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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