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?