Fr. Roy Bourgeois, former Maryknoll priest and peace activist, left his religious community this week.
Fr. Bourgeois got in some trouble in recent years because he acted against the Church’s teaching on ordination. He preached that women should be able to be ordained as priests and went so far as to participate in an ordination of women himself.
This week, Fr. Bourgeois decided he could no longer belong to a religious order that demanded he recant his views on a teaching that conflicted so deeply with his own conscience.
Some found this courageous and prophetic. Fr. Bourgeois listened to his conscience and stood against a long tradition of injustice committed by the Church against women.
Others thought this was egotistical and confusing. His pride made him believe that his personal opinion outweighed Church teaching. The women in whose ordination he participated, and many Catholics who heard about them, were misled into thinking that they were actually ordained into ministry for the Catholic Church.
The question of women’s ordination is very contentious within our generation and I have spent many a long evening, especially in college, in the thick of the debate.
But the dilemma that Fr. Bourgeois’ removal raised for me was not about the ordination debate itself, but about how Catholics who disagree about this issue (and others) treat each other.
I read a chain of literally over a hundred Facebook comments responding to a post about Fr. Bourgeois. The comments derailed into name-calling about who is a “Real Catholic” and who is a “Cafeteria Catholic.” Some commenters asked rhetorically why folks who didn’t accept Church teaching on women’s ordination even wanted to be Catholic at all. I signed out of facebook much less affected by the issue of women’s ordination and Fr. Bourgeois’ letter than by the Catholic civil war that had erupted in cyberspace.
I admit that there have been plenty of times when I have quickly chimed in with claims that some Catholics were more Catholic than others. It took a bit of life experience for me to realize how harmful and unproductive these comments were. Through parish ministry, which gave me opportunities to walk together with a fifth grade Religious Education class, high schoolers, folks in RCIA, and peers who were committed Catholics who struggled with Church teaching, I realized that we’re all on journeys of doubt and belief — journeys full of confusion and grace and frustration and transformative power.
How many Catholics have believed for every moment of their Catholic life that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ? Do they stop being “real Catholics” in the moments when they question these teachings? No, they don’t. Catholics who aren’t always sure about the Eucharist, or who don’t really think about it at all, are still “real Catholics.”
We all have some things that we struggle to believe, take seriously, or live out well. I do at least. While I am at peace with the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination, there are plenty of teachings I struggle to live well, and I still like to think I’m a “real Catholic.” Do we always believe God loves us? Do we listen to Christ’s mandate to care for the least of his people? We each need to cultivate a place of compassion for others, keeping in mind that we all struggle to believe and live our own faith.
So many of my peers and I — and many who have gone before us — have grown up valuing equal rights for women. Many of my peers view the question of women’s ordination through this lens. It makes sense to me that if we’re really trying to integrate faith into our daily life that these types of questions come up. It is through grappling with these tough questions that we make authentic claims about what we believe.
This makes me think of “Of God’s and Men,” a French film recently released. It’s a story of Trappist monks in Algeria who are in danger of being attacked by radical Islamists. When it becomes clear that the monks are in danger, they sit around a table and each cast their vote about whether to leave their monastery for safety or stay where they are. The superior of the community never forces them to accept his choice to stay, the choice that he clearly believes is in line with their faith tradition. The rest of the film follows the beautiful journey of different monks as they wrestle with the different options as the danger grows.
We have to ask the questions, even if they challenge centuries of Tradition, and we have to allow ourselves to sit in the tension and uncertainty for however much time we need. Wrestling with the questions doesn’t mean we’ll always understand the answers we come up with. But allowing ourselves and others the freedom to struggle with the things that don’t make sense is essential to authentic believing.
What happens when Catholics who struggle through questions about Church teaching decide that they don’t agree with the Church and yet still want to be Catholic?
They’re still “real Catholics.”
I have a deep respect for Catholics who disagree with Church teaching, specifically with teachings that mandate that they take a personal actions opposed to what they believe, and remain in the Church. This is very brave. It means that they choose to continue to belong to a community that will tell them that what they believe, and very possibly what they are doing, is wrong. And they will hear this message often and without much compassion.
The discussion surrounding the situation with Fr. Bourgeois is an opportunity for each of us to ask ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. It’s also a chance to recommit to being a people of faith who walk together on the journey.
I first saw and heard Fordham theology professor Tom Beaudoin at the LOST? Conference we covered here a couple weeks back. He connected with us via e-mail and linked to our LOST? vid on the America Magazine blog “In All Things.” (He really hits the nail on the head with that conference recap, if you’re interested.) In some follow-up discussion, I learned that he heads up the Rock and Theology Project, which is as awesome as it sounds. I share his passion for this intersection, and thought I’d shoot him a few questions. He graciously agreed and sent some killer responses. I sent back some follow-ups, and what had originally been pitched as a “5 questions with…” feature turned in to lengthy exchange that is more like 9 or 10 questions. We had a lot of fun going back and forth. Oh, and Tom’s also an electric bassist, so if you’re in NYC looking for someone to fill out your band, track him down.
Mike: Wilco is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve always experienced a deep connection with something bigger than myself at their live shows. Then I checked out frontman Jeff Tweedy’s solo concert DVD, and during an offstage interview, he said this: “There’s a collective experience happening at a rock concert that I’ve always assumed would probably be what church should be like.” It’s not fair to the uniqueness of the liturgy (or to that of rock concerts, perhaps) to simply equate them, but the collectivity going on in both seems to embody a common human yearning that stands up to the West’s cult of individualism. Have you had similar experiences at, say, a good show and a good liturgy? A vivid sacramental imagination – being able to see God coming to us in everyday stuff like bread, wine, and three-chord rock songs – seems to come in handy at both.
Tom: I like how your first question goes right to theological experience, and we could take hours parsing the potentially relevant ways into this question from various theological and rockish perspectives, but I’ll be brief in each of these replies. Yes, I do acknowledge a deep consanguinity between secular concerts and Catholic liturgies. The language you use hints at a sort of shared transcendence, a communal sense of the gift quality of existence and the surprising recognition of “what is,” and many who find masses and concerts meaningful use similar language to describe their deep appeal. I might also add that many also describe this overlapping space not only in terms of a shared experience at the event, but a deep ethical formation through such events, over time, that makes them a better human being. That’s very important from the best theological and rockish perspectives. This, however, is not the end but the beginning of a theological analysis of the relationship between liturgy and concert.