America’s Editorial: Advice from Francis, Day and Gandhi on Conscience

You’ve got to love America magazine’s staff. Talk about wasting no time — I was delighted to see the electronic issue of the magazine out no later than the day after Easter! Recalling the two prominent, if different, cases of Fr. Roy Bourgeois and Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, the editors ponder what the relationship between conscience and ecclesiastical authority might be. In their consideration, they offer the question: “One wonders what Gandhi or St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day might have advised Father Bourgeois.” An excellent question indeed.

Certainly Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day knew what it was like to hold in their hearts and consciences both a clear loyalty to the Church’s teaching authority, yet also recognize that there are ways in which Church teaching in a given age did not reflect their understanding of the Gospel or the Spirit’s role in the world. One only has to recall Francis’s approach to the Crusades to see an example of, what I call, ecclesiastical civil disobedience.

Yet, the point that the editors make about Bourgeois in particular is worth noting. Alongside other vowed religious and diocesan priests who have been in similarly tricky situations (I think of Rochester priest Charles Curran and Jesuit Roger Haight, for example), their willingness to play by the rules — even if they didn’t agree with the reasons for the Church leaders gave for their imposed limitations — demonstrated that there is something greater than a personal vendetta, while still giving witness to what they hold to be true. They are also both priests, and in Haight’s case, a Jesuit, in good standing (at least last I heard).

The editors conclude with this paragraph:

Church and society would benefit from other witnesses of conscience appreciating the many ways by which they can testify to moral and intellectual truth. For its part, the church would profit from interiorizing the lesson of the council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” that “it is by personal assent that people must adhere to the truth they have discovered,” recalling that “Christ, who is our master and Lord, and at the same time is meek and humble of heart, acted patiently in attracting and inviting his disciples.”

I encourage you to pick up the latest copy of America, if only to read this editorial (“Paths of Conscience“). If you had to give advice to Bourgeois or Johnson, what would you say?

Photo: America Magazine
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6 Responses to “America’s Editorial: Advice from Francis, Day and Gandhi on Conscience”

  1. I have two comments. One pertains to the America editorial: Church authorities, if they call for religious assent of the mind to the prohibition against ordaining women, must do a far better job of convincing the faithful that the exclusion of women from orders rests firmly on the church’s faith.

    Ummm …. no, I don’t think that explains anything. The church authorities could not do a better job of explanation. All of their explanations are found wanting. “Firmly on the church’s faith” – I don’t think so! Perhaps firmly on the disciplines of the church derived from male, clerical authority, but not on faith in the risen Christ who is now neither male nor female, Christian or Jew, slave or free.

    Does America suspect that Fr, Roy simply has not been exposed to sufficient reason why women can’t be priests? I would guess that he knows there is no sufficient reason. His conscience does not need further formation. Rather, I would suggest that his superiors and,the rest of us as well, should use his actions to inform our own consciences.

    Fr. Roy knows that violence comes in many forms. One is the oppression and killing of others by people trained at the SOA. Another type of violence is that against women in all types of societies and in ways too numerous to mention. In not conceding that women are equals to men in every way, the institutional Catholic Church sanctions the violence against women by its example. This is what Fr. Roy prophetically stands against.

  2. My second comment relates to Dan’s statement: their willingness to play by the rules — even if they didn’t agree with the reasons for the Church leaders gave for their imposed limitations — demonstrated that there is something greater than a personal vendetta, while still giving witness to what they hold to be true. They are also both priests, and in Haight’s case, a Jesuit, in good standing (at least last I heard).

    Does this suggest, Dan, that you believe Fr. Roy’s actions to be a personal vendetta? Against whom does he have a personal vendetta? I would suggest, rather, that the actions of the institutional church could be construed as vendetta against those, in the person of Fr. Roy, who believe that ordination should be offered to women as well as men. It is expedient that one man should be asked to give up his priesthood rather than that priesthood should be extended to women.

    My memory is fuzzy on the Curran and Haight cases. Were they asked to actually recant what they believed?

    I read this today on the Episcopal Café blog: Being a Catholic theologian in trouble with authorities is nothing new. Many of the expert advisers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were formerly silenced scholars. They are now honored as fathers –they were all men– of contemporary and theological studies, among them the French Dominican Yves Congar and his compatriot the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Recent history is dappled with Latin American (Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara), Asian (Tissa Balasuriya), European (Jacques Dupuis) and North American (Charles Curran, Peter Phan, Roger Haight) targets of criticism by the hierarchy, often at the level of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Indeed, the CTSA’s highest honor –an award which Professor Johnson received in 2004– is named for the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who had his own troubles with the Vatican (he was silenced in 1954) but went on, a decade later, to draft the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty.

    I believe that Fr. Roy will be vindicated some time in the future when things change in regard to women’s ordination. Until then, I salute him as a man of courage and integrity. I wish there were more.

  3. Jane, these are some really thoughtful comments, thanks!

    As to your second comment, I never got a chance to write a full blog post on Fr. Roy’s situation because, as I was about to, the Sr. Beth Johnson case exploded on the scene and I got caught up with that. So, let me respond, briefly, to Roy’s situation and hopefully that will clarify my remarks.

