The Rev. Roy Bourgeois has long been a man on a mission -- whether serving in the Navy during Vietnam or trying to overthrow a Bolivian dictator or protesting the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Over the past several years, he’s added women’s ordination in the Catholic Church as a cause. In 2008, letters went back and forth between him and the Vatican. The Vatican wrote first. The Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned of “latae sententiae,” or immediate excommunication, for his support of women’s ordination. His order, the Maryknolls, says he remains a Catholic but they also believe he’s excommunicated, which means he can’t receive or administer the sacraments. Bourgeois said he’s not received anything in writing.
A spokeswoman for the order, Betsey Guest, has said the Maryknolls have been disappointed in his support of women priests and withdrew its annual support of $17,500 for the protest against WHINSEC. The protest is this weekend.
The order, based in New York, wanted to avoid the appearance of endorsement of women priests.
Bourgeois, 72, carries on. He makes a connection between the protest of WHINSEC and supporting women’s ordination. He believes the Department of Defense school, as well as his Church’s stance against women priests, are acting unjustly: WHINSEC for training Latin American soldiers who return to their countries and abuse their power against the poor, and a Church for traditionally barring the door to women clergy. Last summer, the Catholic Church codified “the attempted ordination of women” to the priesthood as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along with heresy, schism and pedophilia.
Bourgeois’ travels around the country, speaking to church groups and colleges, have only grown in frequency because of his heightened interest in women’s ordination.
Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, at the main gate of Fort Benning, in 1990. It began with 20 people. Like every year, speakers will make addresses from a main stage for two days; musicians will perform; various international peace organizations will sell their wares and food; and some vigil-goers will cross illegally onto Fort Benning on Sunday afternoon, risking arrest and imprisonment.
Because his father was ill this time last year, Bourgeois went to Louisiana to care for him. His father’s health has improved, so Bourgeois will be among the thousands expected to protest and attend services and hear lectures this weekend in Columbus.
For 20 years, critics have said the movement needed to move to the seat of the nation’s power -- Washington -- and that it was ineffective to come here.
“That was a debate for over a year,” Bourgeois said.
Some felt strongly about moving the protest, while others see the gates of Fort Benning as the premiere site.
“This vigil here is very sacred,” said Bourgeois, whose apartment is in sight of the post’s gate. “It’s like a pilgrimage. People in Latin America and Central America have struggled for more than 20 years.”
In the end, a compromise was made: The first week in April 2011 protesters against WHINSEC will meet on the steps of the capitol, lobby Congress and participate in a Mass of nonviolent action.
The impetus of the annual vigil was the assassination in El Salvador of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, as well as four churchwomen, beginning in the 1980s.
Bourgeois has long contended that graduates of the Fort Benning school were responsible. Leaders of WHINSEC have long denied the school’s involvement in atrocities that Bourgeois names.
The school now has teachings in democracy and human rights.
In recent years the vigil has expanded to include more general criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A conference in June in Venezuela brought about 40 people together from 19 countries. The focus was on U.S. foreign policy and its relationship to WHINSEC. Bourgeois attended.
“Militarism is a big word for us. There’s a sea change taking place in countries dominated by the U.S. Many are electing presidents who are closer to the poor,” said Bourgeois, whose apartment bookshelves are full of titles reflective of his work. One is “Gandhi: A Life” by Yogesh Chadha.
Bourgeois worked five years in Bolivia, when the military dominated that country. He was arrested and deported in the mid-’70s for attempting to overthrow Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer.
“In Bolivia, the poorest of the poor, there were no schools when I was there. They’ve gotten better health care and education, in time. You’ve got more kids in school. We’re seeing a growth in democracy and a growth in humanity. There’s more nationalism and self-determination.”
Of El Salvador, the country that served as ground zero for the priest’s protest, he said, “They know about the SOA/WHINSEC there. They say, ‘We know it very well.’”
“The school is a problem with U.S. foreign policy. It’s a symbol of U.S. foreign policy in their country,” he said.
Though WHINSEC has been in existence nine years, Bourgeois sees no meaningful change.
“There’s no radical change. It was just renamed. It’s still about men with guns,” he said. “It’s not a Peace Corps academy. They do learn combat skills,” and, in his view, some students have abused those skills.
In the past decade, the ordination of women in the Catholic Church began to intrigue him. He participated in a women’s ordination ceremony in August 2008 in Kentucky, which led to the letter from the Vatican. A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed 59 percent of Catholics support women priests.
He believes Catholic women can have a sincere calling to the priesthood from God, like men. “Who are we, as men, to reject God’s call as women to the priesthood? In my studies, I have never discovered why women could not be ordained -- except that it’s the tradition. ... The core of the teaching is sexism, and sexism is a sin.
“No matter how hard the Church justifies it, you discover in the end it’s wrong and it’s immoral.”
His activism and schedule have only increased since he went public for women priests.
He’ll be in San Diego the first weekend in December, taking part in a conference about women’s ordination.
“I regret it took me so long to discover such a grave injustice,” he said. “It’s not just an injustice against women but a grave injustice against our Church that’s in need of more priests. And it’s an injustice against God.”
Allison Kennedy, 706-576-6237