Once a priest, always a priest?

Journalists can be sometimes sloppy about how they use terms like “evangelical” or “born-again.” But they also face a real problem — how to convey the basics of a situation accurately in very limited space. And when covering a doctrinal dispute, or a controversial denominational figure, it’s very tricky to give your readers all the information they need without getting into dangerous territory.

So how do you talk about Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, longtime critic of U.S. activities in Latin America, and activist for ordaining Roman Catholic women? That’s part of the conundrum that probably confronted Boston Globe religion writer Michael Paulson when writing about Bourgeois, who has participated in a women’s ordination ritual, and his speech last week at a United Church of Christ church in Weston, MA. Here’s a link to Mollie’s post from last November, around the time that the Vatican (according to a lawyer for Bourgeois) threatened him with excommunication if he didn’t recant his public support and belief in women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church.

A prominent priest whose support for women’s ordination has him in trouble with the Catholic Church ratcheted up his confrontation with the hierarchy yesterday, calling the church’s refusal to ordain women a “scandal” and “spiritual violence.”

“I will not be silenced on this issue,” said the priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, to about 100 people in Weston at an event hosted by the congregation of Jean Marchant, a former staffer for the Archdiocese of Boston who claims she was ordained as a priest in an unsanctioned ceremony four years ago.

The Catholic Church views Marchant and Bourgeois as having been automatically excommunicated for participating in unsanctioned ordination ceremonies.

Yesterday Bourgeois said he remained unclear about his status because he has had no formal communication from his order, the Maryknoll Fathers, or from the Vatican, which last fall told him he would face excommunication if he did not recant.

The potential mole-holes here are plentiful. And I think Paulson handles them pretty well.

Has Bourgeois been excommunicated for participating in the service in which a Roman Catholic woman says she was ordained? We can assume he was, because he didn’t withdraw his support for Roman Catholic female ordination — and the consequence was clear. However, I’m not sure of Paulson’s assertion that his (as opposed to Marchant’s) excommunication was automatic — since he was only informed of it later and given a chance to recant.

But is he still a priest, even though he can’t receive communion or function as a priest? Well, yes, he’s still a priest. That’s because Roman Catholics believe that ordination leaves an indelible mark, as the Catechism says:

1582 As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.74

1583 It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense,75 because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.

Paulson allows Bourgeois to explain what is probably a difficult concept for some Protestants to comprehend:

In an interview yesterday, Bourgeois, 70, a Louisiana native, said he has stopped wearing a clerical collar and celebrating the Eucharist and other sacraments out of respect for the church’s view that he has been excommunicated.

But, he also said at one point, simply, “I am a priest.”

Yes, he is — as are other clergy who have gotten into hot water with the Vatican, or been convicted of abuse, or even jailed as criminals. Catholic doctrine says that Bourgeois is a priest. He just can’t behave like one. But as Paulson, a veteran religion reporter communicates so well, there’s a big gulf between how the Vatican views the priesthood and how the liberal activist sees it. There’s still a door open, in theory, but it doesn’t look like Bourgeois is walking penitently back in anytime soon.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for this posting. I learned something today! :-)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So often when people read stories like this the stories come across as being about the Vatican and authority–when in many cases it is Tradition at issue, not Vatican directives or decisions.
    “Oh there’s the Vatican throwing its weight around again!” seems to be a subtex attitude.
    I would be interested to read Coptic or Eastern Orthodox Tradition on such matters as arise in this story. For, frequently, the Vatican gets slammed for upholding teachings and Traditions shared by all the other churches of apostolic foundation— teachings and Traditions shared in some cases for 2,000 years. Yet the impression is so often given in the American media that much of what the Vatican is upholding is “medieval papacy” stuff when it is really a case of something that is rooted much deeper and broader in the soil of the Christian Faith.
    I would like to see t.matt weigh in on how a case like the one here would be regarded and handled in Eastern Orthodox Churches.

  • Mary Wood

    These painful matters can be discussed in minute detail by all sides of the “Difference,” but it’s not very helpful.

    When we think about communion with God, we are referring to a living relationship that we acknowledge and in some fashion experience. “Holy Communion” for the majority of Christian groups is a sacrament, which expresses and strengthens that relationship, or so we are taught. It’s an outward physical action-sign of an interior grace-event. Like all sacraments, it develops the Christ-life all Christians share.

    But we mustn’t live a lie about relationships. From the Vatican’s point of view Fr Roy is denying by word and intent their present decision about the ordination of people without male genitalia. According to this ruling it’s impossible to ordain a woman, and so any ceremony purporting to effect this is inane, empty of meaning and result, no matter who authorises or assists the event.

    Equally, Fr Roy mustn’t lie about relationships. If in conscience he believes the LORD is definitely calling him to support the ordination of women as well as of men, then in obedience to the LORD he must express this understanding by such means as are appropriate. Obeying the LORD is something that has to rank higher than obeying the Vatican. In deference to the admitted authority of the Vatican, he is not at present performing the sacramental actions of a Catholic Christian priest. But of course a Christian, and even a Catholic priest (!) does far more than celebrate sacraments. Like feeding the hungry, counselling the doubtful, standing up for justice for the oppressed, consoling those who mourn, in fact acting in any number of life-affirming ways. These are the priestly and prophetic actions of Jesus Christ, the only person in the New Testament who is termed a “priest.”