    Yes, I do believe it is a personal matter in Fr. Roy’s case — this is, as odd as it may sound, not what CTA and even SOA-Watch folks have been making it out to be. By that I mean, Roy is actually NOT being dismissed because of his views on women’s ordination. He is being dismissed because he has, on several occasions, publicly broken his vow of obedience. Maryknoll has made this very clear in its statements about Roy, however he has selected to emphasize his position on women’s ordination in an effort to make this about doctrine.

    You are 100% correct to name all those VII theologians, John Courtney Murray is perhaps the most famous, and the more modern cases of investigation. The difference between Fr. Roy (who, for the record, is not a theologian) and these other instance (Curran and Haight, for example) is that these others have obeyed their religious or local superiors in responding to matters of ministry and teaching.

    If Roger Haight, after the CDF notice on his “Jesus, Symbol of God” or the revocation of his teaching faculties, had disobeyed his Jesuit superiors’ instruction to no longer teach, etc., then he would be in the same situation as Roy and the process would have been initiated for his removal from the SJs. However, as it is, Haight remains a Jesuit and a Priest in good standing despite the severe restrictions that have been placed on him.

    The same can be said about my former brother in religious life, Leonardo Boff of Brazil. While his case is complicated, he decided to leave the OFMs before the process would have to begin on the ecclesiastical side.

    I believe you are correct and the Roy’s position may very well be vindicated sometime in the future as it concerns his views on women’s ordination. However, his choice to, on several occasions now, publicly separate himself from his religious community cannot be vindicated, nor will it. There are many, many priests and religious around the world that, in their hearts, prayers and other ways, support many of the same things Roy does — but, as the America editors and I suggest, there is more than one way to defend one’s conscience.

    Maryknoll is in no way the enemy here. Roy has to take full responsibility for his personal actions, by which I mean his decision to effectively remove himself from his own community. His Maryknoll superiors have stated that they have tried and tried to reach out to him, and as a professed religious, I can attest that this is an honest admittance. When people like Fr. Roy Bourgeois end up where he is today, it’s always their own desire to do that. Such a separation is very, very painful for the community.

  4. I’m trying to think how to say this in a concise and friendly way so it may be more abrupt than if we had time for a long conversation. :)

    I concede that Roy’s pending separation from Maryknoll is due to an issue of obedience. However, I don’t think it can be ignored that they are asking him to recant his public position on women’s ordination out of obedience to his order, and he has stated that he cannot in good conscience do that. I agree, Roy is absolutely making a decision and he understands the consequences, he is not a passive victim to the whims of his order. But I do think the use of a word like “vendetta” to describe Roy’s stance on ordination is inappropriate.

    I think a better example to compare Roy’s situation to is that of Joan Chittister, OSB, whose superior was also ordered by Rome to gain her assent on the issue of women’s ordination, but instead, her superior refused (with the support of her whole community).

    I took a bit of exception to the following paragraph from the editorial: “Conscience, however, is not a machine that gives a robot orders. Conscience does not need to be unyielding. It can also be exercised with humility and flexibility. One wonders what Gandhi or St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day might have advised Father Bourgeois. Might they have urged him to continue his work against war and torture and leave women’s ordination to the Holy Spirit? Silencing a spokesman does not kill an idea. Church authorities, if they call for religious assent of the mind to the prohibition against ordaining women, must do a far better job of convincing the faithful that the exclusion of women from orders rests firmly on the church’s faith.”

    I understand that America, and all Catholic publications, must be very careful about how they address the issue of women’s ordination, but I do find this a little insulting. Should Fr. Roy, or any vocal advocate, just shut up when it comes to this issue? Is it not possible that the Spirit is working through those of us who witness for women’s ordination? Is there a hierarchy of justice? And if so, who gets to define it? If not us, who? If not now, when?

  5. I also concede the obedience point; however that the issue at hand is women’s ordination complicates the matter. I so agree with the previous poster: I think a better example to compare Roy’s situation to is that of Joan Chittister, OSB, whose superior was also ordered by Rome to gain her assent on the issue of women’s ordination, but instead, her superior refused (with the support of her whole community).

    Has he brought his dismissal on himself? I suppose he has.
    Did it have to come to this? I’m not sure. This is what I would have wanted from the men of Maryknoll – that they would, as a body, have had the courage to stand up for their brother Roy and say, “We honor his conscience in this important matter.”

    I’m not a member of a religious community, but I’m sure that such membership doesn’t require one to check one’s conscience at the door. I don’t know how one whose life has been dedicated to issues of justice could compel himself keep quiet on the issue of the ordination of women. I don’t know that obedience is a greater value than justice. As St Thomas Aquinas said, “I would rather die excommunicated than to have violated my conscience.”

  6. […] (4/25/11) http://datinggod.org/2011/04/25/americas-editorial-advice-from-francis-day-and-gandhi-on-conscience/ […]

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