Q: I’m trying to figure out what is really going on in the case of Fr. Bourgeois, who was kicked out of the Maryknolls last year. The stories I read suggested that he was excommunicated and is no longer a priest, right? If that’s true, then why is he now saying publicly that he’s going to appeal to Pope Francis to reinstate him as a Maryknoll priest again? Can the new Pope even do that? —Ryan
A: It’s a good question! Ryan is referring to Roy Bourgeois, who until 2012 was a member of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a U.S.-based religious institute. Bourgeois was indeed declared by the Vatican to have been excommunicated in 2008, and just last year he was dismissed from the clerical state and expelled from the Maryknolls.
Several weeks ago, reports began to surface that Bourgeois intends to appeal the 2012 decision to Pope Francis. In the meantime, the former Superior General of the Maryknolls asserted that the Vatican had wrongly “interfered” with the internal workings of the Maryknolls. Ryan is quite right to wonder what is going on here! Was the Bourgeois dismissal canonically invalid? Can an “ex-priest” become a priest again? Can a Pope overturn a decision made by his predecessor? Let’s examine the history of this case step-by-step, and in the process, we’ll see that the law regarding this situation is clearer than many people seem to think.
For starters, Roy Bourgeois was ordained a priest for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic Society of Apostolic Life, in 1972. (See “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty” for more discussion of what a Society of Apostolic Life is.) He was, therefore, both a priest and a member of a religious institute.
By 2008, then-Father Bourgeois was not only was sympathetic to the notion that women can and should be ordained Catholic priests, but he also got involved directly, by participating in a Mass and the “priestly ordination” of Janice Sevre-Duszynska in Kentucky. Regular readers know that we have been down this road before! As we saw in “Can Women Be Ordained Priests?” ordaining a woman is canonically impossible, because the sacrament can only be conferred validly on a baptized male (c. 1024); and as was discussed at length in “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?” Pope John Paul II already declared back in 1994 that it is impossible to permit women to be ordained Catholic priests, since the decision to ordain only men was made by Christ Himself. The Pope, as Vicar of Christ, is not able to overrule Christ—so John Paul logically and authoritatively concluded that the Church’s law prohibiting women’s ordination can never be changed. Period.
Thus this woman who allegedly was “ordained, ” and Bourgeois himself, both knew perfectly well that they were participating in an illicit and invalid liturgical celebration. (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for an explanation of liceity and validity.) Thus it was no surprise that Bourgeois was soon contacted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which warned him of excommunication, and asked him to recant. While the series of written communications between the Vatican and Bourgeois have not been made public, it’s quite clear that he must have refused, because Bourgeois himself later stated publicly that he was under latae sententiae excommunication. (See “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for an explanation of how latae sententiae penalties work.)
Despite what many people seem to think, excommunicating somebody from the Catholic Church is intended for that person’s own good. As was discussed at length in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions Part I,” excommunication is classified in the Code of Canon Law as a medicinal penalty, which is meant to warn a person that he has strayed from the fold—and should come back! That’s why, when a Catholic is excommunicated, if he truly doesn’t want to be cut off from the Church, his logical response should be to try to make amends and return to full communion once again. That is certainly what the Church wants.
In Bourgeois’ case, however, instead of trying to return to full communion with the Catholic Church, he publicly declared that he would not change his views. (Interestingly, Bourgeois has repeatedly defended himself by citing the need to follow his conscience—totally overlooking the theological fact that the Church has overtly told him that his conscience needs to be re-formed!) As if this wasn’t bad enough, Bourgeois also told reporters that he “continues to celebrate Mass privately in his apartment.” As canon 1331.1 states unequivocally, an excommunicated person is forbidden to have any ministerial part in celebrating the Eucharist. (The word “privately,” by the way, is a red herring. As we saw in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?” there technically is no such thing as a “private Mass,” since the Mass is the Church’s pre-eminent form of public worship—whether anyone attends it or not!) Bourgeois was thus showing the world that he was disregarding this decision made by his ecclesiastical superiors, and was using the Eucharist Itself as a sort of “pawn” in the process.
In short, it’s difficult to find any evidence of good will in the response of Roy Bourgeois to his excommunication. Contrast his actions, if you will, with those of theologian Hans Küng, who was warned decades ago that some of his theological positions were inconsistent with orthodox Catholic doctrine. An account of his exchange with the Vatican can be found in “Was Theologian Hans Küng Ever Excommunicated?” but in short, this controversial Swiss priest avoided the grave penalty of excommunication by acknowledging the Vatican’s concerns and agreeing to try to conform to them. In this regard, Bourgeois and Küng appear to have little in common.
That’s why it’s really no surprise that in October 2012, Bourgeois was informed by the CDF that he had been (a) expelled from the Maryknolls, and (b) dismissed from the clerical state. In other words, not only is Bourgeois no longer a Maryknoll priest, but he also is no longer allowed to function as a priest at all.
Let’s look at these two separate, although obviously related, canonical actions, addressing the second one first. Bourgeois is no longer permitted to function as a priest because he has been laicized. The whole concept of priestly laicization was addressed in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” but in short, once a man has been ordained a priest, he always remains a priest, as priestly ordination can never be undone (c. 290). The Church can, however, release a priest from his ministerial duties and obligations—and in the process, the priest also loses the rights he had in the Church as a member of the clergy. Metaphysically speaking, he will always be a priest; but legally, he will no longer be allowed to live and function as one in society. This is why official documents pertaining to this case now refer to “Mr. Bourgeois,” rather than “Fr. Bourgeois.”
