the School of the Americas Watch, came to discuss his personal story of conscience and how it eventually led to his dismissal from the priesthood for advocating for the ordination of women. This is a summary of what he said.

Roy Bourgeois framed his talk by saying that at birth we cannot choose who we are. Everything is a gift, and it is ignorant and arrogant to argue that some people need to be re-made.

In life, conscience is our constant companion, urging us to do right and tormenting us if we do not. Bourgeois recounted that he has felt these torments particularly strongly several times in his life. The first time was when he was in Vietnam as a naval officer and he visited a priest who ran an orphanage of children whose parents had been killed in the war. "We are not made for war," Bourgeois said, he discovered that then. He couldn't sleep and went to his chaplain for counseling. The chaplain, in turn, offered a list of religious orders he could join.

Bourgeois left the military and joined the war protest movement. He was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1972 and went to Bolivia where he was introduced to liberation theology and experienced the oppression of the dictatorship. He had friends tortured and murdered by the government and he was expelled back to the US. The situation in El Salvador, where those in the Catholic Church who stood with the poor were murdered, compelled him to start protesting at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He sneaked onto the base with some friends, climbed a tree, and played Archbishop Oscar Romero's last sermon from a portable stereo for all to hear. He and his friends went to jail for a year and a half, but, he said, his time in jail had meaning.

Eventually, the El Salvador massacres began to implicate the US military and there was a congressional investigation. Bourgeois went on a 35 day water-only hunger strike. He started SOA Watch and the protests grew from 10 people the first year, then 100, then 500, then 1000, then 3000.

During this time, Bourgeois mentioned that he met a woman who told him that she felt called to the priesthood. Once again, he was kept awake at night. Who was he to think that someone else's calling was invalid, that it was not authentic? Couldn't an omnipotent God empower a woman to be a priest? This wasn't heavy theology, this was simple equality. The problem was not with God, but with men.

He started packaging his talk on women's ordination with his talk on the SOA. He was interviewed in Rome on Vatican radio about SOA, and mentioned at the end that not ordaining women was unjust. His interview was cut off, and when he returned to the US he discovered that he had been reported. There was a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith giving him 30 days to recant for causing grave scandal. He went on retreat to write his response, and explained in his reply that he could not violate his conscience, no matter what.

While his letter to the Vatican was hard to write, he knew that harder still would be explaining to his family what had happened. They were all traditional Catholics in Louisiana, still living in the same town that they grew up in. He was the only one who had left. His activism had been hard on his family, but they had always visited him in court and in jail. His siblings told him "Roy, you're going to break Daddy's heart." But he had to tell his father the truth. In response, his father said that God would take care of him now, just as he always had before, and everyone cried. And one of his brothers said "You give me the address of that Pope!"

Letters went back and forth a few more times and Bourgeois worked with a canon lawyer to try to avoid being laicized, but eventually his protests ran out. He was expelled. But, he pleaded with us, what the Vatican had asked of him was simply not possible. He said how much it hurt, how painful the rejection felt, how disappointed he was in his friends who would not support him. But his pain, he said, was only a little taste of the centuries of feelings of rejection felt by so many women and LGBT members of the Church.

Bourgeois ended his talk by saying that despite his feelings of devastation, he was hopeful for the future of the Church. It has been wrong before and has eventually come around. Movements based in love are unstoppable because they are divine, and so we will have equality for women and for those in the LGBT community, and it will be soon. Following his conscience has been intensely challenging, but it has joy as well, and he can sleep at night.

Podcast : A Struggle for Peace and Justice

Brian Green is assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Jan 1, 2014