    So, strictly speaking, in the New Testament terminology, no one is a priest! Not Fr Roy, and not the Pope! True . . .

    The classic Roman Catholic teaching is given in the excerpts from the Catechism 1582 & 1583 quoted above. In short, “Once a priest, always a priest.” But excommunication rules that the person under this sentence cannot share the outward visible (sacramental) life of the [Catholic] Church. But the relationship with God, the real Holy Communion, the shared life, no one can touch or deny except the individual concerned.

    And that’s something we can all thank God for! (I mean it).

  • Julia

    there’s a big gulf between how the Vatican views the priesthood and how the liberal activist sees it.

    It’s not how The Vatican views the priesthood. It’s about canon law and the official teaching of the church.

    Lots of baseball players disagree with the MLB rules on steroids. So what?

    If Fr Bourgeois and liberal activists disagree with canon law and the teaching of the Church, then they are no different than somebody who wants to amend the Constitution or overrule a Supreme Court decision. Fr bourgeois is essentially practicing civil disobedience. If he acts in disregard of the rules as they now exist, then he must accept the penalty for that. Martin Luther King did and so did Martin Luther. Why is that so difficult to understand?

    You imply that if people disagree with a church law that the law somehow doesn’t matter. The Catholic Church doesn’t work that way. The rule and the penalties if the rule is flouted are still there regardless of who doesn’t like it. He can, of course, attempt to get the rules changed.

    The press would do better to present the situation as the rule and the person who wants the long-established rule to change. Instead, it likes to present it as a conflict between personalities -brave priest and Vatican meanies.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      “You imply that if people disagree with a church law that the law somehow doesn’t matter.”

      Julia, with all due respect, I absolutely did not do this. I wasn’t taking sides at all. And if you feel that way about “the press” and Fr. Bourgeois, please cite examples.

      Mary Wood, I’m not Catholic, but you have significant doctrinal disagreements with at least one of our other commenters — and you have said nothing about how the media tackles these topics. Do you have a journalistic point?

  • Peter

    It seems as though the way the article is written is pretty balanced. Catholic teaching is that once a priest, always a priest, just as you cannot be unbaptized based on any subsequent actions.

    That’s why the term “defrocked” came in to usage. Similarly, if he chose to leave the active priesthood and was laicized, it would be potentially accurate to call him a former priest in the context of his career, as long as they weren’t discussion theology.

    It’s not dissimilar to the use of the word “divorced” regarding a Catholic. There is a civil status and a theological one.

    If/when there is more clarity of an official nature, it may become accurate to call Fr. Roy an “excommunicated priest” which might raise some eyebrows, but would be the case.

    This seems a particular slam-dunk. Both sides of this doctrinal issue agree on this particular point. In a very real sense, he is only a priest because the Catholic Church declared him one, and by their rules, he still is one. On that point at least, he isn’t disagreeing. It is an internal dispute within that denomination.

    What’s to argue? Looks to me like the article did well. There’s no requirement for the author to go into the theology behind it, only that if they do, then they need to get it right.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Peter, at GetReligion we praise writers when they get the terminology and doctrine right and do a nice job explaining a complex situation in a short amount of space for a diverse audience. That’s all I was trying to do, and all I did do, with the Bourgeois story. As a journalist for a the Boston Globe, Paulson’s not solely writing for Catholic readers who understand the doctrinal points, but it’s great that he understands it.

  • Mary Wood

    I’ve been asked by the writer of this post whether I have a “journalistic point.” Sorry, I’ve no notion what a journalistic point is! I’m not judging media coverage, just putting a point of view.

    I was not disagreeing with anyone but just trying to say that given their (apparently) differing starting points, the issue looks different to “the Vatican” and to Fr Roy. It is hardly surprising that they have different conclusions about what is right in this matter of ordination of women. They are both agreed that Fr Bourgeois is a “Catholic priest” as they understand the term – a term which I repeat does not have biblical authenticity.

  • Dave

    In a sense, Father Bourgeois is trying to act as a prophet and a priest at the same time. He believes God wants women ordained, and he does so. These are two roles that are hard to carry out at the same time.

    The media fall short if they don’t explore this aspect of the conflict, but it’s a lot to ask of them.

  • Julia

    there’s a big gulf between how the Vatican views the priesthood and how the liberal activist sees it.

    I re-read the article and see that you were probably referring to the priest’s views on women in the priesthood. I had thought you meant whether he was still a priest in good standing or not.

    It’s still not quite accurate to use “The Vatican” in this context. Fr. Bourgeois is having troubles with a particular department at the Vatican whose job it is to deal with upholding the official teaching of the Church, in this case women and the priesthood. The viewpoint of the head of that department is irrelevant; he’s just doing his job and has no authority to change teaching or rules.