Secondly, Bourgeois is no longer a member of the Maryknolls. Note that this decision was not made unilaterally by the Vatican—the Maryknoll leadership was necessarily involved as well, and they presumably acted in accord with the Maryknolls’ own proper law. Like any Catholic religious institute, the Maryknolls have their own statutes, which are truly laws, but which pertain specifically to Maryknoll members, property, and activities. Every religious institute—whether it is (let’s say) a small order of cloistered nuns, or a huge congregation of missionary priests—has its own proper law, which had to be approved by Rome (c. 587). The statutes of individual religious institutes are not included in the Code of Canon Law, which by definition pertains to the Church as a whole.
The specific procedures that the Maryknoll superiors followed, the discussions which they had, and the step-by-step actions that they took in the Bourgeois case are not public knowledge, nor should they be. This was an internal matter and they have not chosen to release the details. It is clear, however, that the leadership of the Maryknolls was in direct communication with the Vatican; and since the Maryknolls (like all religious institutes) are ultimately under the authority of the Pope, it should surprise no one that the Maryknolls’ decision to expel Bourgeois from the institute, and the CDF’s decision to dismiss him from the clerical state, complement and confirm each other. There are no canonical or theological contradictions here whatsoever.
Subsequently, however, some in the news media have tried to suggest that some canon lawyers have raised questions about the manner in which the Vatican worked (or didn’t work) with the Maryknolls on the Bourgeois case. In actual fact, what several canonists quoted by the media really said is that it’s well-nigh impossible to draw any conclusions about what exactly happened—since the written communications between the Maryknolls, the Vatican, and Bourgeois himself have not been made available to the public. It is fair to say that Bourgeois’ case is an unusual one; to date there haven’t been other religious priests booted out of their institutes because of their active support of women’s ordination. But without access to the actual documentation, there is nothing to support a conclusion that Bourgeois’ dismissal was procedurally flawed, or that the Vatican somehow “strong-armed” the Maryknolls into expelling him, which latter suggestion was made publicly by a former superior of the Maryknolls himself. Even if the CDF had urged the Maryknolls to act as they did, this wouldn’t necessarily affect the validity of the outcome.
More recently, the secular press has reported that Bourgeois intends to “appeal” the decision to the new Pope: “‘He signed the order in November  and we are appealing it right now,’ Bourgeois said of Benedict.” This statement provides us with a relevant procedural clue, by the way: it reveals that the Pope was involved in Bourgeois’ case, and so the final decision was not made by Vatican officials, but by Benedict himself. Bourgeois, who of course has seen the official documents, is asserting here that the decision bears the Pope’s signature.
Can Bourgeois even do this? Note that strictly speaking, it is both canonically and ecclesiologically impossible to “appeal” a decision made by the Pope (c. 1404). As supreme pontiff and Vicar of Christ, he is the Church’s highest authority on earth! But Bourgeois isn’t claiming here that the Pope isn’t the supreme head of the Church. Rather, he is suggesting that the current Pope Francis might overturn a decision made by the previous Pope Benedict. (Thus the term “appeal” might not be the best choice of words in this context.) Could Francis undo what Benedict has already done, and reinstate Bourgeois as a Maryknoll priest in good standing?
Technically, it is not impossible for one Pope to change something done by his predecessor; as social conditions change, and nations rise and fall, Popes can and do adjust the Church’s official attitude toward (for example) various political situations and social conflicts. But as we saw in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” the Holy Father’s amazing amount of power to change the Church is nevertheless limited by divine (often referred to as natural) law. Thus Pope Francis cannot declare, for example, that starting today, brothers and sisters can get married—because this would obviously be a violation of a natural law that is firmly grounded in biology. Likewise, he is not able to change church teaching on the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, or the Virgin Birth, since we believe as Catholics that these truths were revealed by God Himself.
At issue here is this: the Bourgeois decision is rooted in the fact that the Church teaches that women cannot be ordained priests. As already noted above, John Paul II declared that this teaching is based on Christ’s own decision to select only males as his Apostles and Disciples; he rightly observed that as Pope, he was unable to undo what had already been done by Jesus Himself! Bourgeois was dismissed from the clerical state and expelled from the Maryknolls because he directly challenged—and continues to challenge—the Church’s teaching on this issue. To reinstate him, therefore, would suggest that Bourgeois has not been supporting a theological position that is in conflict with Catholic teaching after all. This in turn would logically mean that the Church’s male-only priesthood, established by Christ, is indeed subject to change, and that Pope John Paul was mistaken!
What Bourgeois seeks, therefore, is impossible. Excommunicated for publicly supporting a position that directly conflicts with Catholic doctrine, and then expelled from his institute and laicized for persisting in that position, Bourgeois has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to change his views. Rather, he apparently expects the teachings of the Catholic Church to change, to accord with his own! It’s a fairly safe bet that this isn’t going to happen, no matter who is sitting on the Chair of Peter. As Catholics, we believe that the Pope is Christ’s Vicar on earth, explaining Catholic teachings and acting on Christ’s behalf. The Church’s positions on doctrinal issues can’t completely flip-flop, since those positions are dictated by Jesus Christ, Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). The outcome of any appeal in the Bourgeois case, therefore, is already pretty clear.