Roy Bourgeois’ conscience has landed him in federal prison and guided him on a 35-day hunger strike.
More recently, it got him kicked out of the Catholic priesthood, after 40 years as a priest.
The offense? Bourgeois refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.
“What I’m experiencing now – hurt and rejection – is but a glimpse of what women in the Catholic Church have experienced for centuries,” the 74-year-old Bourgeois said.
Bourgeois will speak Thursday in Buffalo about his controversial battle with the Vatican.
Four years ago, the Vatican’s chief enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy at the time, Cardinal William J. Levada, informed Bourgeois that he was causing “grave scandal” by publicly advocating for the church to allow women to become priests.
Bourgeois wrote back.
“I said, ‘What you’re asking me to do – support the church’s teaching forbidding the ordination of women – would violate my conscience, and this I cannot do,’ ” he recalled.
Bourgeois’ priestly order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, informed him this past November that they received a letter, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, dismissing Bourgeois from his sacred vows as a priest.
Bourgeois sent another letter to the Vatican.
“I said, ‘You can dismiss me, but you cannot dismiss the issue of gender equality. This is not going away,’ ” he said.
Bourgeois’ supporters say he’s among several casualties in a Vatican crusade against dissent in the church during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI,
His talk in the Market Arcade Theater, 639 Main St., will follow a 7 p.m. showing of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican,” a documentary film about women who felt called to the Catholic priesthood.
Bourgeois was known for many years for leading protests of the School of the Americas, a military school in Fort Benning, Ga., linked to terrorism and torture in Latin America.
The school is believed to have trained the perpetrators who assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the culprits who raped and killed three American nuns and a parishioner doing mission work, and the gunmen who massacred six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter.
Bourgeois’ activism to close the school resulted in four separate federal prison terms in the 1980s and 1990s – a total of about four years behind bars.
During those protests, Bourgeois encountered many devout Catholic women who shared with him their stories of being called to ordination, he said.
“As Catholic priests, we all say that the call to be a priest is a gift and comes from God,” he said. “My question for my fellow priests was, ‘Who are we as men to say that our call from God is authentic, but your call as women is not?’ ”
But Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” declared that the church “has no authority” to ordain women and ordered Catholics to obey the teaching.
“If you read that encyclical, nothing could be clearer,” said Deacon Michael P. McKeating, whose book, “O Timothy! Guard the Deposit of Faith,” discusses Catholic doctrine on the priesthood and other areas. “Women priests are totally doctrinally out of the question.”
Advocates for women clergy point out that in polls nearly 60 percent of American Catholics support women’s ordination.
But McKeating said the matter doesn’t resonate with the bulk of Catholics worldwide.
“This is only an issue in the United States and a couple other English-speaking countries. No one else in the world is even interested in this,” he said.
Bourgeois’ appearance is sponsored by Upstate New York Call to Action, an organization that urges changes in Catholic Church governance and teaching.
Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said he wasn’t familiar with the details of Bourgeois’ case, but he said the church doesn’t move rashly to excommunicate members.
“It is a serious violation of the law of the church to advocate for the ordination of women,” Malone said. “After many efforts to try and work with this fellow, he still wouldn’t back off, and he was teaching something that’s contrary, in a serious way the church believes, to her own teachings.”
Bourgeois’ difficulties with the Vatican began following his participation in 2008 in the ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska in Lexington, Ky. Bourgeois concelebrated at the Mass and gave the homily.
Within three months, Levada sent his letter asking Bourgeois to recant within 30 days or automatically be excommunicated.
The Vatican’s response to his appearance at the altar was remarkably swift, especially when compared with the pace at which cases of clergy sexual abuse were handled, Bourgeois said.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prior to his election as pope, served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that handled sexual abuse cases at the Vatican level.
It took the office as long as seven years to dismiss an abusive priest, Bourgeois pointed out, adding that bishops remained silent as priests sexually abused thousands of American children.
“This is the scandal, not the ordination of women,” he said.
Benedict has been praised in recent days for showing humility in stepping down from the papal throne,but Bourgeois said the pope’s move to dissolve his sacred vows smacks of arrogance.
Those vows are with God, and the church has long taught that they can’t be taken away, said Bourgeois.
“I still see myself as a Catholic priest. The vows I made are still valid,” he said.