    You asked for a press example – here’s one cited in your post:

    A prominent priest whose support for women’s ordination has him in trouble with the Catholic Church ratcheted up his confrontation with the hierarchy yesterday

    This most certainly is setting it up as a conflict between personalities. Fr Bourgois’ conflict is with the official teaching and rules as they now stand, not “the hierarchy”. His actions are like civil disobedience.

    He’s not in trouble with “the Catholic Church” (presumably meaning the folks at the Vatican) – he’s part of that church. Similarly, Martin Luther King was not marching against the US of A, but against some of its laws.

    King practiced civil disobedience to highlight the unjust laws that he wanted changed, and he accepted the penalties for doing so. Getting into it with the enforcers of those unjust laws was not the main point. That was only a tactic to gain support for changing the laws – the real goal. Bull Connor’s views on integration were not the point. Same with Fr. Bourgeois and Cardinal Levada. Bourgeois reminds me of the Berrigan brothers.

    By the by, I’d like to see what that letter from Levada actually said. I’d guess the focus was on Bourgeois’ participation in the claimed ordination of women, not what he believes. After all, there are many priests, nuns and lay people who believe the rules about women and ordination should be changed; and they weren’t and aren’t “threatened” with excommunication.

    The reporter referred to the contents of that letter as claimed by the priest’s lawyer. I wonder if the reporter tried to get a copy.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Julia: OK, that’s a fair point about not turning the conflict into a personality conflict. If I have a broad criticism of the press, it’s that they have a taste for turning lots of complex issues into wrestling matches.

      I think I linked to the NCR article on Bourgeois. I don’t know that he’s shared that letter with anyone in the press.

  • imprimartin

    Mary Wood, you said:

    Jesus Christ is the only person in the New Testament who is termed a “priest.” So, strictly speaking, in the New Testament terminology, no one is a priest! Not Fr Roy, and not the Pope! . . . They are both agreed that Fr Bourgeois is a “Catholic priest” as they understand the term – a term which I repeat does not have biblical authenticity.

    Not true. (sorry, everyone, for getting off the topic for sec) Please bear with me.

    In the New Testament (NT), Jesus is called High Priest. There are other leader-type christians called bishops, deacons, and there is peculiar word used for another leader-type christian and the most commonly-used word in most english translations is “elder”. It is this “elder” is what the RCC calls “priest”. So everytime you see “elder”, that is a priest in the eyes of the RCC.

    You see, when you go back to the greek, the word is “presbuteros” or “presbuteroi” (plural). When you move to Latin, you get “Presbyter”. And then moving to english, it’s “priest”. So “presbuteros” (which is definitely in the NT) is the root of “priest”.

    Some denominations like to translate the word (elder), the RCC decided to derive the word (priest).

  • Mary Wood

    For imprimartin

    The word for Priest in Greek, including the NT, is (h)iereus.

    The word normally translated bishop means overseer. The word normally translated deacon means servant.

    The word presbuteros is normally translated “elder.” It is the comparative form of presbus, an old man.

    None of these authority functions in the NT is described as hiereus.

    The Catholic Church, (and those other Christian families that use similar terminology for their ministry leaders), needs to ask itself why in English it uses a misleading term like priest when describing an individual with a senior position in the faith community – an Elder.

    But within that framework, the Roman Catholic teaching is that once a “presbuteros” always a “presbuteros.” Fr Roy is still a priest, and any priest is obligated to priestly service in any situation of immediate serious necessity. Eg in case of a road accident, he should give absolution to the dying in the absence of any other priest.

    Why the Catholic Church chooses to use its nouns in this way I leave to your conjecture.

    On a personal note I was directed to this website by Google. I could not find a HOME page explaining its particular focus so I have unwittingly broadened the exchange. Sorry. But as regards published accuracy and fairness, which I think is this site’s angle, we always outwardly accept self-description as a matter of convenience and clarity. (E & OE !) Thus I use terminology such as “Russian Orthodox Church ,” “the evangelical tradition” without conceding an exclusive monopoly of orthodoxy or gospel living to these groups.

    But I have strayed far enough; thank you for your forbearance and God be with us all. I shall not post here again.

  • imprimartin

    Mary Wood, hopefully you’ll come back this one last time and read this:

    The word for HIGH or CHIEF priest in Greek is, including the NT, is (h)iereus.

    The word for REGULAR priest/elder is presbuteros. This is especially telling in Matt 26:3 where both words are used in the same sentence:

    “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas.”

    Again, this bible I am quoting translates the word into “elders”, because the translators are concerning themselves with “meaning”. Whereas the RCC do not bother with meaning, they bring the actual word straight over as-is and use “priest”.

    Whether you wish to translate or derive, the presbuteroi exist in the NT and whatever you call them today in english is your preference. No church needs to ask itself why it uses a misleading term, because it is not misleading. A church needs only to a ask itself: Should I translate or derive?

  • Julia

    I’d like to know the contents of Ted Kennedy’s letter to the Pope, too, but I’m sure we’ll never know that either.